Anyone who has ever taken a short tour of YouTube comments will be aware of the “only 80’s/90’s kids will get this” obsession that permeates everything from Hanson videos to kids cartoons. As cynical trade-unionists with a hidden agenda, we decided to cash in on this trend.
During the early 1990’s there was a spate of environmentally conscientious children’s programs, some which had dubiously simplified but ultimately well-meaning political messages, while others were more light-hearted in tone. It could be argued that David the Gnome was the granddaddy of them all. Released in 1987, it ran on RTE 2 until 2006 such was its popularity. The franchise also had a number of spin off’s and films. David the Gnome was a sweet little show that centred around gnomes, their community (including animal friends) and how they had to clean up all the mess that humans made of the world. Often there would be a little moralising about the humans and their greed or the like but it always ended on a happy note.
This was more or less the formula followed by Captain Planet and the Planeteers and The Smoggies, two other fairly widely remembered environmental kids shows—Captain Planet even tried to bring larger political issues into play. But much like David, no matter how bad the situation, the team always came out on top. To be fair to it, Captain Planet was quite clever at introducing politics to young children—it was once denounced as lefty liberal propaganda so that’s got to earn it kudos even if it’s disturbingly reductionist about the root cause of our world’s woes.
The one overarching problem with all these shows was the goodies win, always win. There is conflict but it’s so staged that at no point is the viewer ever really worried that the world will be overrun with smog or that Belfast will be nuked. There is a disconnect from the very real issues being discussed on screen and the viewer. While no one likes to think about the crushing reality of global warming/cooling, ice caps melting, mass extinctions and water wars, we know there are no pixies or blue planetary ambassadors to save us. The viewer needs to walk away with the message that they have to do something and Captain Planet’s “The power is yours!” didn’t quite gel with the rest of the show in which the power obviously belonged to Cap and, occasionally, his planeteers.
This is where The Animals of Farthing Wood proudly rears its glorious head. Unlike the other shows, it’s setting is local: everyone knows a place that could be Farthing Wood. Automatically the viewer can connect to the animals in a way that they can’t with gentle David or the cool planeteers. The animals are your neighbours, the same ones you’d see when you went tramping through the undergrowth.
It was small, local, manageable and horrifically real. The message here is nowhere near as overt as with any of the other mentioned programs but probably more powerful. The Animals of Farthing Wood doesn’t paint the polluters and destroyers as (perhaps comically) evil or misguided and in need of a lesson, they are shown honestly, as apathetic and uncaring, forcing the viewer to acknowledge the reality and everyday-ness of environmental destruction. It isn’t giant smog creating boats or, again, nukes in Belfast, it’s the quiet tidying up of the world we just accept, where car-parks are more important than a local wood.
The humans are often faceless and terrifying. Even when trying to do the right thing they are clumsy interlopers in the world and inspire fear in the animals, and how could they not? Most disasters that befall the group, and their very formation, are the result of human activity. Callous and cruel, the humans run ramshackle over the animals (sometimes literally) without a second thought. Most importantly though, the threat was real. By the second episode of the show, the Newts had already left the group and likely burnt to death in a marshland fire. Death was ever present in Farthing Wood.
It was this genuine threat of death and the local manageable feel that added to the political mystique of the series.
And it did have mystique. It’s a small band of very diverse creatures forced together by an outside force that has relegated them to a secondary status in a world they own. Notice the ties to class struggle here? The outside force is clearly human capitalism, with the diversity of the animals being a clever nod to concepts of intersectionality and the power dynamics inherent within classes formed by capitalism. The meat-eating “leaders” of the group are in some cases more of a threat to the other members of the band than the humans they are running from.
The animals share a pledge which acts as their own force of bonding and collective solidarity besides their shared oppression. A pledge to do no harm to each other in its first iteration. It quickly grows to include: giving according to ability, waiting for the slowest animals and loyalty to the collective group. A manifesto, if you will, which also makes note of the power dynamics within the group and attempts to rectify them.
Their mission is to travel to White Deer Park. “…A Good Little Place, A Wonderful Place purposely built for animals like us.” A place where they can live as they wish, where their well-being is the focus and not a messy consideration to be side-lined. They are seeking a utopia.
Basically, the whole show is allegorical of the communist struggle. It is also the case that there is degradation of some of the characters when White Deer Park is eventually reached as they simply cannot adapt to the changing nature of the struggle once they have achieved their goal. Without the external threat of humans to galvanise them, the enemy quickly becomes those within their own class, other animals.
So powerful is the message of the show, it has a long-standing effect on the viewer and it’s even possible to see the manifestation of several characters from the series within young-ish left movements. We will now provide a detailed, if slightly scathing, run-down of each of the main animal characters and their political characteristics:
Fox has the appearance of a leader but he is really only a figurehead. With the help of Owl and Badger, he deals with the day-to-day running of the group and the logistics of travelling. He is an iconic rallying point for the other animals. “Fox can run faster than fire” and other propaganda-like slogans about his might are often recited on the journey to White Deer Park by the “weaker” animals, which like most propaganda sounds very nice but simply isn’t true. Fox even starts to fall victim to his own image— it’s fairly telling that once White Deer Park is reached, he takes on a slightly dictatorial persona which results in him banishing his own son from the park for a perceived betrayal.
Owl is a pompous tawny who drops quotes and folk sayings on every topic as if they’re truth bombs e.g. “When perched between two evils, the best solution is to stay still.” She is the quasi-intellectual of the group and is often given to crowing about her “knowledge” and the others’ lack thereof. Owl is resentful of Fox’s glory but acknowledges that she wouldn’t have the flair required for the role, not that this stops her from making passive aggressive digs whenever she can. Later on in White Deer Park, she has a breakdown and leaves. Later to return, she isn’t the same after this experience.
Toad is the spiritual linchpin of the group. He is naive and faithful to his half-remembered route to White Deer Park. Even when all others doubt him, Toad knows he has seen the future and wants us all to travel there with him. You could easily visual Toad croaking “Paper, Comrade?” amid a riot, so taken with the moment of rebellion that he has to share the vision with those around him. He remains plucky to the last, having achieved his dream of living in White Deer Park, he transitions well and settles into Park life.
Badger is a gruff, fatherly figure for the animals and a loyal second in command for Fox. He stands by Fox when the other animals doubt him and reluctantly takes on a leadership role when necessary. Given the choice though, he’d much rather be having the chat with Moley above all else. He is also the peacekeeper of the group—he tries at all costs to prevent the Newts from splitting and mourns their likely deaths the most. Once in White Deer Park, his character deteriorates and he tries to move in with the human warden, “They’re not all out to get us”. He later dies after suffering from dementia and spending his last days thinking he still lives in Farthing Wood, the place where he was happiest.
Adder is a viciously sarcastic critic of the group, the oath, the journey and everything that goes with it. She is basically an Anarchist or Radical Feminist who ended up in the wrong group but has nowhere else to go. Oddly enough, she has a friendship of sorts with Owl, largely based on them being a bit mean to each other. The other smaller animals, in particular the rodents, doubt her loyalty to the oath and while she often uses this fear against them she does in fact remain true and saves the other animals on many occasions. Adder is very much the counter-weight to the other animals’ pretensions or idealism. She becomes a more involved character after the group’s arrival at White Deer Park. Perhaps now that “revolution” has been achieved, they will have time for her alternative ideas?
Weasel is a bratty troublemaker throughout the journey. She teases the other animals mercilessly but never does any real harm. Unfortunately she soon becomes a traitor to the group once they arrive in White Deer Park and she eventually leaves this new home in shame.
Kestrel is the eyes of the group. Unquestionably loyal, she is a central figure to the journey by directing the group and keeping them on track. She doesn’t seek acknowledgement or credit, she simply holds the group together as a matter of course. She often provides diversions, rescues and, on the arrival at the park, a celebration. Once in White Deer however she accidentally kills the surviving Mice and, after a brutal confession, leaves the Park. Neither she nor anyone else ever appreciated her commitment to the group until she was forced out. The tragic martyr to the cause who chose to sacrifice herself rather than weaken or split the movement.
Mole or Moley is possibly the most useless animal. He spends the journey bewailing his special treatment and talking a big game about how guilty he feels, but never really tries to give up his privileges at any point. Mole constantly ends up getting lost or left behind and causes nothing but trouble by delaying the group regularly. He travels most of the way on Badger’s back and enjoys a protected status due to his close friendship with the group elder. He dies off-camera at White Deer Park after living a very comfortable life. Your typical civil servant.
The Rodents, Squirrels, Hares and Rabbits are all varying degrees of capable. Many are killed either during the journey or, most sadly of all, accidentally in White Deer Park by fellow Farthing Wood animals. True proles, they begin as the lowest of the low in status and power, and experience only minor improvements to their conditions throughout their lives before meeting an end in similar circumstances. They are the longest suffering of all the animals.
The Newts are splitters who die almost as soon as they leave. The Hedgehogs are reactionaries who get run over. Pheasant is an individualist (who, ironically, is dependant on his long suffering wife) and his selfishness gets them both shot.
It’s fair to say that all of these programmes, and many others that have faded from view, left a serious dent in the collective psyche of late 80’s and early 90’s youth. Maybe even indoctrinated us to a point. In case you need a refresher course, don’t worry: find a link to the complete Animals of Farthing Wood play list here.
*This analysis only takes the first 2 seasons into account. Season 3 collapsed on itself once the rats invaded, a bit like the USSR really.