If there was one thing I loved as a little boy, it was monsters. Stories about monsters, books about monsters, monster toys, monster games, and, of course, television with monsters. Fortunately, the late eighties and early nineties were a golden age for TV series filled to the brim with weird and wonderful creatures. Mighty Max, The Real Ghostbusters, Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles... most of the monster-filled programmes were American; most of them, in retrospect, weren't very good; and most of them existed to sell toys. Every now and then, though, something homegrown would appear, that absolutely knocked the socks off the competition.
The Trap Door was a clay animation series created by Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, two animators known together as “Brainbox Mills” and founders of CMTB Animation. Later they would be responsible for the equally batty Stoppit and Tidyup, and Brain would go on to be one of the main animators for Aardman Animation, working on the Wallace and Gromit films, Chicken Run and Creature Comforts. The Trap Door is where this career is plasticine madness began, though. A total of forty episodes were produced, broadcast in two series. Originally on ITV, its many repeats were often broadcast as part of Saturday morning kids' magazine shows including Ghost Train and Motormouth. Each episode ran to only four or five minutes, just enough time to tell a short, silly story and wrap it all up.
Each episode would start with one of TV's greatest title sequences, as we arrived at a mysterious, spooky castle and were introduced to Berk, a rotund, blue blob-man with a cheery grin. Berk (“Ullo!”), like most of the characters in the series, was voiced by prolific writer and satirist Willie Rushton (Adventures of a Private Eye, Don't Adjust Your Set – The Programme is at Fault, From Rushton with Love). Berk spoke in a jolly West Country accent, while Boni, a cantankerous disembodied skull, spoke more like an upper-class Oxford don. For the opening narration, Rushton affected an impression of Vincent Price.
The narrator explained that Berk was the overworked servant of 'the Thing Upstairs.' But that's nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door, for there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out...”
The narration would then launch into the iconic theme song, written by Scots songwriter Bob Heatlie, who also penned several songs for Shakin' Stevens, including festive hit “Merry Christmas Everyone,” as well as televisual scores and theme tunes such as Fun House and Wheel of Fortune. The Trap Door theme was sung with over-the-top camp enthusiasm by someone known as Zygott, and is one of the catchiest, most sing-a-long-able themes in TV history. It also served as a warning for the poor, unsuspecting viewers: “Stay away from that trap door... 'cause there's something down there...” A reprise would play over the closing credits, where support animators received such spectacular credits as “Eyes in the Dark” and “Thing Doer.”
Berk's world seems to be inhabited solely by monsters of every imaginable shape and size, but the more grotesque and revolting the better. As well as Boni and the booming-voiced, perpetually unseen Thing, the other regular inhabitant of the castle is Drutt, a sort of spidery critter. Unlike the more vocal characters, Drutt is voiced by Nick Shipley, who also provided noises for other oddities that snarled, squawked and snarfed around the series. Most episodes revolve around Berk's endless tasks of feeding the Thing and keeping the castle tidy, the latter of which is impossible due to the constant supply of worms, slugs and other creepy-crawlies that scuttle about the place. Still, most of these end up in the food (or “scunge,” as Berk calls it), with the larger, more difficult “ingredients” bonked on the head with his handy rolling pin. Inevitably, the trap door will swing open and some hideous beast will emerge, wreaking havoc until Berk manages to either: a) push it back down the trap door; b) bonk it into submission or c) put it in the dinner.
This provides Brainbox Mills with an endless array of monsters to create, and an absolutely inspired bunch they are too. While the series is mostly clay animation, traditional 2D ink animation is used as well, with the outside of the castle a painted backdrop against which we sometimes see the silhouette of Berk or some other horror wandering about. There were a couple of recurring monsters from beneath the trap door: Rog, a large, friendly red monster who popped up occasionally for a chat; Bubo, a nasty creature in a sickly shade of yellow that enjoyed causing trouble; the Splund, a pink, round, rolling blob that can teleport; and the Big Red Thing, which is what it sounds like.
The animation is truly exceptional. Everything has a slightly scrappy look, but that only makes it more adorable, and it's clear to see that it's deliberate. There's so much detail, so much going on constantly, a never-still, always-bustling world of creeps and critters. The best of these has to be the “bug-pipe,” a species of small beastie that toots like a trumpet when stepped on or left alone for too long.
Favourite episodes include: “Food for Thort,” in which the Thing's prize vegetable, the eponymous Thort, scuttles around attacking and eating everything it can get its fronds on; “Lurkings,” in which Berk and an unhappy Boni go fishing in the dark, dank hinterland beyond the castle; “Ghoulies,” in which Berk summons an absolutely precious bunch of slippery green ghosts from a spellbook; and “Yechh!!” one of the most truly strange things I've ever seen, in which an insect comes up out of the trap door and lays some eggs, which hatch into fleshy peduncles, which then peel open to reveal little green slugs... which finally explode into what looks like scrambled eggs. “Truly, truly beautiful,” says Berk about this miracle of nature.
Other classics include “Strange Goings On,” where Boni is knocked down the trap door and has a horrible time in the nightmare realm beneath the castle; “Not Very Nice,” a similar adventure in which Berk has to go down the trap door after one of the Thing's eyeballs pops out and rolls down there; “Nasty Stuff,” in which Berk and Drutt drink a potion that turns them into huge, terrifying monsters; and “Birthday Surprise,” in which Drutt usurps Boni's birthday by giving birth to several offspring. (“I think I love them,” says Rogg.)
My very favourite, however, is “Oh Globbits,” which takes its name from Berk's favourite expression. This sees a huge, flying green sponge come up out of the trap door, which floats around making a whistling, parpy noise, knocking things over, before Berk chases it away, only to realise he needs it to mop up after a burst pipe. Simple, yet somehow utterly hilarious. As brilliant as all the monsters and absurd situations were, it was Rushton's performance that really made it stand out, especially as the loveable Berk. The big blue bloke lost his rag once or twice with Boni and Drutt and his lot in life, but overall, he plods along quite happily, cooking, cleaning, mending and “muckin' out 'im upstairs' various nostrils.” He's a pleasure to be around.
The Trap Door remains an iconic image of eighties children's television, a gloriously strange, inventive and silly series that revelled in grot, slime and family-friendly horror. As well as a cult classic, it's a programme you can stick on in front of the little ones and they'll be enthralled. There's just not enough on TV these days that's as charmingly weird as this, and it is to be treasured. As Berk says: “It's better to 'ave what you've got, then to get rid of it, and not 'ave it. That's what I think.”
Review: Daniel Tessier
Dan describes himself as a geek. Skinny white guy. Older than he looks. Younger than he feels. Reads, watches, plays and writes. Has been compared to the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth Doctors, and the Dream Lord. Plus Dr. Smith from 'Lost in Space.' He has also had a short story published in Master Pieces: Misadventures in Space and Time a charity anthology about the renegade Time Lord.
Dan's web page can be here: Immaterial
Published on October 25th, 2021. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.