Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions, where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place lives Berk, 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…
There are some things from our childhoods that just stick with us. The majority of things are simply forgotten about; nothing more than fleeting and colourful distractions for various Sunday mornings. Other things are remembered well, but for all the wrong reasons. The Trap Door is something that has absolutely endured. An odd, little British cult favourite, there’s not one day in my life where I’ve looked back on it with shame. Instead, it’s one of those few shows that actually crackles with nostalgia, fostering a warm fondness with each random recollection. That’s a precious thing, personally, but I know it’s something shared by anyone lucky enough to have chanced across it while growing up. If, for example, I hadn’t been given a VHS of it on some far off Christmas i’d probably have no idea of its existence.
Mostly the work of established animator, Terry Brain, its Plasticine style is a visceral joy to behold. Managing to display a unique and atmospheric look in spite of its necessary simplicity, it’s something that’s instantly pleasing. Brain is better known for his involvement in the near-flawless Wallace & Gromit series, something of equal charm.and quintessential Englishness. There are, in fact, a lot of similarities between the two. Where The Trap Door strikes out is in its setting, where it’s allowed to take “monster-of-the-week” to all new extremes. Making an overused format both inspired and imaginative, it was clearly comfortably inherent to its creators rather than being a conscious push. It feels, somehow, off-the-cuff and it’s eternally to its credit. I’m not to judge whether more modern equivalents lose heart in their over-production, but it’s certainly a thought.
The plot is a fairly one-note affair; once again to its credit. Berk, a talking blue blob with a West Country accent, is forever servile to the antagonistic Thing Upstairs. Resident to a cavernous and creepy castle, seemingly in perpetual darkness, his life boils down to the demanding tasks thrown at him from an unseen master. With only Boni, a human skull and professional miserable sod, as conversational company, existence is often a rather trying thing for the poor bumbling fellow. He’s only pushed to further annoyance by the whizzing insanity of Drutt, a spider with a massive head and some form of extreme ADHD. All would seem easy enough, really, if it weren’t for the ever enticing allure of the castle’s trap door itself, the titular centrepiece of almost every episode.
Despite being expressly forbidden to open said door, and incessantly reminded of that fact by Boni, Berk will always conjure up some weak excuse to lift it up. To be fair, even if he did leave it then monstrous buggers would probably have just leaped through regardless (as they often did). What would invariably occur was usually more of a nuisance to the castle’s residents than any real danger, but each were memorable in their inspired portrayals. Be it a tangle of tentacles smashing up through the wood, a lazy fat bastard who very literally eats all the pies or horrors so ugly that they fear their own reflection, each appearance is its own separate glee. There are even recurring creatures, such as the endearingly dim-witted Rogg or the deliciously irritating Bubo. With no rounded conclusion, one is left with the assumption that these childish slapstick antics will continue on for Berk unabated – that sprawling cartoon infinity that often surrounds such shows.
While the premise is delightfully minimalist, it’s brought alive lovingly in every passing segment by the careful hand of Brain. The top-notch voice acting helps too, performed almost exclusively by Willie Rushton (an obscure British satirist known for co-founding Private Eye magazine). Thin political themes can be garnered from it too, should you wish; mostly given credence beyond pretension by the aforementioned Rushton being around. Are we not all, in the working classes at least, subject to some Kafkaesque “Thing Upstairs” that seems forever elusive? Do we not worry ourselves sick daily over the endless tasks chugged our way? Indeed, we even have nightmarish inner-trap-doors that we often dare to open in the face of certain danger. Obviously this is taking the light themes of the show to perhaps inappropriate depths, but it’s always nice to know that you can breathe in those extra layers if you’re so inclined.
With those explorations stripped away, the show remains undeniably hilarious – far more so than many of its peers. It’s a skill to transcend age demographics, and I know for a fact that just as many parents hold it in high regard along with their children; maybe even more. It’s perhaps a case for how well-done simplicity can be, even with the cliches that do occasionally permeate it. It’s a cult-classic for a reason, and I hope that its thumb-mark stop-motion isn’t something too modest for generations of today. Obviously a shining gem for only a small handful of modern children, with particularly nostalgic parents, I believe there are still pockets who will be able to appreciate it for what it is. Entirely deserving of maintaining a legacy, I can’t help but be concerned that it will soon get picked up by some trawling executive and repackaged. We wouldn’t want to end up with a Trap Door propped up by computer animation and a young, spunky voice cast. Now that is spooky.