There were many reasons why we all loved the stop-motion kids’ television programme The Trap Door: the theme tune, the adorable main character Berk, the zany slapstick, the amusing monsters which dwelled below…but for me it was the unique vocal talents of the man who gave the characters their personalities, Willie Rushton.
Actor, comedian, satirist, co-founder of Private Eye, comedy panellist, author, cartoonist and possessor of one of the finest voices in British narration; Willie Rushton led The Trap Door’s audience through 40 adventures of Berk, Boni and Drutt as they struggled to keep control of their underground home.
I mentioned the theme tune back there – I bet you any amount of money that each and every one of you reading this right now could still sing it if I start you off…
‘Don’t you open that trap door; you’re a fool if you dare!’
And as one, I heard you sing back ‘Stay away from that trap door, ‘cos there’s something down there!’
The intro to the show, which came before the instantly recognisable song, started off infinitely creepier than the programme itself. A door creaked, a storm crashed and sinister music played over the silhouette of a castle, framed by shadowy trees. Rushton intoned (in the style of Vincent Price) the following: ‘Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions where nobody goes, stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place lives Berk, an overworked servant to 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…’
It starts off scary but you soon come to realise that the threat of horror may not be so great when Berk is mentioned and you are treated to the sight of a lumpy blue plasticine model saying ‘Hello!’ in a West Country accent. Throughout the show both he and his other plasticine contemporaries interact with their hand-drawn surroundings, giving an overall feel of depth and colour in his otherwise gloomy world.
And so let us meet the protagonist of the series. Berk was an oval shaped dogsbody who lived in the depths of the aforementioned castle so that he could take care of his gruesome master above ground, who was often heard but never fully seen. This was probably a good thing; throughout the series hints were dropped about the hideousness of The Thing Upstairs – multiple heads, three eyes, huge fangs, humps, wings and, in one illuminated lightning flash, a heap of writhing tentacles. Lovely.
One of Berk’s duties was to prepare meals for his boss, who would shout ‘Berk – FEED ME!’ when he was hungry. Berk enjoyed this part of his job and used a variety of gloopy ingredients that were usually either revolting (mud, slime, eyeballs) or alive (worms, snakes). ‘I loves cooking…I particularly like all these squiggly, wiggly bits…and a few pickled woodlice eggs, to taste.’
Berk was also guardian of the trap door in the middle of his cellar floor which, when shut, kept hidden a large amount of cantankerous monsters beneath it. The problem was that Berk was not particularly good at this; sometimes accidentally but sometimes out of curiosity he would open the door, leaving the beasts below free to come up and create havoc.
With disproportionately large hands and feet Berk was not a graceful being, but he was certainly loveable; he seemed to enjoy his work and generally maintained a cheery disposition despite the chaos that the monsters below the trap door produced when unleashed. He could be heard talking to himself most of the time, particularly the phrase ‘Oh globbits!’ when something went wrong.
Keeping him company throughout his escapades was his friend Boni, an elongated talking skull. He was undeniably cleverer than Berk was but to that end was also much duller. His upper class accent showed him to be posher than his large blue friend and Rushton habitually made him sound somewhat like Donald Sinden. Sitting in his preferred place - an alcove near the trap door - Boni would sometimes warn Berk that he’d left the trap door open but otherwise completely fail to mention to his companion of the potential dangers heading his way.
The third occupant of the damp dungeon was Drutt, a big pet spider which spent most of its time rushing round gobbling up worms and hindering Berk’s attempts to regain control of things.
There were many different monsters slouching around beneath the trap door; some were hostile, some were dangerous, some were mischievous but all were entertaining. Most made only one appearance during the show’s run but a few came to see Berk on more than one occasion:
Bubo was a rascally little fellow. When he first climbed up into Berk’s domain he was invisible, but after a run-in with some yellow scunge (a sort of goo that lay around in the cellar and was the first thing to be flung about in naughtiness) he stayed that colour and was, therefore, much more detectible on his future visits.
Rogg was a large, red creature with a head shaped like a tear drop, long arms and a mouth which made him look like he was permanently grumpy. He was actually quite pleasant to Berk, although he was never in the running for ‘Brainiest Monster of the Year’ as he was actually pretty thick. He spoke, but not much (see previous comment).
The Splund was an unwelcome visitor. He looked similar to the M&M commercial characters, only larger and with more dents. Oh, and demonic eyes and an enormous tongue. He was able to teleport and he combined that with threatening to eat Boni and Drutt in a fiendish voice to great effect. They were both terrified of him until Berk took the forward thinking step of popping him with a pin and watching him deflate. Not so scary now Mr Splund, are you?
The Trap Door first aired during ITV’s afternoon children’s slot in 1984 in a series of 25 short (around 4 minutes) episodes. It was well received and so, in 1986, a further series of 15 same length episodes was produced and broadcast. This too, was massively popular, amongst both the children and their families of the time but no further series were made after that.
Channel 4 reran it in their morning schedule from 1996 to 2003 and it got further repeats on digital channels Trouble (2005) and POP (2010). It was also enthusiastically received around the world, being shown in most countries, including the U.S., Australia, Canada, Italy and Germany.
It was devised by Terry Brain and Charlie Mills, animators who formed companies CMTB Animation and Queensgate Productions and who later went on to make Stoppit and Tidyup, a thirteen part series about cartoon characters who were named after parental orders. Terry Brain also became a key part of Aardman Animations, working on the Wallace & Gromit films as well as Creature Comforts and Chicken Run.
The catchy theme music was written by Bob Heatlie, a Scottish songwriter, producer and musician who not only wrote one of my favourite 80’s songs ‘Japanese Boy’ (sung by Aneka) but also the Shakin’ Stevens’ classic ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’! He must be rubbing his hands together gleefully every time the festive season rolls around…
Only 40 episodes were made of The Trap Door but you could feast on more of Berk and his grungy compatriots with the computer game The Trap Door. Created by Don Priestly and released by Piranha Games you could control Berk as he went about completing tasks set by The Thing Upstairs, using the bits and pieces he found lying around as well as any monsters roaming around under the trap door. It took the runner up prize for ‘Best Original Game of the Year’ at the Golden Joystick Awards in 1986 and was soon followed by the sequel Through The Trap Door.
And if that wasn’t enough there was also a board game! In 1985 Berk’s Trap Door Game arrived in the toy shops with the premise much the same as the TV show, i.e. you moved round the board on the throw of a dice trying to avoid the monsters that popped up through the spring loaded trap door.
The Trap Door is remembered fondly by most children of the 1980s; it was filled with interesting characters, funny plots and scripts and led by a plasticine figure far cuter than Morph. It was also immortalised in two different music genres: heavy metal band Hospital of Death recorded ‘Down the Hatch’ which was all about The Trap Door and Chase & Status (drum and bass) made song ‘Trapdoor’ using the programme’s introduction within it.