Nearly 30 years ago The Animals of Farthing Wood debuted – and promptly traumatised a generation of children with its cavalcade of animal slaughter.
Picture it: an idyllic wood, teeming with all sorts of delightful creatures big and small, feathered and furred. Thick with green leaf and underbrush. Perhaps there’s the sound of a gentle stream somewhere nearby, and the rustle of tree branches. It’s a sanctuary, filled with filtered sunlight and the chirp of birds.
This is not the wood we are talking about today.
The wood I want to discuss is Farthing Wood. Far from idyllic and peaceful, it is a place of horror and decay. It is a place of youthful nightmares, some of them mine. There should be a sign slapped right on the edge of this forest that says “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” like it’s an old pirate cove because honestly? Farthing Wood is a smouldering hellhole.
If you somehow managed to escape the childhood trauma of having to watch The Animals of Farthing Wood when it aired on TV in the early to mid nineties (or if your nana had the VHS tapes of season 1), lucky you.
Ostensibly, this children’s television show follows a group of animals who have to leave their home, Farthing Wood, because humans are invading their land to build houses. I’d like to emphasise the word ‘children’, right here, right now. You’ll see why, but anyway, that sounds fine, right? A pretty typical – if a little dark – concept for a kids’ show.
Fox is the main character of Farthing Wood, and he does not have any easy time of it. This talking fox is no Disney Robin Hood. Robin Hood was hot and wore cool hats and seemed very fluid in his sexuality. He knows nothing of true suffering. Fox is not here to be a smooth-talking anthropomorphic swagger boy with weird little raccoon hands; this is a hard-cut ruffian who admittedly can still speak English and his life. Is. Bleak.
Why is his existence so bleak, you ask? Well, in this kids’ show that’s for kids, there are over 13 major, horrifying deaths in only 39 short episodes, and I know this because I recently watched a compilation video of all of them on Youtube.
Now I watched a lot of stuff growing up that in retrospect was very dark. Once Upon a Forest, The Last Unicorn, Milo & Otis, that weird not-Miramax-but-not-original cut of The Thief and the Cobbler… It’s really no wonder I spent a lot of time comforting myself with Angela Lansbury’s older lady workout video, but those movies and shows at least had something of a happy ending. The Animals of Farthing Wood is just one long, grim expedition towards death.
And this is a show for children. I cannot stress this enough. My favourite thing I read about Farthing Wood while I was reacquainting myself was from its Wikipedia page, where the tone of the show is described thus: “Unlike other children’s series and films, The Animals of Farthing Wood did not feature much comedic content.” Like sure dude, that’s technically correct but I feel like we are massively understating how much in reverse they went. The amount of bloodshed in this show puts Game of Thrones to shame when you consider, again, that it was made for children.
Take the first scene of the first episode of Farthing Wood. It shows an aging toad (his name is Toad). He is weary and out of breath, but so close to his destination. “Just a bit further,” he tells himself. He is valiant. We feel his plight. I often have to tell myself the same thing to make the journey from my bed to the fridge to get a fizzy water. Toad has truly gotten so close – just over the hill and he’s home free.
Or, he would be, if he didn’t get scooped up in the bucket of a digger and flung unceremoniously into a coffin of dirt and rubble. In a delightfully savage piece of animation, a large rectangle of rock falls atop the dirt mound to mark the spot. A headstone. Wonderful. I can hear the echoes of the children laughing joyfully as they watched this on their televisions in 1988.
Sorry, I think I misheard. Those might actually have been screams.
Believe it or not Toad actually survives this ordeal, but he’s the only one who receives that honour. Every other sweet forest creature who dies painfully in Farthing Wood and beyond remains very dead.
Do you want to know how these sweet, defenceless animals perished? I won’t go into all of them, because we’d be here too long, but here’s just a few of them for you:
A hedgehog husband and wife are flattened by a truck on the motorway after paralysing themselves with fear that they’ll be run over.
A psychopathic bird impales several mouse children on spikes in front of their watching parents.
A female pheasant gets unequivocally shot dead by a farmer. Then, not long after she’s been plucked and cooked, her husband who is also a pheasant finds out she’s been made into dinner because he sees her DEAD, COOKED BODY on the table.
That’s the last thing he ever sees, by the way. He’s also shot and killed by the same gun that ended his wife, and he is presumably just as delicious as she was.
I want to tell you it gets better, but it doesn’t. Fox has to watch several of his children die; many of the animals’ spouses get brutally murdered, also in front of their eyes; and a stag fully gets it when he drinks poison from his own goddamn stream. There’s a lot of animal-on-animal crime in Farthing Wood, my friends.
Also, related sidebar for a second. When we meet Owl, she’s holding up a dead fieldmouse. I obviously understand this is just what owls eat, but when later we see a meeting of all the animals to discuss their impending peril, there are fieldmice present at the meeting. So like that dead mouse she’s holding is that… is that a character? Did the owl know them? Am I going to lie awake tonight and every night in the future thinking about this?
Being a curious gal, I did my best to find out if there was some sort of trend around this time to make children’s media so relentlessly dark. I was expecting to see that there was a wild financial crisis or a censorship debacle or a fire in the happiness factory or something, but it turns out that Farthing Wood was actually made during a bit of a renaissance for animation and there’s no reason at all for it to have been so traumatising. Or so filled with visual depictions of blood that I see at night in my dreams.
The only useful thing I really found out was that The Animals of Farthing Wood was adapted as a TV series by the European Broadcasting Union from a series of books. They were written in the late 70s by a dude named Colin Dann, and I now have a lot of questions for him. There are no answers on the internet, so until I write him a very strongly-worded letter I guess we’re going to have to believe that it was just very normal 50 years ago to write children’s books about animals getting absolutely butchered all the time. Circle of life, bitch.
Most of the episodes of Animals of the Farthing Wood are on Youtube. That’s not a recommendation of it so much as it is just a statement of fact. Nostalgia is fantastic and all, but frankly I’m not sure I’ll return to that forest ever again.
And neither will so very many of the animals who make up the cast of the Animals of Farthing Wood.
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