Don't mess with the Ferals restrospective - Ellen Muller
Stories & Ideas

Thu 29 Sep 2022

Don't mess with The Ferals: revisiting the cult classic series

ACMI Collection Australia Television The Story of the Moving Image
Ellen Muller
Ellen Muller

Writer

"The Ferals are loud, obnoxious, dangerous, bad-mannered and ugly. We want more!" [1]

If you grew up in the nineties watching the ABC – a special time when the Bananas in Pyjamas were ‘real’ and not animated [2], and Johnson and Friends made us wonder whether our toys could be sentient (pre-Toy Story) – you might remember another, much less clean-cut show which brought an anarchic sharehouse vibe to live-action children’s entertainment.

Best described as the Aussie kids' equivalent of BBC’s The Young Ones, The Ferals (1994–5) followed the antics of a foursome of animal (puppet) ‘tenants’ who occupied the backyard shed of their reluctant human landlord, Joe King (Mig Ayesa). The gang included Rattus (puppeteered by David Collins), a punky rat with a pink ponytail and a studded leather vest who’s "the leader of the bunch"; Modigliana or ‘Moddie’(Mal Heap), a fluffy white cat with purple eye shadow and attitude; Derryn (Terry Ryan), a loveable “dopey dog”; and Mixy (Emma deVries), a naïve, erratic pink rabbit whose name is a dark reference to Myxomatosis, a disease introduced to Australia to cull the feral rabbit population. The show’s regular cast also included two human neighbours – science and medical students Leonard (Brian Rooney) and Robbie (Kylle Hogart); as well as two native animal neighbours – the ‘Bozos from the Bush’, Keith the Hawaiian shirt-wearing koala (also puppeteered by Mal Heap) and Kylie the kangaroo (Kelly Wallwork; Danielle Baker).

Created by Wendy Grey and Claire Henderson, The Ferals took place in a comical universe where animals could speak (and were expected to pay rent), animated thought-bubbles and motion lines appeared above characters’ heads and slap-stick violence was rife. It was silly, cynical and rebellious, with the gang regularly scheming, stealing, lying and gambling their way through situations (Mixy even kidnaps a baby in one episode). Yet underneath the sociopathy there was also a lot of heart, with glimpses of underlying affection amongst all the scuffling.

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The Ferals ran for two seasons between 1994 and 1995; a total of 30 episodes, each with a 25-minute runtime. While short-lived, the series remains a prime example of high quality local children’s programming which was fully funded and produced by the ABC [3].

The scruffy gang of four continued to be popular after the show ended, starring in a spinoff series of five-minute episodes, Feral TV (1996), then later having separate ‘careers’ – Mixy hosted the ABC for Kids programming from 1996 to 2001, Moddie co-hosted Creature Features (2002–08), and Rattus and Moddie shared a recurring segment on Numbers Count (1998).

Upon revisiting the show in 2022, two things stood out: the unique aesthetic of each puppet, and just how much the show reflected both Australian and wider culture at that time. Created in an era of children’s television that was distinctive for its use of puppets and costume characters, what separated The Ferals from other kids’ shows was the gang’s grungy energy and the use of dark, often adult, humour.

Ferals director David Evans credits the show’s ability to be dark and dysfunctional to its public funding. In an interview with australianscreen, Evans points out that since The Ferals “did not have a commercial imperative – it was not politically correct. There is not a broadcaster who would be willing to do it [today], to take the risk" [4]. Similarly, Tina Matthews, the puppeteer who crafted all of the show’s characters, attributed the era it was created with the risks it was allowed to take – believing The Ferals “possibly wouldn’t be allowed in children’s television now” as the gang “did so much that was dangerous… kids weren’t told it so much in the 90s but they’re told it obsessively now” [5].

Violence in the show followed a Punch and Judy tradition, and was nothing new to puppetry or even to children’s television – think Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry. Part of what made The Ferals quintessentially rebellious was how rough and ‘trashy’ the lead puppets looked as well as behaved (and sounded in Rattus and Modigliana’s case). Fashioning helix piercings, spiked leather chokers and once even a Madonna-esque cone bra, Matthews borrowed elements of punk and grunge style, and designed the foursome to look as though “breaking the rules were their reason for being” [6].

Choosing to make the main characters feral animals, in a literal sense, was an important foundational element to each episode’s narrative direction; the word ‘feral’ can mean both an introduced, wild species as well as a very Australian derogatory term for someone acting in an “undisciplined and antisocial” manner [7], making the gang’s very existence unwelcome. They are perceived as troublemakers, outsiders, which is regularly seen, for instance, when the gang clashes with the native animals, who point out they “don’t belong anywhere”.

The Ferals [Puppets]

Mixy and Moddie are living rent-free at ACMI (photo credit: Egmont Contreras)

To match their tough exteriors and outsider status, the types of challenges the Ferals faced in each episode also generally involved hustling, avoiding eviction and challenging the landlord/authority – ‘punk’, anti-establishment things relatable to disenfranchised people pushed to the margins of society. What’s more, much like the British sitcom, The Youngs Ones, the gang’s friendship is characteristically expressed through fighting and juvenile teasing. Throughout the series, there are many instances where the gang are often ‘too cool’ to acknowledge their love for each other, and retribution for bad behaviour involves expressing affection, such as being forced to cuddle each other.

The Ferals is a time capsule; today it serves to remind us of the risks that children’s television creators were allowed to take, but also to illustrate what rebelliousness, grunge and underground culture looked like at that time. While The Ferals is currently unavailable to watch on streaming or DVD, full episodes have been uploaded to YouTube, possibly illegitimately – the Ferals wouldn’t want it any other way.


See Mixy and Moddie at ACMI


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