The View From Here

Farewell, then, Bagpuss

Michael Bonner

A sad start to the day, then, to be woken by news on the Today programme of Oliver Postgate’s passing. For anyone in their late thirties and early forties, Postgate’s wonderful and vivid animations were an indelible part of our childhoods. As a spokesman for BBC’s children’s channel CBeebies noted, Postgate’s great strength lay in his ability to create “worlds within worlds”, the kind of places populated by talking dragons, sentient trains, pink woollen aliens and crotchety, intellectual woodpeckers.

Postgate’s creations were arguably located in a more innocent era of children’s TV – programmes involving impressive amounts of multi-coloured knitwear, sticky back plastic and old washing up liquid bottles. A time, clearly, before the zip and sophistication of American cartoons dominated the teatime schedules. There’s a certain held-together-with-gaffer-tape quality to the jerky, stop-start animation of his shows; something ineffably British, and very post-war, about making puppets out of wool and cardboard. But there’s also something strange and magical at work here, a storytelling quality firmly located in the tradition of children’s literature, stretching back to Carroll and Barrie. It’s easy, of course, to spot the lace and Victoriana in Bagpuss, with its sepia tinted credits, and there’s something of the Alice about his owner, Emily. While the diminutive inhabitants of Pogle’s Wood, for instance, could perhaps be identified as more benign relatives to Jack-in-the-Green, Robin Goodfellow and other greenwood tricksters rustled up from folklore.

The first episode of Pogle’s Wood, incidentally, was considered too scary for children. It is, you might think, something of an achievement for a puppet show. But this is from a time when it was OK to scare children. Doctor Who aside, I can think of number of TV shows – admittedly mostly clustered around the mid-Seventies, a few years after Pogle’s Wood – that regularly gave me the spooks. Children Of The Stones, King Of The Castle, The Changes, The Tomorrow People (well, the opening credits, at least). But, of course, you can argue these were all aimed at a slightly older age group and probably went out after Newsround, which if memory serves seemed to act as a watershed between tots and school children.

One email read out on the Today programme this morning, though, cited Postgate’s Noggin The Nog as a major “behind the scenes” moment. Certainly, the show’s opening voiceover – “In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the Men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale...” – came loaded with all manner of unsettling signifiers: black rocks… cold sea… dark nights… In what I can only assume to be a slight nod to Hamlet, Noggin, king of the Viking-like Nogs, was perpetually under threat from his wicked uncle, Nogbad the Bad. Elsewhere, there was Graculus, a large and sinister green bird of unknown origin. Fortunately, there was also a friendly Ice Dragon among the ranks to balance out any sensations of pre-adolescent creeping dread.

All of these, by the way, were built in a barn in Kent. For those wishing to avoid having their youth forever bespoiled, look away now. The Clangers were hand-knitted, and had skeletons made of meccano, wood and brass ball joints, while their view of the galaxy stretching out into infinity was, in fact, 8 x 5 sheets of battened hardboard painted midnight blue. It’s to the credit of Postgate – and his long-term collaborator Peter Firmin – that in an act of alchemy, they could make magic from such humble materials.

For such brilliant memories, thank you, Mr Postgate,


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