on 9 January 2004
"Still wearing his academic cap and gown, Bagpuss looks down from the high basket where he lives. His eyes are glass and have no truck with age or mortality. Perhaps he has always known that he was to be immortal..."
Festooned with Peter Firmin's wonderful illustrations, and interrupted only by two selections of personal photographs, this is the life and works of the creator of Small Films, in his own, touching words. Alexander the Mouse, Bagpuss, The Clangers, The Dogwatch, Ivor the Engine, The Journey of Master Ho, Noggin the Nog, Pingwings, The Pogles, Pinny's House, and still more worlds from the imaginations of Postgate and Firmin. About a dozen distinct sets of programmes created for children's television by Oliver Postgate and his collaborators (mostly Firmin) spanned the years from 1958 to 1986, and continue to be repeated and revered by generations of present and former little people of all ages.
What led him to such a career? Postgate's maternal grandfather was the prominent 1930s labour leader, George Lansbury. In childhood, his family had him playing party games with the likes of Bertrand Russell, and H.G. Wells (the "short wide frenzied man with a squeaky voice, who bullied people to play games and hated losing"). His own father, Raymond, founded and compiled the original 'Good Food Guide'. And one of his drama school friends, Ivan Owen, called upon by Postgate in his early days of television to spend hours at a time sitting under a table with his arm up Fred Barker in 'The Dogwatch', went on to become 'the man who gives Basil Brush a hand.' The stuff of legend!
How could a man with such a pedigree not be a success? And yet it took Oliver Postgate numerous attempts to find himself a career that would last. With a Quaker background, he survived being a conscientious objector in the second world war, a relief worker in Germany shortly thereafter, a farm labourer and forester, and a self-employed button electroplater, among other things. The strands that ran through all of this (and more) were that he was devilishly independent, and a natural inventor.
And so it was that he discovered television. During long spells 'resting' as an actor, Postgate was taking sporadic work at Associated Rediffusion as a stage manager (director's odd-job man). As 1957 stumbled blindly into 1958, he twigged two important facts. First, recently-married with four instant kids, he needed steadier work. Second, children's programmes were crap. Their content was barely adequate to fill the gap between the preceding broadcast and the succeeding one. So Postgate sat down and wrote something better.
'Alexander the Mouse' was made using a new magnet-based 'live' animation system. This was crap too, but it wasn't Postgate's idea. His ideas, his words, and Peter Firmin's beautifully-drawn backgrounds were just the ticket, in fact, and it wasn't long before he was able to escape and set himself up as a single-frame animator. And the rest is television history. I won't tell you the whole story, because that would be a biography and this is just an abridged book review.
"Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, old fat furry cat-puss,
Wake up and look at this thing that I bring,
Wake up, be bright, be golden and light,
Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing..."
Doesn't that make you feel better? Now try singing it aloud. Especially if you are reading this at work, or on public transport. Go on, you know you want to. I did it just now. Jacquie ignored me, but she's used to that sort of thing from me by now.
Postgate's writing is, fittingly, as vivid as a colour slide-show, with the man himself present to change the slides, tell the stories and check from time-to-time to be sure that we're all sitting comfortably and enjoying the performance. And, aside from the televisual stuff, it is stuffed full with little gems. Like his father's discovery of a Ministry of Food Handbook on Home Wine-Making, on the last page of which was the line "A good wine can also be made from grapes." Or the starving, barefoot children of Braunschweig (Brunswick) singing him a traditional English Christmas Carol: "I'm dreamink of a vite Crischmas..."
Some more snippets. His bonfire effigy of General De Gaulle was good enough to be saluted by the House of Commons policeman. The first Pingwing was found on a washing-line. Postgate's film studio was a disused cow-shed near Canterbury. He chose the name 'Clangers' because it's the noise that their bin-lid-styled doors ought to make as they are dropped into place. Bagpuss's 'Emily' was Peter Firmin's youngest daughter. But why am I telling you all this? Buy it in paperback and read it yourself. Add it to your wish-list at Amazon, now.