In a spirit of animation

WITH the news last week that Ringo Starr had finally been shunted into the railway sidings, to be replaced by Alec Baldwin as the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine, my mind inevitably turned to the greatest children's TV voice of all. I refer, of course, to Oliver Postgate, a man who induced in many of us of a certain age a blissful contentment as we curled up on our bean bags to listen to him all those years ago.

Whether imitating the Welsh inflections of a steam engine, or speaking with the clipped accent of a cat recently retired from the Indian Army, Oliver rewired the imaginations of millions of children with his beguiling, animated creations: Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, The Pogles and Bagpuss. And last week I had the pleasure of hearing that voice in the flesh, as it were, when talking to Oliver - and his creative partner for 40 years, Peter Firmin - about the Vital International Animation Festival that takes place in Cardiff this week.

In terms of the history of animated TV, the1960s was - technologically speaking - the equivalent of the Middle Ages. "There was always something more than a little Heath-Robinson about those early animations," Oliver recalls. "We had an idiotic way of doing things. We were basically shoving bits of card about with a pin. Occasionally I had to put my hand into the picture to turn things around and if the magnets that moved them were polarised the wrong way, they would leap into the air, leaving the magnets and Sellotape all showing." In Firmin's cowshed, the two used to colour in bits of card, moving them around a table made of "scaffolding poles and bicycle chains" to get 120 seconds of film shot in a day.

It sounds like a far cry from the slick but shallow Teletubbies. "You have to stretch the buggers' minds," Oliver says of the target audience. "I do have a certain sense that if you only give children what they already know they want, they will remain blank. I imagine this hypothetical Martian who comes to destroy our planet by giving children only bland matter, only the whizz-bang. Our programmes weren't education with a capital 'E', but they had at least an element of mystery and then resolution, which, if momentarily difficult, was ultimately satisfying for them."

Postgate and Firmin are now seen as the Grand Old Men of British animation, their Clangers cited by the Oscar-winning Nick Park as a prompt in his career choice. Serene simplicity and decent story-telling were the ingredients for their success. "It was innocent entertainment," says Firmin. "Our puppets were magical characters, kind and gentle." It was hard even for world-weary Rex, talking to the duo, not to go a little dewy-eyed, and start thinking about the calm village greens and warm ales of yesteryear. "Adults still want to hug Bagpuss," Firmin says. The story goes that in the 1960s, at the Thursday board meetings of Rediffusion, a television was wheeled in so that the dignitaries could catch the latest Ivor episode. "It's adults who remember our programmes, and they who are reviving all these things."

Now there's a renaissance of classic children's programmes: a remake of Noggin the Nog (complete with his dastardly uncle, Nogbad the Bad) is being mooted, and other creations like the Wimbledon Wombles are back, with Basil Brush and Thomas the Tank (now Yank, I suppose) Engine due to return soon. You could argue that such retrospection is just an indulgence on the part of the generation that grew up watching these programmes and is now in a position to resuscitate them, but as far as Oliver Postgate is concerned, I think the term "golden age of children's TV" is entirely appropriate.

IF John Lennon were still alive, I wonder how he would feel about the way his image has been appropriated in an advertisement for Apple computers? The glossy magazine ad uses a photograph of John and Yoko in bed together during their Amsterdam "bed-in", alongside the slogan "Think Different". The copy goes on to extol the Lennonesque virtues of radicalism and inspired unorthodoxy, with which Apple obviously wants to associate itself.

Who's to say how Lennon might have turned out today? No doubt he'd have his computer, on which to tap out his lyrics, and Apple - with its Beatle- esque connotations - might well have been his machine of choice. But of the many things Lennon set his face against, big business was certainly one. To the people at Apple, Lennon is now no doubt simply an icon; there are those of us, though, to whom his beliefs actually meant something.

Not exactly how to Currie favour

THE USE of dead people in adverts is one thing; but when the living are unwittingly caught up in it, it's quite another. And for that reason I find myself in the unusual position of sympathising with Edwina Currie over a little reported incident involving her and an Edinburgh restaurant last week.

The restaurant is run by one Tommy Miah, and he was looking for a clever way to advertise his celebrated egg curries. Then he hit upon it - a photograph that had once been taken of Mrs Currie eating a meal there, accompanied by the slogan "Edwina Currie enjoys a Raj egg curry". It's not the greatest joke in the world, but it does at least work on the level of both the pun, and the fact of course that much of Ms Currie's notoriety in her days as a Tory minister derived from the "salmonella in eggs" scare that she caused.

But if there was a funny side to it, Ms Currie didn't see it. She knew Mr Miah, and had even worked with him to raise money for an orphanage in Bangladesh, but she didn't feel that entitled him to using her image in this way. "I don't think I have ever eaten an egg curry in his restaurant," she said. "He's a nice man but he should have asked permission. Next time he asks me to do something, he may get a dusty answer."

Mr Miah is contrite. "The poster was a tongue-in-cheek idea to raise our profile," he said. "She has come to the restaurant in the past, and that's when the picture was taken. But I will be writing to her to apologise."

I LIKE to think that Norman Lamont's elevation to the peerage a couple of days ago was a direct consequence of the interview he gave me last Sunday. A propos of which, my reference to Norman as one of the Tories "swept away by the tide of New Labour" at last year's general election was inaccurate. The Harrogate seat for which he was standing was in fact won by the Liberal Democrat, Phil Willis. My thanks to Janet Young of Sheffield for pointing this out.

Just like having a tiger in your tank

A COUPLE of weeks ago I wondered how long it would take before Viagra joined the list of popular girls' names. Then I received a splendidly learned letter from Dr Michael Gold of Twickenham, arguing the case for its use as a boy's name. The basis for this, Dr Gold writes, lies in the Sanskrit word "vyaghra" - which means "tiger". With reference to Sir Monier Monier-Williams's 1899 Sanskrit-English Dictionary - a volume not exactly in constant use in the Fontaine household - Dr Gold explains that, by ex tension (as it were), vyaghra means "any pre-eminently strong or noble person, a tiger among men". Many thanks to Dr Gold for giving us the benefit of his expertise. The Sanskrit for tigress is vyaghri. But you knew that, of course, didn't you?

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