Oliver Postgate: Creator of 'Bagpuss', 'The Clangers' and 'Ivor the Engine' who turned children's television into an art form
Wednesday 10 December 2008
As the co-creator of the animated programmes Bagpuss, The Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Pogles' Wood and Ivor the Engine, Oliver Postgate was one of a handful of pioneers who turned children's television into an art form and whose legacy is a warm nostalgia felt by grown-ups today. His calm tones were familiar as narrator of the stories, which he wrote himself and were brought to visual reality by the artist and puppeteer Peter Firmin, made by their own independent production company, Smallfilms, and shot in a disused cowshed at Firmin's home in Blean, near Canterbury.
Although only 13 episodes of Bagpuss (1974) were made, they were repeated regularly until 1987. The series topped a 1999 BBC poll as Britain's favourite children's television programme and, earlier this year, the pink-and-white-striped, "saggy, old, cloth cat, baggy and a bit loose at the seams" was voted the best television animal ever. Each programme began with Postgate's familiar, magic words, which awakened the cat from his slumber:
"Bagpuss, oh, Bagpuss,
Oh, fat, furry cat puss,
Wake up and look at this thing that we bring,
Wake up, be bright, be golden and light"
The cloth cat belonged to a girl called Emily, who had a "shop", Bagpuss and Co, where nothing was for sale. Emily would bring home objects to put in its old-fashioned window, where Bagpuss slept on a cushion until being roused by his owner's voice, stirring him and the other small animals and curiosities into action.
In his 2000 memoirs, Seeing Things: an autobiography, Postgate wrote: "From a distance of the 25 years which have passed since we made the Bagpuss films, I have begun to be able to see how they earned that affection. They are simple, and they are well-founded in a safe place. They are full of fun and, like a good meal, they are rich and satisfying. They also stretch the mind and flex the imagination. And the songs and the pictures are marvellous."
Richard Oliver Postgate was born in Hendon, Middlesex, in 1925, cousin of the actress Angela Lansbury and grandson of the pacifist Labour politician George Lansbury. His father, Raymond, was a journalist and novelist who later founded The Good Food Guide, while his mother, Daisy, was a suffragette.
After attending Woodstock School and Woodhouse County Secondary School, both in London, Postgate was evacuated to Devon and finished his education at Dartington Hall School. On leaving, he had ambitions to act but was sentenced to a jail term when, as a conscientious objector – like his father – he refused to serve his country during the Second World War. However, he was released after agreeing to become a Red Cross stretcher bearer, eventually in the ruins of Germany.
He trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in 1948 but never acted professionally and went through various jobs, including photographer and record-sleeve designer. His interest in animation led him to send an idea to the BBC in 1950 about a card pig that played the violin, but it was rejected. However, seven years later, he was presented with a platform for his talents when he joined the ITV London company Associated-Rediffusion as a stage manager working on children's programmes and creating props for productions including the science series New Horizon.
Thinking he could improve on the programmes already being made, Postgate created Alexander the Mouse (1958), about a mouse born to be king, and narrated the 10-minute tales himself. Looking for someone to design the characters and backgrounds, he was introduced to Peter Firmin, then an art-school lecturer, and their 30-year professional partnership began. The animation was brought to life through a crude, new system whereby characters were moved by magnets positioned under the table that acted as their set.
After making a further series together, The Journey of Master Ho (1958), a story about a Chinese boy and a water buffalo, aimed at deaf children, Postgate and Firmin started their own company, Smallfilms. First off the production line, for ITV, was Ivor the Engine (1959-64), about a Welsh steam engine that wanted to sing in a male voice choir. The 32 black-and-white episodes, written, narrated and animated by Postgate and drawn by Firmin, were inspired by the anecdotes of an engine-driver friend of Postgate and his own love for the work of Dylan Thomas. They proved popular with viewers and, a decade after they finished, the BBC revived the stories in 40 colour episodes (1976-77).
The pair's first BBC animation was The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), based on Norse legends and created by Firmin, who drew on his memories of discovering a set of 12th-century Norse chessmen in the British Museum during his days as an art student. ITV had turned down the idea so the pair switched channels. They followed the Noggin stories with The Seal of Neptune (1960), a tale of sea horses in an undersea kingdom, although they were back at the commercial channel with their penguin characters in Pingwings (1961).
Throughout this period, Postgate also worked (1959-63) as an animator on Captain Pugwash, already an established children's favourite on the BBC, based on John Ryan's piratical comic strips and books. However, Postgate and Firmin ran into trouble with their next BBC creation, The Pogles, which they made for the "Watch with Mother" slot in 1965, when the story of two country folk threatened by a witch was deemed too frightening for children. It was screened only once, but the witch was removed and the tale of a family living in the root of a tree was revived for "Watch with Mother" as Pogles' Wood (1966-68).
The Postgate-Firmin brand of stop-motion animation had become a firm favourite with children. Its usual formula consisted of Postgate coming up with the programme ideas, writing the scripts, directing them and providing the narration while Firmin was responsible for the set and puppet design. Postgate recalled: "We would go to the BBC once a year, show them the films we'd made, and they would say, 'Yes, lovely, now what are you going to do next?' We would tell them and they would say, 'That sounds fine. We'll mark it in for 18 months from now,' and we would be given praise and encouragement, and some money in advance, and we'd just go away and do it".
The pair's next hit was The Clangers (1969-74), their first colour production, featuring small, pink, knitted, mouse-like creatures who lived on a blue moon, with neighbours who included the Soup Dragon and the Froglets. Then came Bagpuss, before The Saga of Noggin the Nog was revived in colour (1982). Postgate and Firmin also made Tottie: The Story of a Dolls' House (1984), based on Rumer Godden's children's novel, before their final series, Pinny's House (1986), about a race of tiny people.
Away from filming, Postgate devoted an increasing amount of time to nuclear disarmament and environmental issues. His wife, Prudence, died in 1982 and he and his partner, Naomi Linnell, a historian, together painted a 50ft-long, Bayeux-tapestry-style Illumination of the Life and Death of Thomas Becket for a book of the same name (1986). Four years later, he painted a similar work on Christopher Columbus.
Last year, Postgate and Firmin were jointly presented with the Action for Children's Arts J.M. Barrie Award "for a lifetime's achievement in delighting children". Postgate was also awarded an honorary degree by the University of Kent in 1987.
In October this year, the media company Coolabi bought the licensing and merchandising rights to Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine and The Clangers for £400,000, and declared its intention to revive Bagpuss.
Richard Oliver Postgate, writer, producer and director: born Hendon, Middlesex 12 April 1925; married 1957 Prudence Myers (died 1982; three sons); died Broadstairs, Kent 8 December 2008.
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