Friday, December 19, 2008


Oliver Postgate

My Grandad would have been 98 today. He died a little over two years ago, but thinking of him today I can’t help also thinking of a man who died a little under two weeks ago – a man I never met, and who had very different views to my Grandad’s, but who feels rather like another grandparent to a generation. In his work with Peter Firmin on Smallfilms (a name with multiple meanings), Oliver Postgate captured the hearts, heads and imaginations of kids. Though “captured” seems almost as wrong as BBC newsreaders’ “The man who dominated British children’s television…” It’s difficult to think of a man for whom the word “domination” describes a less appropriate attitude.

I’ve been aware of Oliver Postgate throughout my life; not always by name, but always by voice. He created marvellous creatures and characters, utterly enchanting worlds – but perhaps the most memorable thing about him was the way he told those stories in such a uniquely wise, slightly wicked, and endlessly reassuring voice. It was, I suspect, the most beloved voice in Britain (sorry, Tom).

Though the Clangers were very slightly too early for me, mainly catching up with them in much later repeats, they always seemed the most magical of his creations. Like Noggin the Nog, I’d seen a little of them when very small, and spent years yearning for them (when’s Noggin out on DVD, then?). I loved Bagpuss and all the characters – the mice, the huge lazy hero, Professor Yaffle… In later years, incidentally, hearing that Professor Yaffle’s portrayal (like that of Davros) was based on Bertrand Russell managed to do perhaps more utterly strange things to my head even than Mr Postgate and Mr Firmin did when I was a boy. It’s because these days I can’t hear of Bertrand Russell without thinking, ‘But I knew his son,’ a friend and mentor who occupies… Pretty much the same sort of place for me as my Grandad and Oliver Postgate. Probably somewhere between them. And, of course, throughout my childhood I saw the many adventures of Ivor the Engine, usually hoping it would be one with the sweet little dragon.

You can still read Oliver Postgate’s own site, and that of his friends. When the news of his death at the age of 83 broke last Tuesday, there was such a huge outpouring of love for him and his gentle, pacifist tales that I couldn’t list all the different ones I’ve read. But, in no particular order, I took something special from Jennie, Nicholas, the BBC, several people in The Guardian, Mark Lawson, The Guardian’s “In Praise of…” (never more appropriately), Socialist Unity, Liberal Cynic (particularly for this revelation), and, in a rather lovely way, Charlie Brooker. His latest Screenwipe closes with a tribute to Mr Postgate, too, and you can see that again at 11.50 tonight on BBC4, following The New Avengers.

Mr Postgate had just never been forgotten, and I hope he never will be. Just a week earlier, Listen Against had closed with Ian McKellen reading the book of the week in the original Clanger; I took out my CD of Clanger opera, and looked up at the shelf where our own Clanger sits, lovingly hand-made by our friend David from the original template, passed on by Oliver and Peter when he interviewed them a few years ago (Millennium’s long-term readers may have encountered Ace Clanger before).
“Their scripts had to be written out in English, for Steven Sylvester and I to use Swanny whistles; we just sort of blew the whistles in Clanger language for the text that was there, so it didn’t matter much what was written. But when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said ‘at the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says “Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again”. Well, darling, you can’t say that on children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.’ I said ‘It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled’, but [they] just said ‘But people will know!’ … Years later, when the merchandising took off, the Golden Bear company wanted a Clanger and a Clanger phrase for it to make when you squeezed it, they got ‘Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again’!”
If there’s one Smallfilm that’s closest to my heart, well, naturally it’s a Clangers episode, and though I love The Iron Chicken, and The Tablecloth, for me it’s a less well-known one called The Seed. That voice, that look, that music, that kindly streak of satire, and there’s also a special place in my heart for the Sky-moos. Enormous, happy creatures with huge smiles, they eat everything in sight and then flap lazily away. They’re aspirational characters for me, really.

It seems silly to use the word “genius” about someone who was so unassuming, or “auteur” of someone who used home-made cameras in an old stable on a budget of £10 a minute. But Oliver Postgate was one of the most wonderful figures in television history. We’ll miss him. He made our childhoods – our lives – happier, gentler and stranger.
“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.”

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* snuggle *

This is a lovely, thoughtful post. Thank you.
Thank you.


I've just written a more personal double obituary - double because there's one I knew I could just never manage on its own - on my much-neglected occasional LiveJournal.
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