BREADCRUMBS, BUTTERBEANS AND A BOLEX CAMERA
- A TRIBUTE TO OLIVER POSTGATE
Confession time. Once upon a time, not so long ago - just over a decade, in fact - the work of Oliver Postgate, he of the knitted backroom investigations and bucolic cut-out cardboard adventures, were getting a bit - whisper it -over-familiar. Through no fault of their own, the key works of Postgate and cheif collaboarator Peter Firmin had found themselves first in line for ironic reinvention, the Clangers in particular being the first point of call for a post-alternative comedian desperately lunging for an easy laugh. Then there were all those students with Bagpuss backpacks. The currency seemed somehow debased. But in time, like a squadron of noisome mice fading back into the fabric of the mouse organ, all of that fuss and nonsense receded, revealing that the shows themselves were strong enough to have stood the test of time.
And what shows they were. You want atmosphere? Well take your pick - you can have heartwarming steam age village life, mustily claustrophobic shops, or in the case of the curiously overlooked Noggin The Nog, sweeping Bergman-like Norse panoramas that almost make you forget that you're just watching some bits of cardboard moving about. By our reckoning, at least three, possibly four, generations grew up with some form of Smallfilms entertainment being broadcast to their young eyes on a regular basis. That's an awful lot of goodwill in the memory bank, and every scrap was well-earned.
Postgate took us to ancient mystical kingdoms and the farthest reaches of space, but they all had oddly similar principles at work, pitched somewhere between a hippie commune and the micro-state of Burgundy in Ealing comedy Passport to Pimlico. Pundits who go on about Postgate’s ‘Englishness’ miss the point, but only just. Unlike, say, the fully functioning world of Trumpton and environs, the societies created by Smallfilms were wilfully self-contained. Sometimes they were downright bolshy – Major Clanger’s first reaction to a new arrival on ‘his’ planet was more often than not to tell it to sod off out of it.
But from there sprang the sort of heated debate more usually confined to more nominally grown-up shows like Question Time. Stand-up arguments amongst the Clangers about what action to take on the Froglet Problem were social realism with a swanee whistle. Gabriel the Toad’s improvised folk ditties about stockbrokers with gigantic ears were roundly heckled by a sarcastic Professor Yaffle. Where the lazier end of the children’s TV spectrum was content to bung in a swift ‘Oh, and don’t forget to brush your teeth!’ over the end credits to justify itself, Smallfilms characters went off the script and at each other with alarming regularity. There was no cosy ’let’s all find out how teapots are made’ consensus here.
And it wasn't just the obvious shows. Never mind cloud-plagued al fresco farmyard stop motioner The Pingwings, or late-period miniature wonders Tottie (featuring Children's BBC's first animated murder) and Pinny's House, there's all manner of other Smallfilms productions so hopelessly obscure but with such evoctaive names: Little Laura, The Journey Of Master Ho, The Seal Of Neptune... and let's not even get started on Vote For Froglet. The Smallfilms style was so strongly defined that you can't help but have a fair idea of what they must have looked and sounded like. And of course, Smallfilms were partly responsible for the demented did-that-really-happen Tony Robinson-equipped schools' TV lunacy Sam On Boff's Island.
It all seems astoundingly quaint now, but it was astoundingly quaint even at the time. Even without the dragons in the furnace, Ivor the Engine was a long-lost railway fantasy by the time it was made. The odd rogue astronaut aside, the Postgate technological revolution ended with steam-powered Victorian boilerplate. (Atypical Smallfilms oddity The Dogwatch, in which Postgate plays a Fraggle Rock-esque lighthouse keeper with a mop-like puppet dog, featured a television set powered by the wonders of steam.)
If this conjures up a slightly cramped air of ‘heritage’ stuffiness, a proper look at the programmes dispels such worries instantly. Postgate’s contemporaries, newly liberated by colour telly, hopped into orange dungarees and decorated sets in the manner of a glam rock crèche, but for the most part were peddling the same old corn in brighter cravats. The untrendy sepia of Smallfilms, on the other hand, coated characters and ideas of full-on innovation.
Bagpuss, surely Postgate’s most celebrated creation, is the one that divides people more than any other. That ambience of a badly ventilated old people’s home full of bickering misfits could, understandably, be an acquired taste for many children. More fool them, as the thirteen programmes are the high water mark of Smallfilms’ characteristic blend of the fantastic and the mundane, where mouse-shaped ornaments spring into life from the front of an ancient organ to the ethereal strains of a heavenly harp, only to fight amongst themselves and eventually organise a picket line when it all gets too much.
What rarely gets mentioned as well as these is the music, effectively 'composed' by Postgate as a series of doodles across the script, and turned into proper scores either by Vernon Elliot, a classical bassonist who impressively managed to conjure up everything from chugging steam engines and dancing pipecleaners to television sets whizzing through space while never really diverting from his standard orchestral template, or John Faulkner and Sandra Kerr, hardcore folkies whose anachronistic and certainly un-Mouse Organ-like sounds couldn't have fitted more perfectly with Bagpuss. Not for nothing have recent releases of the soundtracks recieved glowing reviews all over the place (with the Clangers score even raved over by dance music magazines); they're extremely listenable and full of character, hardly surprising when they were effectively 'directed' by Postgate as opposed to existing simply to fulfil a function.
One of Postgate's final gigs as a narrator was for Alchemists Of Sound, a BBC4 documentary about those similarly idiosyncratic creatives of the sixties and seventies, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and while pioneering scary electronica might never have found its way within the boundaries of Pogle's Wood, Postgate and Smallfilms had a lot more in common with Delia Derbyshire and company than might appear on first glance. Both were products of an atmosphere where those who seemed to know what they were doing were allowed to get on with it with minimal interference - Postgate only ever alluded to two clashes with the BBC over his works, and even one of them was simply down to the unfortunate scheduling of an episode - and came up with something that had people writing letters of admiration at the time.
And as for the unintentional effect that poor old Augustus Barclay Yaffle had on certain viewers: "pity poor Yaffle; all he ever wanted was to increase the educative standards of the nation, particularly as regards exotic pincushions and old discarded ballet shoes, and yet like so many teachers and medical practitioners before him, he found that this actually worked against him and his true aspirations could not escape his stern and formal demeanour, nor indeed his stutteringly angular gait".
A cottage industry in the literal sense, the Smallfilms set-up was almost a Smallfilm scenario in itself. With a home-adapted stop-frame camera made with a cannibalised alarm clock and a free hand hovering over the puppets with the all-important fly spray, Postgate and Firmin resisted all speculative offers of international expansion with Clangerish belligerence. It’s all several worlds away from current TV practices, which treat children much as Professor Yaffle would Emily’s latest misshapen discovery, with a mixture of vaguely censorious bafflement and wildy off-the-mark theorising. A Smallfilms production was about as likely to talk down to its audience as it was to feature the latest waxing by Van Der Graaf Generator. (Actually, in the case of the Clangers, that’s not such an outlandish idea.) Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin rigidly adhered to the only rule of children’s television worth following – please yourselves, otherwise you won’t please anyone else. And you have to agree, on both counts, job done.
OLIVER POSTGATE: 1925-2008