Part Nine: “Wake Up, Be Bright, Be Golden and Light…”

By TJ Worthington

First published September 2006

Tog, Pippin and the Pipe Cleaner People may not exactly be household names today, but in its time Pogle’s Wood was one of the most popular and best-loved Watch With Mother shows. The two series made in 1966 and 1967 were repeated constantly throughout the remainder of the decade, and would in fact prove to be the most enduring programme of the black and white era, last shown as late as August 1973.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the creators of Pogle’s Wood, had in fact made three other programmes through their production company Smallfilms by the time Mr Pogle and his family were retired from the screen. Little Laura, a drawn animation series about a young girl, was made in 1969 but has since slipped into obscurity. The same cannot be said, however, of another series that they began work on that same year. Returning to the stop-motion puppetry technique used earlier in Pogle’s Wood, The Clangers concerned a colony of mouse-like creatures who lived on an unidentified alien planet, where they and their friends the Froglets, the Soupdragon and the Iron Chicken were forever finding their peace and tranquility disturbed by items of space debris that clattered onto their homeworld. To the viewer they were readily identifiable as teapots, television sets and the like, but to the space beings they were noisy, seemingly purposeless items that wreaked minor havoc before being ejected back into space. A charming, delightful series, The Clangers is often mistakenly identified as a Watch With Mother show, but in fact the 26 five-minute episodes (plus a later election special, “Vote For Froglet”, which has never actually been repeated) were first seen in the BBC’s afternoon pre-news slot alongside The Magic Roundabout and Captain Pugwash.

In 1973, Postgate and Firmin began work on an idea for a new show intended for Watch With Mother, although their original concept was very different to the interpretation that ended up on screen. Bagpuss was initially thought of as a series about a cat attached to the British Army in the days of the Raj, who liked to visit a nearby children’s hospital and tell stories – accompanied by appropriate illustrations that appeared in “thought bubbles” above his head – to the patients. The storytelling cat was to have been a hand puppet, not unlike Firmin’s other creation Basil Brush, and would have appeared alongside human performers.

However, Postgate and Firmin soon changed their minds dramatically; partly for aesthetic reasons, and partly due to the financial and technical impracticalities of working with a set full of performers in their small home studio. The format was duly reworked to the extent where all that it really had in common with the original proposal was the idea that Bagpuss should be a storytelling cat. The hospital setting was dropped completely in favour of a more esoteric one with no human interaction. The storytelling element remained, but as with Pogle’s Wood, would form a separate self-contained animated segment, and the idea of live “animation” was abandoned and replaced by the stop-motion technique at which Smallfilms had proved themselves to be so adept.

Very few television programmes have ever been as effective at setting the tone with an opening sequence than Bagpuss. Each episode begins with a static sepia photograph of the titular stuffed toy cat, accompanied by an archaic-looking logo and an equally archaic-sounding melody, sparsely picked out on antique plucked string instruments. Through a succession of similarly crumbling, faded photographs, accompanied by Oliver Postgate’s rich and evocative narration, the viewer is introduced to Emily, a girl in Victorian dress who lived, “once upon a time, not so long ago” and owned a shop that existed to reunite lost property with its owners. So successful is this sequence in creating the illusion of relics from a bygone and intangible age that it comes as some surprise to learn that Emily was in fact played by Peter Firmin’s young daughter of the same name (who was reportedly reluctant to participate, wary that the role would cause her embarrassment at school), and that the shop front was simply the redressed rear of his family house.

Whenever Emily returned to the shop with a found item, she would take it to show to Bagpuss – “the most important, the most beautiful, the most magical … saggy old cloth cat in the whole wide world”. Placing the item next to him, Emily would chant, “Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, old fat furry catpuss, wake up and look at this thing that I bring, wake up, be bright, be golden and light, Bagpuss oh hear what I sing”, upon which the picture flickered into colour to the accompaniment of an upward sweep on an autoharp, and Bagpuss sprang into life with a hearty yawn. Emily herself was never seen once her saggy old cloth cat had woken up to be bright and golden and light, and the rather obvious question of exactly how she managed to get away from the shop so quickly was never addressed.

Bagpuss, a lugubrious yet also jolly and affable pink and white striped cat, spent much of his time sitting down on a cushion that, in a wonderful touch of authenticity, looked in dire need of a good clean. His distinctive colour scheme was in fact arrived at through a fortuitous accident; Firmin had intended Bagpuss to be ginger and white, but a mix up at the company who were dyeing fabrics for him resulted in it being delivered with a pinkish tint. Firmin was so pleased with the result that he decided to leave it as it was.

Bagpuss was not the only inhabitant of the shop to respond to Emily’s invocation. Up on a shelf behind him sat The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse-Organ, an impressive bellows-operated contraption (“Heave! heave!”) described by Postgate as “a cross between a pianola and a television set”, that played music on wheezing pipes and showed pictures to go with them. The sides of the Mouse-Organ were decorated with embossed images of mice, and whenever Bagpuss was roused into consciousness, these would become three-dimensional and scamper off to have a good look at Emily’s discovery for themselves. The five mice were Charliemouse, Eddiemouse, Janiemouse, Jenniemouse, Lizziemouse and Williemouse, although in some on-set photographs they were also joined by two others, later identified in one of the tie-in storybooks as Millymouse and Tillymouse.

At the side of the Mouse-Organ sat Gabriel Croaker, the felt-fashioned banjo player with the Tea Time Toads, who lived in a round tin adjacent to his wicker chair-bound singing partner, Madeleine Remnant the rag doll. Both of these puppets actually predated Bagpuss by some years; Gabriel, based on a design spotted in an old advertisement, had been made by Firmin a couple of years previously to appear with Rolf Harris in the ITV children’s series Picture Box, while Madeleine dated back to an episode of Smallfilms’ Pingwings from the early 1960s. Higher up on a nearby bookshelf, propping up such improving-sounding tomes as Arctic Adventure and Where to Look for Wild Flowers, was one Professor Augustus Barclay Yaffle. Ostensibly little more than a carved wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker, Yaffle was in fact a distinguished academic with a keenly rational mind, intentionally based on his real world human counterparts such as Bertrand Russell and GDH Cole (who also happened to be Postgate’s uncle). Yaffle’s role was originally to have been fulfilled by Professor Bogwood, a humanlike bookend hewn from dark wood, but the BBC were not keen on the idea and in time Postgate and Firmin came to share their reservations.

Each episode of Bagpuss was centred around the newly-found item that Emily had deposited in the shop, with the assembled cast speculating on its origins and helping to repair and restore it in preparation for the rightful owner arriving to collect it. The mice would scurry around, singing an infectious high-pitched round (“We will find it, we will bind it, we will stick it with glue, glue, glue …”) whilst meticulously cleaning and reassembling the initially unrecognisable object, making up their own fanciful explanation of its origins as they went. Yaffle would hop down from his shelf to ruminate on a more scientifically plausible theory, whilst Gabriel and Madeleine drew possible parallels with mythology and folk tales, and Bagpuss himself – with the aid of his Thinking Cap – would draw on his own huge collection of personal stories from his travels around the world.

Many of these explanations would be presented as an animated insert, using both drawn and stop-motion techniques, seen either on the Mouse-Organ or in the form of Bagpuss’ “thought bubbles”, and accompanied by a song from Gabriel and Madeleine. Given the sheer imagination required in fashioning up to three different stories per episode around an unlikely object, it is perhaps no surprise that many of them are so well remembered: An embroidered cushion that could have been telling the story of either The Owls of Athens or The Bony King of Nowhere; the shapeless tartan pincushion identified as both a rare Highland creature called “The Hamish” – who made a terrible noise like bagpipes being played backwards, and struck up a friendship with Tavish McTavish, who made a terrible noise by playing his bagpipes forwards – and a porcupine that has lost its spikes; Yaffle’s touching story of a wise man who befriended some turtles; the ballet shoe that doubled as a boat for a pair of mice pursuing some Stilton cheese across a sea of orange squash (“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, what a load of bosh!”); Silly Old Uncle Feedle and his inside-out cloth house; and the earless straw elephant, to name but a handful. The best remembered of these is almost certainly the cardboard model house that the mice claimed was a fully operational “Mouse Mill”, and proceeded to demonstrate how it could manufacture chocolate biscuits from breadcrumbs and butter beans, momentarily fooling even Professor Yaffle until their deceit was discovered.

Some of these items, such as Uncle Feedle’s house, the Frog Princess’ jewellery and the Athenian Owl cushion, were specially made for the programme by Firmin’s wife Joan and daughter Charlotte. Others, including the ballet shoe and the “Hamish”, were genuine items of bric-a-brac found lying around Postgate and Firmin’s houses. The one-eared elephant was of similar origins but Firmin had to painstakingly make a “mended” replica to appear at the end of the episode, while the story of the broken statuette of a giant had to be effectively filmed in reverse order, with the scenes in which it appeared unbroken completed first.

As with most other Smallfilms productions, Oliver Postgate provided not only the opening and closing narration but also most of the character voices. Gabriel and Madeleine, however, were voiced by John Falkner and Sandra Kerr, who also provided the distinctive world music-influenced traditional songs performed by the unlikely duo. Graduates of the early 1960s UK folk boom, Kerr and Faulkner had both been involved in broadcasting from very early on in their musical careers. Kerr could often be heard singing authentic folk songs to accompany radio and television documentaries, while Faulkner was in regular demand as a researcher and studio guest on account of his expert knowledge of world music, and both had taken part in Ewen McColl’s acclaimed “radio ballad” production of Romeo and Juliet for the BBC. Shortly before starting work on Bagpuss, Kerr and Faulkner had worked together on a series of musical items for the BBC Schools’ programme Watch, but it was their contribution to another Schools’ production, Sam on Boff’s Island (a spinoff from Words and Pictures to which Smallfilms had contributed some animated inserts) that brought them to Postgate’s attention.

Kerr, Faulkner and Postgate all worked together on the writing and recording of the songs and music, working to a list of pre-determined points in the scripts and studying the “found” objects from each episode for musical and lyrical inspiration (Postgate can in fact be heard in the background of a couple of the finished numbers, but he is always keen to play down his efforts as the “out of tune mouse”). Some of the compositions were based in part on existing traditional songs, including somewhat surprisingly Uncle Feedle, although the lyrics to Porcupine Song had rather more curious origins. They had originally featured as filler material in an early 1970s Pogle’s Wood annual, and were remembered by Postgate when the idea of the “Hamish” being mistaken for a porcupine was introduced into the script. Kerr and Faulkner set the lyrics to music, but the chain of inspiration did not end there. Postgate was sufficiently taken with the chord sequence and melody they came up with that he asked them to record a slower instrumental arrangement to serve as the opening and closing theme music for Bagpuss.

Oliver Postgate has always been keen to stress the importance of Kerr and Faulkner’s contribution to Bagpuss, and it is not difficult to see why. The music and the esoteric arrangements that they created – every bit as distinctive as Vernon Elliot’s quaint woodwind scores for other Smallfilms programmes – were perfectly suited to the warm yet antiquated feel of the series. In some cases, it seems remarkable that such extraordinary songs were only ever created for a children’s television programme, and for many years not even heard outside its confines. The mesmerising Princess Suite and the authentic-sounding Agricultural Jigs deserve particular praise, but the absolute high point has to be the outstanding The Miller’s Song, a beautifully constructed – if somewhat tongue-in-cheek (“Baker, Baker, get out of bed, put that silly old hat on your head”) – chronicle of the changing of the seasons and the process of making bread from seed-sowing through to baking.

Sandra Kerr would go on to contribute to Listen With Mother and to various BBC Schools’ radio and television programmes as researcher, writer and presenter, not to mention contributing to other a wide variety of other shows as diverse as Play School and the cult radio comedy Tales of The Mausoleum Club. Her daughter Nancy, a gifted violinist, has followed her into folk music, often performing alongside Eliza Carthy. Although Kerr now balances her musical career with university lecturing, John Faulkner still works extensively as a performer and a producer of other artists, and in 2000 the duo reunited to re-record their songs from Bagpuss for CD release, going on to stage a couple of special live performances of the material.

The result of all this singing, storytelling and academic conjecture was invariably that the object would find itself fully repaired, and ready to be placed by the mice in the window of the shop, from where it would hopefully be reunited with the person who had lost it. Following this, Bagpuss would give a big yawn, and settle down to sleep. This was the cue for all of his friends to return to their inanimate state as well (in a couple of episodes, Bagpuss began yawning before it had been placed in the window, leading to a flash of excitement as the mice raced to get it there in time); the mice were ornaments on the Mouse-Organ, Gabriel and Madeleine were just dolls, and Professor Yaffle was a carved wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker. This sequence, delivered in Postgate’s wonderfully expressive tones and accompanied by sepia photographs that really did make it look as though they had all retreated intangibly back in to the past, is surely one of the most effective and atmospheric ever seen on television. Better still, it is followed by the heartwarming sight of Emily returning to the shop to find that, “even Bagpuss himself, once he was asleep, was just a saggy old cloth cat; baggy, and a bit loose at the seams, but Emily loved him”.

And Emily was not the only one who loved Bagpuss. It is a beautiful realisation of an impressively original idea, and as close as anything ever came to representing a definitive Watch With Mother show (something that was perhaps unintentionally reflected by the fact that – in a scene where the mice are seen driving around a toy bus – it was the only programme to actually reference the title of the timeslot). Some young erstwhile viewers may have been troubled by Professor Yaffle’s jerky movement and stern voice, or by the lurch from sepia into colour, while others may have expressed bafflement at the fact that Gabriel did not make the same noises in the programme as he did in the opening sequence (not to mention the fact that he was occasionally seen as a hand puppet operated in real time), but Bagpuss seemed to strike a chord with successive generations of its viewing audience. Much like Camberwick Green, to which it bore some close stylistic similarities, its combination of a quaint and historically-indeterminate atmosphere and gentle simplistic storytelling held extraordinarily strong appeal for young viewers, and it would soon reappear in near-constant rotation in the Watch With Mother schedules.

Surprisingly, despite this popularity, very little in the way of Bagpuss-related merchandise was ever released, with the notable exception of a handful of storybooks. The first three of these, published by Pelham, were essentially stories of the sort that might have appeared on the Mouse-Organ, with some brief appearances by the regular characters at the start and end. Indeed, one book – Silly Old Uncle Feedle – was an adaptation of a story featured in the television episodes, although Mr Rumbletum’s Gumboot and The Song of the Pongo were entirely new works. The second two, Bagpuss in the Sun and Bagpuss on a Rainy Day, were published by Collins and were quite different to the earlier efforts, containing similar stories but incorporated into the adventures of the main cast, which rather oddly saw them venture outside the confines of Emily’s shop.

There were also two annuals published by the BBC in 1974 and 1975, which adhered to the usual formula of mixing text stories with light puzzles and instructions for “makes”; material from these annuals was later compiled into another annual, published in 2001. Aside from these, and the expected comic strip in Pippin, there was virtually nothing else issued in the way of Bagpuss merchandise for many years, although Sandra Kerr did include a reading of The Miller’s Song on one of her later solo albums.

First seen from 12 February 1974, the 13 episodes of Bagpuss were shown no fewer than 37 times between 1974 and 1986, by when – with the obvious exception of Mr Benn – it had become the last of the original Watch With Mother shows to be seen in the original timeslot. Following its retirement from the schedules, it rather strangely became almost a “forgotten” series, with repeats on Channel 4 a couple of years later going almost unnoticed. In fact, it would take until the late 1990s for anything like a resurgence of interest in Bagpuss to take place, but when this did finally arrive, it certainly made up for the lost time.

In 1999 Bagpuss surprised many by taking the top slot in a BBC poll to find the nation’s favourite children’s television show, and this led in turn to more prominent repeats, video and DVD releases for the full series, and all manner of associated merchandise from singing toy mice to mobile phone covers.

It was never disclosed whether any of the objects that found themselves in the window of Emily’s shop were ever reunited with their owners, but it is perhaps fitting that Bagpuss itself, once quietly shoved away into the televisual equivalent of a shop full of antiques, should have been rediscovered with such enthusiastic fondness. Oliver Postgate paid perhaps the most fitting tribute when he remarked that, “whenever I see the films again, I feel very happy”. There are a great many others who feel exactly the same way.

<Part Eight