Oliver Postgate, RIP

Tuesday, December 9, 2008 by

Oliver Postgate, 1925-2008

Oliver Postgate, 1925-2008

It’s probably no exaggeration to say that for a generation, Oliver Postgate’s voice may well have been the first that they came to recognise after those of their immediate family. As creator, writer, narrator and director of some of the best loved and most regularly repeated children’s TV shows of all time – among them Bagpuss, The Clangers, Pogle’s Wood, Noggin The Nog and Ivor The Engine – he became one of the most instantly recognisable figures in television without ever really appearing in person.

Working away in a small home studio fitted out with self-made equipment, Postgate and his longtime collaborator Peter Firmin were at odds with the typical approach to making television at the time, and in many ways were pioneers of independent production; indeed, theirs were among the very first externally made shows to appear on the BBC. Perhaps it was this independence and distance from the trends and pressures of the industry that allowed them to create such believeable and highly personal fantasy worlds, in settings ranging from dense woodland to alien planets, and of course a certain old-fashioned shop.

It wasn’t just the script and the visual style that created these worlds though; Postgate’s laid-back, expressive narration, inspired in no small part by Richard Burton’s seminal reading of Under Milk Wood, did so much to create and evoke atmosphere, from the mythical Norselands through a remote steam-age Welsh railway village to the icy wastes of outer space.

This is hardly surprising as Oliver Postgate was a born storyteller; not just in the medium he chose to work in, but also in his everyday life. So many anecdotes that he related in passing in rare interviews have become common knowledge simply because of the spellbinding way in which he related them, not just well-known incidents like the day that the surface of the Clangers’ planet caught fire, but even those about otherwise long-forgotten efforts such as early Smallfilms production Alexander The Mouse. Broadcast live using magnetically-controlled figures on painted backdrops, this show was prone to interruption when magnets were pointed the wrong way and characters ended up flipped upside down, with no other option than for Postgate to reach into shot and set them the right way up by hand. He concluded that particular anecdote by wryly musing that “…all in all, I’m not so sad that nothing exists of it any more”, though the fact that despite this lack of visual evidence you can pretty much picture how the show must have looked is testament to the unique style of Smallfilms’ productions.

Oliver Postgate’s narration, as well as his writing, direction and everything else, will of course live on, not just in the ever-welcome reappearances of Bagpuss, Noggin, Major Clanger and company, but for a lucky few in hazy memories of long-forgotten shows like Little Laura, The Seal of Neptune and the surreal cult favourite schools’ television show Sam On Boff’s Island.

It seems futile to try and come up with a ‘good’ ending when paying tribute to the man who came up with the spark of genius that was the closing sequence of Bagpuss, so instead here’s a conclusion that this writer came to when writing about Smallfilms for this very site a couple of years back, which seems even more pertinent today:

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”.


8 Responses to “Oliver Postgate, RIP”

  1. Ljones on December 9th, 2008 8:03 pm

    Wow, really wasn’t expecting this :( . *sad – RIP oliver.

  2. Simon Rueben on December 9th, 2008 9:33 pm

    A beautiful piece on a much loved man, thanks for posting this.

  3. Paul Jones on December 10th, 2008 9:22 am

    Very sad news. It’s also sad there’s no room for shows of Mr.Postgate’s gentle, whimsical style in tje schedules now.Kids will always love a good, imaginative storiy well told and don’t need to have explosions, chases and loud slapstick every second.

  4. Andy Elms on December 10th, 2008 12:54 pm

    I always thought that there was a bit of Burton’s “Under Milk Wood” in his narration. Thanks for confirming this.

  5. Clinton Morgan on December 10th, 2008 6:46 pm

    “Goodbye dragons. Goodbye” (Sniff)

    Such a lovely beautiful man. Deserving of all our hugs. Last time I heard him was on ‘The Russell Brand Show’ on Radio 2 where he took Brand’s overdubbing of Professor Yaffle on that Nickelback “rock star” song (amongst other things, comparing the previous week’s guest Richard Dawkins to the carved wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker for example) in good humour by speaking in Yaffle’s voice as soon as he was on air. He may have considered his work as being the worst animation but I beg to differ. I believe he and Peter Firman should be praised to the hilt as great filmmakers. Place them amongst Lotte Reinhegger and Nick Park and Peter Lord.

    Also a political figure with his involvement with CND and his writings for The New Statesman. He also wrote one of the best modern autobiographies this side of Michael Powell’s ‘A Life In Movies’ and Frank Muir’s ‘A Kentish Lad’. My favourite part of ‘Seeing Things’ was his reading of a Winnie The Pooh extract during his Quaker wife’s funeral.

    One thing I am kicking myself over and that is my ‘Pingwings’ DVD. After watching a few episodes I decided to watch some more. Slightly drunk I pulled out the disc too hard from the box and it split down the middle. I have only myself to blame.

    Dare I say it, but I’d love to see a tribute to him at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Well why not? The stage could be decorated with props and characters from Smallfilms, songs provided by Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, clips and full episodes could be shown on a screen, a small chamber orchestra could play the music of Vernon Elliot and the whole event could be joint introduced and compered by your good self and Johnny Trunk.

    Oliver Postgate. A decent fellow.

  6. Ken Shinn on December 11th, 2008 1:12 am

    TJ – what more can I add? This is a beautiful piece, for all that I’d been fearing its appearance since you informed us of Postgate’s admittance to a hospice several months ago.

    I had the privilege of meeting him in Bristol while promoting “Seeing Things”‘ publication several years ago, and he was (as ever) a charming, intelligent, humane man, with an imagination of truly wondrous quality. I heard him voice Bagpuss’s yawn before a delighted audience of several generations, stroked the saggy old cloth cat’s besmirched yet warm fur, and patted Professor Yaffle on his distinguished wooden head. My copy of “Seeing Things” is signed by Oliver, and now more than ever is treasured.

    A decent fellow is a fine description, but he was and will ever be so much more. Gentle, courageous, imaginative – “genius” is an overused word, but he is and always shall be a genius.

    And Clinton’s suggestion is a great one. Maybe the petition to Downing Street should be started now to make it happen.

    All of the best to you, Oliver, wherever you are. And thank you.

  7. Rob Williams on December 12th, 2008 12:58 am

    Oliver, where ever you are… Thank you for such wondered imagination and making a man who’s one pleasure was watching the television when not being able to run about… Thank you for the pleasure of Ivor and Bagpuss… I’ll be having a glass of milk and a jaffa cake for you.

  8. Nick R on December 20th, 2008 12:43 am

    I remember always being familiar with The Clangers and Ivor the Engine. But I must have grown up during one of the few periods (late 80s/early 90s) when Bagpuss wasn’t being repeated, because somehow I’d never heard of it until it came really high in Channel 4′s “100 Greatest Kids TV Shows”! With the amount of praise it gets these days, I wish I had watched it as a kid.

    Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe this week was about children’s TV, and he ended with a great little tribute to Oliver Postgate: