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Last Updated: Friday, 2 January, 2004, 01:28 GMT
Emily's Bagpuss comes of age

by Emma Saunders
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Bagpuss and the mice
Bagpuss, his friends the mice, and their marvellous mechanical mouse organ

Cult children's TV character Bagpuss is 30 years old this year - and there is life in the old cat yet.

He may be just a saggy cloth cat but Bagpuss continues to enjoy the revival that began when he won a BBC poll of the most popular children's TV programme of all time in 1999.

The popular pink and white moggy was invented in 1974 by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, the creative team also behind Pogle's Wood, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers.

Bagpuss and his friends lived in a fictional shop which did not sell anything but was filled with lost items found by seven-year-old Emily, Mr Firmin's real-life daughter.

Only 13 episodes of Bagpuss were made, even though it was on air for 26 weeks a year over 13 years.

Being part of the programme is the last thing I tell people about but my friends usually let the cat out of the bag
Emily Firmin
But in the past four years, fans of all ages have bought up Bagpuss merchandise by the bucketload, contributing over 30m to the UK economy.

So what is behind the fat furry feline's appeal?

Illustrator Mr Firmin has a simple theory, believing that Bagpuss's unusual appearance is a big part of his success.

"Bagpuss was meant to be marmalade but when I got him back from a local firm, they told me there had been a problem with the chemical process and he had come out pink instead," he says.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin started working together in the 1950s

"But he looked so distinctive, I decided to keep him that way - it was a marvellous accident really."

Mr Firmin trained at Central Saint Martin's College in London and worked in a stain glass studio before he was approached by Mr Postgate after going freelance.

"Oliver always said I was very scathing of giving up art for TV," he says.

Mr Firmin believes the appetite for nostalgia is also a big factor for Bagpuss fans.

"Children in their 20s and 30s started having their own kids and wanted things to be remembered," he says.

Fran Huxley, who turned Bagpuss into a major high street brand in the late 1990s, agrees.

"To begin with, we were just looking at the nostalgic, retro market, 16 - 34-year-olds with their warm childhood memories," she says.

But she soon noticed that younger people were buying, too.

"Under-16 fashion-conscious girls started buying Bagpuss products such as T-shirts," says Ms Huxley.

Bagpuss Facts
The first episode was shown on 12 February 1974
Bagpuss is the mascot for the Asthma Association
Bagpuss has sponsored a wing of Romanian orphanage
DVD and video sales have topped the 300,000 mark

Her company, Licensing By Design, has since gone on to launch a "glitter" range for seven-to-16s.

Mr Firmin and Mr Postgate take Bagpuss's trendy appeal in good humour.

"Oliver says Bagpuss is very elderly and dignified - the cat is above all this," says Mr Firmin.

His daughter Emily, now an adult, still remembers having her photograph taken for the part.

"None of my five sisters were jealous, they had appeared in dad's other work, like Pogle's Wood and the Pingwings," she says.

"Being part of the programme is the last thing I tell people about but my friends usually let the cat out of the bag.

"Dad always says Bagpuss is mine but I don't lay any claim to him - cats are very independent creatures."

Bagpuss now resides in his home town at the Rupert the Bear Museum, part of the Museum of Canterbury.

It seems a shame, given all the renewed interest, that only a few episodes were made.

"The contract wasn't renewed after the 13 episodes - puppets were deemed old-fashioned and live action stuff like Playschool was more the thing," says Mr Firmin.

So what does he think of contemporary children's programmes?

Bagpuss and his PR team
Popular with fans of all ages

"I don't really watch them much. Most of them seem quite fast and furious and don't have much of a story. But there are really brilliant things too, like Nick Park's work. Nick has said before he was inspired by The Clangers.

"Things are different now, you need teams of people to make one programme - we just made Bagpuss in our barn."

Two of Mr Firmin's grandchildren, Gabriel, five, and Rowan, seven, are non-plussed by their grandfather's invention.

"They don't like Bagpuss, they think it's girly stuff," says Mr Firmin.

Perhaps older fans will lose interest if the fashion for retro children's TV runs out of steam.

Ms Huxley does not think so.

"2002 was the hardest year - we still had the same number of licencees but some retailers were starting to think Bagpuss had had his day," she says.

"But it isn't just a phase - he came through that period and has made his mark now. He's a true British classic."


SEE ALSO:
Bagpuss cream of television
01 Jan 99  |  Entertainment
Bagpuss top cat for Christmas
24 Dec 99  |  Entertainment
Made in the 70s, still going strong
17 May 99  |  Entertainment
Basil Brush aims for pop charts
18 Mar 03  |  Entertainment
Rupert the Bear museum opens
21 Apr 03  |  Kent


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