Page last updated at 06:59 GMT, Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Obituary: Oliver Postgate

Oliver Postgate & Bagpuss
Bagpuss became Smallfilms' most popular creation
Oliver Postgate's work was both whimsical and matter-of-fact, magical and mundane.

It was popular with generations of children who loved both its strangeness and the reassuring warmth of Postgate's voice-overs.

Oliver Postgate was born in North London in 1925.

He was the grandson of the Labour MP George Lansbury and inherited many of his principles, risking prison as a conscientious objector during the Second World War.

He was later to be active in the campaign against nuclear weapons, addressing public meetings and writing pamphlets.

He went into partnership with Peter Firmin, forming the production company Smallfilms.

It was just that; a two-man operation making short animated films from a makeshift studio in a disused cowshed in Kent.


Highlights from some of Postgate's work including Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine and the Clangers

They started in 1959 with Ivor the Engine, a series for ITV about a little Welsh steam engine who wanted to sing in a choir (it was remade in colour for the BBC in the 1970s).

They were simple stories and simple animations, no more than cardboard cut-outs.

Firmin did the artwork, Postgate wrote the scripts, did the filming and many of the voices, in rather dodgy Welsh accents.

They produced two minutes of film a day, ten times as much as a conventional animation studio, with Postgate moving the cardboard pieces himself, and working his 16mm camera frame-by-frame with a home-made clicker.

Ivor the Engine
Early films like Ivor the Engine relied on cardboard cut outs
Ivor was followed in the early 1960s by the sagas of Noggin the Nog for the BBC.

Noggin was the baby-faced king of the race of Nogs, norsemen who lived in the chilly north.

There was his villainous uncle Nogbad the Bad; a sensible talking bird, Graculus; and a court inventor, Olaf the Lofty.

His adventures were sometimes alarming, sometimes charming, and eventually ran to five series (some of those, too, were remade in colour many years later).

By now Postgate and Firmin were established as reliable purveyors of children's entertainment, in the days when there were just two channels and children's television occupied a privileged teatime slot on both.

It was a gentlemanly and rather innocent business, as Postgate later described.

"We would go to the BBC once a year, show them the films we'd made, and they would say, 'Yes, lovely, now what are you going to do next?'"

"We would tell them, and they would say, 'That sounds fine, we'll mark it in for eighteen months from now', and we would be given praise and encouragement and some money in advance, and we'd just go away and do it."

The Clangers saw Postgate's surreal imagination in overdrive
In 1963 they branched out into stop-motion puppet animation, first with the Pingwings and then with the Pogles.

The Pingwings were knitted penguin puppets who lived in Firmin's barn while The Pogles lived in a tree-root in a wood.

The first Pogles series, in which they encountered a witch, was deemed a little too scary; later series, under the new title of Pogles Wood, were gentler.

The arrival of colour television spurred the team to new heights of invention.

Their work took on a decidedly surreal edge with the Clangers, pink creatures with pointed noses who lived on a blue moon with a friendly soup dragon, and spoke in whistles.

Postgate and another actor did their voices with Swanee whistles, after Postgate had painstakingly written out every word of the script.

The original dialogue was virtually indecipherable, which didn't stop Postgate getting into trouble when a BBC executive correctly divined that for one clanger he'd written the line: "Oh sod it, the bloody thing won't open".

The Clangers were perhaps Postgate and Firmin's finest achievement though not, apparently, their most popular.

Postgate & Firmin
Postgate did the script and voices while Firmin made the artwork
That honour went to Bagpuss, a pink and white striped cat, who presided over a shop dedicated to mending broken articles.

Each episode featured a different object, along with a ragdoll, a pompous mechanical bird called Professor Yaffle (whose catchphrase was "fiddlesticks and flapdoodle!") and a bunch of industrious but occasionally mutinous mice who did most of the repair work.

Bagpuss made his first appearance in 1974, and was repeated endlessly until 1987 despite the fact that only 13 episodes were ever made.

Oliver Postgate's work was a big part of my childhood. Noggin the Nog, The Clangers, brilliant, inspired stuff
Ian Barker, Bolton

BBC management declined to commission any more Bagpuss stories in the mistaken belief that children found puppets too old fashioned.

In 1998 (by which time the Bagpuss generation had reached their 20s and early 30s) the programme was voted the best children's series ever in a television poll.

Oliver Postgate made his last film in 1987, complaining that children's television commissioners were no longer interested in what he had to offer.

With his story-telling skills, his love of found objects and mechanical improvisation, his funny voices and air of eccentricity, the man himself gave a good imitation of everyone's favourite uncle.

And his creations live on, at once surreal and comforting.

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