Is it possible to make films in collaboration with a good friend – from a shed in his backyard (with occasional help from your kids, for pocket money)?
Oliver Postgate did it in the UK – using stopmotion animation to make Noggin the Nog, the original Clangers, Bagpuss and Ivor the Engine (to name but a few). These became classics of 1960s and 1970s BBC Children’s TV viewing.
Persistence and imagination triumphed over shoestring budgets – make do and mend made magical. It’s an inspiring tale of one person’s pursued ability to tell stories. Charming, in the most pleasant and non-ironic way, as this one-hour documentary tells. Being very resourceful, unpretentious, with a collaborator and carefully making with care – and a shed – are a winning combination.
Some of Oliver’s children recall what it was like to grow up with an animator, and there are interviews with important contributors. Best of all, direct recordings of Oliver showing his work tools, describing his work process, and interviews with his life-long collaborator, Peter Firmin. The Firmin family were very much involved in the whole process: Peter co-founded Smallfilms whose studio was in an outbuilding on his land, he was the modelmaker and illustrator, his wife knitted the Clangers, and their daughter Emily appears in the beginning and end sequences of each “Bagpuss” episode as Emily, the owner of the cat.
The audioscape for the films was very distinctive – especially the Clangers, who conversed in strange burbly noises – which were played on a Swanee whistle. (Oliver demonstrates this in the documentary).
Thinking about it, I surmise that this sound is like a pre-language age to a child, before they decode the various sounds of speech from music into words and sense. While the modern characters on children’s TV converse in vague “eh-ohs”, “ah”s and giggles – the Clangers’ sounds were based on speech patterns – Oliver had scripted their talking, and then reproduced it through the sounds of the swanee whistle. There were even different registers (high or low) according to the age of the speaking character. In this way, watching children could be helped to ‘hear’ the natural rise and fall of voices, the stress on words and natural speech.
Cleverly, this method of sound conversation does away with the need for time-consuming lip-synching. Underneath it all is attention to detail – writing scripted words which will not be heard as words. It’s like the armature under the soft knitted Clangers, unseen but crucial to reproducing apparently real life, yet flexible enough to be imaginative.
As an almost one-man studio, Oliver needed to bring a wide variety of skills and make things work himself, instead of relying on a large team – so he brought voiceover and scripting (acting experience), scenery and props (stage manager and propsmaker at ITV), creativity (from his progressive school), and technical camera adaptation and rigging (toy inventing). Peter Firmin brought the illustration and model-making skills to the collaboration as well as the critical studio space – a working partnership which was a shared cameraderie.
Throughout the programme, various children’s story makers of today give tributes:
- Lauren Child (illustrator and creator of “Charlie & Lola”, “Clarice Bean”)
- Michael Rosen (author/poet/editor and TV presenter)
- Andrew Davenport (creator of 1990s BBC childrens TV “Teletubbies”, “In the Night Garden”
Andrew Davenport pays tribute to Postgate’s work, and enjoys viewing it as a precursor to making more of his own work. Rather amusingly, this admiration was not returned, as Michael Rosen comments in the same programme:
“The true inheritors of Oliver Postgate are probably the Teletubbies, the Fimbles and In the Night Garden… – his interpretation of the Teletubbies was that it was a post-nuclear world and these were mutated human beings with aerials stuck out of their head and movies going on in their stomachs and he thought it was utterly weird.”
The Telegraph’s obituary of the animator puts it more succinctly: “Teletubbies, he considered, were ‘awful, post-nuclear, jelly babies.’ ”
The Telegraph article also points out that the underlying charm and quality of the animations guaranteed succeeding generations of fans:
“Part of the reason for the great affection in which the programmes were held was that they never patronised their audience; and on growing up that audience found them just as well-made as they remembered, and in turn shared them with their own children. To Postgate’s delight, Bagpuss was voted the favourite children’s television programme of all time.”
Delightfully, Smallfilms rolls again in brand new episodes of the Clangers, many written by son Daniel, currently showing on BBC TV in the UK, and sold overseas to America.
Themes and Personal Vision
What are the distinguishing signs that you’re watching an Oliver Postgate animation?
“the way Oliver tells stories and what he’s telling the stories about – a lot of it are about people co-operating in a rural or non-industrial background and re-using things”
I think there is a certain charm and affection both for the characters and between them. “Bagpuss” ends each episode with the simple but profound line: “Bagpuss himself, once he was asleep, was just an old, saggy cloth cat – baggy and a bit loose at the seams – but Emily loved him.” (You could write reams of psychological research about the value of that statement to young viewing minds, especially in a 21st century world where appearance and being seen to fit into some ideal physique to gain acceptance cause deep anxiety among even primary school age children. Oliver Postgate’s works and words are still very relevant to modern society)
The family background of Oliver Postgate was socialist Labour – a view of people helping one another in a sense of community, making life better for all. This positive view is underneath the films and gives warmth and humanity to them.
Oliver Postgate was deeply concerned about the nuclear threat and the environment, and once he was no longer actively making stop motion, engaged in the hard work of public protest and raising awareness on these issues. This did not come easily to him, but he felt the issues were too important to not engage with them.
This programme is an affectionate lookthrough the working life of an animator, produced a year after his passing to that great animating studio in the sky.