Oliver Postgate was a small man in a big world. He made small films – his business was in fact called Smallfilms – and never aspired to make big ones. He lived a quiet life mostly in small towns in middle England pottering away at whatever happened to come his way; his life had no grand plan. Not that many people will instantly recognise his name, not in the same way that the name Gerry Anderson is known, but his work is known and loved and has been cherished by generations of British children many of whom are now in their sixties and, I dare say, seventies.
Charlie Brooker in The Guardian called Oliver Postgate "the greatest children's storyteller of the last 100 years." I'm not sure I would go that far – there are several contenders for that title – but I'd happily go with one of the greatest children's storytellers of the last 100 years. He is best known for four characters, or groups: Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. Everyone who knows them will have their favourites. An old boss of mine adored Bagpuss and I earned serious Brownie points when one year I bought her a cuddly toy for Xmas. For me it was Noggin the Nog whereas my wife was completely smitten by the Clangers when I introduced her to them about twelve years ago; being an American she had had a very different childhood.
If you're a Brit then, and of a certain age, encouraging you to read Oliver Postgate's memoir, Seeing Things, will be no hard task; the book sells itself. We all want to be reminded of those days and to discover the origins of our favourite characters and how they were brought to life. And all of that is in the book. But that only covers the middle years really of Postgate's life. The real question I wanted answered was how the hell he wound up doing that for a living. Let's put it this way it wasn't a childhood dream to animate; he wasn't even particularly interested in art or writing stories. No, nothing like it.
The very first Noggin the Nog
What he was was a problem solver. Not logistics as much but rather mechanics. He could have just as easily found himself with a career as an inventor. Or indeed an actor. Though probably not a farmer. And definitely not a soldier.
Throughout his life Oliver has shown a talent for coming up with new and interesting ways of doing things, some more successful than others; the prospect of "an hydraulic typewriter" filled his potential clients "with horror", for example, but he persisted. His electroplated medallions proved unmarketable and his forays into motorised toys were equally unsuccessful although his toy fork-lift trucks sounded like fun. His mechanical shop displays, which were in vogue in the fifties, were successful enough while the trend lasted, but nothing lasts forever.
One machine that did work well for a time – one couldn't call it an invention per se since the thing already existed – was the washing machine that he cobbled together for his mother:
It worked triumphantly well as a washing-engine. It washed the clothes really well, beautifully clean and quite undamaged. It would even rinse them if you ran water through it with a hose from the tap.
Daisy [Oliver's mother] was absolutely dismayed by it. Just looking at the thing, standing like a home-made cannon in the corner of the scullery, filled her with dread. Hearing it in action alarmed her terribly, though both Ray [his dad] and I thought its noise magnificent, like the sound of tramcars copulating. This simile, though apt and evocative, did nothing to improve Daisy's confidence.
However, Daisy was nothing if not loyal to the cause. She screwed up her courage and consented to use the washing-engine. She was, perhaps understandably, cautious in her approach to it. She would drop the clothes in at arm's length, fill it with hot water from a hose, reach out and pour in the soap-flakes, drop on the lid and then, with the door to the kitchen held open, flick on the switch and run out, locking the door behind her. I wondered why she locked it. It was almost as if she was afraid of the engine, which was going 'Yerk-graunch-slop, yerk-graunch-slop, yerk-graunch- slop' to itself in the scullery, was going to clamber out and chase after her.
Needless to say that is exactly what the machine was doing and one day it fell over and blew all its fuses. A "high-speed food mixer" was better received and worked fine till one day Daisy didn't tighten the lid properly and the thing "distempered the scullery from floor to ceiling with Yorkshire pudding batter." Throughout the fifties Oliver persisted at trying to find his niche but finding backers for his inventions was a problem and he never had the capital to try and go it alone, not until his television career but we’ll get to that.
The very first Ivor the Engine (remade in colour here)
Before all of this came his acting career which lasted most of the forties. Acting Oliver stumbled into through lack of direction. He'd thought that a career in stage design might be for him but that didn't work out. Still attracted by the idea of being somehow involved in theatre work he considered aiming for a job as a stage manager and then he thought: "[W]hy not go the whole hog and be an actor?" Besides it "had a simple decisive ring to it."
And so he dutifully enrolled at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art in Earl's Court and arrived on the first day of term "[c]arrying a pad and pencil and a bound volume of Shakespeare's plays." If this smacks of a certain naïveté then you're not too far off the mark. 'Innocence' would probably be a kinder term. What you have to remember was when all of this was happening: Oliver was born in 1925; this was a completely different age.
This is something you notice as the book progresses through the years. Oliver is not prone to much social commentary but there is some and we notice a real change in the world he has to live in and his attitude towards it. But as a boy in England in the thirties and forties his life was far closer to ideal than idealistic.
Before his stage career came his remarkably brief army career. When you listen to Oliver narrate and you hear that calm, measured voice, you probably think: What a nice chap – I bet he wouldn't hurt a fly. And your assessment would be spot on. If there's one thing that rings true throughout this book is the fact that Oliver Postgate was a decent bloke and not just the kindly old man he ended up as but right from childhood on he was, well, just plain nice. And all of that is fine. But what was this nice peaceable eighteen year-old going to do when he received his call-up papers advising him to join the Household Cavalry at Combermere Barracks in Windsor in November 1943?
I wrote the Commanding Officer of the Household Cavalry at Windsor, politely letting him know that I would not be joining his regiment on the day appointed but that in order to avoid inconvenience I would present myself for arrest at the gates of Combermere Barracks at 11:30 in the morning of 13 December 1943.
Which he does. And the chapter that follows is one of the funniest in the book and easily comparable to anything Spike Milligan wrote about his encounters with military bureaucracy. When Oliver arrives at the barracks his encounter at the guardhouse does not go with military precision:
'Hallo.' I said, 'I've arrived.'
'I've come to give myself up.'
He looked up. 'To give yourself what?' he asked.
'No, not exactly.'
'You've come to join up?'
'No, not really.'
'Got any papers?'
'Look, you can't join the army if you haven't got the proper papers.'
'No, I'm not here to join the army.'
'I'm here not to join the army.'
The soldier thought about this for a moment. Then he said: 'You know, I'd have thought you would have been better off doing that somewhere else.'
Anyway, with far more difficulty than one might imagine, he manages to get himself locked up, court-martialled and sentenced to three months in a very civilised manner. After that he was supposed to be sent down the mines but the army manages not only to let him go, but to also hand him a ten-bob note (50p) and an open rail ticket.
The opening to Bagpuss
From there, rather than down the mines, Oliver finds himself moving though a number of jobs on farms, none very exciting. Sadly the chances of bedding any famers' daughters never comes his way, though looking back, he reckons that was probably a good thing.
Although he didn't choose to fight in the war, and there was a family precedent for being a conscientious objector, he did, however, make a number of attempts to join relief efforts and finally – on arriving home in Finchley in October 1946 after returning from yet another farming job along with a "genuine bull-nosed Morris" as a present for his mother, who immediately called it "Daisy" (all their cars had names) – he found a letter offering him the job of ambulance driver in one of the Relief Teams run by the Children's Fund. And so began another chapter in his life and another chapter in the book, 'The Honey Barrel.'
It's the nature of autobiographies that they tend to be anecdotal and you feel you're missing out on a lot, that years slip by and nothing happens and it's impossible not to say this about Postgate's memoir. The thing I get from it is that his life was, far more than most people's, episodic. He didn't leave school, get a job as a gofer at the BBC before catching the eye of some wily producer looking to train up an animator. No, nothing like that. Things just landed in his way. Occasionally, usually after a chat with his legs, he'd sidestep them but mostly he'd grip the bull by the horns and give it a jolly good go.
One of the last projects he tackled was "painting a Bayeux Tapestry-type 'illumination'" as he puts it and, in a brief conversation he has with himself, not merely with his legs, the two of him have this to say:
'Done it again, done it again.'
'Taken on something you don’t know how to do. Committed yourself to delivering inside a year the sort of thing that other people have taken a lifetime to complete, and which you may not be able to do at all because you don’t know the first thing about it. That's what.'
'I can find out.'
'But you're not the right sort of person. You're not an artist. It isn’t your sort of thing. People are supposed to go to college and do courses, learn about Composition, study the history of Art, get diplomas, before they even think about doing things like that.'
'So what's new?'
'Oh nothing I suppose ,' the voice muttered, and shut up.
A very similar interchange takes place when he first conceives of Ivor the Engine. What you have to remember about Smallfilms is that Oliver was the writer and narrator, Peter Firmin, who tends (and ought not to) to get a bit forgotten, was the artist and model maker. I say "ought not to" and by that I mean by the general public, Oliver in no way attempts to push his nose out of the picture.
Clangers episode 'The Intruder' (entire episode)
You're probably wondering why I've not mentioned Oliver's animation work too much and there's a good reason for this. The people who will jump at the chance to read this book will already be well-versed in his little worlds although I doubt there will be many out there who can name much that he's done bar the four I've already mentioned. I suspect a few will know about Pogles' Wood but I'd never heard of The Pingwings or Alexander the Mouse. In reality he created twelve or so "worlds" as he describes them several times in the book.
Since my personal favourite is Noggin the Nog, I'll let you know that the original idea for the little Norse saga came from Firmin:
One day, while he was travelling through Neasden on his way to the studios at Wembley, it occurred to Peter that the [Lewis] chessman in the Edward VII Gallery could well have been called Nogs, that their prince was a Noggin and that the wicked baron with the twirly moustaches could be their wicked uncle, perhaps a Nogbad.
Peter thought of a tale from the land of Nog. It told of the death of a much-loved king and of his son, Prince Noggin, who had to choose a bride within six weeks, because if he did not the crown would go to his wicked uncle, Nogbad the Bad.
And so on and so forth. Some of the elements were even proposed by Peter's four year-old daughter, Hannah, who was much taken by the film Nanook of the North and decided that Noggin's bride, once he found her, was to be Nooka, daughter of Nan of the Nooks. It was Oliver that tidied up this original plot and very soon we got to hear for the first time these immortal words:
In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…
What did come as a surprise was just how many Noggin the Nog sagas there had been. There were twelve series in total beginning with 'King of the Nogs' and ending with 'The Icebergs'.
The Pogles episode 'King of the Fairies' (entire episode)
Several times over the years Peter and Oliver thought that their time was up, as far as their brand of animation went, but opportunities kept opening up by way of audio recordings, books, musicals even; and then there was the foreign film market. Eventually the day came when the BBC didn't ask for anything new:
Apparently an edict had been issued by the powers-that-be to the effect that the viability of programmes (i.e. their worth and chance of continuing), was henceforth to be ratings-led (i.e. judged by the number of people watching). As the purpose of television was to entertain (as opposed to instruct or educate), the basic policy was to give the children exactly the sort of thing that they were already known to enjoy and deliver it in a form and manner that was especially exciting.
All you have to do is look at much that is presented in the name of children's entertainment today to see how well that's worked out.
It was not a young Oliver Postgate that wrote this book though, it was an elderly man looking back on a life where the world has changed so much. He could have contented himself with just getting his recollections on paper as accurately as possible but in addition to that he stops several times to pass comment and in some cases judgement on his own actions and the actions of those about him. While in Australia serving as Artist-in-Residence at the Western Australian Institute of Technology – a role that utterly bemuses him because nothing appears to be required of him other than to be "the Oliver Postgate", someone none of the students had ever heard of – he is shown some films by some of the students and asked if they're any good. His response is noteworthy:
[Y]ou can't really ask how 'good' a piece of work is by itself. You can only ask how well it does what it is setting out to do. A film is a communication and a communication has to communicate something. It doesn't matter how glossy, clever or avant-garde the pictures are, if they aren't about anything, they are about nothing, and consequently their success can't be judged.
[T]here are, in every production, two components, what the word is about and how it is made. They are both necessary but the how is essentially the servant on the what – if only because a marvellously made film about nothing is still a nothing.
His own films may have been small, produced under primitive circumstances (in an ex-cow-shed at one point), and nowhere near the quality of studios like Disney but what cannot be said about any of them is that they meant nothing. Meaning is a fluid term. It's not simply something intellectual. When someone like me says that Noggin the Nog or Bagpuss or any of the others means something to them, that means something. What it means is that it has added meaning to our lives. People say that about great works of art, surely not wee short films made for kids. I would beg to differ.
The very first Pingwings
I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who has been touched by this man's work. What you will learn, especially from the latter part of the book, is how much more this small man contributed to this big world we all live in. His work on solar power is likely unknown to most as are his contributions to the peace process, such as his pamphlet Thinking it Through: The Plain Man's Guide to the Bomb which was distributed to the various delegates and diplomats who were in Geneva preparing for the United Nations' Second Special Session on Disarmament, which was due to take place in New York the following June.
Seeing Things is published by Canongate Books and is available in hardback in a beautiful edition accompanied by photographs and illustrations in black and white and in colour. The price is £16.99 which may seem a little steep but this is very much a present not just another old bloke's autobiography. No dust jacket though, but it doesn't really need it.
Oliver Postgate's site with some of his political articles
An interview with Oliver Postgate