Small films, big impact

The mechanics of landing on the moon

If the usual Christmas televisual extravaganza over the next few days doesn’t tickle your fancy, then you could do worse – much, much worse – than taking an hour out of the commercialised, overhyped seasonal frenzy, making yourself a cup of tea (and go on then, possibly a mince pie or two, too), putting your feet up and watching the wonderful Time Shift on Oliver Postgate: A Life in Small Films which was shown on BBC Four last night (only available to view on iPlayer for another few days, and only if you’re in the UK, sorry no longer available online, sorry).

The documentary is a delight from start to finish. Lots of archive footage from the Small Films collection (Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Bagpus, Ivor the Engine et al) plus interviews with children’s writers and illustrators like Michael Rosen and Lauren Child.

Naked Clanger

It also features plenty of gentle, revealing conversations with Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin themselves (and their families), talking about the various inventions, models and hacks, the process and craft of making the films, the secrets of their loving creations and – perhaps most wonderful of all – the socio-political background of the stories and the character concepts. And the famous shed.

Oliver Postgate's shed

Oh, the shed. There has never been a more inspirational shed than Postgate’s, in my opinion.

In the Guardian, Nancy Banks-Smith has a wonderful writeup in today’s paper:

Oliver Postgate, who died last year, concocted a perfect little world in a garden shed. It was the sort of shed you open warily, knowing an avalanche of stuff-which-will-come-in-useful-sometime will flood out. My husband had a shed like that. It contained, among much else, a sea-going compass, which would come in useful if we ever had a yacht. The Clangers, who communicated in the melancholy swoops of a swannee whistle, lived there. The ear of faith can interpret what they are saying, and the BBC was ruffled to decipher in one such swoop: “Dammit! The bloody thing’s stuck again!”

Clanger script

Bagpuss slept there, too, in a cardboard box. The Clangers were pink in order to rise to the challenge of colour television, and because that was the colour of the wool that Joan Firmin, the wife of Postgate’s partner, Peter, happened to have handy. Bagpuss was pink because the proposed marmalade stripes went squiffy in the kiln.

Peter Firmin, Oliver Postgate and Bagpuss

She goes on to relate some early characters in his life:

[Bertrand] Russell later resurfaced in Bagpuss as Professor Yaffle, a self-opinionated old bookend with Russell’s very dry, thin voice. Postgate, whose own voice was soft, warm and, somehow, knitted, voiced all the characters himself, so we know for sure how Russell sounded. Professor Yaffle, by the way, had to be nailed to the floor so that he wouldn’t fall over and dent his dignity.

Camera modified with Meccano

Her review also contains one of her most delightful turns of phrase, in describing the relationship between Postgate and Firmin:

“…one of those happy conjunctions, like Flotsam and Jetsam, in which people who are individually surplus become jointly glorious.”

Well put, and something many of us can only aspire to.

If you haven’t already got it (and if you can find a copy) I strongly recommend Oliver Postgate’s autobiography (Hardback in stock at Amazon) which came out a decade ago and I’ve read a couple of times since. So many details. So much obvious affection and curiosity about making characters come to life.

Postgate remains one of my biggest inspirations – not because I am a film-maker or have even a fraction of his talent, but because he was a creative tinkerer. He and Peter Firmin used wool and meccano and pulleys and string and wire to make things work; they experimented with techniques and subverted children’s storytelling with politics and humour and silliness that was in no way patronising; their love for what they did (and how they did it) was obvious and infectious to a whole generation of creative tinkerers, like me.


(Images in this post are screencaptures from the BBC Four documentary)


In case I don’t get a chance to post again in the coming days as the year ends – heartfelt felicitations of the season to you and yours. Be safe and happy.

One thought on “Small films, big impact

  1. I think I’ve mentioned that two of my friends went to see Postgate read from his autobiography at the now-defunct Oxford Street Borders: the children’s section was full to bursting of thirty- and forty-somethings sitting cross-legged, made young again, rapt at that voice reading to them — and telling one or two dirty jokes as well, which must have been thrillingly subversive. And now I must go and write about Bagpuss.

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