While the world watches…and waits

The world – and the media – is transfixed today by the ongoing rescue of the 33 miners who have been trapped underground for two months in a collapsed mine in northern Chile. As they emerge blinking behind sunglasses, into the desert daylight, we heave another sigh of relief. The unfolding story of their survival and planned rescue has brought hope to a world weary of bad news, and its successful executionn throughout last night and today is a testament to the power of planning, engineering, organisation, politics, money, hope, character, luck, faith…in fact, whatever people want to hang on this moment, they are doing so.

Throughout the morning, as news of the emerging miners breaks, I’ve had an earworm playing at the back of my head, which I’ve been trying not to give focus to, but here we go:

The song is the Ballad of Springhill, originally by Peggy Seeger (the version I know is by Martin Carthy) which was written about a mining disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia, in October 1958. An underground seismic “bump” caused the coal faces deep underground to collapse, killing many men instantly and trapping others. Over the days which followed, survivors slowly made their way to the surface and contact was made with a group:

“After five and a half days (placing it around the morning of Wednesday, October 29, 1958) contact was established with a group of 12 survivors on the other side of a 160 foot rockfall. A rescue tunnel was dug and broke through to the trapped miners at 2:25am AST on Thursday, October 30, 1958…. Of the 174 miners in No. 2 colliery at the time of the bump, 74 were killed and 100 trapped but eventually rescued.” [source]

Thankfully, it looks like all the miners in the Chilean situation will be rescued safely throughout the course of the next couple of days.

Tangent: I think going by their onscreen graphic Sky News will refer to this as “Miners rescued: 33/33 – Achievement Unlocked!” Though people seem to find the count variously tacky and/or helpful, I think there are many who echo the sentiment of this twitter user:

“Anyone else reminded of lemmings whilst watching sky news’s coverage of the miner rescue? They have a counter, so far 0/33 rescued”

Anyone doubting this similarity is urged to study any Lemmings screenshot, and compare that with Sky’s on-screen graphic.

The 1958 “Springhill bump” was notable for another reason, too: it was the first major international story in Canada to be covered by live television broadcasts — a new service being developed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) [more info]. Then, as now, the media circus camped at the minehead, watching and waiting.

While you watch the rolling news today, and follow the liveblogs and twitter updates, take a moment to watch this archive footage from CBC with interviews and coverage from the pithead. The events change, but the live media coverage is eerily similar, together with questions from the studio to our man at the pithead: “What’s going on right now? What can you see?”

Some things change, some stay the same. Meanwhile, in a Chilean desert, the miners rise one by one, blinking from what could have easily been a tomb. The world welcomes them back.


Let's play Eurovision Bingo!

Are you going to be watching the Eurovision Song Contest (final) tonight? Are you going to be watching it in the company of family or friends? Improve the experience by playing Eurobong-a-bingo!

This Eurobingo PDF file contains ten player sheets filled with random Eurovision cliches and phenomena which may be observed during the show broadcast. Simply check off each as they appear – award spot prizes for completing a line, and the first person to complete a whole sheet wins the kitty (or another prize of your choice).

There are also three additional ways to win: before the show begins, add your best guess for each of the quant questions at the bottom of the sheet. Closest wins!

This game has been published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Sharealike license. Feel free to adapt, remix and share it, but please leave attribution intact.

Thanks and happy bing-a-bang-a-bingo!

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.