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Oliver Postgate

Oliver Postgate, writer and creator of animated children’s television programmes including Bagpuss, Pogles’ Wood and The Clangers, died on 8 December 2008. He was 83.

All the newspapers note his upbringing in a socialist and highbrow environment, with the Times being particularly thorough:

Richard Oliver Postgate, the second son of Raymond and Daisy, was born in Hendon, Northwest London, in 1925. His father had been a conscientious objector in the Great War and had endured imprisonment, before working for the Daily Herald — then edited by his future father-in-law, the socialist politician George Lansbury — and becoming a leading socialist journalist and writer. Oliver began his education at the private Woodstock School on Golders Green Road, London, and Woodhouse County Secondary in North Finchley before being evacuated to Devon, where he attended Dartington Hall School.

The one thing which the Times misses out is that he was also a cousin of actress Angela Lansbury.

The Daily Telegraph has some interesting titbits about the Postgate household at the time:

the young Oliver spent many of his weekends at Bradfields, the Essex home of Francis Meynell. Other guests included HG Wells and Bertrand Russell, on whom Postgate later modelled the know-all wooden woodpecker Professor Yaffle for Bagpuss.

Like his father, Oliver Postgate became a conscientious objector when called up in 1943, as the Guardian relates:

The young Oliver registered as a conscientious objector when he reached call-up age during the second world war, and spent some months in prison, evidently not too oppressive an experience. He liked to recall the time he was planning the annual pantomime with the governor. When a certain prop was required for one of the scenes young Oliver said he had seen just such a thing in a shop in the town. He would nip down and get it. “Fine,” said the governor, then after a moment’s thought, “Hey! What are you saying? You can’t do that! You’re supposed to be a prisoner.”

He had ambitions of becoming an actor, but left the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art before finishing his course and took up what the Telegraph describes as “a variety of successively more ill-advised jobs”:

Postgate worked for a time in repertory before trying his hand as an inventor of, among other wonders, a machine for electroplating plastic buttons and an electric rotary lawnmower. His first creation had been a washing machine for his mother’s laundry, constructed from a surplus Army motor and a milk churn. In 1951 he helped to make animated exhibits extolling the virtues of plastics for the Festival of Britain.

By the late 1950s Postgate was working as a stage manager and prop designer for ITV, making objects such as collapsible soufflés and an effigy of General de Gaulle for David Frost’s Bonfire Night programme.

It was while working for ITV that Postgate decided that existing children’s programme were selling them short and that he would have a go himself, writing a story called Alexander the Mouse in 1958. The Independent describes what happened next:

Looking for someone to design the characters and backgrounds, he was introduced to Peter Firmin, then an art-school lecturer, and their 30-year professional partnership began. The animation was brought to life through a crude, new system whereby characters were moved by magnets positioned under the table that acted as their set.

After making a further series together, The Journey of Master Ho (1958), a story about a Chinese boy and a water buffalo, aimed at deaf children, Postgate and Firmin started their own company, Smallfilms. First off the production line, for ITV, was Ivor the Engine (1959-64), about a Welsh steam engine that wanted to sing in a male voice choir. The 32 black-and-white episodes, written, narrated and animated by Postgate and drawn by Firmin, were inspired by the anecdotes of an engine-driver friend of Postgate and his own love for the work of Dylan Thomas.

After subsequent successes with Noggin the Nog and Pogles’ Wood (both for the BBC), Smallfilms moved into colour at the BBC’s request with The Clangers. The Guardian carries quotations from an interview of Oliver Postgate conducted by Clive Banks (available in full at which confirms the truth of a rumour that the Clangers swore…

Their scripts had to be written out in English, for Steven Sylvester and I to use Swanny whistles; we just sort of blew the whistles in Clanger language for the text that was there, so it didn’t matter much what was written. But when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said “‘at the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says ‘Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again’. Well, darling, you can’t say that on children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.” I said “It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled”, but [they] just said “But people will know!”

But the programme which perhaps won the most affection was Bagpuss, created together with Peter Firmin and based on an idea Firmin had of an Indian Army cat in a children’s hospital in Poona. The Telegraph has its own explanation for the success:

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.

It also sums up Postgate’s character thus:

A warm, unambitious man who was a little at the mercy of his fears and emotions, he had a strong sense of moral purpose and a loathing of the absurdities of modern children’s programmes. Teletubbies, he considered, were “awful, post-nuclear jelly babies”.

(Richard Oliver Postgate, born 12 April 1925 in Hendon, Middlesex; died 8 December 2008 in Broadstairs, Kent)

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