Over the Christmas break we are revisiting some vintage children’s TV programmes. This is the last in the series.
ONLY 13 episodes were made, they each lasted less than a quarter of an hour and the main character was a saggy old cloth cat. Yet the 1974 series Bagpuss is lodged in the hearts of generations of TV viewers, who in 1999 voted it the UK’s favourite children’s programme.
Its success, of course, was down to the genius of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, whose Smallfilms outfit also gave us Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Clangers plus several other much-loved institutions.
The beauty of Bagpuss, of which this is a typical episode, is its repetition – every story begins in the same way with sepia photographs of a young girl named Emily, after Firmin’s daughter.
Emily owns a shop but she does not sell anything. Instead she forages around for lost or broken items which she restores and places in the window for their owners to claim them.
When she brings in a new object, she places it in front of Bagpuss, who is asleep, as usual, and says the following:
‘Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss
Old Fat Furry Catpuss
Wake up and look at this thing that I bring
Wake up, be bright, be golden and light
Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing.’
She leaves, Bagpuss wakes up, the sepia photographs become colour stop-motion film and the shop comes to life. Six mice carved on the side of a pipe organ start squeaking and scurrying. There is a rag doll named Madeleine, a toad named Gabriel and an annoyingly knowledgeable wooden woodpecker, Professor Yaffle. Postgate based his character on the philosopher Bertrand Russell, whom he once met and found rather tiresome.
The mice set to work mending the broken object – their happy voices irritate the pompous Yaffle, who complains: ‘Those mice are never serious!’
By the end the new object has been fixed and placed in the window awaiting its owner’s attention. Bagpuss goes back to sleep, the others are still and the picture reverts to sepia. Narrator Postgate then says:
‘And so their work was done. Bagpuss gave a big yawn and settled down to sleep. And, of course, when Bagpuss goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep too. The mice were ornaments on the mouse organ. Gabriel and Madeleine were just dolls. And Professor Yaffle was a carved, wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker.
Even 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.’
And so did the viewers. Like Enid Blyton and very few others, Postgate had a unique talent for captivating young minds. The University of Kent at Canterbury gave him an honorary degree in 1987. He protested that it really belonged to Bagpuss.
Oliver Postgate died in 2008 aged 83, but his wonderful characters will live for ever.