‘The cameras were held together with Meccano’: how we made Bagpuss

by 24britishtvFeb. 12, 2024, 6:20 p.m. 24
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With their company Smallfilms, Oliver Postgate and my dad Peter created children’s TV series like Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. Oliver did the stories and voices while Dad made puppets and artwork. They filmed The Clangers in our barn, and behind it was Oliver’s studio in a converted pigsty. As a child, I would hear the weirdest noises coming from there.

My mum Joan had knitted the clangers and was a sort of artistic director when Dad made the Bagpuss puppet using a clanger skeleton. It moves using brass balls and sockets, so it makes this amazing creaking sound. Bagpuss was supposed to be a marmalade-coloured cat but the fabric company supplying the fur got muddled up and dyed it bright pink instead. But people love his face, his character – and his voice, which was Oliver’s.

The shop window he’d sit in was our sitting room. I was seven, the youngest of six sisters, so I was offered a bag of sweets to be photographed as the little girl. I wore a Victorian dress Mum made and those horrible 1970s fake leather shoes. Mum embroidered Madeleine the rag doll, basing her on the Polly Dolly case used for our nighties. Professor Yaffle was originally going to be Professor Bogwood, a wooden man with a stovepipe hat, but when the BBC said “stick to animals” he became a woodpecker.

All 13 episodes were made using stop-motion animation – moving the puppets in tiny increments – using 16mm cameras held together with Meccano. I’d walk home from primary school, eat Mum’s cake and watch myself on Bagpuss. I can still recite the words: “An old, saggy cloth cat, baggy and a bit loose at the seams, but Emily loved him.”

It was once voted the most popular children’s TV series of all time, and when Dad won a special award [for his outstanding contribution to children’s media] we ended up taking Bagpuss along to the Baftas. He now lives at the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury, but I still see him occasionally. He has this extraordinary effect on people, connecting them to their childhood. I was there today and a lady was looking at him in disbelief. I asked: “Would you like to hold him?” She immediately started crying. I said: “Don’t worry. I’m used to this!”

I’d met John Faulkner on the folk circuit and we’d done the music for a BBC children’s TV series called Sam on Boffs’ Island. It was written by Michael Rosen, who recommended us for Bagpuss. Oliver phoned asking for “musical accompaniment to a new small series about an old cat who lives in a shop window”. We took a fiddle, mandolin, English concertina, Appalachian dulcimer, guitars and of course the spoons in a car to Red Lion House, Oliver’s home. Then we dumped the instruments to go and look at Pogles’ Wood – the nearby woodland that inspired the TV series of the same name.

We did 49 songs for Bagpuss. Oliver would give us bits of scripts or lyrics, or say: “I need a song about sailors on a ship, but they’re mice.” We’d write him a song or adapt a traditional tune. When the mice were rowing in a ballet shoe, we couldn’t perform without giggling, which you can hear on the soundtrack album. The town band were meant to make a terrible noise, but it was so hilariously awful that we were snorting into our kazoos.

John, Oliver and I recorded the mice voices in the living room at Red Lion House. We sang very slowly, so that when Oliver sped the voices up to sound like mice you could still hear what they were singing. Oliver, bless him, always said he was the mouse that sang out of tune.

When I voiced Madeleine the rag doll and John did Gabriel the toad, Oliver said: “I don’t want funny voices. Be yourselves.” I’m always amazed how posh I sounded. I still have friends who call me “Mad the Rag” today. I’m very happy to be that until the day I pop my clogs!

Musicians like Belle and Sebastian and Radiohead are huge fans of the music and people are always telling me how much their children enjoy Bagpuss. It has a gentleness and intimacy that contemporary programmes lack. Oliver once said that he and Peter never grew up. When he revisited his childhood home as an adult, he said it didn’t look right, so he got on his knees and crawled around like a child, and of course it became familiar. That’s the sort of mind he had.

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