It’s been a while since I bought a book on impulse, but I came back from town last Sunday with Seeing Things: A Memoir by Oliver Postgate, partly because of the wonderful look & feel of the book itself. It’s a hardback, but it doesn’t have a dustjacket; the cover picture is printed directly onto the cloth, which as a result has a wonderful, and appropriately old-fashioned, canvas-like texture to it.
(As an aside, I hate dustjackets. They get in the way of reading, I worry about them tearing or getting scuffed, and the books often look better on the shelf without them, anyway. I actually used to take them off and throw them away (!) — which is what booksellers once did, or so I’ve heard, back when dustjackets were simply there to protect the book from wear in the shop — till I realised I was throwing away a good part of the book’s value, should I ever decide to sell it. Now I dutifully protect them in clear, non-sticky plastic, or store them away in a folder.)
Oliver Postgate is, of course, the man who, with Peter Firmin, created Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and other perennial favourites of children’s TV. But it was only in 2008, when he died, that I realised those programmes I’d loved watching while growing up were made by the same person. Back when I was actually watching them, I didn’t think about TV programmes being made at all, and if I had, I’d have found it bewildering that one person could make two different ones, let alone a whole slew of them. (In fact, Postgate & Firmin created twelve “worlds” altogether, as Postgate puts it.) But if I had thought about them being made, Postgate’s would be the method I’d have expected them to be made with. No large, white-floored studios with multiple technicians and a lot of high-tech equipment, just one man in a converted cowshed, using equipment he’d either invented himself or adapted for the purpose with plenty of odd-sized brass screws, strips of Mechano, and a liberal application of sticky-backed plastic.
Postgate’s memoir reveals him to be primarily an inventor, in whose world no problem is too small to be pondered for a practical solution, nor too big. So, he invents goggles with mini windscreen wipers for bikers (and wears them), and mechanical skeletons to fit inside knitted Clangers; or, in the 1980s, he invents a whole new way of thinking about nuclear weapons (they’re not weapons — you can’t use them to defend yourself or attack others, you can only use them to initiate mass suicide), which makes such simple sense, it’s a pity the anti-nuclear movement didn’t take it up and popularise it.
I couldn’t help but feel, while I was reading this book, that Postgate was the sort of creator we’re likely to see much less of nowadays. (Or at least find more rare & valuable when we do.) I remember, when we got our first home computer (a ZX Spectrum), feeling that this was a great leveller, that it gave the hobbyist as much power as any corporation — and for a while that was true, which was how you got such weird and wacky games as Manic Miner, created by weird and wacky individuals at home (and, quite often, after school). Nowadays, with games being a corporate industry on the same level as the movies, you’ll never have that again. Postgate seemed to exist in a similar relationship to early TV. He got into the medium by building mechanical props (“I hear you can make a collapsible soufflé?”), and then, when he had an idea for a story, simply went to the BBC, proposed the idea, and got taken on.
Thinking back on the programmes of his that I actually watched, the main thing I remember is the narration. Postgate’s voice was calm, friendly and understated, presenting the weird world of the Clangers, or the fact that Ivor the Engine had a baby dragon in his furnace, with exactly the sort of low-key authority required to make the fantasy believable. His, and Michael Hordern’s (who narrated Paddington Bear), are the two voices I remember most from my early TV watching. In his introduction to Seeing Things, Stephen Fry says, “During bouts of childhood theism, I always supposed that if God had a voice it would be that of Oliver Postgate”. While I’d certainly like to live in any world where God had the voice of Oliver Postgate, I think that if there is such a world, it isn’t this one. If anything, it’s the very unobtrusiveness, the un-God-likeness, of his voice — which has a storyteller’s authority, but nothing as oppressive as Divine Authority — that made it work so well. Far too companionable and human to be god-like, it was like a parent reading you a story, and was instantly not that of a stranger.
What became of Postgate and Firmin’s brand of children’s tellyfantasy? At some point, they were told that “impeccable American educational sociologists had established that in order to prevent a child switching channels (and thus transferring the rating to another channel), a programme had to have a hook (i.e., an incident sufficiently violent to re-attract the attention) every three and a half seconds. Our programmes did not have this characteristic and consequently, whatever other qualities they may or may not have had, they were not to be considered suitable for television transmission.”
But the thing that kept you watching Postgate’s films was the story first of all (surely hook enough), and the atmosphere, which certainly wasn’t one of loud, fast whizzbangs, but was quiet, understated, companionable whimsy. It wasn’t trying to be flash and impress you, it was just telling you a story, and that’s where its power lay. The style of TV described in the above quote sounds more like hypnotism than entertainment, and I can’t help lapsing into “things ain’t like they used to be” mode when I read it, because the simple reliance on storytelling — and, preferably, subtle storytelling, which engages the imagination and emotions instead of merely stimulating the relevant brain-centres — is something I miss even in adult TV nowadays, most of which I find unwatchable because of the constant (and frankly distracting) demands it makes, like a boorish show-off always trying to impress, rather than a genuinely interesting person who actually deserves your attention. Which may be why I tend to turn off altogether — switching channels just gets you the same sort of soup, served with a slightly different flavour. Thank heavens for BBC4, where they at least show some nice documentaries — including, recently, one about Oliver Postgate, funnily enough.