Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Mouse Organ and the Hoot Planet

The death this week of children’s programme maker Oliver Postgate (1925-2008) has prompted an outpouring of nostalgia from everybody raised on 1970s British TV. And I don’t see why I should be any different. Some of my earliest memories are of Pogles Wood and Noggin the Nog, but it’s really Bagpuss (made in 1974) and the Clangers (1969-74) that had the biggest impact, programmes Postgate famously made with his co-collaborator Peter Firmin in a cowshed in Kent. Music was an important part of both programmes.

For the unitiated, Bagpuss was set in a bygone shop run by a girl called Emily (played by Peter Firmin's daughter) - a shop where nothing was sold, but things just waited in the window for their rightful owners to claim them. The show featured folk songs sung by real folk musicians - John Faulkner (the voice of Gabriel the banjo-playing toad) and Sandra Kerr (the voice of Madeleine Remnant, the singing doll). But most memorable was the high pitched singing of the mice who shared the shop with Bagpuss the cat - and who maintained The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ.

The Clangers was set on a planet populated by pink mouse like creatures and their friend the Soup Dragon (inspiration for Scottish indie band The Soup Dragons). There was also a cloud that floated over the planet dropping musical rain drops. In one episode, Tiny Clanger is floating in space on her music boat – with her friends the flowers - when she encounters the Hoot Planet, made up of musical horns. Later, her brother makes an ill-fated attempt to make a rocket ('now what has Small Clanger made - a rocket, I don't like the look of that') and a soup pipeline, something that is contrasted unfavourably with Tiny's invention, with the help of The Music Trees, of a Pipe Organ ('Listen. Music I wonder what that is?... Tiny clanger has made an organ... very good, yes now that is better, that is something really useful').

Not hard to read an implicit anti-militarist message here (music is better than missiles), not surprizing either as Postgate was an active peace campaigner for most of his life - see writing at his website. I actually saw him once in the 1980s speaking at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament rally in Canterbury. I also once met the grown-up Emily Firmin from Bagpuss in a squat in Brixton. Well I guess we all have to move on from cuddly toys, even magical ones that come to life when we're not looking - but it's nice to remember them too.

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