Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Oliver Postgate 1925-2008

I was very sad to read about Oliver Postgate's death in the Guardian this morning. Somewhere I've got a photograph of me meeting the real Bagpuss and tickling him under the chin. He appeared alongside Professor Yaffle, a handful of Clangers and Postgate himself at a Waterstones event in St Ann's Church back in 2000, promoting his amazing autobiography Seeing Things.
There's no need for me to go on about how important his work was - every British adult (except those who now commission kid's TV it seems) melts at the mention of Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and all the other amazing shows he created with artist Peter Firmin (an artist I immediately thought of when I first saw Alec Longstreth's excellent comics).

The paper also reprints a 2003 article by Postgate on children's television past and present, and I immediately saw parallels with the state of British children's comics -

... "Then, in 1987, the BBC let us know that in future all programming was to be judged by what they called its "audience ratings". Furthermore, we were told, some US researchers had established that in order to retain its audience (and its share of the burgeoning merchandising market), every children's programme had to have a "hook", ie, a startling incident to hold the attention, every few seconds. As our films did not fit this category they were deemed not fit to be shown any more. End of story: not only for Peter and me - we had had a very good innings - but also for many of the shoestring companies that had been providing scrumptious programmes for what is now seen as "the golden age of children's television".

Today, making films for children's television has become very big business, requiring huge capital investment, far beyond the reach of small companies. It has inevitably brought with it a particular poverty from which we never suffered. In our time, we were able to found great kingdoms of mountains, ice and snow in our cowsheds. In Peter's big barn we commanded infinities of Outer Space, starred it with heavenly bodies made from old Christmas decorations, and made a moon for the Clangers.

Today entrepreneurs have to hurtle from country to country, seeking subscriptions from TV stations to fund their enormous costs. Each of these stations will often require a format to be adapted to suit its own largest and dumbest market. They have to do this because, for them, children are no longer children: they are a market. With so many millions at stake, the bottom line is "to give the children of today only the sort of things that they already know they enjoy". Or they might switch channels.

They have another difficulty. Because originality can't be bought off the shelf (and even if it could it would be considered too risky with so much money at stake), the competition for quality-of-content has gone by the board. In its place there has evolved a competition for quality-of-method. This requires small armies of technicians and artists to seek ever more astounding ways for the heroes to zap their foes.

All this is perfectly ordinary: the demise of small companies, and with them the elimination of integrity, is just the predictable result of trying to turn a small craft into a massive industry. It is sad, because crud is always crud, however glossily and zappily produced, but it's just part of a general trend in human commerce. Does it matter? Yes! In 2003, the [then] head of acquisitions at the BBC outlined the corporation's policy on a radio programme. She said: "The children of today are more used to the up-market, faster-moving things", and that "in today's hugely competitive schedule we are up against about another 12 to 14 children's channels and we have got to stand out".

As a policy this is, in my view, almost criminally preposterous. Firstly, because it isn't true. There is no such thing as "the children of today". Children are not "of today". They come afresh into this world in a steady stream and, apart from a few in-built instincts, they are blank pages happily waiting to be written on. Secondly, because it simply isn't true that children have to have what they are "used to". They want programmes that are new to them, programmes that are original and mind-stretching. They just aren't being offered them.

Finally, let me offer you the following thought. Suppose that I am part of a silent Martian invasion, and that my intention is slowly to destroy the whole culture of the human race. Where would I start? I would start where thought first grows. I would start with children's television. My policy would be to give the children only the sort of thing they "already know they enjoy", like a fizzing diet of manic jelly-babies. This would no doubt be exciting, but their hearts and their minds would receive no nourishment, they would come to know nothing of the richness of human life, love and knowledge, and slowly whole generations would grow up knowing nothing about anything but violence and personal supremacy. Is that a fairy-tale? Look around you.

© Copyright Oliver Postgate 2003

I'd like to think that all the beautiful shows he produced and I absorbed have some influence on what I'm trying to do with Crab Lane Crew in The DFC - and if I can achieve half as much imaginativeness, warmth, familiarity, all with the confidently restrained pace that Postgate had by the age of 83, then I'll be pretty happy with what I've done.


Faz Choudhury said...

Hi Jim, nice post and good to read what he had to say in his own words. I think Crab Lane Crew has a lot of the qualities you mentioned at the end there.

Any chance of seeing the photo of you tickling Bagpuss under the chin? I wish I could say I'd done that!

mrphoenix said...

I loved Noggin the Nog so much when i was a tot. And The Clangers were completely irresistable even when I was a teenager and many other children's shows had lost their appeal.

Postgate was completely inspirational to two generations of British children and if they were to start screening any of those programmes regularly again a third and fourth would soon fall under his spell.

Thanks for posting that excerpt. I'll have to seek out the book now!

Jim Medway said...

Thanks Faz!
I will dig out the photo at some point.
On reflection I think it's a bit of an unfair sweeping statement to say all kids TV now is heartless sensational rubbish - I don't watch enough to really pass judgement. I do know Spongebob is excellent, and Tweenies are revolting.

Faz Choudhury said...

You're right, it's an extreme point of view of an older man and I don't agree with it entirely, I think the pace of a lot of entertainment is faster and that isn't a bad thing if it means there's more content and story (and jokes). Which isn't always the case, admittedly. I rant about stuff like this occasionally but the realisation that time has moved on sinks in, storytelling adapts and changes and can't remain rooted in the past. Thankfully, we can still see the wonderful programs Mr. Postgate made and enjoy them and learn from them.

There's something to be said for the slower paced, gentler and more atmospheric stuff. Both approaches benefit from each other by contrast, or at least I'd like to think that's the case.

Nostalgia can be a bad thing, it's not animation but I was saying to Ben just the other day that I watched some Starsky & Hutch a while back, it wasn't awful but the interminable minutes, wasted watching them pull up in front of a building, get out of the car, walk up the steps, entering the building, was just amazing by modern standards. Now, we'd just cut out all of that extraneous, unimportant action.

Sorry, didn't manage to curb my tendency to waffle on!

Must ask, when can we expect to see that Mezolithy Crab Lane Crew in colour?

Mike Smith said...

Hi there -- I just stumbled upon your blog. Thanks for posting the Oliver Postgate quote. I hadn't read it before. Of course not all kid's TV today is rubbish, but the big business mentality really can trash what it touches. I particularly agree with his last paragraph.

Anyway, I just wanted to say that I'm an admirer of Crab Lane Crew. I think you are managing to do something warm and human in the Postgate style.

I'll be coming back to this blog!