On this day in history….12th April 1925

On this day in history : 12th April 1925 – The birth of Oliver Postgate – animator, puppeteer, screenwriter and creator of many popular children’s TV programmes, including Bagpuss and the Clangers….

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Richard Oliver Postgate was born in Hendon, Middlesex…. His father, Raymond Postgate, was a writer and journalist and founded the ‘Good Food Guide’…. His mother was Daisy Lansbury – and his first cousin was Angela Lansbury….

Postgate was privately educated in Finchley, North London and then boarding school in Devon…. Whilst studying at Kingston College of Art in 1942 he joined the Home Guard…. However, when he was called up to serve in World War 2 he declared himself a conscientious objector – (just as his father had done before him in World War 1) – which resulted in him serving 3 months in Feltham Prison…. He was eventually granted an exemption – but in return he had to work either on the land or in social service…. He worked as a farmhand for the remainder of the War – and then went to work for the Red Cross in occupied Germany….

1948 saw him back in England and enrolled in drama school – but following this he couldn’t quite settle into anything permanent…. In 1957 he began to work as a stage manager with Associated Rediffusion (later to become Rediffusion London) – the British ITV franchise holder…. Postgate became involved with children’s productions…. However, he thought children’s programmes of the time lacking…. Glove puppets and puppets on strings served a purpose – but he knew he could do better – and taught himself frame by frame animation…. Postgate had found his niche…. In 1958 he created ’Alexander the Mouse’ – about a mouse who sets out to find his royal roots and becomes king…. This was the beginning of his collaboration with puppeteer and animator Peter Firmin…. Together they formed their own production company – ‘Smallfilms’…. They set up at Firmin’s home , a farm in Blean, near to Canterbury – and later in a row of converted pigsties….

From this partnership came children’s programmes that many of us grew up with…. ‘The Journey of Master Ho’, 1958 – about a small boy and a water buffalo…. ITV’s ‘Ivor the Engine’, 1959-1964 (later revived in colour 1976-77) – the adventures of a little green steam locomotive, who lived in ‘the top left hand corner of Wales’ and longed to sing in a choir…. ‘The Saga of Noggin the Nog’, 1959-65 (once again revived in colour, 1982) – about the king of the Northmen and featuring flying machines, dragons and talking birds…. This was Smallfilms’ first production for the BBC….

‘Pingwings’, 1961 and ‘The Pogles’ and ‘Pogles’ Wood’, 1965-68 followed and then came the now cult TV series ‘The Clangers’, 1969-74…. The little creatures living on a small planet ‘far-far-away’….eating Blue String Pudding and Green Soup – courtesy of their friend the Soup Dragon….

Clangers and Iron Chicken puppets at the V&A Museum of Childhood (2016) – Photo credit : BennyOnTheLoose – own work – CC BY-SA 4.0

‘Bagpuss’ made his debut in 1973… The saggy old cloth cat that everybody still loves…. A little girl called Emily (who was played by Peter Firmin’s own daughter Emily) – who owned a shop that didn’t actually sell anything…. Instead the shop window would display lost and broken things – waiting for their rightful owners to come along and collect them…. Surprisingly only 13 episodes were ever made – but they were often repeated, fond memories for all of us…. In 1999 ‘Bagpuss’ was voted the favourite British children’s TV character of all time….

The original Bagpuss in the Beaney House of Art & Knowledge, Canterbury (June 2018) – Image credit : Jordy Schaap – own work CC BY-SA 4.0

During the 1970s and 80s Postgate was active in the anti-nuclear campaign – by addressing meetings and writing pamphlets…. He had married Prue Myers in 1957, becoming a stepfather to three children and then father to twins Stephen and Simon in 1959…. Another son, Daniel was born in 1964…. Prue died of cancer in 1982…. Postgate was to meet Naomi Linnell who was to become his partner until his death at a nursing home in Broadstairs on the 8th of December 2008…. His youngest son, Daniel, was to inherit Smallfilms….

On this day in history….20th October 1946

On this day in history : 20th October 1946 – Muffin the Mule appears on BBC Children’s Television for the first time….

Muffin the Muke puppet toy, Museum of Childhood, Edinburgh – Image credit : Chemical Engineer CC BY-SA 4.0

Muffin was already 12-years-old before debuting on TV…. Hogarth Puppets, run by puppeteers Jan Bussell and his wife Ann Hogarth, were used as an experimental medium during the pioneering days of television in the 1930s…. The mule, which at that point remained nameless, was made by Fred Tickner (who also created Punch and Judy) and was added to the Hogarth collection in November 1934….

Ann Hogarth – Fair use

It was in 1946 that Annette Mills, older sister of actor John Mills, joined the BBC…. Annette had been an accomplished and up and coming dancer – but her dancing days ended when she suffered a broken leg…. In a career change she took on the role as presenter of a show to entertain children by singing and telling stories….using the top of her grand piano as a ‘stage’ for the characters in her stories….

Annette and her colleague, producer Andrew Miller Jones, approached Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth – and together as a team they devised the ‘Muffin the Mule Show’ using the mule puppet Fred Tickner had created….

Usually the show went out on air at Sunday teatime and ran on the BBC until Annette’s death in 1955…. Each 15 minute episode began with Annette singing the theme tune ~ “We want Muffin, Muffin the Mule…. Dear old Muffin, playing the fool” …. Ann Hogarth would operate the puppet, so that it would be dancing on the piano top, from behind a screen…. A story would then be told by Annette, usually featuring other puppet characters, such as Sally the Seal, Poppy the Parrot, Peregrine the Penguin and Katy the Kangaroo….

Muffin was one of the first stars of British television – and one of the first examples of character merchandise….including toys, books, playing cards, clothing and games, such as ‘Pin the Tail on Muffin’…. The puppet featured as a regular comic strip in the 1950s publication ‘T.V. Comic’ and there was even a Muffin the Mule Club to join….