Oliver Postgate: A Life in Small Films

Image for Oliver Postgate: A Life in Small FilmsNot currently available on BBC iPlayer

Timeshift, Series 9 Episode 6 of 9

Duration: 1 hour

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a man whose name was Oliver Postgate. He had a shed where he made things.

With his friend Peter Firmin, Oliver created entire worlds for characters including Bagpuss, The Clangers and Ivor the Engine. These stories fired the imaginations of generations of children, and his lullaby voice became a universal reminder of childhood.

Time Shift celebrates Oliver Postgate's life and work through a treasury of clips from well-known and rarely seen films, alongside film and photos from the family archive. Fans including Lauren Child (Charlie and Lola) and Andrew Davenport (In the Night Garden) are on hand to heap praise on the man who is such an inspiration for their work.

Postgate's family help delve deep into his history and discover the inventions, such as Oliver's old camera adapted with Meccano, that powered his imagined worlds. Co-creator Firmin reveals the story behind his most celebrated characters and introduces his daughter Emily, familiar to millions as the owner of Bagpuss.

The documentary also reveals how, as the grandson of Labour leader George Lansbury, Postgate's life was shaped by radical politics. His deeply held beliefs influenced his classic creations, and campaigning became his focus until his death in December 2008.

  • The Clangers

    The Clangers

  • Featured Smallfilms

    Alexander the Mouse (1957)

    Sadly the first Postgate/Firmin production no longer exists, but we do have Peter’s original artwork as well as details of Oliver’s haphazard magnetic animation system. The series was broadcast live, and featured the occasional guest appearance from Oliver’s hand as he attempted to put right the unreliable magnetic mice.

    Ivor the Engine (1958-63 remade in colour in 1975)

    The first fully realised Smallfilms production did away with magnets and put Peter’s wonderful two-dimensional cardboard artwork centre stage. They were brought to life by Oliver’s first attempts at stop-frame animation. Heavily influenced by Dylan Thomas’s recordings of Under Milk Wood, Ivor was later remade in colour and remains one of Smallfilms best-loved creations.

    The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65)

    Inspired by Peter’s sketches of chess figures from the Isle of Lewis, this was perhaps Smallfilms most ambitious series. Central to the story was the struggle between good King Noggin and his evil uncle Nogbad the Bad. The episode Noggin and the Moon Mouse introduced a character that would later return in his own series, The Clangers.

    The Seal of Neptune and The Mermaid’s Pearls (1960-62)

    Oliver and Peter were involved in many other long forgotten productions including The Story of Master Ho (about a boy and his Buffalo) and Sam on Boffs’ Island (featuring an early appearance from Tony Robinson). Best of all were the two series starring a Mermaid and her seahorse friend. Imagine Disney Pixar’s Finding Nemo made from paper, with a soul as deep as Atlantis.

    Pingwings (1960-65)

    The entire Smallfilms universe grew out of Peter Firmin’s barn, and in the case of the Pingwings disappeared into the countryside beyond. The inspiration for the series came after a cat peed on a knitted penguin belonging to one of Peter’s children. Seeing it hanging on the washing line Oliver imagined an entire family of pingwings whose adventures brought them into contact with the animals and people who lived on Peter’s farm.

    The Pogles/Pogles’ Wood (1965-68)

    These everyday stories of woodland folk had their roots in English folklore, and their home in the roots of a tree. The first series featured a strong supernatural element courtesy of a terrifying witch and a fairy prince. The BBC considered the witch too scary for the Watch with Mother audience and banished her forever. The Pogles however lived happily ever after in Pogles’ Wood, often accompanied by the Postgate and Firmin children.

    The Clangers (1968-74)

    In 1969 man landed on the moon and the BBC decided that Smallfilms would be the people to bring the infinite excitement of space to the nation’s children. This piece of eccentric commissioning was a space series like no other, with its family of knitted mice, soup dragons and troublesome froglets. Oliver’s vision of space was light years away from sci-fi programmes like Star Trek, and allowed him to comment on everything from the threat to our environment to an explicit attack on politicking parties in the 1974 general election.

    Bagpuss (1973-74)

    Bagpuss is like an Edwardian version of Toy Story, featuring an eccentric cast of toys that wake up when their owner leaves the room. There’s the mischievous mice on the mouse organ, a stuffy woodpecker called Professor Yaffle (based on Postgate's family friend Bertrand Russell), all accompanied by the timeless folk music of Madeline the Ragdoll (Sandra Kerr) and Gabriel the toad (John Faulkner). Bagpuss has gone on to receive an honorary degree from Kent University and topped the BBC's 1999 poll to find the best children’s programme of all time.

    Tottie - The Story of a Doll's House (1982-84)

    "When you come to think of it, a doll is a very anxious - even dangerous - thing to be." So began the most challenging Smallfilms production of all. Based on the novel by Rumer Godden, Tottie is one of the few children’s programmes based on a murder – and a horrific one at that. A family of dolls are joined by an evil porcelain antique, who plots to use the paraffin lights of the doll’s house to incinerate the happy-go-lucky family, leading to the death of the mother. Perhaps unsurprisingly in an age where He-Man and Transformers were invading children’s imaginations, Tottie turned out to be one of the final Smallfilms.

  • Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin on set with The Pogles

    Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin on set with The Pogles


Francis Welch
Francis Welch
John Das
Executive Producer
Michael Poole


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