Oliver Postgate interview

Oliver Postgate

Last updated: 11 February 2009

In April 2005 the BBC's Cult website spoke to Oliver Postgate about his creations. In this extract he discusses the magic of Ivor The Engine.

Was there a philosophy behind the way you made programmes?

None at all! Our reasons for making them was because they were fun.

We didn't sell films to children, we sold them to the heads of department at TV companies. We would tell them an idea we had in mind, and it was their job to say whether they were suitable or not.

The reason why our films are still fit to look at and enjoy is because we were excused the interference of educationalists, sociologists and other pseudo-scientists who get at things nowadays, which produces eventually a confection of formulae which have no integrity. No, the mainspring of what we did was because it was fun.

The themes and language were often quite adult - was that on purpose?

Oh yes. People who saw them when they were young say that they saw lots and lots of films but ours were the ones they remembered. Children at that age take in everything, and if they understand it or not, they remember it. Later on, they grow up a little bit and they have a little chuckle, because they suddenly see the adult joke.

We made certain that it worked on two levels. The children would enjoy it anyway, but with something like Ivor The Engine's Under Milk Wood Welshness, children didn't particularly know what was funny about that, but the grown-ups who had to watch it as well enjoyed those jokes.

Where did the characters in Ivor The Engine come from?

Oh, they turned up by themselves. It was very strange, I found I'd written that Ivor went down to Grumbly and delivered a new plough to Mr Hannibal, and so on. I looked down on my paper and said, 'Who's Mr Hannibal, for god's sake?' I'd already written his name, so I had to imagine him.

The thing about writing something like that is you put yourself in the place. The main influence on it was that I was intoxicated when I was a young man by Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood.

When the Welsh BBC took over Ivor recently and said they wanted to adopt him as their mascot, I said, 'You do know he is totally bogus, he has no connection with the real Wales at all?' They said, 'Oh, yes, we know this completely, but in Wales we rather enjoy it.'

How Barni the elephant keeper got Ivor banned in Hackney

Ivor the Engine was banned by Hackney Public Libraries, because of the Indian elephant keeper, a lovely man called Barni. They thought ethnic minorities might be offended by him.

The only Indian I've ever met who's seen it enjoyed him very much, but this was the time when political correctness was first in bloom. I never expected any of my stuff to get banned!

When I had to record him talking to Jones the Steam, with Barney talking Bombay Welsh, and Jones talking Valleys Welsh, I couldn't get from one voice to another. After about half an hour of trying, I had to do them separately and join them together with a pair of scissor and quarter-inch tape.

Where did the dragons in Ivor come from?

Oh, dragons are quite ordinary. You see, with Ivor the Engine, all we did was to change one parameter of ordinary life, which was, you have a railway engine which wants to sing in the choir. And from then on, everything is perfectly logical.

But having admitted the possibility of that, you then find that other unlikely things could happen, and the people of the neighbourhood took them in their stride. Exactly the same thing happened with the Clangers, unlikely things happened all the time, but the Clangers dealt with them in a reasonable way.

When the Clangers got a television set and it made these dreadful noises, they threw it back into space again, which was the best thing for it. And that seemed to me perfectly logical - it's not surreal, it's improbable in origin, but the natural cause and effects still apply.

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