Sunday, January 10, 2010

Oliver Postgate – ‘Seeing Things’

The first time I went to S.’s flat, she was so aghast that I had never seen The Clangers that she stopped her birthday party to show me an episode. They are pretty fundamental to her world view, though it would be hard to say why. Maybe that the programme is modest and wildly imaginative all at once. Bizarre and homely, affectionate and strange, impossible but completely logical. Why wouldn’t the centre of a planet be kept warm by soup? That being so, surely the soup must have a dragon to serve it up? I remember watching the first series and being enchanted with the progression of ideas: a cloud that rained notes, which grew into music trees, which shed more notes, which powered a flying machine. The swanee whistle voices of the pink, mouse-like Clangers themselves sounded curious and receptive, but not naïve: the male Clangers’ armour was there to protect them from the unexpected visitors that a small planet would naturally draw, even if it did sit strangely with their knitted bodies. The Oliver Postgate / Peter Firmin series I remember watching as a child are Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss (‘Why does everyone always go on about Bagpuss?’, wonders S.) – the former just right for a small boy, the latter a bit girly, once a chap has found out about cars, guns and space.

At the beginning of Seeing Things, his autobiography, Oliver offers a disclaimer: ‘This is not a story, this is a life’. That life being ‘already fully inconsistent, irrevocably tangled’ (p. ix), and as such not something which can be moulded into a coherent, pleasing whole. Strong, simple stories are so much the basis of his work, that he is uncomfortable offering a narrative that doesn’t follow the same rules. He is right about the inconsistency. For instance, in 1981 he accepts a six month post as Artist in Residence at the Western Australian Institute of Technology in Perth. He does this because his wife, Prue, has cancer and there is a new treatment they want to try out which is only available in Australia. Whilst there he looks on in horror at the output of Film Studies students, asking one, ‘This film, the film that you have made, is it intended to be watched by people?’ (p. 363). He is concerned that making films according to film theory will lead to unwatchable films. During a lecture on semiotics, he stands up to protest: ‘You can’t reconstitute art from an intellectual idea. It is a part of love.’ (p. 370). You tell them! The inconsistency comes twenty pages later, when he has moved on to the topic of nuclear disarmament, and uses a touch of semiotics himself, to describe a mild mannered TV debate on the subject:
if the participants had seen and felt the reality behind the label-words they were thinking with, the words would have stuck in their throats. (p. 383)
He also attacks the commercial imperatives which pushed the Smallfilms catalogue from the BBC schedule in 1987. Again, it is not a straightforward argument: The Clangers came about because the BBC needed a programme made in bright colours. By 1987 this was no longer the major requirement: they also needed a hook every three and a half seconds in order to stop kids changing the channel. Slow sucked, was their thinking. Fast and explosive wins the day. It is easy to see that this is wrong, whereas the demand for colour is less objectionable, at least, even if it springs from the same one-upmanship. Oliver remarks that ‘if one was seriously determined to eliminate a whole culture and wipe out everything that had gone before’, the best way to do it would be by
ensuring that the next generation of children, whose minds were new, empty and waiting for knowledge, were given nothing except what they already knew, or had been told, was what they liked – in effect force-feeding them with a diet of manic jelly babies. (p. 403)
Another quotation along these lines:
I have always had to respect the fact that novelty is not, in itself, either interesting or valuable. (p. 244)
See also George Bernard Shaw, Christopher Isherwood and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry making the same point.

But Oliver doesn’t spend all his time railing. He spends quite a lot of it making things. Between 1957 and 1963 he supplies ‘unlikely articles’ at short notice for ITV. The examples he gives are a collapsible soufflé (‘He said: “Sorry to trouble you, but they tell me you can supply us with a collapsible soufflé.” “Do they?” I asked, playing for time.’ (p. 197)), a cubic metre of fresh seaweed, and ‘a full size effigy of General de Gaulle to be burned on the bonfire in David Frost’s firework-night programme.’ (p. 199). His stop-motion camera is a normal 16mm film camera adapted with Meccano. Most impressive perhaps is his greenhouse roof idea, developed during the ’70s. It consists of a layer of black, corrugated metal, a gap of a few inches, and a layer of glass, used to cover the roof of a house. Some funding was forthcoming and he found that with this setup he was able to keep a large model house in his garden warm and supplied with hot water from ‘early spring to late autumn’. Unfortunately, the house-building company who had paid for this prototype decided that ‘the artefact did not have a large enough “maintenance component”’ (p. 312), so would generate no income once installed. He invents several devices for the companion of his later years, Naomi, to help her cope with ME – including an electric wheelchair with power steering. When his parents move from London to where he is in Kent, his first thought is: ‘This was an enormously exciting idea. I had always wanted to design a house’ (p. 259).

This brings us to another inconsistency. In the face of theory-driven film students and hook-driven commissioning editors for children’s TV, Oliver insists upon the story as the important thing. He divides film production into the ‘how’ and the ‘what’, and says: ‘They are both necessary but the how is essentially the servant of the what’. It is peculiar that he thinks this, given how indivisible these things are in his films. Both The Clangers and Bagpuss rely on objects turning up and being investigated, whether it be the Iron Chicken or a ship in a bottle. It is clearly the ‘how’ of the ship in the bottle which sparks his imagination and leads to the Bagpuss story of a real ship being smashed to pieces and then reassembled by mermaids. When he writes about coming up with stories, Oliver is insistent that he was never creative:
I was the means. […] I am always delighted when people come and tell me how much they enjoyed [our programmes], and I love their joy, but I am not just being modest when I say that I did not create that joy. I was just the cook. (p. 417)
This is a good metaphor. It is not the preferment of the ‘what’ over the ‘how’ of film making which marks out his programmes, but rather that of the ‘whom’ over both (and it is an individual ‘whom’, quite a different question from ‘which demographic group?’). You can bet he was never asked, ‘This film, the film that you have made, is it intended to be watched by people?’


Piebird said...

Thanks for the book, it was a lovely Christmas surprise. I'm glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. (It's a good thing I'm a fast reader, isn't it!) ;)

Oh, and I want to make it clear that I do like Bagpuss too, I just don't understand why so many people prefer it to the Clangers, Ivor and Noggin!

Chris said...

It must be down to the number of repeats it got - the whole series, twice a year, from 1974 - 1987. The reason I hadn't seen The Clangers was because it didn't get the same treatment (boo!)

Thanks for the almost immediate loan of your Christmas present - I did let you finish it first!

Oh, and I found two 'Vote for Froglet' clips, with and without sound.

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