Looking Back At BAGPUSS - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At BAGPUSS

When Wil Fromage wakes up all his friends wake up too.
As a child of about 7 I had a recurring nightmare that involved Bagpuss, the saggy old cloth cat and rather laid-back manager of Emily's Victorian Shop of Things, aka Bagpuss & Co. It was the sepia segments that book-ended the show which, for reasons adulthood has stolen from me, disturbed my dreams; the vignette of images of Emily discovering a new thing, only to place it in front of Bagpuss who, in a display of terrifyingly jagged stop-motion, then comes to life like a plump feline marbled blancmange. Ready to smother his next victim with his loose-around-the-seams form through the prospect of his return to stasis on my face!

The other toys didn't trouble me. No, there was never a haunting thought of Professor Yaffle arising from the cold-sleep of death and making his way down a flight of book-stairs to peck my eyes out, or Madeline the rag doll stretching her lengthy extremities as she awakens, looking for her next victim to hug the last breath out of with those long gangly arms. Neither Gabriel the toad bludgeoning me to death with his banjo, or the prospect of mice on the mouse organ trying to fix-me from the inside would haunt me at night. Just that cat. The irony clearly being that every episode of Bagpuss began with the cat waking-up, yet my nightmares saw me face the prospect of never waking-up again.

I have no idea why I found Bagpuss itself so disturbing or why I seemed so convinced he was going to suffocate me with his saggy body as her returned to his own hibernation, but someone at the BBC seems to have dipped into my dreams as over the last few weeks the show has constantly been recommended to me on the iPlayer (which in itself remains a mystery as what the hell have I watched to have Bagpuss recommended to me? The last series I completed via the iPlayer was Killing Eve! Given the context of that show, perhaps it proves I was right to fear the cat?). Perhaps diving-in again to Bagpuss' very limited run of episodes might work as some sort of self-therapy? Probably not, but at least it gives me the excuse to submit an article about it.
Premiering on February 12th 1974, Bagpuss clearly comes from a very different era of children's programming. It's much slower than anything which would be made today, and very likely from, say, the early 80s onward. But this is not in any way to its detriment. As much as I can play-up the nightmares Bagpuss caused me, you can see just what a labour of love every single moment of the series must've been for its creators Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate. It oozes care and attention, and when watched today permeates nostalgia through the screen. Would it hold the attention of children today? Probably not, but if you're of a certain age like myself then it takes you right back to a more carefree time when the thought of the after-school block of children's programming was enough to get you through boring double-maths lessons.

The producers, under their Smallfilms banner, also created such equally well-remembered children's programmes (and perhaps less disturbingly so, certainly by me anyway) including Ivor the Engine and The Clangers, and like Bagpuss they were all shows that were regularly repeated. Meaning that even though only 13 episodes of Bagpuss were ever made it's always felt like there were so many more.
Bagpuss was clearly the most personal of Smallfilms output (unless Noggin the Nog was based on Oliver Postgate's uncle Noggin and his adventures in finding a wife whilst cosplaying as a viking, which now I say it out loud is surely a potential reality-TV format for Channel 5, no?) as Emily was played by Peter Firmin's daughter, also called Emily, and the shop window itself was created in a bay-window of the Firmin family home in Blean. It is then Oliver Postgate who provides the narration throughout, and aside from Madeleine and Gabriel (provided by folk singers Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner) he also voiced all the other voices characters and wrote the stories.

The format remained the same throughout; Emily found a broken thing, took it to her shop (which isn't a shop per se, just somewhere for lost and found things), put it in front of Bagpuss who then woke his friends (although I'd argue there's a case to made that the other inhabitants of BagPuss & Co. could be there against their own free will and might just be displaying signs of Stockholm Syndrome) from their slumber to perform their repairing duties.
From assembling a ship-in-a-bottle to unearthing the jewels from a frog-prince's crown, from a self-playing fiddle to the unforgettable chocolate biscuit mouse mill powered by broad beans and breadcrumbs; the workers in Emily's shop were kept busy. But they still found time for fun. If Bagpuss allowed it, that is.

As the toys discussed what the new object was, someone (usually Madeleine) would tell a story related to the object (shown in an animated thought bubble over Bagpuss's head - see, he even controls other people's stories), often with a song, accompanied by Gabriel on the banjo (which often sounded a lot more like a guitar), and then the mice, singing in high-pitched squeaky harmony to the tune of Sumer Is Icumen In as they worked, mending the broken object.
We will fix it, we will bind it We will stick it with glue, glue, glue
The newly mended thing was then placed in the shop window, so that whoever had lost it would see it as they went past and could come in and claim it.
I'm pleased to say that during this dip into the Bagpuss archive no nightmares were had. Mind you, I still wouldn't want to come face to face with the stripey oddity that is Bagpuss as there's still something quite disturbing about him and the control he has over his employees. Not only do they wake on his command but when Bagpuss start's yawning, years of conditioning mean his friends become sleepy on the mere suggestion of his slumber.

And, as Oliver Postgate constantly tells us, when Bagpuss goes to sleep, all his friends go to sleep too. The mice return to their ornament form on the mouse-organ, Gabriel and Madeleine flop back into doll form, and Professor Yaffle, the carved wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker, climbs back up the book-stairs to sit on the shelf. Destined to repeat the nightmare joyous process of repairing lost treasures all over again another day.

When Bagpuss allows them to wake, that is.

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