The Genius of Oliver Postgate

Oliver Postage died this month. His voice, instantly recognisable to millions of British children, harks back to a fairer, more generous, more innocent time. A time of wonder, of looking up to the nights sky and wondering about life on a small blue planet in space and the strange whistling knitted creatures that live there. His animated stories of ‘The Clangers’ gave us a sense of politeness and calm. A world of soup dragons and copper trees, of magic froglets and music that grew on trees that you could use to power a flying boat (or to eat). “It’s nice to have visitors” said Oliver’s narration, “but sometimes it’s even nicer to see them go”.

‘Ivor the Engine‘ told us the stories of a Welsh steam engine who sang in the choir. The stillness and warmth of the tales gave children a sense of peace and friendship not found in modern television storytelling with its crashes, bangs and rushing around. My three year old son loves Ivor. He has a tiny toy train and imagines his own adventures, making the sound, “Sher-ta-coo, sher-ta-coo” as his plays.

The same alternative energy was found in the most loved children’s programme of all time, ‘Bagpuss’. The story of the most important, the most beautiful, the most magical, saggy old cloth cat in the whole wide world. He lived in the window of a junk shop who came to life with all his friends, to mend whatever item Emily brought to the shop.

As you may remember, the Clangers spoke only in whistles. This is what Oliver Postgate said about that challenge:

“They spoke a language of very articulate whistling squeak, which needed to be translated from its natural medium of nuclear magnetic resonance (there being no air to carry sound) into audible terms. The nearest I could get to that was to write out the script in full and then persuade Stephen Sylvester to help me record the dialogue…by reading it, or rather playing the inflections of it, on a selection of Swannee whistles. In this way I was hoping to make a sort of wild-life film in which, by listening carefully, the viewer would be able to understand what was being said and work out what was going on … I made a separate voice-over tape, a sort of intermittent running-commentary on what was going on. It worked quite well but I have always wondered how the films would go in their original form.

I did try it once, I took an episode of The Clangers to the 1984 E.B.U. conference in Germany and showed it to the participants without my voice-over. Afterwards I asked them whether they had been able to understand what the Clangers were saying. ‘But of course.’ they replied. “They are speaking perfect German.’ ‘But no.’ said Gerd, ‘That is not so. They spoke only Swedish.'”

See the remarkable and creative story of the making of the films here. on creativity, design and branding.

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