I was a small person in the 1960s and you know what? For a small person the ’60s were nowhere near as much fun as they were for older folks. Where the grown ups had prime Hammer horror, James Bond, hyper violent spaghetti westerns, casual sex, drugs and a musical revolution going on, all us nippers got were three (well two up until 1964 when BBC 2 came on air) black and white TV channels and for much of the day, before our early bedtime, they only showed the rotten test-card.
So, naturally this made it a tough decade for our mums and grandparents doing their best to keep on top of everything they needed to do, while also keeping us entertained, but there was this small glimmer of hope from an early afternoon respite window, when us preschoolers could be plonked down in front of the telly with some milk and a biscuit for Watch With Mother. It only offered 15 minutes of downtime, after all back then it was important that the BBC wasn’t seen as the nation’s nursemaid, but it was enough time to sneak a few puffs on a Woodbine, slurp some tea or maybe even uncork the cooking sherry.
Having said that Watch with Mother offered up some pretty bland and repetitive stuff, most of the shows had been on constant rotation since the BBC first hit upon the bright idea of recording them back in the early ’50s. I can distinctly remember the crushing disappointment of discovering that I was going to be spending the next 15 minutes in the patronising company of the dismally damp Andy Pandy and his equally soggy sidekick Looby Lou or the downright creepily goody goody Woodentops family, all of them festering within their post World War II time warp. The Woodentops were relative TV newcomers having first been screened in 1955, but Andy Pandy’s creaky adventures dated back as far as 1950. We’d had the Beatles, Elvis, Sputnik and the mini skirt since then!
It wasn’t all bad though, from 1966 there was always the chance of stumbling into the eccentric magical whimsy that was Pogles Wood. Mr and Mrs Pogle would be woken from their slumber by the Hedgepig and adventures would be had with their son Pippin and his incomprehensible rabbit-squirrel hybrid companion Tog, not to mention the heroically alcoholic magical plant, who played the violin so long as he was continually plied with bilberry wine.
The Pogles were created by animator and writer Oliver Postgate (1925-2008) together with his long term collaborator Peter Firmin. They had already enjoyed some television success with a number of eccentric shows made with animated cardboard cut outs, Postgate and Firmin’s track record included Ivor the Engine (1959-1963) about a Welsh steam engine who wanted to sing in a choir and The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-1965), featuring peaceable Vikings, ice dragons and a large helping of magic.
Postgate was a natural storyteller who fell into working on TV through stage management and as a conscientious objector during World war II he had spent much of the war working on a farm which possibly explains how he became steeped in the country folklore that infused Pogles Wood. .
Postgate and Firmin’s original concept for The Pogles (1965) was that they should be a normal woodland family (well as normal as any tiny folk who live in a tree stump can be) who didn’t want anything to do with magic, but end up having some pretty heavy duty sorcery thrust upon them. The show would be shot in stop motion at Peter Firmin’s home studio using with articulated puppets. Postgate would do the narration and voice most of the characters with help from Olwen Griffiths as Mrs Pogle (and later Pippin) and Steve Woodman as Plant (and later Tog). The very distinctive music was composed and played by bassoonist Vernon Elliott.
Postgate died in 2008, but Firmin who at the age of 88 is still working on the rebooted version of their extraterrestrial hit show The Clangers takes up the story:
“The ideas for the Pogles all came from Oliver’s imagination. He wanted to create a traditional fairy story. I created the puppets, sets and backdrops and we filmed almost all of the first series in the studio I had built in my barn. Oliver had discovered when he made Pingwings (1961-1964), his first stop frame animation, that filming outside was really difficult because even a puff of wind or a footstep could damage a shoot of the tiny incremental movements. The puppets were built on Mechano frames with papier-mâché heads and boots with lift up toe-caps so we could switch the lead weights anchoring them to the ground around”.
Since Postgate’s reputation at the BBC was already riding high with the success of The Saga of Noggin the Nog, when he took The Pogles to the Watch With Mother commissioning editors they bought the show sight unseen, fondly presuming that 15 minutes of The Pogles would be nice and calming, just the sort of thing to lull the nation’s children into drowsy state ready for their afternoon nap.
However what the BBC actually got over the course of six episodes was a bunch of fairies who hid the fairy king’s son in the boozy plant’s flower and a really terrifying witch who not only kidnaps the baby but also bundles Mrs Pogle into a sack and imprisons her under the floorboards, then later transforms herself into a boot to kick in the Pogle’s front door. Not that the witch has it all her own way, the Plant supplies Ma Pogle with a magic wishing flower that she uses to burn the witch to a crisp! With more elements in common with the darker side of European fairy tale than the comfortable world of Andy Pandy’s toy box could ever muster after the initial broadcast the show was deemed to be far too scary for us little ones and was promptly dispatched to video hell never to be shown on TV again, however unlike episodes of Dr Who and Dad’s Army somehow The Pogles survived the BBC’s habit of recycling of expensive video tape and thanks to today’s magic of the internet all six episodes are now free to view on Youtube.
Firmin continued, “I think that was a mistake. The BBC thought that they were getting something similar to The Flower Pot Men or The Woodentops and just let us get on with making the series completely unsupervised. It was only once it was shown that they decided that it might be giving children nightmares. However, we were asked to do another series, so long as we lost the magic element. We introduced a son Pippin and his pet Tog and replaced the magic with educational material about the countryside, showing documentary footage of things like honey gathering and this revised show became Pogles Wood.“
The much more sedate Pogles Wood ran for a further two series from 1966 to 1968 and became a regular fixture in the Watch With Mother afternoon rotation on BBC 1, but as Peter continued the supernatural element was not forgotten:
‘The magic resurfaced in The Pogles annuals that we produced between 1967 and 1974. The first story in the annuals was always a witchy story and I loved doing the illustrations that involved a bit of magic. I also got to write the story that closed the annuals which was great fun.’’
Postgate and Firmin’s later Smallfilms collaborations included: colour versions of Ivor the Engine (1975-1977) and Noggin the Nog (1970 and 1981); The Clangers (1969-1972 and 2015 to present); Bagpuss (1974); What-a-Mess (1980); Tottie: the Story of a Dolls House (1984) and Pinny’s House (1985). Peter Firmin also created TV icon Basil Brush who is still going strong at 55 years of age.
I believe Postgate and Firm’s visionary approach to programme-making for small people was very different from almost everything had gone before in the UK, revolutionary even. They actually understood that young children needed more imaginative stimulation than just having a grown up singing nursery rhymes and admonishing the anarchic behaviour of Andy Pandy’s Teddy in a middle class received pronunciation accent. They gave us stories that encouraged our formative imaginations, while often making older folks howl with laughter at the subversive wit concealed within them.
Images by kind permission of Peter Firmin