Bagpuss: A love letter to a magical childhood classic
Brendon Connelly | On 30, May 2021
I wasn’t even one year old when Bagpuss first aired on television. For all I really know, he’s always been there. Of course, it’s painfully obvious that somebody my age would be in love with this show. My memories of it have inevitably been embroidered all throughout my mistily remembered youth. Beyond everything else that fuels my adoration of this show, there’s bound to be an element of nostalgia, not to mention other, more complex feelings of my childhood.
I had a teddy bear when I was young. He was called Barney. He was probably the best friend I ever had – as an undiagnosed autistic child who was bulled consistently at school, I don’t say that lightly. Now, I don’t have Barney any more. It’s possibly the strangest, most inexplicable pain I know. Somehow, my longing for this lost bear has, later in life, tied into my grief for my parents, into my regrets about years wasted, unsure of how to move my life forward, even into my sense of my own mortality.
In those early years that I was pouring my heart into Barney, my other two loves were Bagpuss and Kermit the Frog. They’re both still around, I’m hugely relieved to say, whenever I click a few buttons on my TV remote.
The creators of Bagpuss, Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate, were born a generation before my parents, but they would have shared similar cultural reference points. Arriving shortly after the Edwardian era but before the upheavals wrought by the Second World War, they were tantalisingly unable to touch Edwardian culture, but would still have experienced its after-scent lingering in the air. When Bagpuss was made and aired in the 1970s it was (largely) for children who would know nothing at all of that long-gone world, but it also exerted a strong pull of childhood memory for many of the parents and grandparents who might have caught a glimpse.
This is why, I think, watching Bagpuss felt somewhat like I was imagining my way into “my parents’ world but better”, a dreamworld that my parents would have known and that I could somehow, tangentially, share with them.
All this looking backwards sometimes worries me. It can be tempting to use the past as if it’s a great big duvet. To pull it over your head. To try and block out the here and now. But the comfort that comes from such misremembering is dangerous. Turning your back on the reality of the here and now means turning your back on everybody else who is up to their necks in it.
I know that the gentle warmth of Bagpuss isn’t a hard past to revisit. I’m sure it’s popular with far more conservative outlooks than mine. But in Bagpuss, the past isn’t there to cheaply coddle. It wants to mollify, but it means to do so with truth and honesty.
There are only 13 episodes of Bagpuss, and there are no violent upheavals of structure between any of them. Each instalment features an artefact, old and probably antique, mysterious and in need of love. The artefact receives some care and attention, and the audience is told a story that resurrects the artefact to full bloom, bringing out its meaning and sharing it with the viewers.
In the first episode, for example, a “rotten old bottle” that’s absolutely coated in dirt is cleaned up and revealed to contain “a heap of scraps”. The woodpecker bookend Professor Yaffle recognises this as a horribly wrecked ship, which inspires Bagpuss to tell a story about his time as a sea captain and an encounter with mermaids. When the tale is finished, the ship has been restored – literally through Bagpuss’ act of telling a story.
This story-within-a-story format isn’t cynically applied, and the show isn’t commenting on itself as much as it’s simply being true to its beliefs: these episodes are all imaginative, dreamy, folksy tales made with a deep investment in the value of imaginative, dreamy, folksy tales.
Every scene in the series was as thoughtfully, sincerely tended-to as the fictional artefacts within these stories. Just as a threadbare teddy bear is described as well-loved, so it would be with the tactile, tenderly worn creations that form the cast. Bagpuss himself seems to have been infused with countless heartfelt hugs, every saggy old bit of his cloth saturated in what could be – and, in many ways, now is – generations of deep and rich affection.
Where Bagpuss lives, we’re told, is a shop. But nothing is ever purchased and there are never any customers. There’s not even a wisp of commerce unless it’s some mischief the mouse are going to later regret. In fact, every episode sees a new artefact added to the collection. Nobody says so, but Bagpuss’ home is really a library, a growing archive of magical stories and treasures that won’t now be forgotten. As a teenager I spent a lot of time with Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics and, after re-re-re-reading them, I found a real similarity between Gaiman’s themes and stories and those I already knew from Bagpuss.
The non-shop where Bagpuss lives and sleeps was, in truth, part of Peter Firmin’s home. Emily Firmin, his daughter, was the little girl who features in the opening sequence and who, it seems, owns the dream-reality that Bagpuss lives in (such a gentle, subtle show doesn’t even hint if it’s a world made for Emily’s imagination or by Emily’s imagination but it genuinely doesn’t matter). The voice of Bagpuss (and the mice, and Professor Yaffle) is that of Oliver Postgate. The guests in Firmin and Postgate’s world for this series are Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner, the composers of each episode’s music and the voices of Madeleine the Ragdoll and Gabriel the toad. A couple of skiffle enthusiasts who were turned on to folk music during the second British folk revival, Kerr and Faulkner were socially minded, left-wing artists who shared the same ideals as Bagpuss and his two creators. When they evoked Sumer Is Icumen In for the Mouse Organ song, they knew it was about working people’s joy at surviving winter, and the new lyrics – “We will fix it, we’ll unmix it” for example – are very much in the work song tradition.
As time goes on and the sepia-tinted photos that bookend each episode predate more and more of our lives, and then more and more of our parents’ lives too, any accidental attachment between the show’s connection with history and a regressive political position is less and less likely to form. At the same time, our personal connections to the world of Bagpuss are inevitably becoming more abstract. When I was young, Emily evoked both my mother and my grandmother – seeing the pictures of her in the opening titles still makes me think of the one photo I know of my mother as a child and, if I’m being honest, the association flows the other way too.
When I wasn’t yet old enough for school, my older siblings nicknamed me Professor Yaffle. I still wonder, sometimes, exactly what they meant by this. In more recent years, one of my brothers has taken to calling me Bagpuss, thanks to the pattern of grey in my beard. And that feels better.
Bagpuss is available on BBC iPlayer until 5th January 2021