Earlier this week Peter Firmin, the creator of Bagpuss and the Clangers, died at the age of 89. Although preferences change, Bagpuss has remained a well-loved character, once topping a poll as best loved children’s TV programme. Each programme began with a series of sepia photographs, and the introduction of a little girl named Emily (played by Firmin’s own daughter), who owned a shop. Emily found lost and broken things and displayed them in the window, so their owners could come and collect them; the shop did not sell anything.
She would leave the object in front Bagpuss, and recite a verse:
“Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss
Old Fat Furry Catpuss
Wake up and look at this thing that I bring
Wake up, be bright, be golden and light
Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing.”
In every episode, when Emily had left, Bagpuss woke up. The programme shifted from sepia to colour stop motion film, and various toys in the shop came to life.
This type of formulaic opening was common in the seventies. Earlier this year a predictive text mix up led me to old episodes of Trumpton, and I was transported back in time as the episode began:
“Here is the clock, the Trumpton clock. Telling the time, steadily, sensibly; never too quickly, never too slowly. Telling the time for Trumpton.
I couldn’t have told you that, but I remember it now. This caused me to look up Camberwick Green which began with:
“Here is a box, a musical box, wound up and ready to play. But this box can hide a secret inside. Can you guess what is in it today?”
And the most prominent character in the story would slowly but surely emerge.
It would be unfair to leave out Chigley wouldn’t it?
Ah. Chigley episodes didn’t have the same starting point. The opening scene could literally have been anywhere. Well, anywhere in the Trumpton, Camberwick Green, Chigley triangle that is. Chigley did however have the same slow classical guitar intro, and the opening line “It was a lovely day in…”
Chigley had the same ending however. Lord Belborough, after his day’s trip on his steam train (Bessie) and a quick song about how time flies by, ordered everyone to the grounds of Winkstead Hall (steady on) after the 6 o’clock whistle which signalled the end of the day’s work at the local biscuit factory. Belborough played his vintage organ (steady on again), while the workers gathered for a dance as the episode faded out.
There is a rhythm to these programmes. The opening of Bagpuss takes over two minutes (yes, I’ve timed it) for the explanation of Emily’s shop (that isn’t really a shop) and for Bagpuss to come to life.
It’s hard to imagine modern day children sitting through Tony Hart’s ‘gallery’.
The pace of the Magic Roundabout hardly set children into a frenzy. Although by comparison, the Mr Ben theme tune was incredibly upbeat.
Ivor the Engine opened with a bassoon solo. (Or was it an oboe?)
It wasn’t all like that, take 1967’s Jamie and the Magic Torch and its Slade-esque opening.
Raa Raa the Noisy Lion has a lot more going for it; smoother, cleaner animation, a catchier theme tune for starters, and every younger children’s tv programme has routine and repetition of a kind. Young children like familiarity.
But I can’t help liking the dependability of the Trumpton clock. Modern life has lost a lot of its routine. We don’t watch tv together as much, we don’t eat together as much. Job times are a good deal more varied than 9 to 5 –yes, they always were, but these days 24-hour shopping has changed retail workers’ routines. We pack more in, even in our breaks; our holidays seem to have become stressful. There is an emerging pattern in research into social media; we lead busy work lives, but also fill up our down time, causing as much stress as relaxation.
There’s lots to be said for a steady pace. Yes, I know that we aren’t clocks, life has variable speeds, but it strikes me we have fast and very fast, we rarely do slow, and hardly ever ‘very slow’ to balance things out. I’m not sure we’re made for long periods of frantic activity.
Routine can stifle and grind down, but there can also be something comforting in it. The closing words of Bagpuss still wrap around me like a duvet:
“And so their work was done.
Bagpuss gave a big yawn and settled down to sleep
And of course, when Bagpuss goes to sleep,
All his friends go to sleep too.
The mice were ornaments on the mouse organ.
Gabriel and Madeleine were just dolls.
And Professor Yaffle was a carved, wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker.
Even Bagpuss himself, once he was asleep, was just an old, saggy cloth cat,
Baggy, and a bit loose at the seams,
But Emily loved him.”