In the first (oddly popular) part of this little series I mentioned that I’d been into folk music from being a little kid up to the age of about nine or ten, then I wasn’t into it until I was in my early thirties. What I didn’t really go into was why, either in terms of being into or out of it.
The short version of why I was into folk music is because some of the children’s television of the early 1970s was, basically, pretty folky. The folkiest and most fondly remembered programme was Bagpuss, which had a couple of folk musicians who sang a folky song in every episode that told a story relating to whatever had been left at Emily’s shop that didn’t sell anything.
By the time I’d grown up a bit – although not to the extent that I thought I probably had, I was far too cool for Christmas, let alone the Folk music I enjoyed as a child who was totally unconcerned with presenting himself as something from the Planet Supercool, where I pretended I came from for far too long. Once I’d gotten over myself – to a limited extent, let’s face it – I allowed myself to enjoy things that I actually enjoyed, instead of only pretending to enjoy things that I didn’t really like all that much, but which I thought made me look cool.
The Bagpuss characters, as far as I’m concerned, are a representation of a family. An idealised family that doesn’t necessarily conform to a po-faced, artificially sanitised model. Gabriel the toad and Madeline the rag doll were the encouraging parents, while Bagpuss was the Granddad who showed kids what active thinking and reading was all about . Bagpuss didn’t seem particularly motivated to run the show, except in terms of eating or going to sleep, but that’s granddads for you. The mice, who had their own little folky work songs, weren’t in charge because they were the kids, although they were often given free rein to collaborate and run wherever their imaginations took them although, at the same time, they certainly had an unshakeable collaborative work ethic going on. Professor Yaffle might have seemed like a grownup, but actually he was a spot on representation of those kids you come across who don’t know how to play or enjoy themselves because they’re under the impression that they’re already about ninety. Yaffle, in short, was another of Madeleine and Gabriel’s kids.
Every episode of Bagpuss was more or less the same thing – like kids’ – and a lot of adult’s – television programmes are, the repetition is important. There was an introduction that showed sepia photographs of with the (instrumental) theme from Bagpuss playing, over which the narrator and writer, Oliver Postgate outlined the setup: once upon a time there was a little girl called Emily who had an unusual shop that didn’t sell anything – Bagpuss & Co. Emily’s shop was, really, a lost property shop that specialised in finding unrecognisable piles of the constituent parts of objects that appeared in front of Bagpuss every week. The various characters all gave their opinions as to what this week’s pile once was, and then Professor Yaffle told them what a set of idiots they all were before telling them what he thought it was, which was also usually wrong. The mice would go wherever their imaginations took them, Professor Yaffle would have a benny at them because they were playing and therefore being “silly”, and Madeleine or Gabriel would usually keep the peace. Eventually, someone would work it out, and the mice would repair it while singing another work song. To be blunt, Bagpuss was a programme about learning to do things for yourself through playing, while also showing parents how to gently guide their kids without smothering or ignoring them completely.
Even when the object had been put back together, what it was, was still usually pretty unfathomable, but Gabriel the toad and Madeleine the ragdoll would know a song that told the story of it, and there’d be an animated section that depicted the object in use before it was lost, and that cleared it all up. Bagpuss, as the granddad, often put on one of an array of thinking hats, as if to emphasise the importance of concentrating when you’re having a think, and the images he created in his mind to illustrate the stories he told – which were generally shaggy dog stories – showed kids that it’s important to imagine what you’re hearing/reading about. And it is important. The stories were fully fledged and comprised foreshadowing for the kids with burgeoning active thinking and listening skills to predict what was likely to happen.
Professor Yaffle, as the awkward, over literal kid, would usually be scornful about the stories, sometimes he wouldn’t, but either way, all that guessing, repairing, explaining and singing would have tired Bagpuss out, and then he went back to sleep as the repaired object was put in the window for its owner to come and collect. And, in the same way that everyone woke up when Bagpuss woke up, everyone went back to being toys again when he went to sleep. It was a bit like Toy Story, if it had been set in Edwardian times, in a village in England. And, as good – great even – as the Toy Story films are, Bagpuss towers above them, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Bagpuss was, and is, a beautiful programme, it’s simultaneously melancholy and hopeful, like the best English things often are, which is partly why flag waving and triumphalism doesn’t really suit us. Despite being very much of its time – 1974 – it’s also timeless, due to being rooted in nostalgia and, consequently, tradition. Not to mention having nailed the fine balance between entertainment and education that so few programmes managed before and since.
It wasn’t alone though, in terms of its Arts & Crafts background being represented on British children’s television: The Wombles, in particular, being essentially prototype anthropomorphic recyclers, were coming from a very similar place, although the music wasn’t folky as much as Glam Rock influenced (the other big pop culture influence on kids’ telly at the time, see especially Animal Kwackers). Camberwick Green, Trumpton, and Chigley, while not dealing in recycling, were all terribly English depictions of village life without too much modernity poking its way through the stop motion animation that was another common feature of all of those programmes.
And it didn’t stop there either. Play School and Playaway, were also mired – where they generally remained until they were no longer made – in the Arts & Crafts/Folk movement.
Playschool, at that time, had little animated segments that were, to a very large degree, based on Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which were hugely influential in terms of children’s picture books at the time. My Aunty Val bought me a collection of Children’s Fairy Stories that was illustrated in the same manner, and how I wish I still had that. I can’t even remember what it was called so I can buy an old copy. Bah.
Anyway, the important thing about all of this is how the Arts & Crafts movement and the Folk revival of the late 1960s – early 1970s influenced children’s television to such a great extent. Is it important? Well, to me it is because what you’re exposed to in your early years is inevitably enormously influential. Again, it is to me, anyway…
Consequently, this instalment of the Tolerable Folk Music series is centred around songs that were part of Bagpuss.
i) The Bony King of Nowhere
From “The Owl of Athens” episode, in which Emily drops off a raggedy old bit of cloth that Professor Yaffle, the philistine based on Bertrand Russell – which I consider a bit of a stretch, bearing in mind that Russell was about as far from a philistine as you can get, I assume it’s just Bertrand’s voice that was the inspiration – considers to be worthy of throwing in the bin.
The mice start vigorously scrubbing it until Madeleine tells them to be gentle with it. Their cautious labours reveal a cushion with an owl embroidered on it, which leads to Madeleine telling the story of the owls of Athens, whose voices were beautiful before they were taken away from them by the Moon, as a punishment for the owls’ greed. Bagpuss, as an anthropomorphic cat whose job is to teach young children how to actively read, as opposed to doing it passively, creates the images for us to look at, so that we can learn to do it for ourselves. And that’s how I learned to actively read because, when we’re taught to read, we’re mainly taught about what letters make what sounds. The active reading part is often forgotten completely. Tragically. Which is a big reason why a lot of kids don’t like reading. They can decode graphemes, but that’s not really something that anyone enjoys in the same way that going shopping for ingredients isn’t many people’s idea of fun, but cooking and eating often is. Active reading involves thinking about the world you’re reading about – what are the characters likely top do in given situations? How will they respond to other characters? What can they do well? What do they avoid? And that’s before we even get to thinking about things like metaphors and imagery, and all the rest of it. No wonder so many kids are turned off reading by the National Curriculum which, in its haste to put the cart before the horse, means that a lot of Primary school teachers feel pressurised to get their children though SATs, as opposed to showing them how to enjoy a good story, which all kids naturally do. Fucking governments, eh?
Anyway, following that, Gabriel and Madeleine sing the song that relates specifically to the cushion that’s been cleaned up. And it’s great.
There’s a Bagpuss website that places this episode at the absolute bottom of the thirteen that were made – not because they think it’s awful, because there are no awful Bagpuss episodes, but because whoever wrote the list just found it a bit dull. For me, this is the best song in the Bagpuss canon and, unusually, I’m not on my own. (Relatively) famously, Thom Yorke (Radiohead – I’m not a big fan – I like a few of their records, but mainly I’m not very interested) professed his admiration for this one and, apparently, based their There, There single on it, going as far as subtitling it “The Boney (sic) King of Nowhere”.
I don’t really hear the similarity, myself, lyrically or musically, although I do quite like There, There – one of maybe five or six Radiohead songs I enjoy. Apparently, Oliver Postgate (Bagpuss creator) was asked if he’d make the video for it, but he declined, having retired. The closest it gets to Bagpuss is the stop motion effect, but even that’s more sinister than Peter Firmin’s homely style, and more redolent of Jan Švankmajer’s often quite frightening animations that regularly appeared late at night on Channel 4 in the late 80s. The puppets in There, There bear more resemblance to the Cosgrove-Hall 1980’s The Wind In The Willows adaptations (which were also fucking ace, and “featured” some props made by John Squire, of The Stone Roses, particularly a load of onions in one episode) than either Jan Švankmajer’s nightmarish Brothers Grimm hybrids, or Peter Firmin’s homemade, Arts and Craftsy, friendlier visions of nature.
Still, I’m not here to talk about Radiohead, I’m here to talk about Bagpuss, and The Bony King of Nowhere, despite being an original song by John Faulkner, with lyrics by Oliver Postgate, sung by Faulkner (who gave Gabriel the toad his voice) and Sandra Kerr (Madeleine). Faulkner and Kerr, at the time of recording were a married couple who’d met at Ewan MacColl’s traditional folk music club, The London Critic’s Group, which I’ve been, in roughly equal measures, pleasant and unpleasant about.
The likelihood is that Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin first came across Faulkner and Kerr as a result of both pairs working on Michael Rosen’s Sam On Boffs’ Island, which was also an early role for Tony Robinson, later to find fame as Blackadder’s long suffering servant Baldrick.
Faulkner and Kerr aren’t credited, but it’s them doing the music.
Anyway, The Bony King of Nowhere’s great. It’s one of those songs that kids enjoy because the payoff of each verse sounds like it’s going to be a slightly rude word, but the singers pause at the point at which they ought to sing the rude word – ramping up the tension, such as it is – and appear to think better of it, as if they’ve remembered that they’re singing for pre-school kids, and come up with an alternative that works just as well, without resorting to smuttiness. It gives the beautiful impression that the song’s being written at the same time it’s being sung, as well as giving kids the chance to – yet again – actively listen, as opposed to being passive viewers.
He jumped up on the teatable and said “Please will you find
A seat that’s soft and suitable To warm a king’s be-
(diddle-dee-dee – on a banjo or mandolin, you tell me)
Just see what you can find.”
Alright, “behind” isn’t especially rude, but it’s something for the kids to work out for themselves so they can see the benefit of paying close attention and being mentally active.
It’s cleverly done, and something else that you tend to find in the best folk music. And, make no mistake, some of the songs on Bagpuss are as good as folk music gets, as far as I’m concerned.
And, along with all of that, it’s dead simple as well. The story of a skinny king whose throne was too cold to sit on. His people bring him various things to fix his problem before ending up with the obvious – a nice cushion – to solve his problem for once and for all.
Which is Bagpuss in a nutshell, really. It’s straightforward but clever. It’s homely without being twee. The characters aren’t all lovely and perfect – particularly Professor Yaffle, but Charlie Mouse is a bit of a tearaway and one of the mice always sings a bit flat – but therein lies its charm. It’s an idealised microcosm of an idealised past that never truly existed, but probably should have.
ii) Uncle Feedle
The Uncle Feedle episode’s another of my favourites. It begins in the same way that all of the episodes begin: Emily drops something indistinct off, Professor Yaffle has a look at it and proclaims that he doesn’t know what it is, apart from being a bit of cloth, he and Bagpuss have a bland exchange that leaves no one any the wiser. Then one of the mice comes and makes a suggestion that Yaffle pooh-poohs, but it turns out that the mouse is right. The other mice get behind their spokesmouse, and have a bit of a sing song about it. Yaffle doesn’t like that either and tries to get Bagpuss on his side. Bagpuss decides to have a think about it, but he needs his thinking cap, which the mice provide. In this case, using the cloth house. Bagpuss decides that it is a house for a rag doll. Uncle Feedle’s house. Bagpuss’s active thinking visions conjure up an animation for Madeleine and Gabriel to sing the song of Uncle Feedle, interspersed with Madeleine doing the actions for a little dance. The song, as you can hear on the record (that wasn’t released at the time but is now – I strongly recommend it) is broken up for Bagpuss to explain the problems that Uncle Feedle had once he’d sewn all his rooms and furniture together inside his rag house.
As Professor Yaffle indicated earlier, a house made out of cloth isn’t going to stand up by itself, and Uncle Feedle’s doesn’t. Fortunately, the other rag dudes and dudettes are all altruistic sorts, and they know what to do: they go to the cotton wool bushes, pick a load of cotton wool and stuff the house full of it, so it stands up by itself.
The problem being, of course, now that it’s stuffed full of cotton wool, Uncle Feedle can’t get into his house, which is a problem because he’s made himself a bed and all that.
All the altruistic rag dolls sit down and have a think about it until one of the girls suggests turning the house inside out so that all the rooms are on the outside and the stuffing’s on the inside but not in the way of all of his rage consumer durables that he’s stitched together. Of course, it sounds ludicrous because the concept of a house is that it provides you with shelter. But, as the girl rag dolly points out, where they live, it’s always warm and it never rains, which is handy, even if it does lead to the inevitable question of why Uncle Feedle needs a house in the first pace.
And the song continues – pointing out the inside-out nature of Uncle Feedle’s abode. And it’s a fantastic, ominous sounding slice of nonsense that’s all about solving problems by thinking, I guess, outside the box, as coined by Edward De Bono.
None of that’s good enough for Professor Yaffle though. He points out that it’s a lovely story, even though it’s bollocks, obviously. Oh, and Bagpuss looks like a dick with Uncle Feedle’s house on his head. Oh, and it’s a stupid place to live, outside of a house.
But that’s the point, isn’t it? Yaffle’s presented as the thinker of the programme: he’s called Professor, after all. But what Yaffle does is stick to an overly rigid set of principles and, when anything threatens that, he pours scorn on it, because he doesn’t like new ways of thinking, new ways of doing things. He’s stuck in his ways and, the viewer notes, not very popular or happy as a result of it. The mice are prepared to think about things from original angles, Bagpuss is too, and Gabriel and Madeleine indulge everyone.
Gabriel the toad, the unsung – although simultaneously a singer – hero of Bagpuss, in many ways, he’s the father – points out that lots of people live in stranger places than an inside-out house, like the mice, for instance. He starts up another song, to the tune of Hush, Little Baby, Don’t You Cry, which the mice join in with to say that they live on the roof of a number 2 bus. Which they don’t, because they’re part of the wooden mouse organ, but they’re playing, aren’t they? Having fun, which Yaffle isn’t really capable of.
Naturally, that pisses Professor Yaffle off even more, and the idea begins to take root that maybe everything that goes on in Bagpuss & Co is nothing more than a conspiracy designed to drive Yaffle batty.
Jenny Mouse goes up to Madeleine and asks her – in song, naturally – where her house is. I don’t know about you, but part of me always hoped that Madeleine would come up with some psychedelic lunacy to drive Yaffle properly around the twist, but she’s too kind and sings that her home is wherever the mice are. And that’s Madeleine for you, the nurturing mother of Bagpuss who has no side to her at all. Yaffle and the mice are constantly sniping at one another like siblings do, but Bagpuss is the cool Granddad. Yaffle thinks he’s the grownup, but he’s one of the kids – the pedantic, overly serious one who can’t get on down with the fun. It’s a family dynamic, Bagpuss, and it’s beautifully inclusive.
As it happens, the rag house that Emily’s brought isn’t Uncle Feedle’s house because the outside’s on the outside – obviously, I suppose. Were the inside on the outside, we’d know whose house it was, wouldn’t we?
And that’s Bagpuss, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s idealised, yeah it’s a kids’ programme, and yeah, it’s safe as (inside-out) houses – but that’s the surface of Bagpuss. What Bagpuss is really about is showing little kids how to think and do things for themselves. Bagpuss teaches kids how to read a story and produce images in their minds, the mice teach kids that should have a go at doing things for themselves and to come up with their own creative ideas, even if they’re silly ideas that are just for fun. Yaffle teaches them that there’s nothing wrong with challenging received wisdom – by showing what a po-faced curmudgeon who never challenges orthodoxes looks like.
Not forgetting Madeleine the mum and Gabriel the dad, who show mums and dads how to gently guide and encourage their kids – give them a little bit of responsibility – and to join in with the play, while simultaneously making sure that everyone knows they’re loved, and putting their feet down on the occasions when over exuberance might lead to someone getting hurt.
The website I mentioned earlier suggested that Bagpuss wasn’t that great a children’s television programme because, while it entertains, it didn’t really inform, but that’s bollocks.
Yeah, Bagpuss is entertainment for kids, but it’s for kids to watch with their mums and dads. There’s always something to talk about afterwards, there’s always something to do afterwards, and there’s always something to learn – for everyone. There’s depth there, like the mice find with their collective, creative minds. There’s one of everyone else, but it’s the mice’s inclination to work together that produces results. It’s beautiful enough for everyone – you don’t have to think about what’s going on – like the website that decided there was no educational value in it – but it’s even better if you look a bit deeper, and challenge the orthodox ways of thinking about things. Bagpuss is, like The Beatles, for everyone. Especially mums and dads.
That’s right. You heard.
iii) The Miller’s Song
From everyone’s favourite episode of Bagpuss: The Mouse Mill, in which every kid’s dream of owning a machine that makes chocolate biscuits comes one step closer to reality. Almost.
As usual, Yaffle shows us how not to work things out – with reductionist thinking – by declaring that what Emily’s brought in is a box. Even though it’s got a front door. This time it’s Gabriel who points out that it’s not a box because it’s a house. Yaffle, never one to change his mind in the face of new information – another reason why he’s nothing like Bertrand Russell – pooh-poohs the idea by rhetorically asking who’d live in such a house. His wooden brothers, the mice, turn up and chorus that they’d live in it. It’s their size, you see. A mouse house. In they go, through the mouse sized door, where they open it up and show us what’s beneath the surface which, metaphorically, is what the mice always do.
Bagpuss, as the nurturing Granddad should, encourages the mice to think about what sort of mouse would live there and Charlie mouse points out that a miller would live there.
Cue the song for the episode and, ladies and gentlemen, it’s a beaut. Written especially for episode, it could stand on its own as a folk standard, this one.
As is often the case on Bagpuss, the marvellous, mechanical, mouse organ is brought into play. One mouse puts a roll of music into it, Charlie Mouse, as ring(leader)master announces it as another mouse operates the bellows. It’s contrived, of course, because there’s only one accompanying instrument – a guitar – which Gabriel (sort of) plays, even though he has a banjo. It doesn’t matter though, because the point of the marvellous, mechanical mouse organ is that it’s about working together, which is also what the song’s about too.
The ploughman ploughs the fields, the farmer plants and harvests the grain, the miller grinds the wheat to fill sacks full of flour, and the baker uses the flour to bake the bread. The chorus is about the changing of the seasons, and the implication is that nature is important, patience is important and so is working together.
Yaffle accepts that it is a sort of house and that someone must live there, and now comes the best part. Charlie mouse, the little tinker, has dressed himself up as a miller and whispered his plan to the other mice, who ring the bell to find out who does live there…
Charlie mouse answers the door, and all the other mice hug and greet him, which Professor Yaffle has no truck with, complaining that they’re all paying games again, which he has no truck with because playing games isn’t how you learn things. So says Yaffle, anyway. The one who never plays games and, incidentally and no unrelatedly, never gets anything right.
Charlie mouse ignores Yaffle and tells Bagpuss that it’s not a toy because it’s a real mouse mill. A real mouse mill that makes chocolate biscuits. Bagpuss is into it, being a connoisseur of chocolate biscuits, but Yaffle’s not having any of it, saying that there’s no such thing as a chocolate biscuit mill. Bagpuss too ignores Yaffle and asks the right question – what does it make chocolate biscuits out of? To which Charlie mouse replies, “Breadcrumbs and butterbeans” – butterbeans being the worst vegetable in the world, among stiff opposition – provoking further scorn from Yaffle, “You can’t make chocolate biscuits out of breadcrumbs and butterbeans!“
The mice, working together again, gather up butterbeans and breadcrumbs for Yaffle to inspect, which he accepts are butterbeans and breadcrumbs. Working together again, the mice use the cranes and pulleys to put the ingredients into the mill. Another mouse turns a key, the wheels turn, and out pops a chocolate biscuit, which another mouse carts off on a trolley. Charlie mouse calls for more butterbeans and breadcrumbs, and more biscuits arrive and are taken away again.
Bagpuss wants a little taste, but the mice won’t let him. Yaffle wants to see what’s going on, and the mice try in vain to stop him. Round the back, he inspects the various bits and works out that everything just goes around and around – the breadcrumbs and butterbeans go down into a bag that gets brought around the front again and there’s only one chocolate biscuit that gets pushed through the slot. Yaffle is triumphant at working out the conceit: “You don’t make chocolate biscuits out of breadcrumbs and butterbeans!” he crows.
“Butterbeans and breadcrumbs!?” say the mice, as if talking to an idiot, “You can’t make chocolate biscuits out of breadcrumbs and butterbeans!” they chorus, echoing Yaffle’s previous statement.
Yaffle, triumphant, goes around to the front, where Bagpuss is, and announces that it was all a trick, which Bagpuss doesn’t really care about because he’s falling asleep, which means everyone else goes to sleep, too, because that’s what happens in Bagpuss. Because Bagpuss is a cool, old Granddad, but he still nods off in the middle of what he’s doing.
Of course it’s all a trick – it’s a toy for kids to pretend to make chocolate biscuits. Kids know when they’re playing, but in order to enjoy playing something, you have to get into it and pretend it’s real at the same time.
What are we learning here? We’re learning that playing is a lot more fun than pointing out how it’s just playing, and you have to get into it to enjoy it. Yaffle can’t get into anything frivolous and thinks he’s better for it, but he’s not. His big reveal – it was all a trick – wasn’t news to the mice, who already knew that, but they had fun playing, and Yaffle just had a paddy because he’s more interested in being a smartarse than enjoying himself.
And what did mum and dad do? Provided a bit of entertainment and education that the mice helped with – even though they didn’t really, but they were made to feel included – and learned from.
Yaffled learned nothing that everyone didn’t already know, and the mice learned about division of labour, the seasons and they had fun playing at working in a chocolate biscuit factory.
Who’s the winner here, eh?
I’ll tell you who the winner is. It’s us. We’re the winners because we’re the mice. We love Bagpuss, but we know, as kids, we’re the mice. And what we’ve learned is that working together can be fun, provided we all get into it and we all play our part, or it all falls apart.
And that’s folk music too, isn’t it? Folk is the plural for which there’s no singular. That’s what it is, and that’s what it’s for – folk.
Fucking beautiful, man.
iv) The Porcupine Song
From The Hamish episode. Like all the other episodes, it’s exactly the same contrivance – Yaffle takes the first look, doesn’t know what it is and, this time, expresses frustration about Emily bringing all this crap into their shop. Madeleine points out that the concept is for them to repair and restore the things she brings to them, to which Yaffle asks, “How can we do that when we don’t know what it is?” Which is, more or less, what kids do when they’re frustrated. Madeleine, as is her role, shows both the kids (Yaffle) and the parents at home what to do – don’t just give up, be resilient.
“We can try to think of things it might have been,” Madeleine explains. Or, in other words, be creative. Use your imagination. I said earlier that Bagpuss was an Arts & Crafts programme, and it really is, isn’t it? It doesn’t just look like Arts & Crafts, it shows us that how to be Arts & Crafts. She suggests that it looks a bit like a tartan frog, and asks Gabriel if it might be a Scottish frog. Gabriel points out that frogs have different sorts of legs and they wouldn’t be tartan anyway because Scottish frogs are green and brown, just the same as frogs everywhere else, showing Yaffle and the Yaffle-like kids out there how you put an argument together using evidence rather than belittlement.
Madeleine, in her usual role as grownup, demonstrates how to include everyone by asking Bagpuss for his opinion. Bagpuss, as is his wont, requests a thinking cap. The mice dig out a tartan thinking cap for him, all the better to think about Scottish things which, in a manner of speaking, is pointing us towards schema theory – Bagpuss is going to be thinking about what he knows about Scottishness in order to unravel the mystery of this tartan cloth that Emily’s brought into Bagpuss & Co. Again, this shows us why Bagpuss is so great: it shows and it doesn’t tell. It gently guides without beating the audience over the head with the answer. “Let me see if I can think Scottish thoughts in a Scottish thinking cap“.
We see Bagpuss’ thoughts, and what he visualises for us is “A Hamish”, which looks a bit like an elephant with no ears. We don’t know what a Hamish is, even though we’ve seen a picture of one, and we want to know about it. Bagpuss shows us how to hook an audience into a story by introducing us to a name and an image. Bagpuss knows all about it though – we don’t know how, but that’s cool Granddads for you: full of stories and knowledge of how to tell them.
Anyway, Bagpuss tells the story of the Hamishes – shy, frightened creatures who hid away from people, and didn’t even have a name until they were discovered by Tavish Mc Tavish, himself a recluse. McTavish wasn’t a recluse because he didn’t like anyone, but because he was a considerate and inept bagpipe enthusiast who doesn’t want to inflict his noisy hobby on anyone else. How anyone can tell if someone plays the bagpipes really badly is beyond me, but I gather that’s my problem. One day, McTavish was playing the Bagpipes outside – as depicted in a lovely little 2D stop motion segment very much redolent of Ivor The Engine’s similar animation style – when dusk falls. He’s about to go inside his house when he hears someone else playing the bagpipes really badly nearby. Knowing that there was only one other person who played the bagpipes as badly as him – yeah, alright… – his brother, Hamish McTavish, Tavish hangs around and waits for him to come to his house.
In the darkness of the gloaming, a little silhouette wanders to his house and Tavish pats him on the head, commenting on how small and soft his brother is these days. Meanwhile, the kids watching it can see that it’s obviously not a McTavish brother because the silhouette’s the shape of the cloth thing that Emily’s brought into the shop. Again, active listening is rewarded, but nobody suffers if they haven’t worked it out yet.
Tavish asks if his brother – because he’s not worked it out yet either – has had his tea yet, and the little chap who made the bagpipe noises follows him inside. Inside, Tavish turns the light on, and they’re both amazed because neither is what the other thought they were. Still, having bonded over horrible bagpipe noises, it turns out that they give each other a chance, even though they’re not what they both expected. Tavish likes the warm, so sits by the fire, the Hamish – of course – likes the cold, so sits by the draughty door which, it turns out, makes things even better for Tavish McTavish. Opposites attract, eh? Tolerance for those who want different things? Oh yes.
They like each other’s company so much that they decide to live together. Tavish calls the little creature “Hamish”, after his brother. After a few years, they’re sitting inside their house when they hear the dreadful sound of badly played bagpipes and Hamish wonders aloud if this is his long lost brother playing bagpipes, but the Hamish shakes his head. Tavish asks if it’s his family, coming to look for him, and the Hamish nods sadly, because he knows he’s going to have to go with his own kind and leave Tavish, who he knows he’s going to miss.
Outside, there’s Hamish’s family, and they’re all dead pleased to see one another, and off they waddle, back to the cold, damp parts of Scotland away from Tavish’s little house.
This family reunion of the Hamishes has made Tavish realise that he doesn’t want to play the bagpipes anymore because he realises that he misses his family, so he goes to live with his sister-in-law, Mavis McTavish, who can’t stand bagpipes, so he never played them again. At this, Bagpuss gets upset and comments how it’s a very, very sad story.
Professor Yaffle, as per usual, pours scorn on Bagpuss’s story, “It’s not only sad, but it’s silly!” The joyless twat announces. “It’s not only silly, it’s not true!” Like that matters. Bagpuss’s story is a classic Granddad shaggy dog story: of course it’s not true, but that’s not the point. Of course there aren’t little cloth Hamishes with noses like bagpipes wandering around the Scottish highlands, making friends with unusually considerate Bagpipe enthusiasts, but the heart of the story most certainly is true: we don’t have to have everything in common with our friends, and we miss those who are most like us – our families – when we don’t see each other. It’s about a dichotomy we all face – we can’t have our cake and eat it too, but we can spend a bit of time making cake, and we can spend a bit of time eating cake. You need both, but you can’t have everything at the same time.
Yaffle points out that the cloth thing that Emily’s brought in is a porcupine. Without its spikes. Bagpuss points out that there’s no such thing as a porcupine without spikes, on account of the defining feature of porcupines is that they are covered in spikes. Yaffle counters this by suggesting that it’s lost its spikes and what it needs is a good song to encourage it to grow some more. What’s this? Has Yaffle started to learn about playing? The mice load up the marvellous, mechanical mouse organ with another roll of music, and Madeleine and Gabriel sing the Porcupine Song, with accompanying animation provided by the Mouse Organ.
The Porcupine Song is, appropriately enough for Yaffle’s sudden and unexpected conversion to learning through playing – in his case, learning how to enjoy himself, the theme from Bagpuss, but with words. Words about a porcupine who sails around in a hot air balloon. Yet again, giving the kids at home the chance to consider the possibility that a creature best known for shooting spikes out of its body in all directions might have chosen a more appropriate form of transport than flying around in a basket suspended from which is an eminently puncturable, inflated piece of cloth. Or, if they don’t work it out, the mums and dads watching with them might take a leaf out of Madeleine and Gabriel’s book and gently encourage the kids to do a bit of active thinking, perhaps like Bagpuss does when he puts one of his thinking hats on.
And it’s another great kids folk song – not a million miles away from The Owl & The Pussycat, another fantastic kids story that would have slotted into Bagpuss without any problems, if truth be told, what with the element of danger due to the inherent risks of two largely incompatible things put together, and with the reference to the Moon – it’s a travelogue. He goes over land, over sea, over fish and exotic animals, over hot places, and over cold places before the inevitable happens and one of his spines pops the balloon. Presumably he’s alright though, and just goes back to doing whatever it is that normal, non-aeronautically inclined porcupines do.
Yaffle though hasn’t quite grasped the concept of playing and expresses dissatisfaction that Gabriel and Madeleine’s song hasn’t had the effect of replacing the cloth porcupine’s spikes.
Bagpuss shows Yaffle – and us – how to use our imaginations to continue the story though by pointing out that an unpleasant experience such as plummeting from the sky due to your spikes inadvertently puncturing your hot air balloon might have put the porcupine off growing more spikes. Madeleine leaps on this and agrees with Granddad Bagpuss. She tells Yaffle that it’s a porcupine alright, but you’re meant to add the spikes yourself because it’s a pincushion. A porcupine pincushion, an alliterative tongue twister that Bagpuss can’t get his chops around properly. Gabriel repeats it for him gently. Yaffle, finally, shows a bit of creativity and announces that it’s a “Porcupin-cushion“, showing us the joy of making up portmanteau words.
The mice find a load of pins, and put it back to its former glory, all the while singing a gibberish mouse song about porcupingling, in the round, as Primary School kids (certainly used to, I don’t know about now) love, so it can go in the window.
Oliver Postgate, narrating, stumbles intentionally over the tongue twister as he draws the episode to a close and Bagpuss – and all his friends – go to sleep.
Bagpuss is one of the best loved kids programmes ever, and with good reason. It should be cloying in its evocation of a world that never was, but it’s not because of the underlying melancholy that runs through it like letters on seaside rock. Despite the naysayers who suggest that there’s no educational value in it, there most certainly is – for all the family.
And that’s the heart of it, really: Bagpuss is about a family dynamic, and how it can and should be. Supportive parents who understand the balance between ignoring kids completely and taking over completely, and who make creative play seem like a normal, fun thing to do, without ever beating anyone over the head with it. A grandparent who knows plenty of stories and how to tell them. A load of kids who have had their imaginations nurtured, as well as the importance of working together, and the weird kid who takes everything a little bit literally and finds it hard to enjoy himself, but who’s also encouraged to feel like he’s an important part, just the same as everyone else.
Yeah, it’s not reality – at least not for most people – but it should be. And, for fifteen minutes a week, even if your family wasn’t like that – and mine wasn’t – you could pretend it was, like Bagpuss and his extended family did.
All that, and folk music too. Spot on, Oliver Postgate, Peter Firmin, Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner. Absolutely spot on.