Children have rarely been treated so well since the Golden Age of UK television programmes that were created in the 1970s. Handcrafted efforts that convey quality with the desire to enthrall small minds, these programmes still manage to achieve this aim; fixing bright eyes to the television screen.
Bagpuss was a children's programme on British television in the 1970s that ran for only 13 episodes, but those episodes have been repeated countless times and have found channels through media and merchandising beyond the original. The quaint series deserves attention for its entertaining characters, captivating concept and the strange effects ageing has had on it.
Each episode starts and ends with the same sepia sequence of still pictures telling the viewer the story behind the show.
Emily, a young girl with long dark hair and a white dress, owns a shop - Bagpuss and Co - that doesn't actually sell anything. However, stored within the shop are things that Emily has found that other people have lost. These things are then displayed in the window so that the owner, should they walk past, can come in and collect their things.
The guardian, Bagpuss, watches over the shop and, once awakened from his sleep, can repair anything Emily brings to the store. When Bagpuss wakes up, all his friends wake up; the Mice from the Mouse Organ, Madeleine the doll, Gabriel the toad and Professor Yaffle, the woodpecker.
Once awake the inhabitants of the shop try to solve the mystery of whatever thing has been left by Emily, telling stories and singing songs to support their theories. However outlandish some of the stories may be, the mystery is always resolved in the end and the repaired and mended object is deposited in the shop window ready for collection should the owner ever pass by.
The music which accompanies the stories is very folk-orientated with plenty of penny whistle, banjo and violin playing.
The series was written and directed by Oliver Postgate with the pictures and puppets created by Peter and Joan Firmin. The voices are provided by Oliver Postgate, John Faulkner and Sandra Kerr.
The ongoing cast include:
Bagpuss is a saggy old cloth cat, with deep blue coloured eyes and alternately pink and pale yellow striped fur. He is by far Emily's favourite toy in the whole world. Awakened by a magical rhyme recited by Emily, Bagpuss can repair things by using his collection of magical hats. When he thinks about something his thoughts appear like magic. From his stories Bagpuss spent time before his retirement to Emily's shop as an adventurer, sea captain and general globe-trotter.
Madeleine, the Rag Doll, is a caring and considerate doll who provides a soft voice of reason whenever anyone gets carried away. Firmly the mother of the shop, she keeps everything in check, especially when the Mice get out of control with their over-vigorous cleaning efforts. She loves the Mice dearly - wishing she had half-a-dozen laps to adequately comfort them - and considers the shop her home. Her full name is Madeleine Remnant.
Gabriel, the Toad, is a green felt frog with large, dark amber eyes perched on a blue barrel with a banjo in his hands; he is a very traditional English folk singer type. Gabriel reveals nothing of his dreams or history, though his huge repertoire of tales and songs suggests he has travelled widely, or at least thoroughly studied the folklore of the world. His full name is Gabriel Croaker.
The Mice from the Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ, including Charlie Mouse1. The six mice are an enthusiastic gathering who do all the cleaning and mending. The mice, apparently, represent a small trade union, as they threatened to strike on one occasion when asked to work without singing. The Mouse Organ has a number of paper rolls that contain music and stories, pictures of which appear on a little screen at the front. When asleep the mice appear as carvings on the front of the organ within small arches. Many of the stories in the series relate to other mice who are known to the shop Mice, and Janey Mouse specifically refers to an Uncle and Aunt, which suggests the Mice belong to a wider family.
Professor Yaffle, the Woodpecker, is a grumpy cynic who, when inactive, is a bookend. Questioning and always doubtful, he spends much of his time dampening the enthusiasm of the Mice. At times Yaffle comes across with a very similar attitude to Graham Chapman's Major in Monty Python, proclaiming that everything is just too silly. While clearly studious in nature he rarely identifies anything Emily brings to the shop, is duped twice, successfully, by the Mice, and is, apparently, unable to count (refer to the episodes 'The Mouse Mill' and 'Flying' qv). Yaffle's most poignant moment is in 'The Ballet Shoe' when he is almost reduced to tears by the dance of a clockwork ballerina, suggesting underneath he has a softer heart. His full name is Augustus Barclay Yaffle.
Emily is a benevolent, loving child with long dark hair and an 'olde worlde' dress, she was the owner of the Bagpuss shop and seemed to spend her time filling it with all the lost things in the world. The magic nature of the shop and its content poses the possibility that Emily may be something far more than just a girl. Emily was, in fact, the daughter of Peter Firmin.
There were, in total, 13 episodes with different lost objects to repair:
'Ship in a Bottle' - the thing is a murky bottle filled with broken wood and fabric, which is revealed to be a ship in a bottle repaired by the magic of Bagpuss. The episode includes an illustrated story about how mermaids once assisted Bagpuss when he was captain of a ship and includes several pictures of their naked bosoms - perhaps of doubtful political correctness in the 21st Century.
'The Owls of Athens' - the object is a dirty piece of rag, which is almost ruined by the over-enthusiastic cleaning of the Mice until Madeleine stops them. A story about the wise Owls of Athens is told and how they were robbed of their fine singing voices. Gabriel claims that the rag was a cover for a cushion for the Bony King of Nowhere, who had it made because his marble throne made his bottom cold. The rag is repaired into an entirely serviceable cushion cover.
'The Frog Princess' - the thing is bits and pieces of metal, the function of which Professor Yaffle is unable to deduce. Madeleine reveals that they are the remains of the jewels of a water princess - while Gabriel manages to weave a frog into the tale. The poor princess is required to marry by law, but averts the inevitable with a quest to find her crown. A frog catches the crown thinking that it's a fly and the princess insists she must marry him. However, the frog doesn't want to and instead relieves the princess from her duties by turning her into a lady frog!
'The Ballet Shoe' - the object is a single, dirty old shoe 'that you couldn't wear because you'd have to hop everywhere'. The Mice proclaim that you could live in it, upon which point Madeleine tells of the old woman that lived in a shoe. Yaffle, however, points out that the old woman lived in a boot. The Mice and Gabriel then sing about two mice who use the shoe as a boat on a quest to find cheese, but ultimately Madeleine points out that it is the shoe of a prima ballerina. The Mice then drag out a clockwork ballerina which they set to dancing, leaving a dumb-founded and emotional Professor Yaffle close to tears by the object's beauty.
'The Hamish' - the object is a soggy-looking, dirty bag with legs made from tartan cloth. Bagpuss uses a tartan thinking cap to think Scottish thoughts, imagining a small, soft Hamish - a kind of lonely and shy mole that lived in dark and damp places. The Hamish was first discovered by the famous Tavish McTavish, the second worst bagpipe player in Scotland - the worst being his long lost brother, Hamish McTavish. Madeleine finally reveals that it's a pin-cushion without any pins, which the Mice provide.
'The Wise Man' - the objects are broken bits and pieces of ceramic-like things that the Mice manage to fix. At first, they only fix half, a turtle, leading to a song about Caribbean turtles. However, upon fixing the other end they find a Chinese wise man - the Wise Man of Ling-Po. Then follows the tale of the Wise Man and why the people of Ling-Po stopped making turtle soup.
'The Elephant' - the object in question is a tatty, straw, pink elephant with no ears. Madeleine and Gabriel exclaim that such an elephant could not fly, unlike other pink elephants. A song about ears leads to, among others, a lark, a snail and a crocodile doing rather intriguing Spock impressions. In the end the pink elephant is cleaned and gifted, by the Mice, with a hat that has flappy ear straps.
'The Mouse Mill' - the focal point is a box with a front door. 'Who would live in a box like that?', Yaffle queries in an early Loyd Grossman2 impression. The Mice proclaim it the residence of a mouse miller and show how it makes chocolate biscuits3 from breadcrumbs and butter beans. Yaffle reveals the process to be a fraud, but by the time he has finished, Bagpuss is falling asleep so the Mouse Mill is moved into the shop window. This is the first instance of an unsatisfactory Bagpuss story resolution!
'The Giant' - the object is another heap of broken bits of things - 'A statue of something', Yaffle deduces. Charlie Mouse claims it's a big, big, giant, giant - something Yaffle scoffs at as the statue is only three or four times as tall as the mouse and not much bigger than the woodpecker. Bagpuss tells a tale about a giant who wanted to be smaller as being big caused too much trouble, and so was aided by a magician in becoming the smallest giant in the world. Gabriel and Madeleine then go on to follow Yaffle's complaints with a song about how size is just a matter of personal perspective. Very deep.
'The Old Man's Beard' - the object is a mix up of twigs, sprigs and twisted bits with fluff. Bagpuss identifies the fluff as 'Old Man's Beard' and sets about telling the story of King Frederick XXIX, King of the Carpet Country, who saved the economy of his kingdom when he accidentally wove his beard into a carpet. The carpets sold, but other old men grew their beards and could not sell the hair for carpets - so they left them in the trees and hedges where they had been drying. Yaffle says the stuff is nothing more than Clematis citalba, a common climbing plant. However, the story has transformed the other bits and pieces into a loom which Madeleine and Gabriel sing a song about. Charlie Mouse demonstrates his knowledge of weaving by becoming a living shuttle - and creates a mouse bed on the loom before falling asleep on it.
'The Fiddle' - the object is an iron bucket with a hole in the bottom - 'a rusty old, dusty old, Irish bucket', says Yaffle mysteriously. Smoke issues from the hole and Gabriel explains it must be the home of a leprechaun. Bagpuss agrees and, upon hearing fiddle music, says it's Seamus O'Hoolihan. Bagpuss met the leprechaun in Ireland, some time before, and Seamus explained about his crock of gold - along with a story. Bagpuss denied interest in the treasure to which Seamus was so pleased he offered to send him his magical fiddle on a visit some time. Under the bucket Charlie Mouse finds the fiddle and sets about playing - though he has never actually played before. Madeleine sings a tale about another strange stereotypical Irish figure, a cheery countryman whose personal possessions are all made from natural things. Then, exhausted by the music and singing, everyone falls asleep. Of note is the fact that another mouse introduces the Mouse Organ while Charlie Mouse is playing the fiddle.
'Flying' - the object is a basket with things in it. A tiny twig broom leads to a song, by Madeleine and Gabriel, about the old woman that brushes the cobwebs out of the sky. The woman flew up beyond the Moon, so Janey Mouse mentions her Uncle Henry - a church mouse - who attempted to travel to the Sun. He did this - with he wife Aida - to scrape some of the gold off its surface with a teaspoon. Janey Mouse explains when their trip failed they came upon a cathedral mouse who told them the Sun was in fact made of fire and lay 93 million miles away. Yaffle says both tales are impossible so refers to a real air traveller from a book called Pratt's Aeronautics. Apparently, Yaffle cannot count as he asks for the green book third from his bookend, but the mice retrieve the book and it sits fourth along. The Mice dupe Yaffle by flying the basket using a fishing rod - scoring another hit against the cynical woodpecker. In the end the basket is displayed in case an old woman should need it to clean the cobwebs from the sky.
'Uncle Feedle' - the object is a piece of cloth, thin with markings on it. Charlie Mouse identifies it as a rag house for a rag doll and Bagpuss concurs the cloth can be used as a thinking hat. The tale of Uncle Feedle follows, a rag doll in a summery rag land, who, while wanting for nothing decided he wanted a house. He made one from cloth and silk, but it would not stand up. When other rag dolls suggested cotton wool, this proved ideal, but meant Feedle could not get inside. So, he turned it inside out, enjoyed the benefits of his rag house, especially his new rag bed, and lived happily thereafter. Gabriel, Madeleine and the Mice sing a song about homes, including a reference to Jenny Mouse. Madeleine mends the rag home and the Mice fill it with cotton wool. Then the rag home is displayed in the window, should a homeless rag doll pass by. The episode is notable for the idea that Feedle lives on a diet of cotton wool cabbages and corduroy carrots.
In all honesty some of the later episodes lost the sparkle of the earlier ones, with increasingly dubious items to focus the story-telling upon - like the chocolate biscuit making Mouse Mill that ended up putting Bagpuss to sleep. Items, like the basket full of things from 'Flying', end up being something fanciful rather than vaguely useful and it becomes a matter of telling tenuously linked stories rather than creating a believable theme. Professor Yaffle would no doubt describe the later episodes as 'fiddlesticks' and 'nonsense'. Of course, younger viewers are less likely to be concerned by this bit of late series padding.
The series was created in 1974, but has been repeated endlessly ever since to the delight of more than one generation of children. Now the series has been released on video and a new age of Bagpuss viewers can see the episodes again and again. At the same time, with fresh interest, the great merchandising engine of this age has kicked into gear offering beanie dolls, pencil cases, folders, books and annuals. There is life in the saggy old cat yet, falling apart at the seams or not.
Bagpuss and the other dolls actually still exist and remain in the hands of the co-creator of the series, Peter Firmin.