Thanet Writers Spotlight Oliver Postgate

David Chitty highlights the life, works and legacy of writer and animator Oliver Postgate, and spotlights his connection to Thanet.

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Richard Postgate, better known as Oliver Postgate, revolutionised the children’s television industry during his decades-long career. He was responsible for some of the most iconic stop-motion television in British history with Ivor the Engine, Clangers and Bagpuss.

Born in Middlesex in 1925, Oliver seemed to have an optimum start to life. The son of a journalist and writer, cousin to Angela Lansbury, grandson of George Lansbury and Latin classicist John Postgate, Oliver had a great environment to explore and develop his creativity. His early life, however, was devoted mainly to the war that dominated Europe. He was granted an exemption from the punishment for conscientiously objecting, as his father had done in the First World War, so long as he worked on the land or in social service. He worked on a farm until the end of the war, when he went to now occupied Germany with the Red Cross to provide social relief.

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When he returned from Germany, bounced around numerous jobs until, in 1957, he became the stage manager for Associated-Rediffusion, who held the ITV franchise for London. It was at this job where he met his future business partner Peter Firmin. While working on a black and white show that he’d written called Alexander the Mouse, he convinced Peter, a teacher at the Central School of Art, to create the background art for it. Alexander the Mouse was a success and Oliver was given the budget to do a new show. What came out of that was The Journey of Master Ho; a show intended for a deaf audience to cut down on production costs. The show had its own problems but it created a start for Oliver and Peter to start their own company devoted solely to making children’s entertainment.

The duo created the company Smallfilms in a disused cowshed by his home near Canterbury. Oliver wrote the scripts, moved the models for the stop motion and did many of the voices for the shows. It was here, in 1959, that Ivor the Engine was made. What followed was a range of television shows that the team created, including Oliver’s most known works; Bagpuss, which was later voted the most popular children’s television program of all time in a BBC poll, and the Clangers. Oliver would later move to Thanet, but kept Smallfilms in the cowshed in Blean.

In the late 80s Oliver’s career with the BBC came to an end and he returned to the social activism of his younger years. Many have inferred a politically left message from some of his television work, however he made his views perfectly clear without hidden subtext. He would publish political essays on his website on a wide variety of topics such as the negatives of capitalism, warmongering, and, of course, the state of children’s television. In one such notable essay, ‘Does Children’s Television Matter?’, he wrote:

Suppose, if you will, that I am part of a silent Martian invasion and that my intention is slowly to destroy the whole culture of the human race. Where would I start? I would naturally start where thought first grows. I would start with children’s television. My policy would be to give the children only the sort of thing that they ‘already know they enjoy’, like a fizzing diet of manic jelly-babies. This would no doubt be exciting, but their hearts and their minds would receive no nourishment, they would come to know nothing of the richness of human life, love and knowledge, and slowly whole generations would grow up knowing nothing about anything but violence and personal supremacy. Is that a fairytale? Look around you.

Oliver wasn’t just talking about injustices, however. He was active in writing wrongs where he saw them and was able to use his position to help those less fortunate. One example of his social activism is the Bagpuss Children’s Wing in Brasov. Oliver financed the construction of the ward when his friend, who was involved with the project, asked him to purchase them some needed equipment. He got them what they needed as well as putting his personal money forward to finance the rest of the build of the ward.

Postgate dedicated many of his later years to environmental activism and campaigning for nuclear disarmament. In 1986 he published a reinterpretation of the life and death of Thomas Becket. This was produced as a book and a video that were both illustrated by Oliver, and he also created a 50-foot Bayeux-Tapestry-style Illumination. Later, in 2000, he released a memoir, Seeing Things: an Autobiography.

In 1987 Oliver was given an honorary degree by the University of Kent at Canterbury, yet he declared that it was in fact intended for Bagpuss. At the ceremony, Bagpuss appeared in full academic dress to accept the honour.

In December 2008, Oliver Postgate passed away in a nursing home near his flat in Broadstairs, Thanet. His legacy and influence on not only a generation of children, but also on an emerging art form in children’s television, is still felt to this day.

David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.

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