Many people of a certain age will know the name Postgate. It conjures up hand-crafted worlds, rich storytelling and adorable characters. From the 1950s to the 80s, animator Oliver Postgate and his designer friend Peter Firmin embodied the phrase “small is beautiful” with their series for children. Their company called Smallfilms, based on a farmyard in Kent, gave us Ivor the Engine, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, Pogles’ Wood, Bagpuss and, of course… Clangers.
Oliver’s son Daniel Postgate was just six when the original series premiered in 1969. “My dad was often busy at Peter’s farm filming it,” Postgate tells Radio Times. “The Clangers’ planet was in the big barn and they had swallows nesting in there. So they had to clear up the droppings before they started filming.”
As a boy, Postgate would have been the envy of his friends. “I used to take all the Clangers away, set them up and pretend they’d landed on Earth, then take photographs of them. Peter wasn’t precious at all with his puppets. Once they’d done their job he was happy to let them be played with. I played with a Skymoo until it fell apart, which was a bit of a crime really, in hindsight.”
The Skymoo is just one creature coming back in the 2015 version of Clangers, a 52-episode series being made by Factory studios in Altrincham. There are also Froglets, the Iron Chicken, the Soup Dragon, Hoots and many more.
So what did Postgate, now 51 and both a writer and executive producer on the updated version, want to preserve and what did he want to change?
“The thing is, I wanted to preserve as much as possible because it was a very popular programme – and still is, 45 years later. So you start tinkering and fiddling about with it at our peril, really.”
Postgate and Peter Firmin, 86, who is also an executive producer on the new show, were adamant about keeping the stop-motion animation, rather than letting the more commonplace CGI be used to render the characters. And also that the Clangers should continue to live an existence far removed from today’s life on Earth.
“We didn’t want to update it in such a way that the Clangers were using iPads or things like that,” explains Postgate. “It still exists in this strangely non-specific period of time.”
Postgate started out as a cartoonist, working for The Sunday Times and Radio Times, before he moved into children’s books. He now writes in a shed at his home in Whitstable in Kent.
“I was an illustrator and then I started writing stories… so I’d have something to illustrate! I never dreamt of writing full time because I was quite dyslexic, in actual fact, but I’d see things in quite a visual way.”
So he brings an illustrator’s eye to the storytelling? “Definitely. When I’m writing the stories I can see the action in my head. It’s almost like I’m sitting down and watching it on telly. Children’s picture books have been a really useful process because you have to be so succinct. And a picture book has to be a story that has some resonance and will last, so that the kids want to hear it again and again. That’s worked very well as a foundation for doing the stories for Clangers.”
It turns out that Postgate has brought elements of autobiography to the show, too. “Major Clanger is far more like my dad than in the original series.” Like the Major, Oliver loved inventing things. He used that skill to hone his animating techniques – and even used a biro to make a swanee whistle for the voice of Tiny Clanger!
“There’s a bit more emphasis on character in the new series; there are through-line stories about particular characters and their internal life.”
Postgate goes on to contrast the commissioning of programmes in 1969 with the present day. “When my dad made Clangers they just went along with something on the back of an envelope and they said, ‘Oh yeah go ahead, here’s 100 quid an episode.’ Of course, now there are all these other considerations to take into account. But I’ve been absolutely delighted with the way that it’s gone. Everybody’s been doing exactly what I hoped.”
Inevitably, however, there are differences in the two versions of the show. While Oliver Postgate refused to patronise his young audience, some of the slightly darker and more satirical elements of his scripts have gone. After all, Clangers is now aimed mainly at the three- to five-year-old market on CBeebies.
Daniel Postgate elaborates: “Children watch TV in a different way than they did when we were kids. They watch it on tablets and they watch the TV on their own, so I think it’s quite reasonable for us to make the programme a little bit warmer.” The colour palette is certainly brighter and more vibrant now. “Visually it’s lovely and works very well,” adds Postgate.
“I hope it will be very popular. It will be exciting to see how it works with kids these days. We’ve done some preliminary work: they’ve been shown to kids and the reaction has been very good indeed.”
Already sold to America and Australia, it seems Clangers has a format that is easily translatable. “The Clangers have no cultural identity,” agrees Postgate. “They’re not set in any specific place around the world so they don’t have any geographical identity and they don’t speak in English. So all that needs to be done is for whatever country that buys it to get its own narrator.”
Star Trek’s Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, has already been hired to narrate the American version. (“Clangers: the final frontier” perhaps?)
And finally, what does Postgate think his father would make of the new version: “I think he’d really like it and he’d say we’ve all done a good job on it.
“When I started working on the stories I was thinking everybody’s going to want it all pepped up and zingy. But when I talked to the BBC they said, ‘That’s exactly what we don’t want. We have those sorts of programmes and we want Clangers to be Clangers and I thought [big sigh], ‘Thank goodness for that!’”
Clangers begins Monday 15 June on CBeebies at 5.30pm