Bagpuss was a 1974 television show produced by Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate for their company Smallfilms. It was shown on the BBC in the UK. It consisted of thirteen episodes that each lasted 15 minutes – these episodes have been repeated for years since and In 1999 Bagpuss topped a BBC poll for the UK’s favourite children’s TV programme.
Each programme began in the same way: through a series of sepia photographs, the viewer is told of a little girl named Emily (played by Emily Firmin, the daughter Peter Firmin), 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 of her favourite stuffed toy, the large, saggy, pink and white striped cat named Bagpuss, originally intended by Firmin to be a retired Indian Army cat who entertained children in the hospital with his “visible” thoughts appearing in a “thinks bubble” above his head.
When Postgate and Firmin were asked to develop this character for a BBC programme Postgate placed him in the shop with other characters and his “thinks bubble” became a way to illustrate the stories and mend or explore the objects that Emily had found. Emily then recited 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
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:
- Gabriel the toad (who, unlike most Smallfilms characters, could move by a special device beneath his can without the use of stop motion animation.)
- Madeleine the rag doll.
- Professor Yaffle – A wooden woodpecker bookend became the drily academic (based on the philosopher Bertrand Russell, whom Postgate had once met.)
- The mice – These were carved on the side of the “mouse organ” (a small mechanical pipe organ that played rolls of music.) They woke up and scurried around, singing in high-pitched voices.
Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner provided the voices of Madeleine and Gabriel respectively, and put together and performed all the folk songs. All the other voices (including the narrator and one out-of-tune mouse) were provided by Postgate, who also wrote the stories.
The toys discussed what the new object was; someone (usually Madeleine) would tell a story related to the object (shown in an animated thought bubble over Bagpuss’s head), often with a song, accompanied by Gabriel on the banjo (which often sounded a lot more like a guitar), and then the mice, singing in high-pitched squeaky harmony to the tune of Sumer Is Icumen In as they worked, mended the broken object. The newly mended thing was then be put in the shop window, so that whoever had lost it would see it as they went past, and could come in and claim it. Then Bagpuss would start yawning again, and as he fell asleep the narrator would speak as the colour faded to sepia and they all became toys again.
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.