The death of Dick Bruna, creator of Miffy, the white rabbit whose lack of facial features other than two dots and a cross for eyes and a mouth gave new meaning to the idea of subtlety of expression, calls to mind the several two-dimensional companions of my childhood and fatherhood. Personally, I found Miffy a damn sight too twee, although I accept that s/he (did we ever find out?) was and remains adored by millions now in their forties. But s/he is one in that relatively short line of hand-drawn children’s companions of the 20th century. Which leads me briefly to ask myself how Pepys or Eleanor of Aquitaine or Harold Godwinson ever made it through childhood without their own set of stories based on a saggy, stuffed, somnolent cat; or on a grotesque manikin with belled red cap and a wooden head as is normally found only in MR James’ horror tales. Perhaps they had their own. Maybe hidden in the Bayeux Tapestry or in the Diaries are obscure references to men emerging from cupboards in fancy dress, or to a vampiristic water fowl with a dislike of meat. I hope so.
But, you see, I’ve already slipped from print to screen. Looking back 65 years I can’t remember picture books with recurring, familiar, beloved characters. I’m not sure there are that many that I can recall sharing with my own little girl for that matter. For we despised Noddy and we liked Dr Seuss enormously, but he was an American iconoclast of language (as my four year-old once put it), too way-out to be snuggly. Pooh and co. would take up arms against anyone categorising them as picture books. No, it’s the friends who regularly reappeared weekly on TV that I and she and I’m sure my grandchildren love the most – for once books are beaten into second place. It’s having a letter FROM versus the arrival OF someone.
We had no TV until I was 10. A black and white small screen showed me the Woodentops, a bucolic string puppet version of the Archers without the one-liner jokes, with Spotty Dog even then demonstrating that uncanny ability to walk with left legs forwards together, then right legs ditto that plagued BBC puppeteers for decades. There was Andy Pandy in his onesie with his maniacal fixed stare like that ventriloquist’s dummy Fats in “Magic“; and the immensely dull Picture Book presented by Patricia Driscoll in a cut glass accent, a condescending smile and a conical bra that got me intensely interested – NOT in the picture book – even though I was still in short trousers. But not one character that I mentally took to bed with me – though, be fair, I was 10 and watched these programmes largely because the medium of TV itself was a novelty to me. To our house. To much of our street. God, I used to watch the test card.
Thus it wasn’t until my daughter arrived that I found just how much those 15-minutes-daily adults-know-best attitudes had morphed into genuine entertainment and simple fun, even full-blown silliness. The first Thomas tales were voiced magically by Johnny Morris, who made Henry into an effete narcissistic wimp with Thatcherite vocal overtones; Thomas into a cheeky Dickensian urchin; and Gordon into Boycott or Foggy:
Mr Benn, the first cross dresser in my life, lived in Festive Road. The shopkeeper wore a fez. The change of clothes was invariably hung on the simian silhouette of a man on the point of picking up an armchair, minus the armchair.Thanks to Magic Roundabout I could imitate to a T the weeshing sound made by Mr McHenry’s bike as he arrived; and the phrase “Time for bed, said Zebedee” was uttered in unison many times by me and my little girl.
The surreal Mr Men were voiced deadpan yet as complete idiosyncratic individuals by Captain Mainwaring’s alter ego.
The voice (which I still love to imitate) of the cowardly, inept, lazy but lovable Captain Pugwash, that of his adenoidal mate, the ship’s name The Black Pig and that jaunty signature tune are with me forever. Captain Flack led the weekly roll-call of the Trumpton firefighters (who were…? Well done.). Bagpuss (my bestest show of all) had for companions Professor Yaffle (a folk name for green woodpecker, did you know?); Madeleine, a rag doll wearing what she thought an enticing smile; and a number of mice seemingly always high on mescalin; and was voiced, as so much of my TV fatherhood was, by Oliver Postgate. “As the tale-teller murmurs to and fro, to and fro, O my Ivor and my Noggin long ago“. All the above were among the leading leading characters of a Golden Generation of Television for Young Children (and for adults willing to be children, something not hard for me).
It’s lovely to see that plays on words, which children always adore, jokes, wit, knockabout, and even naughtiness and the occasional risqué escapade are given free rein in young children’s’ TV today. But it was the 60s that opened the door to this permissiveness, this freedom to have fun with language and image and character and deeds. I’ll wager my head that there are many of those names that I’ve mentioned above (from many others) which have instantly caught your eye and stirred memories. And made you smile. As they always will. And in ways that the page-bound Miffy, for all her charm, never can.
(I’ve just found this episode. So beautiful the sooo simple start at 00. 09 – 00.29. To paraphrase DH Lawrence’s Piano:
“In spite of myself the insidious mastery of Bagpuss
Betrays me back… the glamour of childish days is upon me,
My manhood is cast down in the flood of remembrance.
I weep like a child for the past.”)