Monday, December 15, 2008

...but the Controlling Thompson loved him

Only a mildly wonky but ultimately rather agreeable trip to Canterbury to perform (twice) a semi-improvised farrago called At Home with my dear pal and compadre Lucy Ellinson -- and, before that, the few days of preparatory frenzy entailed thereby -- has kept me from dropping in here as soon as I'd have wished to mark the loss to this fragile planet of yet another of the Controlling Thompson's favourite human beings. (Note to Death, if you're reading: put the sickle down for a moment, bozo, I'm running out of heroes here.)

You'll probably already know, then, that Oliver Postgate, creator (or co-creator) of such peerless children's tv animations as Bagpuss, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Pogle's Wood, and a writer and craftsman of greater ambit even than this top-line resum√© describes, died last Tuesday, aged 83. Not all Thompson's readers may, however, be aware of my own brief connection with Oliver, and rather than duplicate the potted obits and encomia that have rightly been published and broadcast over the past few days, it might perhaps be a better use of this space to describe that personal experience. For reasons that will become clear, it might be seen as a rather impertinent blob of divulgences, but I trust that my limitless respect and affection for Oliver and everything he stood for won't for a minute be obscured.

When, in the early spring of 2007, I conceived my solo performance Hippo World Guest Book -- a verbatim piece about a real web site frequented by hippopotamus enthusiasts (and their detractors) -- two things became dauntingly clear very early on. Firstly, that there would be a large amount of expositional material for the front end of the piece, which was certainly indispensible but likely also to be indigestible; secondly, that what I feared might seem a rather drily, or even rebarbatively, 'conceptual' piece might well benefit from being warmed up in some way, so as to make it a little softer and more fluid as it entered its audience's perceptual airspace. Quite quickly I hit on what seemed like the right solution: to get someone, ideally someone with a recognizable and trusted voice, to narrate that exposition, as a sort of taped introduction while I set up my props &c. on stage. Figuring out who the best person to approach would be took slightly longer: not because Oliver Postgate wasn't the glaringly obvious choice -- for almost any British person of my generation, his voice was both as familiar as a parent's and as trustworthy and timeless as God's -- but because one is always nervous of approaching persons who have loomed so large.

Eventually, though, I summoned the courage to send him an email, through his web site. I'd discovered his site a few months previously -- it's still there and still worth visiting, not least because it collects much of his political and polemical writing, some of which had been blog posts for the New Statesman. These pieces can seem surprising at first: their tone is perhaps not as unshakeably genial as you might expect from the inventor of Ivor the Engine or Professor Yaffle, though their titles can sometimes seem to place them in a lineage of affably nonconformist -- and thoroughly, even parochially, English -- light essay: they're called things like "Where Are We Up To Now?" and "Let's Not Go On Being Stupid"... But the analysis and, at times, the language is sharp, and the strength of feeling behind them is unmistakeable. The piece on Trident, from 2006, is possibly the best I've read on that topic. Not everything he says in these essays quite hits the nail on the head but of course in their favour is a certain element of being delighted that they exist, and are published, at all; while we await the release from embargo of Tony Hart's visionary manifesto for a third Situationist International, Postgate's political and current affairs writings -- sane, salutory and wonderfully energised -- are undoubtedly to be celebrated, and have been too little recognized in the obituaries elsewhere.

Anyway, that's exactly the cover under which I made my overture to Oliver in the spring of '07: I wanted him to know how much I appreciated that Trident piece, and happened to mention also that, were he willing, I'd love to discuss with him a project I was working on, etc. etc. He was kind enough to email me back, though to be honest I'd have struggled to be bowled over, exactly, by his enthusiasm for the idea. It was pretty clear even at that stage that he knew that his time was short and he wasn't keen to waste any of it. "Basically," he wrote to me in that first message, "whether I say something depends on what it is I am to say and whether I would be heard dead saying it, which is quite likely as I have inadvertently grown old and variously ill." Nonetheless he agreed to take a look at the text I was hoping he'd read, and a correspondence began.

As our dialogue continued, much of his initial wariness and (gently ironic) curmudgeonliness dissipated, though he was absolutely clear about what was, and wasn't, on. He insisted on making some rewrites to the script: some of which were clear and welcome improvements; others were pedantic but not objectionable; a couple, I thought, were deleterious: and I tentatively but politely said so, and sent him a final version which incorporated those changes he'd made that I thought were OK, but reverted to my original where necessary. This finalised text he received without further specific comment, which I hoped was a good sign.

I'd assumed I'd have to go to Broadstairs to record him, but he had the apparatus to hand to be able to record an mp3 at home, and so in due course he sent me a cd with a couple of takes. It probably almost goes without saying that the version he recorded was not the one I'd sent him, but the one he'd previously sent me. Possibly the realization that he'd quietly ignored my amendments influenced how I heard that first take; at any rate, I didn't much like it, it was a little curt and unmellifluous. I well remember that heart-sinking feeling: was I going to have to go back to him with notes, or, even worse, confess that I didn't think I could use his versions at all? But then, track two, the second take, began: and it was beautiful. Ineffably warm and generous and suffused with exactly the kindness that so distinguished his work for children -- a kindness that necessarily vibrated with a sense of secrecy and mischief, a sort of intimacy that glows in the heart of all the best storytelling and, dare one say it, much of the best political thinking. It was exactly what the show needed.

Even from there, it wasn't plain sailing -- he wanted approval of the music that I intended to layer his voice over (following, apparently, a finger-burning episode from years before: "I once read some Noggin at a ghoulish fiasco in Sheffield and they planted a putative guitarist to accompany me with heavy chords"... -- one can certainly see why he might have been reluctant to let me have my unregulated way with his recorded voice). Moreover, he quite insistently stipulated that he wasn't to be credited: that I was at liberty to confirm to anybody who asked that, yes, it was his voice; but that I wasn't to offer the information unsolicited. This, I suppose, was partly to ensure that we didn't use his name as a promotional device, particularly perhaps if the material of the show itself was not easily compatible with the benign, family-friendly associations his name might be expected to conjure. (His inference on this point was not by any means inaccurate.) Still, it left a curious atomsphere of furtiveness around his involvement, which I slightly regretted, though I quite understood his concerns. -- It's on this point, obviously, that I feel a little awkward about posting this stuff here: but I can't see that it matters now, not really.

At any rate, the end-product was worth every sticklesome moment of our collaboration, and even at my most downcast, when the show itself, during its Edinburgh run, was being kicked almost to death by tin-eared, feeble-hearted critics, I always felt restored, defrosted, to hear Oliver's voice (and Graeme Koehne's music) coming over the speakers, leading the audience by the hand into the strange world of the piece. To hear him was poignant even at the time -- as he himself warned me in his first email, "my voice is grislier than of yore"; listening back to it on the day he died was almost unbearable: but still, incredibly, beautiful and oddly elevating.

Not long after our brief collaboration ended -- and with it our correspondence -- Oliver was the guest on Desert Island Discs. His choices were much as you'd expect: in other words, mostly not at all what you'd expect. As I sat enthralled by the programme, hearing him tell in highly abbreviated form the colourful life story that he narrates with remarkable skill and candour in his genuinely wonderful autobiography Seeing Things (the audiobook version of which is probably the nicest gift you could ever buy for whatever fiddly bits of neuro-string connect your brain to your ears), I felt as if I were listening to a close friend. It made me sad and happy in equal measure to realise pretty shortly afterwards that everyone listening would almost certainly have been feeling the same thing.

After Hippo World Guest Book was put to bed, I wrote one last time to Oliver to thank him again for his contribution: and this time, there was no hint of grumpiness or impatience in his reply -- just delight that I was delighted, and pleasure at having done a good job. Throughout our exchange, and despite my contrary insistence, he had always refused to even discuss a fee. "I will either do whatever-it-is for nothing, or not at all," he'd said at the start, and now, at the end of it all, he said so again. "Just buy your hippo a big bag of good grass for me."

It's difficult to know whether to even attempt a paragraph in which I try to convey my sense of Oliver Postgate's importance, not just to me but to the wider culture, at least during the time that his work was being widely broadcast. One can only sound hyperbolic in relation to what was, nevertheless, an almost indescribable level of achievement. I really think there's no more important work that can be done than telling children stories that unite the virtues of impeccable craftsmanship, the courage of the imagination taken seriously, and the intensely alive, subversive, liberating potential of kindness at its furthest and most virtuosic reaches. For me, Jim Henson and Oliver Postgate are two of the very most important cultural figures of the past fifty years, and the deep impact of their pioneering bravery will still be reverberating years after countless Nobel laureates and Oscar winners have been utterly forgotten.

As I did with Ken Campbell, I thought I'd post a couple of audio clips that you might find it hard to track down in other places. (Lord knows if you need reminding how good Ivor the Engine is, or Bagpuss, there's plenty at YouTube. Worth also taking a look, though, while you're there, at Alchemists of Sound, a 2003 documentary about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, to which Postgate lends his voice. Great stuff all round.)

So here, first of all, is that Hippo World Guest Book intro, in its final version. (The music is from Graeme Koehne's Inflight Entertainment, by the way. So, no big guitar chords there.) And then, an episode from 1998 of Ben Moor's wonderful radio series Elastic Planet, which Postgate narrated. He was a bit dismissive of this series when I asked him about it, but his voice works perfectly in it for all the reasons that I think it worked perfectly for Hippo World too. 'The Shape' is one of my favourite episodes, and features not only Postgate but also another great communicator from what I'm certain really was a non-illusory golden age of children's tv: Johnny Ball.

Please, enjoy these two snippets of marginalia from a truly great man. I'll be back here before you know it.


tomkendall said...

I finally got round to rereading the Hey Matthew piece you sent me and it was just as touching and beautiful as i remembered it being. Are you going to post that video with the voice over up? Not to sound to famous five but i do wish you would.
Itd be good to hang once new year iz all outta the wayz.

simon said...

Thank you. Thank you. Listening again to that intro though I can see why I assumed it was you speaking: a perfect marriage of voices, Chris.