Fantasies of Hand-Made Television

Fig. 1 - The Witch from  The Pogles , photographed by the author at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition  Bagpuss and Co  in March 2016.

Fig. 1 - The Witch from The Pogles, photographed by the author at the V&A Museum of Childhood exhibition Bagpuss and Co in March 2016.

My first encounter with animated fantasy was, ironically, static in two dimensions. While I wasn’t born when Smallfilms’ The Pogles was originally broadcast by the BBC in 1965, I grew up watching repeats of Pogles’ Wood (Oliver Postgate,1965-1967) in the Watch with Mother slot in the early 1970s. Some kind person bought me the hard-cover annual from the original series (that was never repeated by the BBC because it was considered too frightening), and I can clearly remember the delighted horror with which I would timorously turn the page to see the villainous Witch of the story – the reason for the one-time-only broadcast. I did this again, and again, to the point where the annual has now fallen apart. I was simultaneously horrified and captivated by that Witch, but never saw her move until I researched my monograph Hand-Made Television: Stop-Frame Animation for Children in Britain, 1961-1974 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), though she was surely, on some level, the reason that I wrote it. In that book, I explored the aesthetics and significance of stop-frame animated British children’s television of the 1960s and 1970s, taking the works of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s Smallfilms, Gordon Murray Puppets, and, to a lesser extent the production company FilmFair, as my focus. My main address was to the crafted, hand-made aesthetic of this television and, in relation to this, to the qualities of animated movement and magical temporalities they produced. When the book was used by the curators of the Bagpuss and Co exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in 2016, I was invited to the opening. My excitement at meeting Peter Firmin was (only slightly) overshadowed by my encounter with the Witch, in all her tattered horror, as she appeared to float, unsupported, in her display case, fixing me with her beady eyes. It felt like she’d been waiting for me come (Fig. 1).

While the quality of her stop-frame-generated movement – a key focus of Hand-Made Television - in The Pogles was disturbing in its unpredictability and irregularity, it was clearly the material quality of the Witch’s ‘thing-ness’ that I found so horrifying in photographs collected in the annual. This was confirmed by the frisson I experienced later in the encounter with her at the museum, in which the details of her stuff, her textures, her fabric – that remained vague and only partially graspable in print and on screen – were made present to me for the first time (see Amy Holdsworth, Rachel Moseley and Helen Wheatley, forthcoming in VIEW 15 ‘Using Television’s Material Heritage’, for further reflections on encounters with television’s material history in the museum).

These memories and experiences underpin the first fantasy of Hand-Made Television: any idea I might have had that I could write a book on this topic, which was not based on my own nostalgic relationship to the television programmes it explores. In the book, I suggested the ways in which personal experience and nostalgia had structured the few engagements with children’s stop-frame animated British television of the 1960s and 1970s, and my own is no exception, though I did not reflect on it at the time. As television scholars, our relationship to television cannot help, in my view, but be based in some way on a personal response to the medium’s telephiliac potential.  The possibility of aesthetic and intellectual distance, then, is the first fantasy of hand-made television and Hand-Made Television, that I want to suggest.

The second kind of fantasy relates to the ‘stuff’ of stop-frame animation – the textures and qualities of object-ness on which it depends – the torn netting of the Witch’s hood, the rough woollen texture and frayed edges of her cloak, for example, displayed in the photograph above. Our relationship to object animation necessarily has a tactile dimension, and our response to stop-frame television is located in its (typically) domestic consumption and our understanding of the materials from which the animated characters and objects are made – the hardness and sharpness of her carved wooden face, the glassy quality of her eyes. We know these things from our experience of similar things in ‘the real world’.  We know what she would feel like if we could touch her – spiky, rough and yet probably, quite eerily insubstantial.

Fig. 2 - Visitors meet Rosie and Jim at The Story of Children’s Television exhibition.

Fig. 2 - Visitors meet Rosie and Jim at The Story of Children’s Television exhibition.

We also know, on some level, that the Witch is made, crafted, by a person. There are traces of this making in visible stitches, in escaped globs of glue and in the mythical thumbprint in clay, as well, as I argued in the book, in the quality of movement of stop-frame animation itself. Through our understanding of this comes a human connection which underpins our need to get close to television’s material history when we come across it. This was evident in the impossibility of getting through the crowds to look at Bagpuss in his case at the V&A exhibition, in my reaction to encountering the Witch, and in the responses of visitors to the Story of Children’s Television exhibition at The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum in Coventry in 2015, as we describe in VIEW (Fig. 2).

This relationship to the material qualities of stop-frame animated television also produces a particular relationship to animated fantasy. Landscapes, objects, characters and scenarios are ‘made real’ through this relationship, no longer quite so securely fixed as part of an intangible, ethereal ‘other world’, but made present, here, through their familiar qualities of ‘thing-ness’. Smallfilms’ use of real-world settings for their pastoral fantasies are a case in point here, in contrast to programmes such as Gordon Murray’s Camberwick Green (1966) and FilmFair’s The Herbs (Michael Bond, 1968), which were shot in crafted studio? environments. In The Pogles, the appearance of the Witch against the chalk rocks of the south coast, and on the woodland floor, brought her disturbingly close to home. At the same time, the significant relationship between the movement of objects in stop-frame animation and the child’s hand at play offers a reassuring (fantasy of) agency and control over the fantastic object also made fantastic by the medium itself. Smallfilms’ participatory ethos as an animation studio always encouraged this, with instructions for making replicas of characters through knitting and other, more child-friendly forms of crafting, available in publications and from the BBC. How might my relationship and re-encounter with the witch of The Pogles have been nuanced, if I had made and played with this particular incarnation of a key figure of children’s cultures of fantasy and horror, in the form of a doll?

The third, and final, fantasy of this hand-made television is really a fantasy of absence, or at least of dislocation. The hand-made television that I, and others, remember with fondness is a fantasy of a white, middle-class, English rural childhood of the past, a fantasy which is suggestive of the persistence of particular narratives of home, nation and self. While at the moment of initial broadcast in the 1960s this might be framed partly through narratives of countercultural resistance to modernity and industrialisation, its ongoing presence, in programming from Rosie and Jim (John Cunliffe, Anne Wood & Robin Stevens, 1990-) to The Adventures of Abney and Teal (Joel Stewart, 2011-2012), begs further reflection on the politics of the relationships between fantasy and animation. I wrote Hand-Made Television because I remembered the programmes fondly, they seemed important, and no-one had really explored them in any detail (a classic academic rationale). In that respect, the book was in fact fuelled, in some ways, by this final and potentially more troubling form of fantasy. My fascination was, I initially thought, for the unattended aesthetics and objects of this television. Growing up in the suburbs of Birmingham, the only child of aspirational working-class parents, for me, the countryside was often tantalisingly just out of reach (through my grandparents’ house, family photographs and my mother’s reminiscences). On reflection, then, it was undoubtedly the magical, pastoral, participatory and patrician fantasies presented in these programmes, that underpinned my desire to perpetuate, and to unpick, their invitation to enter and explore an archetypal, and yet fantastic, landscape of British childhood.


Biography

Professor Rachel Moseley is currently Head of the Department of Film and Television Studies, University of Warwick, UK. She has published widely on questions of film and television history and identity and is the author of Hand-Made Television (Palgrave, 2016) and Picturing Cornwall (UEP, 2018).