SIMON BALL talks to Peter Firman, the co-creator of the magical (but slightly scary) 1960s BBC children’s series, The Pogles
Back in the dark days of the 1960s, when the UK had only just got its third TV channel (BBC 2 came on air in 1964), there was an afternoon slot that all stay-at-home mums looked forward to.
At 13:30 the busy preschoolers could be plonked in front of the telly for their fix of Watch with Mother. It was only 15 minutes long, after all the BBC had a social responsibility not to the nation’s nursemaid, but it was just about enough time to cram in a crafty fag and a cup of tea.
Watch with Mother was pretty bland and repetitive stuff on the whole, some of the shows had been on rotation since the BBC first recorded them in the 1950s. As a 1960s child, I remember the crushing disappointment of discovering that the next 15 minutes would be spent in the patronising company of the uberwet Andy Pandy or the goody goody Woodentops family, all of them still stuck in their post-war time warp. All was not lost, however, there was always the chance of copping a slice of the eccentric magical whimsy that was Pogles Wood, featuring a tiny woodland family who lived in a tree stump with their incomprehensible rabbit-squirrel hybrid pet Tog and a heroically alcoholic plant who played the violin, so long as he was plied with bilberry wine.
The Pogles were the brainchild of animator Oliver Postgate, whose previous TV form included Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Pingwings. Postgate’s basic idea for the show was to create a normal woodland family (well, as normal as tiny folk who live in a tree stump and were woken up by a hedgehog could be) who didn’t want anything to do with magic, but have some heavy-duty sorcery thrust upon them. So together with his Smallfilms partner Peter Firmin, Postgate sold the show, sight unseen, to the Watch with Mother commissioning editors, who fondly imagined that watching The Pogles would be nice and calming, just the sort of thing that would sooth the nation’s children into a drowsy state ready for their afternoon nap.
What they got over the course of six episodes were fairies hiding the fairy king’s baby in the boozy plant’s flower; a terrifying witch, who not only bundles Mrs Pogle up into a sack and hides her under the floorboards when she kidnaps the baby, but also transforms herself into a boot to kick in the Pogles’s front door and a magic wishing flower that in Mrs Pogle’s hands is used to burn the witch to a crisp! With more elements in common with the darkest side of European fairy tale than the comfortable world of Andy Pandy’s toy box could ever muster the show was deemed, after the initial broadcast to be far too scary for the little ones and consigned to video hell never to be shown on TV again (although all six episodes can now be viewed on YouTube)
Postgate died in 2008, but Firmin, who at the age of 85 is currently working on a rebooted version of their 70s extraterrestrial hit Clangers, takes up the story: “I think that was a mistake. The BBC thought that they were getting something similar to The Flower Pot Men or The Woodentops and just let us get on with making the series completely unsupervised. It was only once it was shown that they decided that it might be giving children nightmares. However, we were asked to do another series, so long as we lost the magic element. We introduced a son Pippin and his pet Tog and replaced the magic with educational material about the countryside, showing documentary footage of things like honey gathering and this revised show became Pogles Wood.”
The much more calming Pogles Wood ran for a further two series and became part of the regular Watch with Mother afternoon rotation on BBC1, but the supernatural element wasn’t forgotten, Peter continued.
“The magic resurfaced in The Pogles annuals that we produced between 1967 and 1974. The first story in the annuals was always a witchy story and I loved doing the illustrations that involved a bit of magic. I also got to write the story that closed the annuals which was great fun.”