And You And I Would Call Them Dragonflies

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Though I doubt that anyone who was terrified of Professor Yaffle as a youngster would agree with this definition of the word ‘fortunate’, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the entire assembled cast of Bagpuss puppets twice. The first time was at the Liverpool International Garden Festival, where they formed part of an exhibition celebrating an oddly arbitrary sixty years of BBC Children’s Programmes. This took the form of a large maze-like tent crammed full of seemingly theme-free collections of wall-mounted still images from the not especially visually arresting likes of The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn And Friends and a pre-visual effects Captain Zep – Space Detective, and display cases featuring ancient puppets like that ‘Cowboy Hank’ character that few of the young visitors knew or cared about, built around two lifesize tableaus featuring a working Magic Roundabout surrounded by recreations of the characters on a Goodies-like scale, and a pair of cobbled-together Daleks and extremely slapdash K9 in front of a Tardis that would doubtless have provoked a very long Twitter thread about how wrong the windows were. In the middle of all this sat Charlie Mouse and company, looking weirdly like they did at the end of each episode, only in colour rather than the expected sepia tones. Despite being apparently one of the few people never to have been frightened by Bagpuss, I have to admit that did freak me out slightly.

At that point, of course, they hadn’t quite retreated into motionless sepia just yet. Bagpuss could still be seen in its familiar lunchtime slot and would continue to for a couple of years yet, finishing the last of its staggering twenty four repeat runs late in 1986. Although you wouldn’t think it given how heavily and – it has to be said – often irritatingly the inhabitants of Emily’s shop would come to define lazy uncritical nostalgia only a couple of years later, there was a short but significant time when it seemed that when Bagpuss had gone to sleep, all his friends really had gone to sleep too. Anyone who had grown up watching it was too young to feel any real or substantial form of nostalgia for it as yet, and this was still a time when old programmes never really tended to resurface, seemingly destined to end up sitting around gathering dust and losing relevance like the books on Yaffle’s shelf (which, incidentally, I tried to find out the identity of once – you can find my feature on that in Well At Least It’s Free). Bagpuss had given a big yawn and settled down to sleep, and this time they really weren’t messing around when they turned into motionless old photographs. The Mice were ornaments on the Mouse Organ much like Mr Jelly and Mrs Custard were back in the cutlery drawer and Barnaby was no longer doing some impenetrable business with a cardboard beak, and there was no real reason to believe we were any more likely to see Bagpuss again than any of its contemporaries. Back then, remembering Bagpuss really was remembering Bagpuss.

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Needless to say, I did remember Bagpuss. Not just as a programme, but also just as much for the music. Not in the arch and equally irritating fixation on the hardcore folk inflections that has arisen in recent years (and a good deal of which is people letting their imaginations run away with them anyway), but the first stirrings of a bafflement that such fantastic music could be made purely to be used in a television programme and then never be heard again; you can read more about this unusual obsession, incidentally, in this piece on The Goodies. I’d never seen the need to hold a microphone up to the television speaker to record that song about the a baker and a miller apparently taking an entire year to make some bread, or the music box tune a ballerina-entranced Yaffle danced around to,  or even the Mice rondeleting their way through one of their endless variations on the ‘We Will Mend It’ chorus, and in the apparent absence of any commercially available record featuring any of them, if you wanted to hear The Bony King Of Nowhere then you pretty much had to sing it yourself and do both parts while you were at it. Once so familiar and constantly heard, it seemed that all of these marvellous songs now only existed in my memory. And none of them loomed larger in my memory than a certain song about a princess.

The third episode of Bagpuss – although it was never identified as such on screen or in Radio Times, or in fact identified in any way at all – The Frog Princess was first shown by BBC1 on 26th February 1974, and last seen several dozen repeat runs later on 2nd September 1986. It’s not the most memorable episode, and the absence of biscuit-dispensing mills and bagpipe-alike pincushion characters mean that it isn’t just not the one that people would think of first, it would be surprising if most people remember it at all. In case you’re struggling to recall it yourself now, it’s the one where the puppets wake up to find that some fragments of metal – “painted or enamelled by the look of them”, adds Professor Yaffle rather obviously – have been brought into Emily’s shop. After debating and dismissing the idea that they are constituent parts of some sort of animated cat and bird (whose antics will hardly exactly be troubling Tom And Jerry). folk singing doll and toad Madeline and Gabriel suggest that they are fragments of the crown of a Frog Princess. Yaffle is understandably sceptical, but the excited fairytale-hungry mice effectively outvote his cynicism and Bagpuss ‘thinks’ up the visuals while the curmudgeonly traditionalists relate her story in song.

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Set to a procession of illustrations from Peter Firmin, the story that emerges is of a ‘sad looking Princess’ who had grown resentful of her glimmering crown and its habit of attracting ‘lords by the score’ (so proud and so perfect, but each one a fool) with their continual demands that she must choose them, as it’s useless to refuse them, as she knows she must marry for that is the rule. Suddenly the answer to all her problems presents itself as she hurls her crown into the sky, and announces she will marry the lord who can bring it back to her; as they flew higher and higher, their cloaks turned to wings, they grew enormous eyes, here they fluttered, here they scattered, here they hovered hot and bothered, and you and I, it transpires, would call them dragonflies. Meanwhile, the crown itself had been caught by a frog who somehow contrived to mistake it for a ‘fly’; the frog insultedly announces that has no intention of marrying her, until the Princess reveals that she can turn convention on its head and transform herself into a frog, upon which they lived happily ever after. A sceptical Yaffle retorts that dragonflies aren’t water princes searching for anything but just large sort-of flies, prompting Madeline to concede that it was probably made up but a fun story so yah boo sucks to rationality and academia, and anyway they’d probably put the remnants of the crown in the window anyway in case the owner passed and saw them. So they were expecting a frog to drop by, then?

All of the episodes of Bagpuss are based around a fairly simple story, but it has to be admitted that this one is simpler than most. Yet it wasn’t so much the story that drew me in as a youngster but the hypnotic, extended musical accompaniment, plaintive and yearning with droning acoustic guitar backing until the point where the water lords take flight, upon which it suddenly speeds up and the vocals soar to match the heights that Yaffle considered so scientifically impractical. At an age when I was far too young to appreciate music in the same sort of way as I do now, the combination of sounds and images emanating from that small television in a modishly upholstered front room – complete with that very same sofa you can read about in Can’t Help Thinking About Me – had a spellbinding effect and it was probably one of the main reasons why I ultimately ended up writing this sort of serious treatment of ephemeral entertainment. It was one of many songs from television from early childhood that I would later spend a lot of time and effort trying to track down, but unfortunately, it seemed that there was no way of getting hold of it.

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Once upon a time, not so long ago – by which time I’d become something of a devotee of what would later come to be termed ‘Acid Folk’ (which the Bagpuss music is closer to than all of that clog dance-centric Scruttock’s Old Dirigible business that people try to ascribe it to so they can go off on one of their spooky paganism flights of boredom) after reading a Record Collector feature enthusing about Tudor Lodge and Mellow Candle and excitedly making up what they sounded like in my head – repeats finally surfaced on early Cable TV service The Children’s Channel, which I was able to get a slightly more televisually advantaged acquaintance at University to record for me. This was especially exciting as even through all that rifling through charity shop boxes for albums by Shelagh McDonald and Simon Finn, I had never found a single record containing a single note from Bagpuss. Surprisingly, BBC Records And Tapes had never released an album based on the series (although they might have considered it… but you’ll have to wait for the sequel to Top Of The Box to find out about that), and there wasn’t a trace of even the merest hint of a prototype version of Uncle Feedle on John Faulkner and Sandra Kerr’s regular releases.

And that’s essentially how it stayed until the late nineties, when John Faulkner and Sandra Kerr astutely capitalised on the brief period when Bagpuss was the focus of more or less every conversation about ‘remembering’ things ever by re-recording their contributions and compositions for a proper album. Bagpuss – The Songs And Music was a very welcome effort indeed, and their crystal clear, expressively accented and inflected voices sounded little different to how they had back in 1974. Yet, much like Brian Wilson’s re-recording of the entire SMiLE album from around the same time, it sounded just that bit fatter and fuller than the original recordings; almost imperceptibly, and in a way it was difficult to put your finger on, they just didn’t sound quite the same as those elusive dusty and spindly original renditions from Bagpuss itself.

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Which brings me around to the second time that I saw the actual Bagpuss puppets in ‘person’, at the Smallfilms exhibition at The V&A Museum Of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The day before, I’d been on Jonny Trunk’s radio show to talk about Top Of The Box, my book about BBC Records And Tapes (you can hear the full show here, incidentally), and as he’d organised the exhibition to tie in with his excellent book about Smallfilms, it seemed only fitting to follow that with a visit. As I wandered around the exhibition with my Ivor The Engine-contemplating companion – who constantly cheekily reminded me of my status as ‘TV’s Clangers Expert’ – we began discussing Gabriel and Madeline’s songs and she asked me if there was ever a record of them available. Doubtless in more detail than was called for, I explained about the re-recordings but remarked that as far as I knew, like so many film and television soundtracks, the original recordings were lost. After all, Jonny himself had released albums of the original music from Clangers, Ivor The Engine and Pogle’s Wood, and if Smallfilms had still been in the possession of the original Bagpuss tapes then surely they would have been at the very top of his release schedule. That was that, it seemed, and we’d just have to make do with skilfully edited rips from the DVD audio track.

Except now specialist folk label Earth Recordings have located those long-mislaid tapes, and released them as The Music From Bagpuss, complete with unused takes including variations on that familiar opening and closing narration, and liner notes from Stewart Lee, celebrated archive folk collector Andy Votel, and Belle & Sebastian’s Sarah Martin. And yes, there’s a complete alternate take of The Princess Suite. Thankfully, nobody had to turn into a dragonfly to retrieve that.

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You can find more tales of record collecting in dingy charity shops and hunting for obscure television soundtrack music in my book Can’t Help Thinking About Me, available in paperback here or from the Kindle Store here.

© Tim Worthington.
Please don’t copy this only with more italics and exclamation marks.

 

 

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