December 16, 2008

The voice of Weird paternalism

The Master enjoys the Clangers: Dr Who 1972

    "Stuff your bird or whale song, forget about breezes in cornfields or lapping waves and waterfalls: there is no more calming sound in the world than the voice of Oliver Postgate. ... It floated above all these stories, that voice; wound its way through them. It was the kindest, wisest voice you ever heard, and now it's gone.

    As have all the other sounds, which you'll now hear in your mind's ear as I mention them in turn: Ivor's pshht-a-coo engine mechanics; the Clangers' whistles; Bagpuss yawning; Gabriel the toad swallowing; professor Yaffle climbing down from his bookend to inspect some new artefact; the squealing mice. All gone now, too."

Charlie Brooker on Oliver Postgate. Brooker is of course right to highlight Postgate's voice, though I'm not sure 'calming' quite captures its peculiar affective quality. Postgate's voice was certainly possessed of an eerie serenity, yet this was always coloured by something that resembled melancholy but which never came close to worldweariness; it was authoritative without being remotely self-satisfied, paternalistic but not fatherly; quietly entrancing, gently lyrical. It held open the possibility of a wisdom that had nothing to do with deflationary commonsense. This was the voice of an adult speaking to children; an obvious point, no doubt, but where in children's TV now would you find such a mode of address? There are no children, there are no adults, there is no wonder: only adolescents in waiting, being spoken to by screamingly selfconscious adolescents in their twenties and thirties.

Postgate's dream paternalism is another example of the way in which public service could incubate the strange. The fact that Postgate and Firmin made their shows in a converted cowshed is significant less because of the homemade, handcrafted quality it lent to their animation and puppetry than because it allowed them to work independently, far away from the normalising, metropolitan pressures of demographics and focus groups. Watch Bagpuss or The Clangers now, and what you see is not the kitsch that clipshow chitchat leads you to expect, but something Weird. Even though it is liable to be described as 'quintessentially British', Bagpuss looks as if it might just as well have come from Eastern Europe. The bizarre, piping folk music and oneiric atmosphere hail from a Weird England, which although it comes from the near past, is now irretrievably foreign. All gone...

Posted by mark at December 16, 2008 01:24 PM | TrackBack