This week we talked about The Pogles, by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin.
If you want to follow us on twitter we are @stillscaredpod, and our email address is email@example.com. Intro music is by Maki Yamazaki, find her work at makiyamazaki.com Outro music is by Joe Kelly, and his band Etao Shin are at etaoshin.co.uk Artwork is by Letty Wilson, find her work at behance.net/lettydraws
The show is edited by Adam Whybray
Audio clips in this episode are from: The Pogles, The Clangers, Bagpuss, Noggin the Nogg and Screenwipe.
The background sounds are: craftport - 'central european upland forest' and wck1966 - 'spooky walk in the woods'
Ren: Welcome to Still Scared: Talking Children’s Horror, a podcast about creepy, spooky and disturbing children’s books, films and TV. I’m Ren Wednesday, my co-host is Adam Whybray, and today we’re talking about the 1965 children’s animated TV show The Pogles by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. Enjoy!
(intro music plays)
Ren: Hello Adam!
Ren: We’re back! We had a bit of an August break, but we’re back on the… horse, perhaps?
Adam: The spooky horse!
Ren: Back on the spooky horse, the haunted horse.
Adam: With eyes a-blazin’
Ren: To do The Pogles.
Adam: (horror movie trailer voice) The Pogles of Pogle’s Wood.
Ren: The most frightening topic yet!
Adam: Get ready for some full on poglin’ horror!
Ren: I think you suggested this one because Peter Firmin died recently.
Ren: On the 1st July, and he was an artist and puppet maker who worked with Oliver Postgate on Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers, and The Pogles and Pogle’s Wood, which we thought might be the most scary?
Adam: Yeah, I mean I probably should have predicted that most of Firmin and Postgate’s stuff is very cosy. If cosy horror is a thing? Aw, cosy horror.
Ren: Cosy horror.
Adam: But Firmin and Postgate’s stuff was quite a big fixture of my childhood, so I used to watch The Clangers on VHS tape when I’d go and visit my grandparents.
It was either that or Fantasia, and I watched Fantasia when I thought I ought to watch something educational. Because it had classical music, so I thought it was edifying. But in children’s horror of its own, I couldn’t really cope with the end sequence, the bald mountain sequence was far too rich for my blood.
So usually I watched The Clangers, many many times. I associate it with childhood cosiness. And I also had Noggin the Nog on audio cassette, which I’d listen to on car journeys, and I associate it with falling in and out of sleep on long car journeys.
(Clip of intro to Noggin the Nog: Oliver Postgate as narrator: ‘In the lands of the North where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night which is very long, the men of the north lands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale’)
Adam: It has quite a sleepy, dreamlike tone to it.
(Clip of Noggin the Nog: Oliver Postgate as Graculus: Dreamed it? perhaps I did. But I know that over there to the right of the sun there’s a grove of tall green trees around a lake of salt water, and there are fish in the lake, blue fish. Other voice: Where were you born, Graculus? Graculus: I don’t know.)
Adam: So what about you, did you watch Bagpuss when you were young?
Ren: Yeah. My mum grew up with Postgate and Firmin’s work, so I associate all of these programmes with her because she loves them. And I remember she rented a video of The Clangers, for us to watch as kids. Like, ‘you have to experience this’.
Although I did ask her about the Pogles and she didn’t remember it apart from being apparently quite unnerved by their big black round eyes. I think I read some of the Bagpuss books, and watched some too.
Adam: I always forget that there were also books issued with Firmin’s lovely illustrations, all watercolour.
Ren: They’re very beautiful
Adam: And there’s that ultimate crossover episode in which Noggin the Nog meets the Clangers. It’s called ‘Noggin and the Moon Mice’ in which the Clangers come to Earth and meet Noggin. I think that The Clangers probably had quite an impact on my left-wing political associations, because they’re very socialist.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. There was a whole episode called ‘Vote Froglet’ and it was a sort of election special in which Postgate, as the narrator starts talking to the Clangers, and he says ‘well, who leads you?’ and they all sort of shuffle around and shake their heads, and he says ‘you must have a leader, surely, who tells you what to do? who decides?’ and they all look very confused.
So he insists that they have some kind of election, and I think it’s Small Clanger or Tiny Clanger runs against one of the froglets. And he keeps trying to get them to be more aggressive, in their election tactics.
The Clangers are very decent creatures and won’t have any of it, so they end up splitting the vote, and decide that the end they don’t want to vote for any kind of leader, while Postgate gets increasingly flustered, like ‘what are you saying? You must have a leader!’ and they’re like, no, no.
(Clip from The Clangers: Postgate narrator: Hey, are you listening to me? Clanger: Clanger whistle)
I’ll have to link it to you, it’s pretty great.
Ren: I mean, this is skipping forward a bit, but in The Pogles there’s a bit where the police come up, and Mr Pogle says ‘Don’t be daft, we don’t have any police round here. Police is for people, not Pogles!’
Adam: Oh yeah, and the police is represented by a big tyrannical boot.
Ren: A big tyrannical boot, yes. Good stuff.
Adam: Do you want to describe the plot of The Pogles? Because even though it is the original series for Watch with Mother, I will warn viewers that this was only broadcast once on television —
Ren: Well, actually, The Pogles as opposed to Pogles’ Wood was not for Watch with Mother. It was for a different programme called Clapperboard. But then when the BBC wanted to incorporate it into Watch with Mother after the first series, they were told to tone it down, because it was too scary.
Adam: So I think this is the first thing we’ve covered on the show which has been censored due to sheer terror it inspired in its audience.
Ren: Yes, it’s a video nasty.
Adam: Yep, on the video nasties list, definitely. The BBFC just outright rejected it.
Ren: So what this means is that The Pogles, the orginal series, is kind of different from Pogles’ Wood.
Pogles’ Wood is a kind of gently instructional episodic ramble through the woods, in which the Pogles’ adopted son Pippin gets taught about how bees make honey, or where bread comes from or that sort of thing, but The Pogles is a stand-alone story, a kind of mini-epic about witches and kings and faeries.
Adam: So you watched all of Pogles’ Wood, didn’t you?
Ren: No, no, I just watched a couple of episodes.
Adam: Ah, okay, I felt guilt guilty because I thought you felt obliged to watch all of Pogles’ Wood when I hadn’t.
I feel maybe I should watch it, because my parents live in the countryside, I grew up in a village, and it’s often kind of alarming how little I.. I’ve got this friend Julia, who is kind of like an adult version of an Enid Blyton character, and we’ll go for a walk through the village and she’ll be horrified by the lack of nature knowledge I have.
She’s like, ‘what’s that tree, Adam?’ and I’ll say, ‘I dunno, an oak, maybe? What’s the other one. A beech. Well, it’s either an oak or a beech, isn’t it’ ‘That’s a nettle, that’s some grass, a dock leaf’. That’s pretty much all my knowledge! And she’s like, ‘you’ve lived in the countryside for most of your life, how do you not know all this stuff?’.
So maybe I should watch Pogles’ Wood to get the instruction in the country way of living. It’d probably be quite educational for me.
But there isn’t much education in The Pogles, the original.
Ren: No… Both versions are black and white stop-motion animation, and they follow Mr and Mrs Pogle, who are little borrower-sized people who live in the base of a hollow tree, in the wood. And there were predominantly filmed on the farm that Peter Firmin lived on in Kent. Genuine countryside.
So The Pogles starts with Mr Pogle coming home with a bean in his wheelbarrow, that Mrs Pogle realises is snoring. They bury it in the soil, and a tall plant shoots up immediately, and the plant, which is voiced by Oliver Postgate, proclaims in this brilliant lugubrious voice, that it is hungry.
(Ren imitates the plant voice) I want my breakfast! I’m hungry! I shall wither and die, I shall die.
Adam: It actually sounds quite a lot like the ice dragon in Noggin the Nog.
Ren: Ahh, I don’t know if I’ve ever actually seen Noggin the Nog.
Adam: It’s definitely worth watching or listening to. But yes, the ice dragon in that has a very sleepy, lugubrious voice which is very similar.
Ren: I really enjoy it. I’ve just been quoting this plant all week.
Adam: What, annoying Alex?
Ren: (plant voice) I’m hungry!
Adam: Oh no.
Ren: And it does start to wither, until they come back with a flask of bilberry wine to feed to it. At which point it goes ‘Mm, bilberry wine, heady stuff!’ Sorry.
Adam: You’re rather good at that voice. You definitely have the hours in.
Ren: In return the slightly drunk plant grants them wishes. The next morning they find the plant humming and swaying to itself and it turns out that it’s singing a lullaby to a baby it’s cradling in its flower. Mrs Pogle takes in the baby, and they find that it has a little gold crown in its basket.
Adam: It’s not a baby, Ren, it’s a (imitating Mrs Pogle) baaaaby.
Ren: (very bad imitation) a baaaaby. Can you attempt either of the Pogle’s voices?
Adam: (Mr Pogle voice) Oh Mrs Pogle, it’s a baby. (Mrs Pogle voice) It’s a baaby.
That was a bit Rosie and Jim like.
(Clip from Rosie and Jim: Rosie: ‘Jiiiiim’ Jim: ‘Rosieeee’ Chuckling and ominous synths)
Ren: Mr Pogle’s Oliver Postgate again, and Mrs Pogle is… hm.
Adam: Do you have it written down?
Ren: I did have it written down, but I’ve lost it. Sorry.
Adam: Lost to the winds of time. I’ll look up her name while you continue.
Ren: Okay. Mr Pogle goes off to try and find where the baby has come from, but on his way the faeries appear and they warn him, saying (faerie voice) Pogle go home! Pogle go home! in their little faerie voices.
Adam: They’re quite a lot like the little mice in Bagpuss.
Ren: So he takes their advice and heads home, but on the way a woman with a hooded cloak asks him for help with her stuck wheelbarrow, and it’s only after she’s left, cackling, that he realises it was his wheelbarrow! He comes home to find the baby gone, and Mrs Pogle tied up in a sack under the floorboards, and she tells him that the old woman he saw took the baby.
Adam: I mean, the sack under the floorboards is quite upsetting.
Ren: Yeah, I think that’s genuinely a bit worrying.
Adam: I thought of the Evil Dead films, myself, the monsters and demons in the basement. So clearly part of a long horror legacy.
Ren: Mmm-hmm. Mr Pogle goes off to find her, and Mrs Pogle talks to the plant who says ‘she’s a witch, she’s a witch, she’ll turn him’, into a frog or a mouse, or something.
And the plant tells her to wish for a flower for wishes. So she does and the plant grows an extra flower, she plucks it and she has a portable flower from the plant that will give two wishes.
Adam: Oh, the name of Mrs Pogle’s voice actor is Olwen Griffiths.
Ren: Excellent, thank you. She’s very good so I want to give her credit. So Mrs Pogle wishes to be where Mr Pogle is, and finds him trapped in a wicker cage by the witch.
The witch puppet, who is also voiced by Postgate, is quite great. She has very long, spindly fingers and a huge beaky nose, that protrudes from the folds of this black cloak.
Adam: And little beady eyes.
Ren: Little beady eyes, yes. Mrs Pogle tells the witch that she’s going to break her into pieces, and the witch is quite sarcastic and says: ‘Oh dear me, Mrs Pogle, I’m quite frightened of you. Shall I run away?’, but then she just puts Mrs Pogle in a cage as well.
Adam: And then shakes The Pogles to interrogate them.
Ren: This is the hard core horror, here.
Adam: Well, the torture sequence.
Ren: Yes! She has them both in these cages and rattles them and says (witch voice) ‘I will rattle you to pieces!’
Adam: Which is very effectively done with the stop-motion. You get good jarring movements with stop-motion, so they do look thoroughly rattled, I think.
Ren: It turns out that the little crown that came with the baby is the crown of the king of faerie land. The witch demands to know where the crown is —
Adam: Since the crown seems to bestow a great deal of magical power.
Ren: Mrs Pogle says she knows where the crown is but she won’t tell. The witch says she will turn them into frogs: (witch voice with mournful wind howling in the background) Slimy frogs in a dry river, you shall be!
Adam: But actually it’s the witch that gets transformed.
Ren: Yep. Mrs Pogle uses her wish and says ‘I wish you into a bonfire of twigs, all alight and burning’ and the witch burns to ashes. But at her second wish the wishing flower disappears, and they wonder how they’re going to get out of the cages. But Mr Pogle finds that with the witch gone, the cage is just made of sticks, and he can kick it apart. Which I quite like.
Adam: I like the wicker cages generally. Because I’ve seen such things. I saw some recently at our friend Sion’s wedding.
It took place in the grounds of a country mansion, and I explored the grounds a bit and came across one of these wicker structures looking very much like the wicker cages in The Pogles.
I had no idea what it was for. It didn’t seem to be housing any plants, I didn’t know if it was wholly decorative. Or maybe it really is for catching Pogles or sacrificing people to the wicker gods, I don’t know. It seemed to be a thing.
Not something you’d know about, being a city person, obviously. Out in the country we have our wicker cages, it’s all part of our healthy country traditions.
Ren: Good, I’m very happy for you.
Adam: You should be, with my limited internet access and inability to send text messages. It’s authentic! It’s what Heidegger would like, it’s good.
So they go back home, but I guess it becomes a panic room, or a kind of home invasion film at this point, where they have to hole themselves up for fear that the witch is not actually dead after all.
Ren: The plant as well has had a gold band put around its stalk, which is making it silent and withering it. So they can’t talk to the plant. They’re barricaded in the house guarding the baby. Some faeries turn up and give Mr Pogle a toy bird that they can use to comfort the baby.
Adam: It’s very similar to the clockwork nightingale in Jiri Trnka’s adaptation of The Emperor’s Nightingale. Which I do wonder if Postgate had seen, or Firmin at least, because some of Firmin’s puppet designs are quite similar to Jiri Trnka’s.
These bobble-headed puppet designs with expressive eyes, handcrafted from wood really do look quite similar. I don’t know if it’s just because they’re working in similar folk traditions or its handcrafted so they look similar, but I do wonder watching them if Firmin was familiar with any of Trnka’s films. Because The Emperor’s Nightingale, in particular, got a fair distribution. It was seen outside of Czecholovakia.
Ren: when was it made?
Adam: It was made… I should know this by heart really. 1949.
Ren: So it’s definitely plausible then.
Adam: I think the puppet designs have a similar charm. I don’t think there’s any point where we can reasonably talk about Trnka fully on our podcast.
Arguably The Cybernetic Grandma or Kybernetická babička which is, I guess, a dystopian horror. But with Trnka it’s very hard to say when he’s working for a child audience and when he isn’t. But certainly if anyone listening is into stop-motion or puppet animation, Trnka’s animations are sublime.
Sorry, bit of a digression. Just finished my book on Czech animation so it’s all very fresh in my mind.
So the witch takes on various guises, right. She appears at the door as Charlie Burgess, the local milkman.
(Clip from The Pogle: Sound of milk pail rolling. Charlie Burgess: Morning Mr Pogle, morning Mrs Pogle! Mrs Pogle: Who’s that? Mr Pogle: That’s Charlie Burgess’s voice, you know, the cowman down at the dairy)
But Pogle tends to be a bit more credulous and easily tricked than Mrs Pogle. Mrs Pogle is quite canny, but Mr Pogle is a kind of happy-go-lucky occasionally grumpy dolt, really.
So he’s like ‘Oh no, it’s Charlie Burgess! Let’s let him in’, and Mrs Pogle says: ‘It’s not Charlier Burgess, Mr Pogle! I don’t think we should trust him’. And it does indeed turn out to be the witch.
Ren: And when he goes up to look out the window he sees a jug of milk on the doorstep and goes ‘Oh well, we should bring the jug of milk in!’ But the clockwork bird lifts it up into the air and smashes it, and when it smashes it turns into the witch.
Adam: So the witch is able to transform herself into inanimate objects, and then returns, as we said, in the form of a boot.
Ren: Kicking on the door and saying ‘open up in the name of the law!’
Adam: But the Pogles have no respect for the law!
Ren: This is foiled by the Pogles’ anarchistic society in which there is no police. She didn’t think of that, did she!
Adam: The witch should have thought it through.
Ren: But, like the police, she doesn’t care and she breaks down the door anyway.
Adam: Ooh, political content.
Ren: The bird gets the crown from its hidden place and puts it on Mr Pogle’s head, which grants him great magical power. So he taunts the witch, and tells her ‘Turn me into a garden snail!’ But he’s impervious to her magic because he’s wearing the crown, so he freezes her and they have to think of what they can turn her into that will get rid of her for good, and they think, we should turn her into nothing.
Adam: No thing.
Ren: So he says: Witch, hag of the night, dream-creeper. Be no thing at all, be nothing’. And then she goes poof and disappears.
Adam: Well, kind of folds in on herself, almost.
(Clip from The Pogles: Boiyongoinggg noise as the witch disappears. Mrs Pogle: She’s gone then!)
Ren: Yeah, sort of scrumples up.
Adam: Into nothing. And then the King of the Faeries appears and they have a merry dance.
Ren: Well, they put the crown on the bird’s head, and the bird turns into the King of Faeries. They liberate the plant from the witch’s gold, get the faeries to bring lots of bilberry wine. So we get a reprisal of the bilberry wine. And the plant gets out its violin (the plant also plays the violin) and plays a dance.
(Clip from The Pogles: King of the Faeries: Plant! A dance! Plant plays a jaunty tune that turns into the ending music of the show)
And that’s The Pogles!
Adam: That is The Pogles. As we’ve probably established by now, it’s not terribly scary. However, it does seem to have the reputation for being a bit scary.
When I mentioned The Pogles to my mum, she said ‘Oh yes, the really scary witch, I didn’t like that as a child’, so clearly it was scary for very small children. Presumably the witch in particular.
Ren: And I imagine the witch and the whole Pogles being trapped in cages and rattled is the kind of thing that would scare you if you saw it when you were little.
Adam: Yeah, I’m trying to think what would make it scary to kids. I guess the Pogles are quite vulnerable creatures, really. One thing I like about it is it seems to try and capture the precariousness of rural existence.
There’s this constant threat of them running out of subsidence. When they can no longer get milk from the beanstalk, and they’ve locked themselves away in the house, Mrs Pogle says, ‘the baby needs milk, and we can’t get milk’. Mr Pogle says ‘Oh, I’ll go to the dairy’ and Mrs Pogle says, ‘No you can’t go to the dairy because then you’re leaving us alone and the witch is going to get us!’
So I like that there’s this emphasis on how materially hard rural existence can be, and the dangers of that isolation.
Ren: Yeah, and it’s not like… you might think for a programme like this that there would be a merry little village and there would be other little people around. But you don’t really see much of that. It’s mostly just the Pogles.
Adam: It’s quite a lonely kind of existence. It’s not like the Clangers, where there’s this micro-community. It really does seem like it’s just them, out in the woods.
Ren: And are they the only Pogles?
Adam: I don’t know if there are more in Pogles’ Wood, but I think so. I noticed, Postgate or Postgate’s family have this website called Dragon’s Friendly Society, and there’s little sub-sections on the different Postgate and Firmin productions, and it notes for The Pogles that ‘In the original films it was always Pogle’s Wood, as written on Mr Pogle’s sign. As in, the wood of Mr Pogle. However since in all fairness we must acknowledge Mrs Pogle, and Pippin and Tog too, Oliver suggested we move the apostrophe so the wood is the wood of all Pogles, and not just Mr Amos Pogle’
Ren: That’s nice.
Adam: So presumably this was a gesture of inclusivity that at least suggests there’s a few other Pogles including Mrs Pogle, Tog, and Pippin.
Ren: Tog is a squirrel-creature, who appears in Pogles’ Wood.
Adam: But is apparently an honorary Pogle too. But more of a family grouping, I think, than a class of beings.
Ren: Do you have any further comments?
Adam: I mean, I happen to be watching this around the same time that I’ve been listening to Evolution of Horror’s rather brilliant series of podcasts about folk horror, and it very much made we want to see The Pogle’s as folk horror.
Obviously it’s got a rural setting, there’s a lot of folk magic in it. But it’s not clearly. So I’m thinking, why isn’t it, what would make it folk horror?
I think one of the things is that folk horror tends to rely on a clash of civilizations, perhaps the rural against the urban or the modern against the ancient, but the Pogle’s seem surprisingly integrated with their local more developed, if you will, society. So Mr Pogle clearly has quite a friendly relationship with the local milkman, for instance, and goes along to the dairy occasionally.
And in folk horror, the danger seems to come from the land itself, so there’s this sense of there being something other or strange and ancient and wrong within the very land that bubble out from the environment. And the witch is clearly part of this rural landscape, but she just seems like a malevolent person with magic powers.
Sometime’s it almost hinted towards her being something a bit more abstract, like the fact that she can be discombobulated and scattered into ashes and reconstituted, reminds me a bit of The Groke in the Moomins, where the Groke who is a slightly threatening but silent massive figure who approaches in the winter, and is kind of synonymous with winter.
It’s always quite unclear in the Moomins, if the Groke is a being in of herself, or if she is just an embodiment of cold.
And The Pogle’s could have gone further with that, I guess. The Witch just seems like… a witch.
But I guess generally Postgate’s voice, and his narrative voice are too gentle and solicitous. You always feel very safe with Postgate. There’s a lovely bit of Charlier Brooker after Postgate’s voice and how warm it is, especially as a child. It’s very comforting.
(Clip of Charlier Brooker on Screen Wipe: Postgate’s voice, sometimes soothing and sometimes playful, was as modest and charming as everything else in the programmes. There’s almost a hypnotic quality, your consciousness starts to alter slightly the moment he starts to speak.)
So even though there is threat The Pogle’s the whole thing is suffused with the warmth and friendliness, which means it never really feels very scary.
Do you have any last thoughts?
Ren: No… only our Texture of the Week.
Adam: Of course! That’s a good point. Okay.
(intermittent banging, and rattling, very staccato and hesitant singing: ‘Texture of the week!’)
Ren: Oh, we’re out of practice Adam.
Adam: It’s been a good month and a half, I haven’t been doing my daily texture of the week ditty practices.
Ren: Yeah, you should get back on that.
Adam: You’re going to be appalled when you find my plan for the sign-off. Out of practice.
Ren: Do you have a Texture of the Week?
Adam: I guess the Texture of the Week for me is just captured in some of the frets and phrases, it’s more the texture of some of the language, I suppose. I know that’s a bit unorthodox. Things like ‘I’ll break you in half on a stone’.
In Noggin the Nog, there’s a wonderful fret by Nogbad the Bad, who’s the antagonist for that series, who fires a cannon at Noggin, the hero and says something like ‘This time the cannon was empty, but next time I shall load it with gems and rubies and they shall cut you to shribbons!’. I love this ‘cut you to shribbons’. ‘Shribbons’ is such a great, evocative word.
Ren: I’m sure I’ve heard you use that.
Adam: I think it made quite an impact on me! And that kind of language use Postgate has is very evocative to me. How about you?
Ren: I mean, I was struggling a bit to think of one. I think the language was a good call, because it is very evocative and textural. I do like the witch’s gold around the plant’s stem. Because it burns to the touch, when she’s still alive, but one she’s gone it turns cold and thin as paper and crinkles off.
Adam: I think the magic in the show is all quite convincing and grounded in reality.
Ren: So, I wanted to just say if anyone wants to go and rate and review us on itunes, that would be really nice. You don’t even need to write any words, just click the button with the stars. It really helps. I didn’t realise quite how easy it is until I did it the other day. It’s literally you can just click the button, and then it makes us look cool.
Adam: And we want to look cool.
Ren: We want to look cool. If you have a spare click in you, maybe donate it to our podcast.
Adam: I clicked a whole bunch for Inside No.9, the other night. Reece Shearsmith owes us a click! It was a Radio Times poll to the best comedy of the year, and Reece was encouraging twitter followers to vote for Inside No.9. You could vote infinite times, multiple times so was encouraging people to click as much as they could, up to the final deadline! I think I gave it a good 100 clicks.
Ren: 100 clicks! Wow.
Adam: It still came second to Derry Girls.
Ren: Do you have a sign off for us Adam!
Adam: I don’t! But, Oliver Postgate has one for us:
(Clip from Bagpuss: Oliver Postgate as narrator: Bagpuss gave a big yawn and settled down to sleep.)
Ren: See you next time, spooky kids!
(outro music plays)