Wednesday 10 December 2008

Oliver Postgate and the Guild Socialist tradition

Oliver Postgate has died. There is an excellent obituary by Philip Purser in today's Guardian.

As Philip Purser points out, Oliver Postgate was born into the British left. His father, Raymond Postgate, was a Communist in the early 1920s, before he wised up, mellowed, gently expanded and edited the Good Food Guide. Oliver's auntie, Margaret Postgate, married G.D.H. Cole, the one twentieth century British socialist who managed to be somehow quintessentially Fabian and anti-Fabian at the same time. All three were active in the Guild Socialist movement of the 1910s and early 1920s.

One of the great treats of parenthood is having an iron-clad excuse for revisiting one's childhood loves - or what one now imagines them to have been. And Oliver Postgate's corpus is high up there amongst the things I have been busily revisiting with my son over the past two or three years. We have the DVDs of Ivor the Engine, The Clangers and Bagpuss. We have a couple of Noggin the Nog books.

Is there any connection between these classic children's TV programs and the sort of radical milieu which Oliver Postgate grew up in?

Philip Purser suggests as much, and Zoe Williams explores the point further. I agree. The programs and books have a definite ethos, without ever being preachy.

In Ivor the Engine, the characters are defined by their jobs ('Jones the Steam', 'Dai Station') and, although capitalist relations of production are there in the background, they clearly see their jobs in terms of simple good service to the community, rather like the imaginary good citizens of a Guild Socialist utopia. The community itself is a strong, but benevolent, force.

Aside from this cooperative social ethos, the programs often have an implicit environmental agenda - the Clangers (whom my 5 year-old son refers to as 'the Quakers') are continually having to free their beautiful planet of unwanted rubbish, such as Earthly televisions which broadcast speeches by pompous dictators. Admittedly, the world of Noggin is a tad more hierarchical; but his authority is always being challenged and subverted by children, whales and moonmice.

As Postgate himself implies, the programs and books also embody a distinctive approach to production with firm roots in the socialist tradition. They seek not simply to satisfy an existing preference which the child 'consumer' has, but to develop and expand the child's imaginative range. The programs and books treat the child not as bundle of wants to be satisfied, but as a being full of potentialities which need to be nurtured and encouraged by exposure to new and strange (yet familiar) worlds.

Thus, although Postgate's programs didn't excite me as a child as much as, say, The Six Million Dollar Man ('We can rebuild him...'), they have left a deeper imprint.

And I'm not alone in this. I recently went into a second-hand bookshop in search of Noggin books. Not finding any on the shelves I asked the bookseller if she had any in stock. 'Oh no,' she said. 'That's Oliver Postgate. His stuff gets snapped up immediately.'

Postscript: there are lots of good Oliver Postgate links supplied by Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber.

1 comment:

Rachael Jolley said...

Stuart - I do enjoy the level of unknown to me detail about Postgate. Fantastic stuff.