Thursday 14 April 2022

Book Review: Bagpuss on a Rainy Day

Unbelievably, there were only 13 episodes of Bagpuss produced, and yet it remains one of the most popular and endearing children's television programmes broadcast in these fair isles. With its otherworldly and slightly jittery stop-motion animation bringing to life an archaic, dusty universe packed full of idiosyncratic characters and stories, Bagpuss is unparalleled in its look, atmosphere and sound. But this curious world wasn't contained purely within the confines of a television series. There is, if you look hard enough, further adventures awaiting the nation's favourite saggy, old cloth cat.

Not only are there the recently uncovered mouse tales, but, back in the programme's heyday, there were also a couple of Bagpuss books released through the iconic Picture Lions label. Released in 1974, the year that Bagpuss made its debut on BBC1, the two books were Bagpuss in the Sun and Bagpuss on a Rainy Day. Written by Oliver Postgate and illustrated by Peter Firmin, these are far from cheap tie-in releases designed to make a quick buck; these are the real deal, 24-carat Bagpuss handcrafted by master Bagpussmiths. I covered Bagpuss in the Sun in issue three of the Curious British Telly fanzine, but now it's time to take a look at Bagpuss on a Rainy Day.

You shouldn't really be expecting anything else from Postgate and Firmin, but Bagpuss on a Rainy day is an absolute joy from cover to cover. From the inside cover, which features the mouse organ mice splashing about in the rain whilst they frolic to-and-fro around a flower, Bagpuss on a Rainy Day ratchets up the charm offensive to nuclear levels. The creative, fertile imaginations of Postgate and Firmin ensured that the Bagpuss television series wrung every last drop of innovation out of the format, but it was certainly limited due to the sheer amount of labour involved in stop-motion animation. These confines, however, are quickly chucked out the window when it comes to the blank pages of a book.

Bagpuss on a Rainy Day takes advantage of this freedom to craft a narrative which is both familiar, yet more expansive than the 13 episodes broadcast on television. As ever, the heart of the story is simple, the mice of the mouse organ want to go outside and play hopscotch, but there's a problem in the form of torrential rain. Undeterred, the mice launch a series of campaigns to stop the rain; these strategies include singing songs "rain, rain, will you stop, never drip another drop", pushing a weather house lady back into her house and, finally, asking Bagpuss to think about stopping the rain.

It's at this point that Postgate and Firmin really start flexing their creative muscles, as Bagpuss dreams up a magical story concerning a mouse trying to stop the rain to keep his family and their woven-grass house dry. Turning to a rabbit, a swan, a horse and, finally, a king for help, the mouse is disappointed to learn that these individuals aren't important enough to close the heavens. Resigned to a soggy future, the mouse sets off into the palace gardens where he, no spoilers, discovers that one kind gesture can make a big difference, especially if you know the right people. And, as luck would have it, as Bagpuss' tale ends, the sun comes out and the mice finally get to play hopscotch.

The illustrated nature of the book, and these are beautiful, beautiful drawings, gives it a slightly different aesthetic to the television series. The jerky, and what some would describe as creepy, movements of the animation are replaced with colourful - the television series always seemed slightly dark, almost unsettling - static images which convey a charming brand of energy and delight.

The story, meanwhile, benefits from the fact that Smallfilms aren't required to labour on set-building and, accordingly, far more locations feature in this book than almost the entire television series mustered. Cleverly, the struggles of the mice also reflect the real world frustrations of the intended audience, after all, who didn't get in a sulk when rain stopped play? And, by featuring kings, talking animals and a little helping of magic, Bagpuss on a Rainy Day contains all the constituent elements which helped Bagpuss become an iconic slice of children's television.

There's very little to criticise about Bagpuss on a Rainy Day and, frankly, anyone who can find something to grouse about deserves to be put in stocks. I guess the only problem I can raise - hold steady on those stocks for now and let me finish - is that such is its grandeur, it's a crushing shame to discover there were only a handful of additional adventures for Bagpuss. There are, of course, the Bagpuss Beginner books - also released in the 1970s - but these are harder to obtain, although I promise to hunt these down. Nonetheless, Bagpuss on a Rainy Day (which cost me £7 on Ebay) and Bagpuss on the Sun represent perfect accompaniments to the series, and you can't argue with a sublime helping of Bagpuss.

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