Sunday 6 November 2022

Regional Oddity: Mag is Mog

It’s very rare you’ll catch me writing about a television show I’ve never seen a single second of. For me, perhaps due to my lack of literary grace, I tend to focus on collecting solid facts and information together – that’s my USP. And, without footage of a programme, it’s difficult for me to paint a picture of what it truly was. However, it’s not a rule which is entirely set in stone. Just occasionally, I stumble across a television series which, for a myriad of reasons, is so irresistibly unique and obscure I have to investigate it. Even if any video evidence of it appears to have disappeared long, long ago. And a programme which falls perfectly into this narrow bracket is Mag is Mog.

On the 30th January 1982, if you had tuned into BBC1 at 9.05am you would have been confronted with Swim, a series fronted by Andrew Harvey which looked at swimming techniques (that week it was the front crawl). But, if you happened to be tuning into BBC One Scotland, you would have discovered something very different. And not just because swimming was off the agenda. Instead, Scottish viewers were presented with Mag is Mog. It may, from the publicity shot above, appear to be a standard children’s programme of the era. But it differed wildly from the majority of programming which had gone before it. And this is because all of those on the screeen were speaking Gaelic.

The UK is a country dominated by one single language: English. But it’s not the only language to emerge from the lips of our proud inhabitants; one of these is the niche language known as Scottish Gaelic. The 2011 census revealed that just over 1% of the Scottish population considered themselves Gaelic speakers. Accordingly, making it the sole language of a children’s TV show – in an era of, initially, only three channels – is a brave and ambitious move. Unfortunately, Mag is Mog appears to be completely missing from the BBC archives, so experiencing this burst of Gaelic creativity firsthand is impossible. Nonetheless, by piecing together press articles and, rather fortuitously, tracking down one of the main puppeteers, I can take a closer look at Mag is Mog.

The titular characters of Mag is Mog are, respectively, a magpie and a cat. Operated by puppeteers Ivy and Don Smart, Mag and Mog are joined in the Glasgow studio by Maggie Cunningham who, when she’s not on the television, is a teacher in Wester Ross. Saturday morning television is almost primarily geared towards variety and Mag is Mog holds a strong hand in this respect.

Alongside storylines created for Mag and Mog by Finlay J. MacDonald, there's also time allotted to Grannie Strang, a puppet who, each week, reads a story from the Red Book of Clan Strang. But it’s not just puppets who will be embarking on narratives in Mag is Mog. The first series introduces a Gaelic soap opera which follows the fortunes of Archie ‘Lectric McKay and his family on the Isle of Skye. Finally, music comes to the fore with a number of performances; acts appearing include Aneka – a former gold medallist at Gaelic arts festival The Mòd – Silly Wizard, City Limits and Anne Sinclair.

Although the paperwork surrounding Mag is Mog’s history is scarce – BBC Scotland were unable to offer any information when I contacted them – it appears that four series were produced between 1982 - 86. The series was never networked across the UK, so it’s a bona-fide regional oddity of British television. It was not, however, the first Gaelic production for children. Cuir Car had begun broadcasting in 1977 and 1981 had seen BBC Scotland debut Bzzz in the same slot that Mag is Mog would go on to occupy.

And Bzzz is where Ivy and Don Smart became involved. Luckily, I was able to track Ivy Smart down to learn a little more. As the owners of the Black Box Theatre, they had been contacted by the BBC to create a giant bee puppet for the series. However, the BBC were planning for non-puppeteers to operate the puppet. Equity, having got wind of this, stepped in and insisted that this position was filled by puppeteers; this is how Ivy and Don began working at the BBC. Bzzz only ran for one series, but thanks to the funds made available for Gaelic programming, BBC Scotland were keen to continue with a similar format. And, thus, Mag is Mog, was born.

It's important to point out that Ivy and her husband did not speak Gaelic, so the voices for Mag and Mog were provided, respectively, by Rhoda MacLeod and Simon McKenzie. As you would expect, the language barriers provided a few issues for Ivy and Don as Gaelic was the dominant language in the studio, but luckily they were able to see the funny side of this. Even if, as Ivy recalls, this resulted in the Smarts being left stranded under their operating desk whilst the rest of the crew decided, in Gaelic, to head off for a tea-break. Speaking to Ivy also revealed some interesting insights into the content of the series as well. A mixture of both rod puppets and marionettes featured throughout the series and, tantalisingly, there was a puppet serial set in space, a move to capitalise on the sci-fi boom of the early 1980s.

As with all productions that are ‘missing believed wiped’ it’s difficult to fully get a grip on Mag is Mog, but it’s fascinating to learn a little more about it. The language employed in the series would prove to be a humungous hurdle for most people reading this article, but at the very least it would be a visually intriguing spectacle. The large forms of Mag and Mog coupled with the fairy tales of Granny Strang’s red book and a Gaelic space opera are just crying out to be examined again.

More crucially, however, there’s the celebration of the Gaelic culture. The language had barely featured in the schedules by this point and it would not be until 1999 that the first dedicated Gaelic channel – TeleG – was launched, and even then it only aired for an hour a day. The immediate interest is clearly limited, but keeping these branches of language and culture alive is important. And, thanks to shows such as Mag is Mog, Gaelic was able to maintain enough of a presence in television that BBC Alba launched in 2008. We may have little more than memories left of Mag is Mog, but it remains an important step in the history of British television.

Obviously, if you are reading this and suddenly remember that you’ve got an old video tape with even half an episode of Mag is Mog (or Bzzz) on then please get in touch!

This article originally featured in issue three of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

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