Case D: Bagpuss

In the Bagpuss episode ‘Ship in a Bottle’, viewers are immediately confronted with the layered aesthetic that characterises the series as a whole, with Oliver Postgate’s model-based stop-frame animation running alongside the lyrical invention of Sandra Kerr and John Faulkner’s songs, punctuated from time to time by the cut-out illustrations by Peter Firmin and watercolour images by Linda Birch. 

As you might expect, even if you have not seen it, ‘Ship in a Bottle’ tells the story of how Bagpuss, Yaffle, Madelaine, Gabriel, and the mice, restore the titular trinket. Structured in standard Bagpuss fashion, after we learn the details of the broken item, on this occasion the ship, Gabriel responds to the suggestion that the ship is much too tiny for anything to sail upon it by singing a song about two-dozen white mice who sail under the command of a duck. Gabriel’s song thereby serves to encourage the group to think more imaginatively about the possibilities to hand. As Gabriel finishes singing, Yaffle quickly interjects: ‘Nerp, nerp, nerp, what a silly song!’ To which the mice reply: ‘No, no, it’s not a silly song, it’s a nice song’. After Yaffle argues that the song ‘doesn’t even make sense’, the mice, protesting that they love the song, gather around their ‘Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ’ and place a roll of sheet music into the device. This then triggers a sequence depicting the scenes as sung by Gabriel. 

Animated by Postgate, using cut-out illustrations created by Firmin, alongside cardboard rigs – such as the chorus line of mice – that could be manipulated in real-time, this scene presents a carefully considered and clearly visible departure from the overarching narrative world of model-based stop-frame animation. The interior logic here being to create a distinction between the different layers of whimsy, which are: the fantastical realm where inanimate toys become animate; the imagined realm conjured by song; the magical realm of remedy, actively summoned by Bagpuss when thinking, which serves to fix the broken objects; and the sepia intro and outro sequences, which suggests a higher level of memory-based framing, whereby all the activities of each episode occur in the mind of the little shopkeeper, Emily (played by Emily Firmin), who’s poetic incantation serves to bring Bagpuss to life at the start of each episode. Additionally, throughout the series, Yaffle functions as a proxy for our own disbelief, thereby repeatedly attempting to deflate, interrogate, or authenticate the numerous whimsical interludes that punctuate each episode. As noted above, as well as the self-contained scenes triggered by song (via Gabriel, Madelaine or the Mouse Organ), when Bagpuss put his thinking hat on this also served to shift the narrative from a model-based to a drawn aesthetic.

Dr Chris Pallant
Reader, School of Creative Arts and Industries
Faculty Director of Enterprise (Arts, Humanities and Education)
Canterbury Christ Church University


Chapter 8: Creative Collaboration and the Bricolage of Bagpuss (1974), in Chris Pallant, Beyond Bagpuss: A History of Smallfilms Animation Studio (London: BFI, 2022), pp X – X