‘In the lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…’
So began every episode of the Saga of Noggin the Nog, an animated TV series that ran on the BBC from 1959 to 1965. The words were spoken with the upmost solemnity by their author, the actor, director and inventor Oliver Postgate, and accompanied by flickering atmospheric paintings by his partner Peter Firmin.
You might think that a series of books based on these legendary tales, that were so perfectly suited to the new medium of television, might be a little surplus to requirements. But that would be to underestimate the strength of Postgate’s storytelling and Peter Firmin’s incredible artistry.
The books adapted the series and took us deeper into the land of the Nogs. Beyond the sagas there was a series of original stories for younger readers and a book called Nogmania, ‘an in depth study of their simple, happy, ridiculous way of life.’
That simple, happy, ridiculous way of life is frequently disrupted by Noggin’s oh so wicked uncle Nogbad, a pantomime villain of the highest order, who Postgate claimed was based on himself.
The main attraction is the addition of colour to Noggin’s world – TV viewers only saw the Northlands in black and white until two new colour stories appeared in the late 70s. What we also get is a good deal more humour. I do love the downbeat quality of the originals, but the lightness of tone here is quite refreshing.
The opening sequence in the first saga, King of the Nogs, sets the style. Beloved King Knut comically keels off his hilltop throne setting off a mad dash of local maidens determined to secure Prince Noggin’s hand in marriage – only to be upstaged by a strange green talking bird called Graculus.
The sagas were inspired in part by the Norse myths, and given their look by a set of characterful 12th century chess pieces from the Isle of Lewis that Postgate and Firmin had long admired in the British Museum.
Their genius though is that they are not beholden to these great works. Postgate and Firmin were always happy to stitch together ideas in the same way they did their home made productions.
You can detect a bit of the Arabian Nights in The Flying Machine
There’s a good helping of Tolkein in The Ice Dragon
And Homer’s Trojan Horse comes in the form of a Nog Dragon.
Postgate took a pragmatic approach to the creation of his stories – possibly because he had to build everything, from the props to the camera equipment, from the ground up. Similarly he gives the impression that every story was a problem to be solved.
‘I have always resisted the suggestion that I have been “creative”. Very occasionally, ideas that seemed to be wholly original would turn up in my head. When these were relevant I would grab them with delight, but the idea that I had created them is, I am sure, quite misplaced. When I was looking for stories, my mind would go crawling through a mud of memory, a morass of experience, life and literature, to see what it could find.’
And so when in 1969 the BBC asked Smallfilms for their first colour TV series, Postgate and Firmin decided that they needed to create something altogether ‘new’ and of its time. And there was nothing newer and more exciting in 1969 than the conquest of space. Quite a tall order for two men so imbedded in history and rural folklore. In true pragmatic fashion they returned to their old work for inspiration.
‘When Peter and I were ranging through our stock, looking for old ideas to recycle I realised that I was mistaken about our not having anything to do with outer space. One of the Noggin ‘First Readers’ was called Noggin and the Moonmouse.’
2015 will be a big year for the legacy of Smallfilms, seeing the return of The Clangers to TV screens after a gap of over forty years. With scripts by Oliver’s son Daniel (who has written some great children’s books) and an ‘active involvement’ from Firmin, this hopefully won’t be a total atrocity. To celebrate I’ll be visiting the storybook versions of some other Smallfilm favourites including The Pogles, Bagpuss and Ivor the Engine.
Seeing Things, a Memoir by Oliver Postgate is published by Cannongate. The Art of Smallfilms by Johnny Trunk is published by Four Corners. The Sagas of Noggin the Nog and Nogmania can be ordered direct from The Dragons Friendly Society.