Ivor The Engine: Bagpuss's cartoon brother on track for comeback

By Peter Shuttleworth
BBC Wales News

  • Published
Media caption,

Daniel Postgate takes us behind the scenes in the cow shed where cartoon classics were made

He was the cheeky cartoon steam engine that sang in his local choir, went out on his own and provokes nostalgic memories of an innocent childhood.

Now 60 years since Ivor the Engine first steamed onto TV, his owners want to bring him out of the retirement shed and turn him into a film star.

Stablemates Bagpuss and Clangers are already well loved. Now "pioneering" Ivor could get another ride.

"I'd love to make a live-action version of Ivor," said his co-creator's son.

Inspired by Dylan Thomas' poetry and created by hand in a tumbledown cow shed by the late cartoon great Oliver Postgate, the cult icon turns 60 on Saturday.

The loveable locomotive of The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited lived in the top left-hand corner of Wales surrounded by his eccentric friends.

Image caption,
Legendary cartoon creator Oliver Postgate made just 13 episodes of Bagpuss

If Mr Dinwiddy the gold miner wanted new boots, Evans the Song wanted a first bass for the Grumbly and District Choral Society or Idris the dragon needed a warm firebox refuge, Ivor was there.

The "ahead of its time" animation - one of UK's first cartoons - was made in the 1950s in Kent by someone whose insight into Welsh culture came mainly from Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood.

Bafta-award winning producer Postgate wrote the scripts, filmed the scenes and voiced many of the characters - including Ivor's distinctive puffing sound - with Smallfilms partner and animator Peter Firmin. The production, on an old farm just outside Canterbury, cost £10 a minute.

Image caption,
Ivor The Engine was made using cardboard cutouts painted with watercolours

Ivor was inspired by Postgate's friendship with a Welsh railway fireman, who fondly described how steam engines came to life when you spent time with them.

Postgate chose north Wales - of course, famed for its little steam railways - as the setting due to the "inspirational" terrain for stories made up of movable cardboard cut-outs painted with watercolours and the use of Blu Tack.

Although Bagpuss, voted Britain's most popular children's TV show in a BBC poll, and Clangers, which returned to the BBC recently, are Smallfilms' most famous productions, it was Ivor that started the cartoon classic conveyer belt.

Image source, Smallfilms
Image caption,
There were 72 episodes of Ivor The Engine, which went colour in 1975

"The beautiful storytelling means it's as enjoyable for children now as it was then," said Smallfilms' current owner Daniel Postgate, son of Oliver who died in 2008.

"Dad's first programme was made for ITV and was inspired by the love of Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas and the magic of Wales.

"He also wanted to animate without too many characters that could walk because it was difficult to animate - so he came up with a steam locomotive who wanted to sing in a Welsh choir and that was the starting point which led to everything.

"He then surrounded Ivor with charmingly eccentric people. It doesn't matter how technically dazzling an animation is, if the story is not good then it is soon forgotten."

Ivor, who lived in Llaniog with his driver Jones The Steam, was a stop-motion animation which was a "painstakingly, often laborious frame by frame" technique.

Postgate and Firmin created a map where Ivor lived and it included viaducts, bridges, tunnels, towns, a mine, gasworks and a beach.

Image source, Smallfilms
Image caption,
Ivor was the short name for the engine on The Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Limited

Black-and-white episodes were initially made for ITV, before Ivor appeared in colour in 1975 for the BBC.

Ivor has been immortalised in song by The Who and Bad Manners while the evocative background music is used on BBC 6 Music by evening presenter Gideon Coe.

"Every night I hear it on my show, it takes me back to a more innocent time and Ivor's lovely little world," said Coe.

Image caption,
Peter Firmin (left) died in 2018, 10 years after Oliver Postgate. This was them working together on Pogles' Wood, part of the BBC's Watch with Mother series in 1965

"It had such wonderful characters, magic yet sometimes eccentric storylines and beautiful background music that evokes a warm nostalgic feeling. It was subtle genius.

"Bearing in mind it started in the 1950s and was a cartoon trailblazer, it's still as good as anything made since. It was ahead of its time."

And nothing would make Daniel more chuffed, than following the Clangers and getting Ivor back on track and back on the TV.

"I've written some film ideas that could work as a live action and family film," said Daniel.

Image caption,
Ivor The Engine was revived by BBC2 Wales for a series of promotional adverts 15 years ago

"There have been plays and musicals and it'd be good to bring back Ivor in a different way, not as an animation as that has already been done.

"And something to showcase the beautiful Welsh countryside and wealth of acting talent Wales has to offer.

"There's every chance it will happen - I'm on the case."

An exhibition of work from Postgate - the grandson of pre-war Labour leader George Lansbury and cousin of actress Angela Lansbury - will be in The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury from next week.

"Although it was a large part of my childhood," added Daniel. "It was a large part of everybody else's childhood as well."

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