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The heritage value of a saggy old cloth cat

How Bagpuss can teach us about intangible cultural heritage

A big happy birthday to Bagpuss, first broadcast on Tuesday 12 February 1974 – 50 years ago!

Like many people, I grew up on Bagpuss. Despite only 13 episodes being made, the series lived on for 12 years with frequent repeats. It is part of our cultural heritage that we pass on to future generations.

An original watercolour painting of Bagpuss and other cats dressed as pirates, shipwrecked on an island. © Linda Birch
Illustration © Linda Birch

That first episode (on repeat, I hasten to add!) made a very young me want a ship-in-a-bottle. I didn’t have to wait long; we moved house and the previous owners left one behind! Ours was a five-masted ship – likely meant to be the Preussen, wrecked at Crab Bay near Dover. It seems Bagpuss may have unwittingly kick-started my passion for local heritage, and certainly inspired my interest in television history. (Folkestone features in television history, as John Logie Baird conducted some early experiments in a shop in Guildhall Street!)

Bagpuss’ links to Folkestone

Linda Birch with Bagpuss and Sarah Gent from The Witham showing off some of Linda's illustrations
Linda Birch with Sarah Gent from The Witham, Barnard Castle in 2017 (Image via Teesdale Mercury)

In the Eighties or Nineties, my Mum reunited with an artist she had befriended in the Sixties on the 16 bus to Folkestone – Linda Birch – a student at Folkestone School of Art and Crafts. Linda was a children’s book illustrator – her 150+ credits include the Simon and the Witch series by Margaret Stuart Barry, and books by Terry Deary. She lived in Elham, taught an art class in the Church Hall and had a studio at Parsonage Farm. Linda had also worked in the Metropole Arts Centre, as did I years later. We attended a preview of her exhibition at the Sassoon Gallery in Folkestone Library. (The Society called an emergency meeting of local groups last year following the library’s closure in late 2022.)

Linda operated the Soup Dragon on The Clangers and shares the illustrator credit with creator Peter Firmin on every episode of Bagpuss! She wasn’t the only link the series had to Folkestone, though – Bagpuss’ distinct pink stripes resulted from a mix-up at Folkestone-based Dunbar Deep Pile not producing the marmalade colour requested by Peter and his wife, Joan, who made Bagpuss.

Meeting Emily

For my A-Level Art, I had to do a thesis on an artist. I chose Linda, who had moved to County Durham, so I interviewed her by mail. She kindly introduced me to the Firmins, who invited me to their Blean farmhouse. This was where Peter and his partner, Oliver Postgate, filmed Bagpuss and all their other children’s television favourites. So, thanks to Linda, I can tell you a story…

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a little girl…
and her name was Emily.

Emily Firmin painting in the family barn
Emily Firmin in 1998 © Mark Hourahane

Bagpuss was filmed in a disused cow shed. Nearly 25 years later, I found Emily Firmin hard at work on her own artwork in the same barn! The barn is a stone’s throw from the window of Emily’s ‘shop’ (above). Peter and Joan gave me a tour of the barn and their studios, where I saw original puppets and props.

For me, meeting Peter and Emily, seeing their ‘film studio’, discussing filming techniques and holding some of the original puppets – as well as a friend of the family working on some of the productions – made the Smallfilms productions extra special.

There is something special about the memories associated with an event – even if it is something as simple as watching a television show as a child. Many people remember how they reacted to the Daleks in Doctor Who, whether it was hiding behind the sofa or chuckling at their inability to cope with stairs, and they respond to seeing one in person – even a replica. Much like music or a certain smell or taste, television can instantly transport you back in time and release happy memories.

The value of intangible cultural heritage

A cartoon by Chris Madden featuring two Daleks watching Doctor Who on a sofa, whilst a young Dalek hides behind it
© Chris Madden all rights reserved. Used with permission

The tradition of sitting down as a family to watch a favourite television show can be as important to people as cultural traditions, from traditional crafting skills to ritual events – whether that is the haka at a rugby match in New Zealand or local customs celebrated annually. We do it because our heritage and culture matters; it is important to celebrate it and pass on the importance to future generations.

Such intangible cultural heritage can be vital to understanding the history of your town and valuing its heritage. We all tell stories of local events of the past – particularly when they have greater than local significance. Mahatma Gandhi came to England via Folkestone and many soldiers last set foot on British soil here in WWI. But do we celebrate these events properly? There are local traditions that continue to be celebrated annually, like the Blessing of the Fisheries – a ceremony that has taken place for over 120 years. Other annual celebrations, such as the air show and original Folkestone Carnival, sadly fizzled out.

Civic Voice president Griff Rhys Jones discusses intangible cultural heritage at an APPG in January 2023
Civic Voice president Griff Rhys Jones discusses Pride in Place at an APPG in January 2023 © Matthew Jones

In 2023, several members of our committee attended All Party Political Group meetings for Civic Societies. Reports by Public First, The Bennett Institute and the National Lottery Community Fund highlighted the importance of Pride in Place in town planning and Levelling Up. Studies show that heritage creates the greatest sense of civic pride in local communities. Fostering a connection with local industrial and cultural history is important to residents.

So, if you are proud of the fact that the cloth that made ‘a saggy old cloth cat’ came from Folkestone, keep telling the story to future generations! Recent developments in Barnfield Road and plans for the Silver Spring site could easily have celebrated the birthplace of Bagpuss. However, the developers probably didn’t know the connection.

Another 50th anniversary

2024 marks not only Bagpuss‘ 50th anniversary… but the Society’s, too! I joined the Committee in 2022 because an organisation nearly 50 years old should live to mark that occasion. Its many achievements have instilled a sense of Pride in Place; the Society itself is an intangible cultural heritage asset. You can’t touch it, it doesn’t stand in one place – but you come to its events and enjoy the fruits of its labour. Losing something so special would be akin to losing the very buildings it sought to protect for decades.

We will celebrate our anniversary with some very special events. To receive updates, sign up to our mailing list or, better still, consider becoming a member!

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