At some point in the haze of binge-viewing season four of The Crown—released Sunday on Netflix—I noticed that Princess Diana had taken some time out of her busy schedule to sit in an armchair and watch what appeared to be grainy, black-and-white footage of something called “Bagpuss.” Who is she, I wondered to myself, and why?
On the screen was a tattered “cat” with no real explanation other than this voiceover, provided by the narrator: “Once upon a time,” he intoned, “there was a little girl named Emily.” I don’t know what else happened to Emily because in the episode of The Crown I was watching, a woman rolled in a cart full of Diana’s mail, interrupting TV time, but I was intrigued enough by Bagpuss to venture on a small journey of discovery. I learned that Bagpuss is quite famous and beloved, at least among British children of the 1970s!
Per this very helpful video, which is the introduction to the show, Bagpuss is a “saggy old cloth cat” who also happens to be the single item displayed in a store that shares his name. Emily, the young girl who is the proprietress of the Baagpuss shop, finds a magical “thing,” places said thing in front of ol’ Bagpuss, says an incantation, and then, at some point, Bagpuss comes to life, as do his friends in and around the shop. There are some mice that live on a pipe organ, a cloth doll named Madeline, a toad, Gabriel, and then Professor Yaffle, a woodpecker who moonlights as a bookend. The thing that Emily presents is inspected by the crew, and then a loose story forms around it. Meeting Bagpuss, however brief it was, drove me to consult my British correspondent, who informed me that while Bagpuss didn’t figure into his childhood, his older sister loved him. When I mentioned that I was writing about Bagpuss, because my thirst for knowledge is insatiable, he concurred. “He’s due to a celebration,” my friend said, and by Golly, he is absolutely right.
Bagpuss is the creation of Peter Firmin, who died in 2018. Firmin was responsible for some of the most beloved characters in British children’s television, a real motley crew of bedraggled puppets and things that are as pleasantly nonsensical as Jim Henson’s Muppets seemed when they first debuted in America. According to the Guardian’s obit for Firmin, Bagpuss’s creator shared the same sorts of views I do about contemporary children’s television, which is that it is terrifying, glossy, and empty in a way that bodes ill for the future of our country!! “I hate CGI faces on humans because you look in the eyes and there’s nothing there,” he said, according to the Guardian. “There’s no soul.”
Bagpuss only aired 13 episodes in total in 1974, but seems like the sort of thing that would be rerun into oblivion; it therefore makes sense that the fictional version of Diana was watching the show in the ‘80s (Bagpuss reappears later, while she’s hugely pregnant with Prince William, slumped on her bed, ignoring her nasty little husband’s entreaties). Though Bagpuss is not nearly as hallucinatory as the Teletubbies, another famous British children’s television import that immediately springs to mind for sheer weirdness, I am still just as compelled by his existence in the first place. Honestly, even though the Teletubbies is good to watch on weed, I’d say that Bagpuss is what it would look like if I ate a bunch of mushrooms and then stared at the designs on my carpet for a while, willing them to come to life. My cat, Daisy, bears no resemblance to Bagpuss, as Bagpuss is a stuffed cat who is also pink and white striped, but I bet that with enough imagination and the teensiest bit of hallucinogens, I could conjure up a scenario that would look something like this.
He was also supposed to be a marmalade cat, which makes a little more sense, given that the resulting creature looks like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. This resemblance naturally makes me think of drugs, but my guess is that the children who loved this floppy bag of stuffing only worship at the altar of whimsy.
Firmin’s other creations, which seem to have been as beloved by British children as Bagpuss was, are just as whimsical and also, hilarious to me, an American wedded to the idea that children’s television peaked with Muppet Babies and will never be as good again. The Clangers features small, mouse-like creatures that live on a planet that sort of resembles the moon; they don’t speak and subsist on green soup supplied by a Soup Dragon, who, according to the Guardian’s reporting, was once nibbled by mice after it was left overnight with a chocolate prop clutched in its claws. Other bangers from Firmin include Noggin the Nog, which was based on a 12th-century Norse chess set, and Basil Brush, a fox dressed like an aristocrat who “shared a billing with an overly aggressive Scottish hedgehog named Spike McPike.”
Another nice thing? Bagpuss will probably never be ruined by America. “Dan Postgate had an idea that they could be remade in a New England setting for the American market,” Firmin told the BBC in 2014. “But I don’t really want to think about that. I can’t imagine Bagpuss being anything but an Edwardian cat.” Bagpuss: The single most important cameo—indeed, the most important character—on The Crown.