Why Noggin the Nog?

When I was small (about a thousand years ago) we didn’t have a television; I know that sounds odd and incredibly old-fashioned now but in the early 1960s TV was for wealthy people (they were incredibly expensive items) and not for the likes of us … not for a few years anyway  and when we did get one it was thanks to Redifusion who rented tellies. Anyway, a friend of mine at school had a huge Bush television; I say huge, the cabinet was huge the screen was tiny, anyway, one evening I went to his house after school, I think, and I ogled the telly as if it was magic … which indeed it was. We had the cinema, the flea-pit, and I went most weeks but this was incredible … a screen, in your room, that showed moving pictures; black and white, of course, but moving pictures nonetheless. Back to my friends house; as I was sitting there with white sliced bread toast and jam (I had a deprived childhood, we only had “proper” brown bread), which was almost as magical as the TV, a programme started  on this magical box … the opening picture looked like this:

Saga Original

the music started, it was strange and quite eerie and old-fashioned even then but it drew me in … and then this amazing voice said: “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 …”

The tale they told had me transfixed.

A bit of history …

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… let me take you back to the year 1952 (that is even before I was born) there was a young art   student by the name of Peter Firmin. He one day went to the British Museum where he saw The Isle of Lewis Chess pieces which had been dug up from a sand dune; he became a bit besotted by these amazing carvings (which can still be seen in the British Museum and, some of them,on the left) and he drew and wrote a story. In 1958 he met Oliver Postgate. Whilst they were making Ivor the Engine, for Associated Redifusion, he showed Oliver his story and drawings and, by 1960, they had been commissioned by the BBC to produce six ten minute films … narrated by Oliver and drawn by Peter. These films were “The Saga of Noggin the Nog”. The films (they made more) were regularly on the television until well into the 1970s. Some colour versions were made in 1980 and in the 1990s they had a bit of a revival on Channel 4 but since then … it has all gone a bit quiet … Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin have made many other films since then, of course, there was Alexander the Mouse, the Pingwings, The Clangers, Pogles Wood, Tottie, The Seal of Neptune, The Story of a Doll’s House and, of course, Bagpuss. In fact, Peter and Oliver have been present in the lives of a number of generations of young children from the 1960s until now. Unfortunately Oliver Postgate died in 2008. Peter celebrated his 85th birthday  by coming to see our version of “The Saga of Noggin the Nog” at the New Diorama Theatre, London at the beginning of December 2012. We all sang Happy Birthday and a fabulous day was had by all.

Back to the plot …

… a couple of years ago Tony Gleave and I were strolling along the beach and chatting about theatre; shows we had done and shows we would like to do: Noggin the Nog was mentioned and both of us got very excited. Memories of childhood came flooding back (white toast and jam and a television the size of a small lorry); those many hours spent watching Peter’s drawings and listening to Oliver’s voice which was so reassuring. We had to watch the films again of course, just to make sure that we weren’t remembering things incorrectly, we weren’t looking at childhood through rose coloured spectacles … we weren’t. The beauty of Noggin, and indeed all of Peter and Oliver’s work, is the wonderful simplicity with which the carefully constructed stories are told. A bit like “Listen with Mother” but with pictures. We knew we had to make “The Saga of Noggin the Nog” into a play but more than that, we knew we had to re-create the simplicity and the humour with which the stories were originally told. We had to produce a piece of theatre that would, not only keep children spellbound but would also keep the adults engaged and amused … and also … remain truthful to the original stories for those old enough to remember them from the first time round. So … that was our task … it wasn’t easy but I think we’ve managed to find the heart of the original and added a soupçon of “now” into the mix to make a piece of theatre that is robust enough for modern audiences and yet does not kowtow to the “let’s do all the work for the audience” style of television that seems to practically fill the thousands of hours of modern young people’s broadcasting. Of course, you will have to be the judge of that!

One member of the audience who saw the show at the New Diorama Theatre, London, wrote in an e mail:

” … the heart of your production transforms your entire audience into … children, and the humour is perfectly pitched to be enjoyed by both generations”.

Last August we premiered the show (as work in progress) in Ramsgate.

A review by Rebecca Smith in the Thanet Gazette, August 31st 2012:

“But mummy, when will it start?”

Two little faces look up at me from the cushions thoughtfully fetched from a spare sofa at the back of the theatre.

“Shush, darlings,” I hiss.

Just as another chorus of “when will it start” is about to begin – BOOM!

Two little spines stiffen and heads whiz around to face front, craning to see.

A drummer steps from behind the deceptively simple, but effective and versatile, set.

My two little boys are transfixed and remain so for the duration of the performance.

Third Party Production’s Noggin the Nog is unquestionably a hit and to have it premiere in Thanet at the Summer Squall arts festival is a great coup for Ramsgate Arts.

The show takes the much-loved character of Noggin and brings it to the stage using an ensemble of four actors with music, song, video (using original sketches from the cartoon) and puppets. The show was billed for all ages, a phrase which caused me some concern that it might be above the heads of my little two. I should not have been worried.

It is clever, witty and entrancing …”

So, if you get the chance, come and see it … you’ll find the places, dates and times, under “Where and When …” in this blog.

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Rehearsals …

Last summer we did a couple of weeks of research and development on “The Saga of Noggin the Nog” with Director, John Wright. We tried to work out how we were going to tell the story of Noggin the Nog. We came armed with the DVD, a projector, a few puppets from other shows that stood in for the various Noggin characters, a few props, a couple of barrels, boxes, bits of tree, a couple of musical instruments and no idea of how we were going to turn all of those into a play. Where do you start? You put the kettle on. Over tea and Hob-Nobs (which laughingly, if predictably) became Hog-Nogs, we started to throw ideas around. We watched the DVDs and we played with puppets and we generally messed around for most of the day: it felt good.

Day two: we went off down a blind alley of wrongness … we bumped against the closed end of the said Cul de Sac until we were battered and bruised. We continued battering ourselves against the brick wall for day 3 and day 4 and much of day 5 … in fact we pretty much failed to work out how to make Noggin the Nog for a very long time. Although as we all said philosophically; “you often have to go wrong before you can go right”.

Week Two: we continued, philosophically going wrong … although we were learning a great deal about Noggin and we had some really good ideas for little snatches of the piece and we had learned more about puppets than Geppetto but we still didn’t have a style. It was the conceit of the piece that we were struggling with … who are we? Are we the characters or are we different characters telling the story of the characters. We were spiralling down, down into mild grumpiness. The tea and Hog-Nog consumption went up.

Towards the end of the second week, we found what we were looking for … a troupe of “out of work” vikings, who sat around their great log fires and told tales. They told tales like terribly English gentlemen of the 1950s: a bit like Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin as it happens. They wanted to be rough and gruff but niceness kept getting in the way. We had picked up on Oliver Postgate’s very English voice and the fact that Noggin and his hoard of rugged, craggy and hirsute vikings (who all spoke terribly well) often stopped for cups of tea and hot buttered toast. So, by the end of our little period of research and development we had our conceit and a few suggested scenes and we knew, more or less, which bits of film we were going to project and that we would need two projectors; one for rear projection and one out the front. We also knew that we were going to spend another week, after a pause of about a month, on putting together the first half of the play. There are two stories in the finished play … the first is taken from the very first film “King of the Nogs” and the second story is from, funnily, the second film “The Ice Dragon”. We were going to spend a week making the first story and … putting it in front of an audience at The Summer Squall, an arts festival down on the south-east coast of England in the town of Ramsgate.

So, props were found, projections were organised, costumes were hired, an old wooden cart purchased, a set was cobbled together and we went into a very hectic week of rehearsal. Needless to say, the story has a happy ending.

The photographs above are from the very first performance of “The Saga of Noggin the Nog” performed at the Summer Squall. All went well and the audiences (we did two performances) went wild; in a terribly English way. So, flushed with success, we went away and forgot all about it for a few weeks but of course, we knew that we had to start all over again. We were due to perform the play, in its complete format (two halves, two stories), at the New Diorama, London for two weeks leading up to Christmas 2012.

We had new puppets to create, costumes to be made, a lot of new props to acquire, an idea or two as to how we might create the second story to be  thought up and … an Ice Dragon to find. So, once again the might of Third Party and Mischievous Theatre team wound itself up into a large fluffy ball and hurled itself at the task. Needless to say, we were nowhere near ready to start a two week rehearsal period by the end of November. But start we did.

So, on a Monday morning in late November in a cloyingly cold rehearsal room on Marylebone High Street, the band of Nog warriors put the kettle on and had a cup of tea and a packet of Hog-Nogs and chatted about where we might start. John Wright, our Director, got us to tell the story of “King of the Nogs” and we began in earnest to recreate the first half of the play … with a great many changes, and then we told the story of the “Ice Dragon”, and started to put that together (difficult without the actual Ice Dragon, which was lying on the floor of a workshop with wet paint, glue and bits of wood and withies sticking out at all angles). We had all the usual problems that all companies have when they are making a piece of theatre … projectors that suddenly stop projecting, harmonium keys that stick, puppets that come apart in your hands, being locked out of our rehearsal room for the best part of a day, not enough mugs for tea, actors with colds, influenza and other work related lurgies, envelopes that had to be stuffed with posters and leaflets, heated discussions about various methods of doing a particular scene and on and on. Slowly though, over the two weeks, the play began to come together and by the time the first performance was due to be performed we very nearly knew most of it.

So, five minutes before the first performance (a performance that Peter Firmin and a great number of his family will be at), the computer that drives the projectors, suddenly decided that it wasn’t a computer after all but an electric kettle or a toaster or a radio-alarm, anything in fact but not a computer. The projectors are not projecting … great. So, Tony Gleave, dressed half in a viking costume and half in computer geek clothes starts fiddling with the intransigent pile of metal, wires and related hardware … he tries one thing after another and then turns it off and back on again … phew, it always works. The audience enter, find their seats, and there is a general buzz of excitement as the “play-in” music fades. As the “play-in” music fades, Tony is wrestling with a viking smock, a pair of terribly English 50s deck shoes and a metal helmet and then casts about looking for the lantern that he makes his first entrance with. The house lights fade and the stage lights creep up … we begin.

The first performance of any show is always an odd affair. We all more or less know what we are doing and saying, we all want to make the performance as good as we can, we are all slightly nervous … adrenalin tends to play a large part in any first performance and we had it in spades. We hit the stage at a hundred miles an hour and hurtled towards the end but after ten minutes we all relaxed, a little, and the show found its natural pace. We got to the end without too many gaffs and lost lines and the audience went wild … as wild as an English audience ever gets, anyway. The show was a success. Over the next twenty or so performances it settled into a lovely rhythm and just got better and better.

So, have a look at the Where and When page and see if there is a performance somewhere near you. And if there isn’t worry not … “The Saga of Noggin the Nog” will return later in the year. See you all there!

Clive Holland