Pugwash TV 1957-66

Captain Pugwash

Captain Pugwash and the French Admiral

BBC TV black and white animation series, 1957-66

In 1957, Captain Pugwash leapt from book and cartoon onto television. Owen Reed, Head of BBC Children’s Programmes, commissioned a total of 58 five-minute episodes. Ryan knew that ‘proper’ Disney-style stop-frame animation was beyond his skills and far too costly. Instead he devised his own animation method using cardboard cut-outs, Indian ink, gouache paint, split pins and glue. Levers attached to jointed cardboard cut-outs were manually operated – out of camera shot – by Ryan, his wife Priscilla and his studio assistant. Having written the script, it took Ryan and his team 2 – 3 weeks to create the 50 or so ‘captions’ (animations) needed for each TV episode. Eventually settling into a Sunday afternoon slot, the popular series had titles such as ‘Arctic Circle’, ‘Total Eclipse’, ‘A Cure for Hiccups’, ‘Solid Gold’ and ‘The Curse of the Pugwashes’.

‘The process of tele-recording was hazardous. Indeed the very first programmes went out live. The method was to set up three sets of captions with three cameras and a monitor each. Peter Hawkins, the narrator, spoke the words in a concealed part of the studio. He had to be invisible because his acting gestures as he spoke all the voices were enough to incapacitate the animators with laughter. After an hour or so of camera rehearsal the programme was recorded, cutting from camera to camera while the operators feverishly operated the captions and then changed them in time for their next appearance. Vision mixing, sound effects and music were all controlled by the producer, Gordon Murray. It was a complex and nerve-racking process, and we were at the mercy of whatever studio staff, electricians etc. happened to be on duty.’ [at BBC Lime Grove, London]. John Ryan in 1987.

The Pugwash theme tune, now totally identified with the Captain, was chosen originally from the BBC sound library. It is a traditional hornpipe piece played by the late Tom Edmondson, recorded in 1954 in Northumberland on the button accordion.

On display in the exhibition: 1 original ‘caption’ illustrated above right.