Tuesday 4 August 2009


"Plundering porpoises!
Scuttling cuttlefish!
Battling barnacles!
Harrowing hurricanes!"

How can I have possible have overlooked the recent passing of the cartoonist, illustrator and animator, JOHN RYAN...?

He was the creator of almost three decades of childhood icons, first in the pages of comics like Eagle, Swift and Girl with Harris Tweed, Sir Boldasbrass and Lettice Leefe and then as one of the masters of BBC Children's TV with Mary, Mungo and Midge, Sir Prancealot and the long-suffering Lady Hysteria.

But, above all, John Ryan gave us that kind-hearted (yet basically cowardly and inept) buccaneer, Captain Horatio Pugwash, who sailed the main in his ship, the 'Black Pig', and whose exploits were always introduced by that memorable hornpipe theme tune as played on the concertina by Tom the Cabin Boy.

John, who died on 23 July, aged 88, was a modest, witty, gentleman who - long before the age of high-tech animated kids' TV shows - created charming little films brought to life with cut-out cardboard figures enacting their simple dramas in a world of painted story-book settings.

I had the pleasure of meeting John on a number of occasions when we shared judging honours at an annual competition for young pavement artists.

I always enjoyed talking and corresponding with this engaging man who, with his cravats and fly-away hair, cut a somewhat dandified figure but who was also a sensitive, serious-minded man and, as a devout Christian, was the resident cartoonist on The Catholic Herald and the author of several biblical-based picture books for children. John was always most at home talking to his youthful fans and drawing them pictures of Captain Pugwash and his arch-nemesis Cut-Throat Jake.

Here's a snippet from one of those Pugwash adventures as a reminder of a talent that brightened the young lives of so many of us...

Thanks for all the fun, John, and I wish your spirit a calm sea, a following breeze and a safe harbour in which to drop anchor...


SharonM said...

Captain Pugwash - gosh, that's a blast from the past and I can just remember Mary, Mungo and Midge When were they first shown?

I think what I remembered most about the Pugwash series, before watching the clip, was the way the characters moved - as if someone was holding them on a stick and moving them up and down.

Brian Sibley said...

Mary, Mungo and Midge began in 1969 in the BBC's Watch With Mother slot.

Captain Pugwash was originally broadcast in black & white in 1957/8, with a colour series beginning in 1974.

The figures were jointed cardboard and the movements were operated 'live' by Ryan assisted by his wife.

Good Dog said...

Ah, the great Pugwash. And without the "suggestive names" that everyone supposedly remembered it for. My copy of The Golden Age of Children's Television had a correction/apology sticker slapped over the list of characters.

Cut-out animation requires a heck of a talent because all it takes is one false move and you're back to the beginning. (Although I worked with Gilliam's ex-assistant of a series of commercials and he was nuts!)

The only thing I remember from Mary, Mungo and Midge was the mouse standing on the dog's nose to press the button in the lift. Nowadays I suppose Midge would have to hit the button with a flying ninja kick.

Brian Sibley said...

You're right, of course, on both points: the technical difficulty of the craft of cut-out animation and the fact that the supposed double entendre names (Seaman Staines and Roger the Cabin Boy) are nothing more than a persistent urban myth - no such characters ever having appeared in the programmes.

Looking at Ryan's work today - as with that of the late Oliver Postgate - one is struck both by its naivety and by the lovingness with which it was made.

Bitter Animator said...

I had read this very sad news just the other day on Toonhound and actually meant to mention it on my own blog.

John Ryan, along with Oliver Postgate as you mention, Mr.S, was a massive part of what I see as a real golden age of UK children's shows.

Yes, there was a naivity there but the lovingness you mention gave his work so much more. During a time when US cartoons were delivering the dregs, something absolutely magical was happening in the UK. It was a love of fun, playfulness and, I think most of all, a real desire to give to children. Not to take from them.

Pugwash was front and centre in this golden age, standing alongside Bagpuss, Roobarb, Paddington Bear and so many others. It's actually quite baffling just how many beautiful classics were made during this time.

You know one thing that really strikes me about all of them? They look fun to make. They look like play in progress. Yes, there was obviously a lot of work and talent put into them but the inventiveness, the charm, the heart seems to come from the same urge to play that the young audiences would share.

John Ryan brought a huge amount of talent to this play. His illustrations are beautiful. Those of us in children's television (you know, those of us who actually care about children) can only hope to live in the shadow of such greats and learn by creating with heart and play.

Brian Sibley said...

What a splendid tribute, BA, and your description of these classic animations as looking like "play in progress" is perfectly expressed.

That playfulness is a wonderful tradition of which Peter Lord, Dave Sproxton and Nick Park were, I think, natural inheritors and successors.

Boll Weavil said...

The joy of those cartoons was not just their simplicity but how they were adapted to that.Nobody could have taken Sir Prancelot or Pugwash seriously if they'd been puppets because their bouncing along in simplistic animation was part of their charm.The sound effects all added to the appeal.The rest has already been said here - this was the golden age of childrens TV and when you think that Ryan, Postgate and the Woods were working in it, this is not suprising. Its a cliche but their output is just as watchable today as it always was and that's why we love it.
ROUNDEA : A large fluffy Clanger bought off Ebay for too much money but which just seemed an essential purchase.

Brian Sibley said...

And the music and the voices, too... What would Pugwash have been without the voices of Peter Hawkins or Bagpuss and The Clangers without Oliver Postgate's narration...?