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5 Episode Three

Episode three sees Tottie loaned out to an exhibition where the Queen expresses a wish to buy her. Set in 1946, this is the member of the Royal Family who any viewer under the age of 70 would know as The Queen Mother. Still photos are used to represent the human characters in Tottie, with their voices given by Oliver Postgate's superb narration. Strangely the actress posing for still shots as Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon looks more like the Queen Mother of 1984, rather than the dark-haired lady in her mid-40s that she would have been at the time. (By a curious coincidence, Tottie's first air date of 6th February 1984 marked the 32nd anniversary of Bowes-Lyon's final day as Queen).
     The voice acting in Tottie is highly skilled. Although the cast are always credited with just "voices", it's clearly Una Stubbs performing the voice of Birdie, while Anna Calder-Marshall acts as Tottie and Olwen Griffiths (Ivor The Engine/Pogle's Wood) provides many other voices. Oliver Postgate is outstanding as the nervous Mr. Plantaganet, but it's notable that the sound quality for Postgate is significantly better than that for the female performers, almost as if they didn't share the same studio. However, this "speaking into an old tin can" sound quality does add further allure to the programme, providing an eerie, other-worldly air. It's here, at the exhibition, where Tottie meets Marchpane after several decades, and the Queen's attraction to Tottie only serves to fuel Marchpane's resentment...

4 Episode Two

The second episode sets up the course of events for the rest of the series. The homeless dolls finally get their titular dolls' house, only for it to be in a state of disrepair. Their hopes are raised when the house is cleaned, but a larger repair means that Tottie has to be given away to an exhibition in order to pay for it. As if this isn’t enough for viewers, there's also a cutaway to Marchpane, with Postgate narrating how conceited and self-regarding she has become. As an episode, it's less about the experience, and more about laying the groundwork for the trauma still to come...

3 Episode One

An opening story that sets up the situation nicely, whereby Tottie speaks of how she once knew Marchpane, and the evil doll is depicted in Sepia, and Mrs. Plantaganet, also known as "Birdie", remarks on how she's afraid of fire as, being made of celluloid, she would be instantly destroyed. It sounds like a particularly pessimistic chat between Birdie and Tottie, but the true horror of this series is that it's actually foreshadowing.
     Smallfilms had done a "dolls come to life when their owners aren't around" series before, of course, with Bagpuss. But with Tottie, the dolls are fully cognisant of their own status as toys, but also feel what happens to them. So that when we first meet Mr. Plantaganet and discover that his right foot was chewed off by a dog, part of the skin from his hand was torn away, and a moustache was vandalised onto his face in permanent marker, it's not like a doll who's been mistreated, but a sentient being who has been disabled and mutilated.
     As the novel describes him, "He was still easily made afraid, afraid of being hurt or abused again." This is, in many ways, a spiritual descendant of Bagpuss... but it's Bagpuss via Beckett, or a tale of the toys from Playschool as written by Alan Bleasdale. A bleak and sombre series, this debut episode sees the toys homeless and wishing they had somewhere to live. While they eventually get their wish, it doesn't turn out as they'd hoped.

2 Episode Five

The most pivotal episode of Tottie, with many sites, including the official Smallfilms site, claiming that it's a children's programme that contains a murder. Wikipedia, at date of writing, goes even further, explaining how Marchpane deliberately sets up a trap to kill Birdie.
     Watching the episode, it's not clear how pre-meditated this sequence of events actually is. One thing that is clear is that Marchpane despises the other dolls, and encourages Apple to play dangerous games, hoping that he'll hurt himself, and also knowing that taking him away from the others causes them distress. When Birdie enters the living room and saves Apple from a flame, it causes her celluloid body to burn instantly, leaving nothing but clothes and smoke. Marchpane smiles, far from disappointed at this turn of events, but perhaps having more encouraged dangerous behaviour and got a fatal reaction, rather than directly murdered Birdie. At least, that's what her defence lawyer would say.
     This is a horribly claustrophobic episode, and one in which anyone who has lost control over their own life would be able to relate to: in just one short episode, Birdie loses her home, her child, and, finally, her life. Emily, one of the children, is a meaner character in the novel, where she bullies her younger sister into mistreating the dolls, and both are more aware of the dolls' symbiotic nature, sensing their emotions and desires. Giving Apple to Marchpane to adopt is particularly cruel, though it seems more of an unknowing, innocent decision in this adaptation. (Another notable admission in the transfer to television is Darner's barking is no longer rendered as "prick!")
     The episode, and the first season, ends with Mr. Plantaganet's post-traumatic observation of Birdie, that "wasn't she beautiful in the flame? Like a firework." As the end credits draw in, Mr. Plantaganet and Tottie remember Birdie with affection and laugh, reflecting on the nature of existence. It's presented as a relatively upbeat ending in the face of heartbreak, but it's the kind of episode that Ken Loach would say is too downbeat.

1 Episode Six

Mr. Plantaganet may be Oliver Postgate's greatest creation, a timid man contemplating existence and unsure of his own memories. Avoiding the sitting room, he claims it feels "empty", though it's clear he's on the verge of a nervous breakdown, with Apple not helping, reminding him, not for the first time, that he doesn't do anything but read a newspaper. This episode lacks the dramatic brilliance of episode five, but instead compels in such an unusually dark study of nihilistic bleakness.
     The second series of Tottie took around a year to make, and was no longer based on the book, but instead mapped out original storylines... a bit like the later series of Game Of Thrones. Surprisingly for such an involved work, it doesn't rate more than a few passing mentions in Oliver Postgate's memoir, Seeing Things. The series indirectly led on to a new cel animation in 1986, the 13-part Pinny's House, after which Postgate realised that it was the natural end for Smallfilms Productions, and that their television-making days were finally over.
     Instead of dolls, what was foremost on Postgate's mind at the time was the 1980s cold war, and the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Between the two seasons of Tottie, Postgate and Firmin made a 27 minute semi-animated film, Life On Earth Perhaps, which was distributed amongst UNA and Peace Group meetings. It's an unsettling viewing experience, Oliver Postgate's calming, soothing voice narrating over real-life footage of Adolf Hitler and the dead of Hiroshima, and nuclear armageddon displayed via Ivor The Engine-style drawings. Perhaps Postgates' mind wasn't just distracted by what was then a very real threat of nuclear holocaust, or recently becoming a widower in 1982. Perhaps it was that his creative instincts were given no real free reign, with Tottie - the first season, at least - following the plot of the book very closely.
     It's a testament to the professionalism of Postgate and his creative partner Peter Firmin that what appears to be almost an afterthought could become something so special, and so well crafted. Smallfilms made a dozen different television series, some of which were remade in Postgate's lifetime (colour remakes/updates of Ivor The Engine and The Saga of Noggin the Nog) and one of which, The Clangers, is being remade to this day. Of the other eleven series, then at least five of them are better remembered than Tottie, which is likely to never be regarded with the same affection and respect. Possibly if it had been made a decade earlier it would have been accepted as the great television programme it truly is, rather than as a series made when Smallfilms was winding down. But then, it didn't really have a choice. Dolls cannot choose. Dolls can only be chosen.


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