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Captain Pugwash (1957-66)

Courtesy of the John Ryan Estate

Main image of Captain Pugwash (1957-66)
BBC1, tx. 8/10/1957 - 26/6/1966; 16/9/1974 - 11/7/1975
58 x 10 min episodes (black & white); 30 x 5 min episodes (colour)
DirectorJohn Ryan
Production CompanyBBC Television
ProducersGordon Murray, John Ryan
WriterJohn Ryan
MusicJohnny Pearson
VoicesPeter Hawkins

The misadventures of a bungling pirate of the high seas and his crew.

Show full synopsis

A mainstay of the daily pre-news slot in his 1970s heyday, Captain Horatio Pugwash debuted in boys' comic Eagle back in 1950. Cartoonist John Ryan's original Pugwash was a leaner, unkempt and slightly grumpy character, though Eagle dropped the strip as too juvenile after just 19 issues.

In 1957 the first Captain Pugwash book was published. He soon transferred to television with occasional episodes, later becoming a 1960s Sunday teatime fixture. Ryan took a simple but effective 'paper engineering' approach using boards with moving parts operated out of shot by an ingenious arrangement of tabs and levers, like a televised pop-up book. Fifty painted backdrops featured in each 5-minute episode. Early episodes went out live, with mistakes and malfunctions left in. This was ambitious nonetheless, since BBC 'animation' then often meant merely pointing roving cameras at static artwork.

Ryan later refined his techniques with filmmakers Bob Bura and John Hardwick on the more sophisticated colour series Mary, Mungo and Midge (BBC, 1969) and Crusader send-up The Adventures of Sir Prancelot (BBC, 1972). A more polished Pugwash colour series inevitably followed.

Pugwash was a comic anti-hero, a vain, cowardly and greedy pirate who undervalued the trusty but dim crewmembers of his ship The Black Pig (Master Mate, Barnabas and Willy) and took the credit for any successful ventures over the real brains of the outfit, his genial ragged-trousered factotum, Tom the Cabin Boy.

Pugwash regularly locked horns with black-bearded rival Cut-Throat Jake in the pursuit of treasure, while more outré episodes featured witches, sea monsters or travels to the Arctic. Set around 1775, though with limited regard for historical accuracy - elements including jelly babies and a fruit machine appeared - it presented little or no violence for these pirates and events remained resolutely jolly, including revelries at dockside inns and a music hall.

The innocent charm was later sullied by student rag jokes suggesting rude names appearing in the show, citing non-existent characters Master Bates, Seaman Staines and Roger the Cabin Boy. When the urban myths were echoed as fact in 1991 by The Guardian, Victor Lewis-Smith in The Sunday Correspondent and touring comedian Richard Digance, Ryan won legal damages. Some felt the rumour mongering cost Ryan programme sales but Ryan had soon licensed animator John Cary to make The Adventures of Captain Pugwash (ITV, 1998) for Britt Allcroft, with the 'string and sealing wax' approach replaced by cel-animation and computers.

Alistair McGown

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Video Clips
Mary, Mungo and Midge (1969)
Children's TV in the 1960s