The selling of Postman Pat

Published February 1994

When John Cunliffe sat down in the back bedroom of his home in the Lake District 15 years ago and started to write a story about a postman called Pat, something very strange began to happen. Cunliffe was not aware of it at the time. He was writing, as he always did, for the fun of it, for the change it gave him from teaching at the local primary school, and it was only years later that he could look back and begin to see the outline of what was really going on.

He was alone at the time. His only child was at boarding school down the road near Kendal, his wife was a mature student at university hundreds of miles away, and he was pretty fed up. So when he settled in behind his old black Triumph typewriter, he started to create a world that was a little bit more comforting and, in doing that, he struck on something bigger.

He was no stranger to feeling fed up. As a boy at school in Colne, an old mill town in Lancashire, he had been a punchbag for the local bullies. He was naturally a peaceable boy who didn’t enjoy fighting at all but he had the misfortune to be much taller than anyone else so he was a natural target for every little hard man who wanted to make his mark in the playground. They used to ambush him routinely on the way home and batter him and his bike, too.

The teachers didn’t seem to care at all. They almost encouraged it. Once, he had turned up for school with a new satchel which had been hand-stitched by his mother and he had come back from class to find it had been slashed to ribbons on his hook. He was terribly upset but the headteacher, who was a bully himself, did next to nothing to the guilty boys. Years later, he could still feel the injustice of it all and he still hated any kind of violence or oppression.

Now, when he sat down to write about this jovial country postman, Cunliffe constructed a community where everyone was happy and nobody broke anybody else’s spectacles for the sheer pleasure of it and the more he wrote, the more precisely he could see it all. He built a whole villagefull of characters, most of them made up of fragments of real people: his wife’s mother became Mrs Thompson at Greendale Farm; the Westmoreland phonebook gave him names and new ideas; he popped round to the post office to find out how things worked there. He started work on 13 different stories and he drew a map of his imaginary refuge, giving every name a home, and every home a place.

Cunliffe had grown up listening to adults talking about a golden age that he could hardly remember – before the war, when there had been no ration books and when they had had their own car and everything had been better. The world he remembered growing up in was hard. There was this one particular sad thing that he could never quite understand. It was all to do with his father, who had vanished about the time that he was born. He knew nothing about him, he had no idea why he was growing up without a father. No one would talk to him about it, as if it was this guilty secret, full of shame.

His mother had just about no money. She worked all day in a shop but she earned barely enough to keep them in food and clothes, and they had to board with his aunt and uncle in a little terraced house. It was this Uncle Herbert who had first introduced him to books. He was a working class intellectual, a brilliant man in his own way, who had been forbidden by circumstance from advancing himself in life, but he understood geology and mathematics and kept a microscope in the front room and he told the young boy about Shakespeare and Dickens and the wonderful universe of the imagination, where life could be whatever you wanted it to be.
Cunliffe wrote quickly, and by the time he rolled the last sheet of paper out of the typewriter five weeks later, he had created a private world of extraordinary innocence: Greendale, a village in the green hills of England with smiling children in the schoolroom and a round-faced vicar in the church and an old busybody in the little shop, everybody looking out for everybody else, nobody striving or struggling or wondering where their dad had gone. It was not just a story, it was a vision of perfection. And that was how the trouble started.

It was so perfect that it was a natural target for every businessman who wanted to make a profit out of childrens’ play. Fifteen years later, Postman Pat has become a multi-million pound marketing operation with limbs in almost every country in the world, guarded by accountants and lawyers and agents and even a private detective. And John Cunliffe has been left behind, removed to the side lines, from where he has watched in sadness as his characters have been exploited and Greendale has succumbed to the commercialisation of just about everything.

John Cunliffe had never expected to be rich or famous. Even though he had succeeded in publishing several little stories about Farmer Barnes , he had never earned any real money from it and simply enjoyed it for the pleasure it gave him. But from the beginning, he was excited about Postman Pat. He had actually been asked to write it by the BBC who had told him to come up a series set in the countryside and, within two minutes of being asked, he had thought of the idea. When he showed them his 13 stories, the BBC said they liked them and, several months later, when they showed them to the best animator in the country, Ivor Wood, he said he liked them, too.

Wood visited Cunliffe in the Lake District and toured the hills, soaking up locations and shooting off a roll of pictures of one particularly amiable postman whom they found up a lonely valley running errands for his customers. Wood was a veteran of the Magic Roundabout, The Herbs, The Wombles and Paddington Bear and he had just set up his own company, Woodland Animations, and now he agreed to turn the stories into 15-minute films for the BBC.

And when he told Cunliffe that he needed to buy the rights to his creation before he could sink all this money into the production, Cunliffe thought that sounded sensible enough. He agreed that Woodland Animations could make films and produce merchandise, while he would still have the right to produce books providing they included illustrations based on Wood’s puppets. Cunliffe felt a little odd to think that he wouldn’t own Pat any more, but he had created him. No one could take that away from him. At least, that was what he thought then.

Postman Pat was a big success. Ivor Wood’s 13 films, based on Cunliffe’s stories, were broadcast by the BBC in the autumn of 1981. Soon afterwards, Andre Deutsch published the stories as books, with illustrations by Celia Berridge, based on Ivor Wood’s images. The BBC repeated the films in the Spring of 1982 and then again in the autumn. In the shops, the books started to sell at speed. Woodland and the BBC produced annuals and a Postman Pat comic. Terry Wogan started playing the theme tune on his radio programme and it ended up in the charts. The films were repeated yet again, twice a year, becoming a new ritual of childhood.

John Cunliffe didn’t really mind everybody else making much more money out of his creation than he did. He had signed away his rights. He got nothing for the films when they were repeated over and over again. He got only 10% of the income from the annuals and the comics and the other little spin-offs that Woodland and the BBC were beginning to produce, but it really didn’t worry him. He was earning a handsome living. And when he wrote more books, he was happy enough to give 50% of the royalties to Ivor Wood. That was what the contract said. And anyway, Ivor was brilliant, the way he had brought Cunliffe’s characters to life on the screen.

The thing that first worried John Cunliffe was that other writers were now turning out Pat stories and they seemed to be changing him. In these annuals and comics, for example, he was losing that wry touch of humour that Cunliffe had always given him, like at the end of Postman Pat’s Windy Day when he says “Time to blow home” by mistake. Cunliffe knew people who had adopted that as a family saying. It was only silly, he knew, but it was one of the little touches that made Pat a comfort to people. Still, he didn’t want to get into a fight, so he let it pass. And then one day, he walked into a bookshop and found a whole book about Pat that set his teeth right on edge.

It was so badly written. It made him feel quite awkward that people might think he had written it. And in one story, Pat did something particularly stupid. The radiator in his little red van boiled over, and he hopped straight out and pulled the radiator cap off. He’d have burned his face off if he’d have done that. Cunliffe was sure he would never have let Pat do anything so silly. He felt so upset that he wrote off a letter, asking how this could happen. Apart from anything else, Cunliffe was under the impression that he was supposed to be the only author of books about Pat.

It turned out that this was not a book, because it was printed on card instead of paper. It was “merchandising”. It was a legal distinction that passed Cunliffe by but now he watched as the shops were bombarded with books that weren’t books: more comics, more annuals, activity books, sticker books, magic painting books, nursery rhyme books, books with wheels, books for baths, musical books, colouring books, press-out books, books with recipes and knitting patterns and all of them were all about Greendale – and nothing to do with John Cunliffe. He still wrote new stories from time to time and had them published by Scholastic, who had taken over from Andre Deutsch, and, once or twice, he even contributed to a merchandising book, but his heart wasn’t in it.

He didn’t want to fight about it. “Life’s too short for wrangles,” he used to say. “On to the next exciting project!” But then he made the mistake of going down to a big party at the BBC where all the great supremos from Childrens Television were gathered to celebrate the news that Postman Pat had won a Golden Cassette for
record-breaking sales of audio tapes. John Cunliffe watched in wonder as the great supremos gave Ivor Wood his Gold Cassette and told everyone how marvellous it was that Ivor had created Postman Pat. It was a chilling moment. Cunliffe’s wife, Sylvia, stepped forward to protest, but Cunliffe hushed her.

By now Pat was a millionaire and Woodland Animations had taken over from the BBC as the sole organisers of his merchandising. They distributed literature in which they described themselves as “the originators of the famous television, video and book character”. In one promotional paper called How The Series Started, they explained how the BBC had asked John Cunliffe to try his hand at a series about the countryside. “John Cunliffe came back with a draft in which a postman was the link. .. (The BBC) then approached Ivor Wood to put the whole project to life. The visuals and the concept were totally Ivor Wood’s.”

John Cunliffe felt terribly upset, but there was next to nothing he could do, so he
tried to concentrate on new ideas, while behind him, Greendale became an enterprise zone. Bulletins from Woodland Animations told the story of the postman’s latest adventures: “Major developments abroad… the character breaking into influential markets… a programme of retail promotions… new high-calibre licences… a very strong presence in a competitive marketplace.”

Children could paper their bedrooms with him, cover their lamps with him, hang their clothes on his hook, sleep under his duvet with their head on his pillow case next to his headboard, draw his curtains, wet his flannel, eat out of his lunch box. They could eat him in easter eggs, pasta shapes, party cakes, crisps, penny chews, goodie bags, chocolate biscuits, chocolate lollipops, and chocolate advent calendars. When Prince William went to school, he carried Pat’s thermos flask at his side.

Pat went round the world: Australasia, South Africa, Eastern Europe. In Norway, he was so popular that their Post Office adopted him as a Christmas mascot. In Japan, children loved Pato San. In China, the little red van took over where the little red book had failed. Only the Americans were difficult. CBS Television didn’t believe Greendale was in the real world, they complained that there were no ethnic minorities and they wanted to re-voice the videos with a mid Atlantic accent. Woodland kept selling.

Children started wearing him on socks, pyjamas, jogging suits, cycle shorts, swimming trunks, ski boots, wellington boots, slippers, hats, gloves, scarves, vests, pants, bodywarmers. They could play with his van, his jigsaw puzzle, his computer graphics, his coin-operated Sit ‘n’ Ride van, his six post boxes of different sizes, his fold-out post office set, his clock, his roller skates, his scooter, his van-shaped soft-play area,his wipe-away play sets, his card game, his dominoes, his balloons, and his dental health care stickers. In total, Woodland licensed nearly 600 different products.

Pat took on lawyers and accountants and agents in eight different countries. Pirates invaded Greendale and started turning out unlicenced Postman Pat T shirts, so Woodland hired a private detective – a retired Scotland Yard man – to protect Pat and track down the culprits. Most of the time, the detective did well enough for his lawyers to go to court and sue them. Once, he did a bit too well and found the pirates in their factory, where they set about him and sent him tumbling down the stairs.

At his new home in Yorkshire, John Cunliffe watched his private world become a salesman’s playground. Every so often, Woodland sent him a cheque for his 10% and a long invoice full of Pat’s achievements. He tried not to read them. It wasn’t that he felt angry with Woodland. He understood they were only earning a living and, in a way, he admired their energy. But it left him feeling curiously sad.

From time to time, he protested quietly and was told to face commercial realities. His publishers complained that there were too many sub-standard books in the shops. Cunliffe’s literary agent talked to Woodland to try to define the difference between books and merchandise. But Cunliffe still walked into bookshops and found his creation in some strange new home. Recently, he found Pat in a set of six miniature books, written in doggerel verse. Cunliffe thought they were dreadful. But Pat no longer belonged to him.

A few months ago, an elderly woman from Lincolnshire telephoned him out of the blue and told him she was his aunt, a sister-in-law to his long lost father. She explained how his father had been forced to move on and leave him behind. Cunliffe understood. He has moved on, too, leaving Pat in the hands of those who have adopted him. He is working in a new world now, where two little ragdolls called Rosie and Jim live on a barge together. They are happy and they look after each other. Nobody bullies them or takes their things. It is a vision of perfection.

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