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Death of Postman Pat creator John Cunliffe at 85

John Cunliffe
John Cunliffe
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John Cunliffe, who has died at 85, was a celebrated children’s author and presenter who created the enduring literary and TV characters of Rosie and Jim and, especially, Postman Pat.

A long-time resident of Ilkley, he was a native of the Lake District, and it was in that area’s little villages and narrow, twisting roads that he set his most famous stories.

Greendale, where Pat delivers his mail, was based on Longsleddale near Kendal, and for a while, part of the town’s Museum of Lakeland Life was a shrine to the character.

Mr Cunliffe had worked for years as a librarian and teacher before becoming a full-time time writer.

His first story, Farmer Barnes Buys a Pig, was published in 1964, and he went on to write around 200 books for young children, including five volumes of poetry, and numerous picture books and collections.

He was also the author of a stage play, The Twelve Days of Christmas, which was presented by the Hull Truck company in 1997.

It was in 1980 that he came up with the idea of a friendly postman who delivered letters around the Cumbrian hills.

The following year, the Leeds-born animator Ivor Wood, a veteran of Paddington and The Wombles, arrived at his home to discuss the idea.

The 13 episodes that resulted were broadcast that autumn. Book versions followed, and Terry Wogan began playing the theme music on the radio. It was a marketing bandwagon that is rolling to this day – although Cunliffe himself had to content himself with only a small proportion of the income.

Nearly 200 episodes were eventually made, and the series was revived in more modern form in 2003.

Mr Cunliffe’s introduction to the world of television had come by chance. A parent of one of the children in his class had sought him out in school.

“You write stories for children, don’t you?” she asked.

“Well, I heard a talk last night, given by a lady from the BBC. She said they were looking for new writers, for a new TV series. Why don’t you send her some of your books?”

He did exactly that, and the BBC lady in question, the children’s TV producer, Cynthia Felgate, invited him to a meeting.

She was looking, she said, for a new series for pre-school children, set in the countryside. Did he think he could write it?

“What about having a postman as the central character?” he asked, and Pat was born.

Born in Kendal, Mr Cunliffe’s family lived in what he described as a small terraced cottage just up the hill, with a little Post Office at the end of the street.

He went on to teach at Castle Park School, and later to run the Wooler mobile library service in Northumberland.

“Like Pat, I travelled around a rural area, and met a great many farmers and other rural dwellers, who were kind and generous in the way that the people of Greendale are,” he recalled. “It was all there, in my memory.”

His next project, the ITV series Rosie and Jim, saw him appear in front of the camera, as well as behind it. The series, which ran for 10 years and was also screened on public television in the US, concerned two rag dolls who live aboard a narrowboat and come alive to explore the canals of the Midlands.

His family announced his death in typically lyrical style. “John Cunliffe left his Ilkley home in a deluge of rain on Thursday, September 20, never to return,” the notice read. “John’s last poetry collection, significantly entitled Dare You Go has now come to fruition for John has dared to go and has gone.”

Mr Cunliffe was a patron of the children’s section of the Ilkley Literature Festival. Its director, Rachel Feldberg, said: “His work, particularly Postman Pat, was iconic for everyone who grew up reading, watching and loving those characters and will continue to delight children for generations to come.”

Alice Webb, director of BBC Children’s, said: “Postman Pat’s enduring popularity speaks to the genuine charm and warmth that John imbued in the characters.

“I count myself lucky to be one of millions of children whose childhoods were enriched by his creations.”

Mr Cunliffe is survived by his wife, Sylvia, and son, Edward.