I sometimes suffer from sensory overload, where I become overwhelmed by too many things happening at once and start to freak out. While everyone can be overwhelmed in that regard, I tend to get it more easily since my brain lacks the ability to filter things out – meaning everything registers exactly the same to me regardless of personal relevance or distance. (Imagine listening to a song, but every single instrument is turned up to max and blaring at the same time. That’s kinda what it’s like.)
This does make being in spaces full of people or even conversations with more than 3 people very difficult to deal with, but it’s usually quite manageable. It only really becomes a problem if things get suddenly exacerbated by something or I’m not in the right frame of mind to cope with it.
I bring this all up because I’ve been in an odd state of mind for the last few days. I don’t know what’s brought it on, but I’ve become very easily susceptible to suffering from sensory overload. Irritatingly, this has drastically impacted my ability to do much of anything at the moment, whether it’s working on my own creative things or just watching TV.
I can’t hold a conversation with my folks if we’re watching TV and there’s a conversation going on in the show; I have to turn the volume down or mute the TV altogether. I can’t even listen to music if there’s a strong use of melody while I’m working on something; I get too stressed out in the moment that I have to either stop working or stop the music.
It’s become very frustrating, and I’ve been trying to find a way to help myself calm down when this does happen. Normally, I’d just watch some cartoons, but that hasn’t been much help because those tend to overwhelm my senses pretty quickly. I spent a few days asking around for quiet or relaxing cartoons, and while I got a few recommendations I might check out eventually, I decided on a whim to go with a stop-motion cartoon I watched when I was very young: Postman Pat.
And to my surprise, it actually worked. Watching the first series over the last week or so has been one of the most calming experiences in recent memory, and exactly what I needed to calm my senses. But how did it manage that?
Well, before I go into further detail, it might be good to briefly explain the history of Postman Pat for those of you who don’t know about it. So I’ll briefly hand things over to the Goats of Context, Cartoon Milk’s local experts on vaguely obscure animation history.
Postman Pat is a British stop-motion TV series that first aired in 1981, about the mundane adventures of a local countryside postman and his black and white cat Jess. It was originally directed by Ivor Wood, best known for animating the classic TV series The Magic Roundabout and directing the stop-motion adaptations for The Wombles and Paddington.
Like those shows, Postman Pat became very popular, spawning numerous revivals and spin-offs over the years. The series was sponsored by the Royal Mail postal service from 1981 to 2000, with its logo plastered on the side of the van. It was even successful enough to get adapted into a bizarre feature length movie featuring, among other things, an American Idol parody 13 years past its sell-by date and evil robotic clones of Pat.
Oh, that was shorter than I expected. Then again, I think the pubs just opened, and those Goats sure love their Baileys. But getting back to Postman Pat, how does it calm me down when other cartoons can’t? Well, because it’s boring.
The animation is slow and laboured, with characters stumbling about deliberately and many static shots featuring people gesturing or Pat driving around. Dialogue is sparse and to the point, with only the sounds of the countryside, Pat’s van and the odd bit of mellow music accompanying the slightly awkward pauses in between. As for the plot, there’s never anything at stake beyond something very mundane like Pat losing his hat or having to herd one or two sheep back to the local farm.
“Boring” is normally considered to be a negative when used to describe something: it suggests the cartoon’s not interesting or engaging, and that reading a catalogue on vinyl wallpaper patterns is a more valuable way to spend your time. In fact, when my secondary school friends and I showed Postman Pat to a German classmate who had never heard of the show, he declared it “boring” after around a minute and stopped watching. However, watching Postman Pat to relax has taught me to appreciate that being “boring” isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s just a quality that a work can have, and it can be exactly the thing you’re looking for. For me, everything I just said about the series is why I’m relaxing so much.
Yes, it’s a slow show, but that works really well in creating a laidback series. The animation is deliberate, which gives you plenty of time to appreciate subtle gags like Pat getting spooked by a suddenly swinging gate or Jess nervously eyeing a can of water. The sparseness of the dialogue and sound design allow you to take your time and feel like you’re there in the countryside, hearing the faint sounds of tweeting birds and the hum of a passing tractor. The lack of stakes lets each episode take its time in playing around with harmless but amusing tangents such as Pat watching the local farmer at work or remembering to talk more loudly to a somewhat deaf old lady.
Oddly enough, I often enjoyed Postman Pat in the exact same way I enjoyed watching mundane British sitcoms from the 1970s; particularly those by Roy Clarke like Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours. Those shows are often slow and mundane, but become very compelling for those qualities and are a big part of how relaxed I feel watching them. When I thought about that, I realized what it was about Postman Pat that appealed to me more than other cartoons at the moment.
To briefly compare live-action and animation, a fundamental difference between the two mediums is in how they represent reality in their very construction. Live-action works within a world that already exists, while animation has to create a world from the ground-up. Because of that difference, works made in one medium or the other inherently go about representing whatever “reality” they’re trying to depict in different ways.
Since it most closely resembles our world, live-action can come off as regular, normal life, and you often have to exaggerate the events or presentation for it to become interesting. Last of the Summer Wine is a deliberately dull show because it’s just three old men wandering around the countryside with nothing of much interest happening, with the lack of excitement being a crucial point of its appeal.
Meanwhile, animation is an inherently exaggerated form of reality because everything has to be made from scratch, and a great deal of effort has to be made in the events or presentation to make it feel down-to-earth and ordinary. There’s a greater degree of intense emotion in animation because it’s always going to be abstract in some way, and while that’s something about the medium I dearly love, it also means that you don’t get many cartoons trying to be very quiet and mundane.
It’s also what makes Postman Pat so special to me right now. The fact that it’s so ordinary and quiet makes it the perfect show for me to watch when I’m feeling overwhelmed, because it’s something that I can only get with this series. It’s not the only cartoon to be so compellingly boring (Isao Takahata’s Heidi: Girl of the Alps is a brilliant demonstration of that), but its particular interpretation of that concept is something that even later incarnations of Postman Pat don’t have.
The series from 1996 and 2004 add more upbeat, peppy music to make it more typical for its intended audience of preschoolers. The bizarre “Special Delivery Service” spin-off adds weekly dilemmas for Pat to solve in one of his many post delivery vehicles like an 80s toy commercial show. Then there’s the movie, with its aforementioned singing contest plot and evil robot clones completely ignoring the lack of conflict or stakes that made the original series so engaging.
I understand that they perhaps wanted to get away from the idea of Postman Pat being “boring”, but honestly? There’s nothing wrong with being “boring”, as long as the end result resonates with somebody out there. And boy, did Postman Pat being “boring” resonate with me when I most needed it.
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.