Not very long ago, somewhere in the bottom right-hand corner of England, there was a barn. It was not a very big barn, but it was an important one, for behind its doors, once upon a time, there lay a theatre of magic.
Gentle, humorous and adored children’s programmes were crafted in and around this bucolic outbuilding, using cardboard, wool, cotton-reels, Meccano and whatever else came to hand.
This is where a little engine was made to puff past collieries in Ivor the Engine, a yawning cloth cat enchanted his friends in Bagpuss, and pink creatures popped out of moon craters in Clangers, a series so popular that a new generation is now enjoying it on CBeebies.
These reasons and many more are why, last year, Peter Firmin was given a special Bafta for his outstanding contribution to children’s media. It’s hard to think of a more deserving recipient. For 30 years, as one half of Smallfilms, he designed, drew and created characters and worlds that were brought to life by the other half, animator Oliver Postgate. Which says nothing about the books and comics he illustrated, his pioneering work on the early days of children’s television – or the fact that he designed Basil Brush.
Radio Times has been invited to the Firmin farm near Canterbury in Kent, where he’s lived with his wife Joan since 1959. Here we find the famous barn, behind it is the pigsty where Oliver kept his film and editing equipment, and over there is a cow shed that acts as an art studio (“My real career is engraving and print-making,” says Peter, who still uses an 1861 Albion press).
It’s the kind of place where a wild duck will waddle up to the back door of the farmhouse in the firm expectation of being fed. And where a bow window is recognisable as the shop front of Bagpuss & Co.
Peter clearly spotted the property’s potential when he first moved out of London to live in the country. Now 86, he recalls: “Passing this place I saw this neat little farmhouse like a storybook house and I noticed it had all these outbuildings. I got a mortgage on the strength of a six-week contract and no money in the bank. It was amazing – so difficult now, isn’t it?”
HOW SMALLFILMS WORKED
Explaining the make-do-and-mend ethos of Smallfilms and its division of labour, Peter adds, “Oliver wrote and narrated and produced and animated. I made everything you see, designed and drew it . . . We had to do everything because the budgets were pretty small in those days. It was all very primitive then, though we didn’t think it was primitive.
“I hardly ever bought any new materials. I would look around and see what was lying around the barn and find bits and pieces to make things out of. I improvised all the time, which was really the theme of the whole thing.” Such an ideology often informed the stories: in an early example of TV upcycling, for instance, Major Clanger made inventions out of space junk.
A modest man, Peter is always generous about his former colleague, who died in 2008. “I was full of admiration for Oliver’s abilities because he seemed to be able to cope with any of these technical things – or at least if he couldn’t, he said he could! He was so confident. I wasn’t any good with electricity or anything technical. But I could make things…”