This article was first published in June 2015.
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…”
The trial-and-error dynamic was born of necessity, as Smallfilms were shot on film and sent away, piecemeal, to be developed. “If there was something wrong with the animation you had to do it again, but you didn’t know till a week after when it came back from the labs! People say that we were pioneers but we just learnt as we went along.”
Peter and Oliver’s first audience consisted of their own children, who would watch their film rushes on a projector in the pigsty. Peter has six daughters – most of whom have gone into artistic careers – 11 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
THE NEW-LOOK CLANGERS
He is the design consultant and – with Oliver’s son Daniel – executive producer on CBeebies’ £5 million revival of Clangers. Daniel and Peter ensure that the new version captures the essence of the original, and Peter is on hand to offer designs if a new prop is needed, like a new chair for Granny.
The new series only came about because the makers have preserved Smallfilms’ single-frame technique and the look of the Clangers themselves. Where Joan Firmin once knitted the puppet skins and made the costumes, a small team now does the same in the Altrincham warehouse where six animators work on the show every day.
“We’re delighted with the results,” says Peter. “I think it’s important that the Clangers should be knitted again because with HD and the very good production you do feel you could almost hold them now. Children can sense these are real things and not just pictures.
“We said no computer graphics or at least very little. So they are using CGI for little effects afterwards. And the digital camerawork is so amazing now. I was in Manchester watching the editing of one of the episodes and it’s amazing how they can tweak this and that to get things in just the right position.
“I hate CGI faces on humans because you look in the eyes and there’s nothing there. There’s no soul. Even puppets with glass eyes have more life. That’s my personal opinion.”
Peter and Oliver’s final Smallfilms project may have been wrapped up 30 years ago, but magic still exists here, and Peter unveils the proof: original Clangers, including Tiny, Major and Granny – still holding her knitting! “They’re the ideal shape for animation. Just about a foot tall, with nice solid bodies. It’s quite important to have things to animate that are round and not too thin because single-frame animation with thin characters is tricky.”
The beautifully made props just keep coming… the Iron Chicken, a Spaceman, Froglets and even the Soup Dragon! Peter shows where the dragon’s hand had to be darned (yes, darned) when Oliver left it holding a chocolate coin overnight and resumed filming in the morning to find that mice had nibbled the coin and the hand. Also, birds nested in the barn’s rafters and their droppings had to be continually cleared off the moon’s surface. On one occasion, the firework used in a model spacecraft set fire to the planet.
One episode in which an Earthman lands on the Clangers’ moon was filmed during the Space Race and before Neil Armstrong’s one small step, so Firmin had to compromise when it came to the spaceman’s nationality. “That’s why I made a flag with the hammer and sickle and the stars and stripes, just in case!”
THE ORIGINS OF SMALLFILMS
Peter, who was born in Harwich in Essex, first met Oliver Postgate in 1958. Peter was an art lecturer in London trying to go freelance as an illustrator, while Oliver was a stage manager for ITV’s London company, Associated-Rediffusion. “It’s amazing how much chance and luck have to do with these things. Oliver offered me this job for £30 a week [for Alexander the Mouse] and said it was only for six weeks. But of course we never stopped! We just came up with ideas for television and they wanted them. They were starving for them.”
Peter describes the comparative simplicity of getting a series commissioned in the 1960s. “The BBC would ask Oliver, ‘What are you going to do for us?’ and he’d write a few ideas and I’d do a few sketches and they’d say, ‘Yeah, go ahead and make it’ and that was it! You didn’t have to go before great committees.”
Pushed to name his Smallfilms favourites, Peter confesses, “Noggin is really my favourite character.” The Saga of Noggin the Nog has become a cult BBC children’s classic, starting out in black and white and returning as a colour series. Initially, however, the project was turned down. “We were working for Associated-Rediffusion and they said, ‘Oh no no no. Far too sophisticated for little children.’ So Noggin was the thing that got us into the BBC.”
And then Peter introduces us to another of his favourites. He opens a rucksack and pulls out a familiar frowning face…
“Bagpuss was also a character that I had in my head. I’d drawn him and named him but I hadn’t got a role for him. It was Oliver’s idea that cats sit in shop windows and bask in the sun… then we asked, ‘Who should run this shop?’ and he looked around and there was [Peter’s daughter] Emily, aged seven at the time and he said, ‘You’ve got her already, she’s there!’
“Oliver and I went to Cardiff years ago for a puppet week. I took Bagpuss and all the girls practically swooned and wanted to hug him. I thought it amazing that an old saggy cloth cat should have that sort of reaction, but it does. Even today.”
Are there any recent children’s programmes he admires? “The Wallace & Gromits are fantastic. Nick Park always claims that it was watching Ivor the Engine that made him want to do animation in the first place. We were already fans of Aardman with those marvellous Creature Comforts. The only other thing that I really like is In the Night Garden, which is a very pleasant little thing.”
And will there be any other remakes of Smallfilms? “Dan [Postgate, Oliver’s son] has this idea that Bagpuss would work well translated into a New England atmosphere, but I won’t be involved in that. Also Ivor the Engine, which was all cardboard animation, Dan is trying to think of as a live-action series, a sort of Dad’s Army thing, or like the Ealing comedies – a Titfield Thunderbolt-type story…”
Many commentators over the years have paid tribute to the gentleness of Smallfilms. Peter agrees: “Oliver was all about kindness and love. There was never an aggressive thought in Oliver. He was a conscientious objector [in the Second World War]. After the war he was driving an ambulance in France and working for good things.
“There was always a bit more to [the series] than just children’s entertainment. They always had something a little extra. And Oliver was never patronising to kids.”
So what would Oliver think of the new Clangers? “He would have loved the result I’m sure because we’ve been so careful to try to be honest and preserve the spirit of the original.”
To some, the way Smallfilms were made may seem a quaint anachronism, but that would be entirely missing the point: the string-and-Blu-tack approach was always part of their considerable charm.
Like dear old Bagpuss, they may now look a bit baggy and loose at the seams.
But people still love them.
A potting-shed history of Smallfilms:
IVOR THE ENGINE 1959-64, 1976-7
Ivor, a little locomotive driven by affable Jones the Steam, travelled around north-west Wales visiting posh, tiddly Mrs Porty, regulation-obsessed Dai Station and others. And he sang first bass in the Grumbly and District Choral Society along with tiny, heraldic dragon Idris. Ivor’s distinctive puff was transcribed in Oliver Postgate’s scripts as “psst-kof”!
THE SAGA OF NOGGIN THE NOG 1959–65, 1982
“In the lands of the North, where the Black Rocks stand guard against the cold sea…” A mini-epic, inspired by Firmin seeing Norse chess pieces from the Isle of Lewis in the British Museum. It followed Noggin in his quest for a bride to rule beside him, and on subsequent escapades with an ice dragon, a flying machine and an enormous pie. “It was a love story really,” says Firmin. “Oliver never normally wrote love stories.”
THE POGLES 1965/POGLES’ WOOD 1966–8
Country capers with pint-sized folk who lived in a tree: Mr and Mrs Pogle, their son Pippin and a stripey squirrel/rabbit called Tog. But the BBC decreed that the cowled, pointy-nosed witch was too frightening, and when the series returned as Pogles’ Wood, she had vanished. Presumably in a puff of smoke.
CLANGERS 1969–72, 74, 2015
To think that this classic series could have been called Hopkins. Other names discussed were Flomps, Hambrils and Winglooms!
A somnolent moggy presides over a shop of bric-a-brac owned by a girl called Emily. His storytelling thoughts become visible, while his friends – including Gabriel the Toad and Professor Yaffle the pernickety woodpecker (“Nyep nyep nyep!”) help him explain the lost objects brought into Bagpuss & Co. The show topped a 1999 poll of children’s series; its star was voted favourite TV animal in 2008.
Clangers is on CBeebies