Peter Firmin’s Small Worlds
PUBLISHED: 11:35 13 April 2015 | UPDATED: 11:35 13 April 2015
Harwich-born Peter Firmin, famously the co-creator of Ivor The Engine, the Clangers and Bagpuss, speaks to Pat Parker in what the 86-year-old says will be his last ever interview
ONCE upon a time, not so long ago, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin created some of the nation’s best-loved children’s TV series, including Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, the Clangers and, of course, Bagpuss.
Oliver, who scripted, narrated and animated the stories, sadly died in 2008, but Peter, who created the art work, puppets and sets, still lives with his wife Joan in the Kent farmhouse where the films were made. As I arrive at the rambling house on a hill near Whitstable, the first thing I recognise is the bow window which served as the shop front in the opening shots of Bagpuss. It is actually a dining-room window, but is exactly the same, except that the shop sign has long since been removed. And sadly, Bagpuss — the saggy old cloth cat who Emily loved — is no longer dozing behind it.
But he is inside. The original Bagpuss, in good shape for his 40 years, is sitting on Peter and Joan’s sofa. Later, I even meet Emily herself — in reality, Peter and Joan’s daughter. She’s 50 now, but easily recognisable as the little girl in the Edwardian dress (made by Joan) who appears in the sepia-tinted introduction to every episode.
Peter is 86 now and last year received a Bafta for outstanding services to children’s TV. He lets me hold the award — it’s incredibly weighty. And I also meet the original Auntie Clanger — also surprisingly heavy, because of the Meccano frame beneath her knitted exterior. Most of Peter’s puppets were fashioned from everyday objects — pegs, pipe cleaners and ping-pong balls. Therein lay his creative genius.
The Clangers is being remade as an American/BBC co-production to be screened this year. Peter and Oliver’s son Dan are executive producers, and Dan is writing some of the scripts. Peter has enjoyed all the recent recognition, but he’s vowed to do no more interviews, which he finds tiring. He’s made this one exception for Essex Life and because both he and I originate from Harwich.
We spend a long time reminiscing about Harwich. We both went to its high school, albeit several decades apart. Peter — who hasn’t lost his Harwich accent — shows me a 1940s school photograph and I recognise my old history teacher, Pop Weaver.
Peter’s family lived in a semi-detached house on The Green at Upper Dovercourt. His dad worked in the telegraph office at Parkeston Quay — a reserved wartime occupation. ‘I remember my dad showing me this red button, which he said you could use to blow up the quay if the Germans landed!’ says Peter. He’s not sure now if he was joking.
The family were lower-middle class and struggled to pay the mortgage on his dad’s wages. Peter’s mother was house-proud and discouraged Peter and his sister and brother from bringing friends home with their muddy feet. ‘So instead, she used to give me pencils and paper and told me to get on with some drawing,’ he remembers. ‘I used to draw with British Railways pencils on left-over teleprinter rolls.’
Peter loved cartoons and remembers trying to make his own comics, as well as makeshift animations on an old projector using bits of broken cinema film. He and his brother would make model aeroplanes from scrap-wood and fly them on The Green. He was always good at making things — he comes from a long line of Essex craftsmen.
Peter won a place at Harwich County High School in 1939, but was evacuated to Gloucestershire soon afterwards. When he returned home, the high school had closed (Harwich was at high risk of attack because the reserve fleet was based there), so he had to go to grammar school in Colchester and then Clacton before returning to Harwich for his final year.
‘All the upheaval messed up my education,’ he says. He left at 15, but gained a place at Colchester Art School, housed above what was then the girls’ grammar school on East Hill. At 18, he was called up for national service and afterwards qualified for a grant to study illustration at London’s Central School of Art.
It was here he met Joan, who herself had been born in Barking but grew up in Devon. The couple married when Joan was still a student and Peter struggled to find work as a freelance artist and illustrator. Part-time jobs included lecturing at Central and painting stained-glass windows for bomb-damaged churches.
All that changed, however, on the day Oliver Postgate knocked on the door of their small Battersea flat. Oliver — a left-wing intellectual working as a stage manager for Associated-Rediffusion — was making a children’s animation he’d written called Alexander The Mouse. Unable to get along with the artist chosen to work with him, ITV had told him to find his own. Oliver asked Central’s head of fine art if he knew of any hard-up ex-students who would work for very little money. He suggested Peter.
Joan remembers the young man who knocked on the door. ‘He was posh, but I noticed he was wearing a black suit with brown shoes,’ she says. ‘So I thought, he must be alright, because he doesn’t care too much about his appearance. He’s got his priorities right!’
The pair came from very different backgrounds. Oliver was the grandson of former Labour leader George Lansbury. His mother had been a suffragette, and he had been jailed during the war as a conscientious objector.
Yet the two hit it off straight away. Peter joined Oliver’s company, Smallfilms, and did the artwork for Alexander the Mouse. It was broadcast live and animated using a system of magnets and mirrors which frequently led to the characters falling over or turning upside down. Afterwards, Peter created the puppets Fred Barker and Ollie Beak, who became much-loved ITV children’s characters and also Basil Brush for a planned series about hedgehogs living in a windmill. Basil broke away to forge a successful solo career.
As Peter was finally earning a decent wage, he and Joan bought the farmhouse in Blean, Kent. Oliver soon moved nearby. Peter would make the models and sets in the barn and Oliver would animate them in the old cowshed.
The pair inspired each other. ‘We were always open to each other’s ideas,’ remembers Peter. ‘Oliver liked the way I drew things and I was inspired by his writing. There was nothing cute or corny about it — it was very real. Oliver suddenly found he had all these ideas and I could translate them into pictures.’
Their first joint original creation was Ivor the Engine in 1959 for ITV — the whimsical story of a Welsh steam engine who wants to join a chapel choir. Oliver scripted, voiced and animated the stories, which Peter illustrated. Peter based his depiction of one of the characters — the lugubrious Dai Station — on a rather glum signalman at Parkeston Quay.
His Harwich background also influenced their next series, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, for the BBC. Peter was inspired to create the Viking characters partly after seeing the Lewis chessmen in the British Museum, but also because he’d been fascinated with Denmark since travelling to Esbjerg with the local youth group — coincidentally led by the same signalman who had inspired Dai Station.
By the early 60s, the pair had exchanged flat, cardboard figures for three-dimensional puppets. First came Pingwings, then Pogles Wood. ‘I loved doing Pogles Wood,’ says Peter. ‘I built a tree house and a big backcloth of trees in the barn. I’d go into the woods and collect lots of grass, ivy and wood. It’s good fun to make a little world like that.’
Oliver had the painstaking job of filming the stop-frame animation. ‘He worked jolly hard on that,’ says Peter. ‘I only realised how hard it was when he offered me the chance to have a go. I just couldn’t cope with it — you needed so much patience! He’d spend the whole day moving the puppets and clicking the camera. Moving, click, moving, click it was very laborious. Two minutes of animation took a whole day!’
In 1969, the year of the moon landings, the BBC asked Smallfilms to devise a series about space. Oliver came up with the Clangers — mice-like aliens who live on a cold, blue planet and shelter in craters with clanging dustbin lids for doors — hence their name. Joan knitted them and Oliver wrote proper dialogue, translated into Clanger on a swanee whistle. Apparently, the original scripts included a few swear words, which only those fluent in Clanger can recognise!
‘I didn’t much like the original swanee whistle,’ Peter confides. ‘It was so sad.’ The new series still uses the swanee whistle, but apparently with a more upbeat tone.
Next came Bagpuss, in 1974. This was Peter’s idea, but he originally envisaged a marmalade cat. However, the local fabric firm sent pink stripy fur by mistake. ‘But then, Peter and Oliver decided they loved the idea of pink,’ says Joan. ‘It was more eye-catching!’
Their last series was Pinny’s House, in the mid-80s. By then, Smallfilms productions were considered old-fashioned. ‘Computers were coming in and everything was changing so quickly,’ says Peter. ‘When people asked Oliver what we were going to do next, he’d say, “I’ve already created a dozen worlds. That’s enough for anybody”.’
Although Peter and Oliver continued to live nearby until Oliver’s death six years ago, they did not see each other often in later years. ‘We rarely socialised — our families weren’t that close,’ says Peter. ‘But we had a good working relationship and I miss that greatly.’
Peter continued to write children’s books, and also returned to printmaking and engraving — a skill learnt at Colchester Art School. He uses an 1861 Albion Press to print his illustrations, including images of tall ships and East coast sailing barges, as well as prints of Arkesden in Essex originally made for a book about the village.
He’s recently been showered with awards including the Bafta, honorary degrees and the Freedom of the City of Canterbury. ‘It means I can drive sheep through the city before 6am,’ he smiles.
Last year saw the publication of a beautifully-illustrated book entitled The Art of Smallfilms, which reverently documents how those magical films were made.
And, of course, there is the eagerly-anticipated £5 million remake of the Clangers, which will be narrated by Michael Palin in the UK and William Shatner in America.
Peter has been keen to ensure that the remake is as close to the original as possible. The puppets are hand-knitted and the animation is still stop-motion, with computer-generated imagery kept to a minimum. Peter is no fan of CGI. ‘I don’t think CGI humans really look alive,’ he says. ‘You look into their eyes, and there’s nothing there. They’re soulless.’
Why does he think that after all these years, the gentle, quintessentially English films he made with Oliver are still so well-loved? ‘I think the story’s the important thing,’ he replies. ‘Oliver had this marvellous way of writing — it just flowed from his pen. But the characters were always pleasant and reflected his beliefs. There was no aggression or nasty tricks. The characters were always kind, loving and decent to each other.’
It’s typical of his modesty that he hasn’t mentioned the magical artwork, puppets and settings he created. They might have something to do with it, too.
Get the book
The Art of Smallfilms is published by Four Corners Books, priced £25.