Oliver Postgate – the creator and writer of some of Britain’s most popular children’s television programmes, including Bagpuss, The Pingwings, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, The Clangers and Pogles’ Wood – set up the company Smallfilms in the late 1950s.
With his collaborator, artist and puppet maker Peter Firmin, they concocted a perfect little world in a disused cowshed at Firmin’s home in Blean near Canterbury, Kent.
The Clangers lived in that shed. Bagpuss slept there, too, in a cardboard box. And generations of children grew up in the world Postgate and Firmin created there. It was a nice place to grow up.
The duo worked on tiny budgets, using secondhand equipment adapted with Meccano and string. Postgate wrote all the scripts, did the stop motion filming, and voiced all the characters while Firmin did the artwork and built the models.
In the truest sense of the term, it was a cottage industry: The Clangers were pink because that was the colour of the wool that Peter’s wife, Joan, happened to have handy. Bagpuss was pink because the proposed marmalade stripes went squiffy in the kiln.
Their first fully realised joint project was Ivor the Engine (1959) – a six-part story of a Welsh steam engine who wished to sing with a male voice choir. ITV wanted more, but Postgate decided that the story was told.
A new idea, based on Norse legends, was rejected by Rediffusion but snapped up by the BBC – the six-part Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959).
In between stop-motion films, Postgate and Firmin worked on a simpler series, The Dogwatch (1960-61), with puppet dog Fred Barker as a lighthouse keeper who entertains himself by watching various items on a steam-powered television.
Soon after, Fred reappeared in The Three Scampis (1962) alongside a puppet fox fabricated by Firmin and voiced by Ivan Owen – this marked the first appearance of Basil Brush.
Pingwings (1962) was the first Smallfilms production made using stop-frame animated puppets rather than painted card. The Pingwings penguin characters were knitted by Firmin’s sister Gloria, wrapped around poseable metal skeletons crafted by Postgate, and the series was shot outdoors to save building sets.
1965 saw Smallfilms’ first association with the BBC’s Watch With Mother programme. Their Pogles series about two country folk threatened by a witch was deemed too frightening by the BBC and shown just once. Reworked as a semi-educational series, Pogles’ Wood became a big success.
In 1968, Smallfilms moved into colour production with their best-remembered series, Clangers (1969-72) and Bagpuss (1974). They spent the rest of the 1970s on colour remakes of Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, but Postgate was increasingly pursuing interests including solar power, nuclear disarmament, environmental issues and Quaker beliefs.
The Doll’s House (1984) and its sequel Tottie – A Doll’s Wish (1986) were stop-motion films based on Rumer Godden’s books and lacked Postgate’s unique storytelling inventiveness. The final Smallfilms production was Pinny’s House (1986), a two-dimensional animation about a race of tiny people, written and illustrated by Firmin.
In 1987 the benignly neglectful BBC – who had let Oliver and Peter just get on with it for decades – decided they were too old-fashioned for modern children. But Smallfilms had created an enduring and peculiarly English folklore via the most fondly remembered children’ programmes ever made.
In 1998 Bagpuss was voted the Best Children’s Programme Ever.
Oliver Postgate died on 8 December 2008, aged 83. Peter Firmin passed away on 1 July 2018. He was 89.