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Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin

The creators of Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog, the Clangers and Bagpuss

Main image of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin

In 1950, Oliver Postgate sent the BBC his first television animation idea - a card pig that played the violin - but, though it charmed staff, a series failed to materialise. In 1957, Postgate worked as a stage manager at Associated Rediffusion, creating all manner of strange props for various productions, including a science programme, New Horizon.

Finding much children's television "pretty thin stuff", Postgate created Alexander the Mouse, who sets out to find his roots and discovers a royal lineage. Rediffusion's Light Entertainment department thought this an ideal subject for their magnetic animation system.

Postgate now sought an illustrator. An old friend at the Central School for Art and Design introduced him to lecturer Peter Firmin, beginning an almost thirty-year partnership. But while Postgate and Firmin worked well together, Rediffusion's crude technology and Firmin's cut-outs did not. The episodes went out live and figures would be propelled across the screen and often turned upside down. Still, Alexander the Mouse (ITV, 1958) was a moderate success.

Frustrated, Postgate moved into single-frame film animation, making a dialogue-free film for deaf children . A Chinese fable, The Journey of Master Ho (ITV, 1958), was made in Postgate's spare room using a film camera adapted to capture one frame at a time via bits of Meccano and pieces of string.

Firmin meanwhile was providing hand-operated nursery rhyme card animations for a series called The Musical Box, hosted by a young Rolf Harris and, later, Wally Whyton.

Postgate and Firmin's first fully realised joint project came the following year. Ivor the Engine (ITV, 1959) was the six-part story of a Welsh steam engine who wished to sing with a male voice choir, drawn by Firmin and written, narrated and animated by Postgate.

ITV wanted more Ivor 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 (BBC, 1959). Six episodes of The Seal of Neptune (BBC, 1960) followed, a story about sea horses living in their undersea kingdom.

Around this time the Postgate family moved to Whitstable, near the Firmins. Smallfilms set up a studio in an old cowshed in the Firmins' farmhouse - it was a 'Heath Robinson' affair, full of secondhand equipment adapted using Postgate's ingenuity.

In between stop-motion films, Postgate and Firmin worked on a simpler series, The Dogwatch (ITV, 1960-61). Postgate was a lighthouse captain accompanied by his dog Fred Barker, watching various items on their steam-powered television. Firmin made the puppet dog and Ivan Owen voiced. Soon after, Fred reappeared in The Three Scampies (ITV, 1962-4) alongside a puppet fox fabricated by Firmin and voiced by Owen - this marked the first appearance of Basil Brush.

Pingwings (ITV, 1962-3) was the first Smallfilms production made using stop-frame animated 'puppets' rather than painted card. The Pingwings were penguin characters knitted by Firmin's sister Gloria, wrapped around poseable metal skeletons crafted by Postgate. The series was shot outdoors, which saved building sets but led to problems with uneven natural light.

At this time Talbot Television, who sold Smallfilms' output abroad, offered substantial financial backing to turn Smallfilms into an international animation studio, but Postgate preferred to keep Smallfilms as a cottage industry.

1965 saw Smallfilms' first association with the BBC's Watch With Mother programming. 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 (BBC, 1969-72) and Bagpuss (BBC, 1974). The rest of the 1970s were spent on colour remakes of Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, but Postgate was increasingly spending time pursuing interests including solar power, nuclear disarmament, environmental issues and Quaker beliefs.

The Doll's House and its sequel Tottie - A Doll's Wish (BBC/Smallfilms/Goldcrest, 1984 & 86) were stop-motion films based on Rumer Godden's books, and thus perhaps lacked Postgate's unique storytelling inventiveness. The final Smallfilms production was Pinny's House (BBC 1986), a two-dimensional animation about a race of tiny people, written and illustrated by Firmin.

Alistair McGown

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Bagpuss (1974)

Bagpuss (1974)

Just a saggy old cloth cat. But Emily loved him.

Thumbnail image of Basil Brush Show, The (1968-80)

Basil Brush Show, The (1968-80)

Variety show featuring a subversive upper-class puppet fox

Thumbnail image of Clangers (1969-74)

Clangers (1969-74)

Much-loved stories of the inhabitants of a small rocky planet far away

Thumbnail image of Ivor the Engine (1959-64)

Ivor the Engine (1959-64)

The animated adventures of Welsh steam engine Ivor

Thumbnail image of Pingwings (1961-65)

Pingwings (1961-65)

Delightful early animated stories from the creator of The Clangers

Thumbnail image of Pogles' Wood (1966)

Pogles' Wood (1966)

Children's animation about a couple who live in a tree root

Thumbnail image of Pogles, The (1965)

Pogles, The (1965)

Early Smallfilms creation, deemed 'too scary' for kids

Thumbnail image of Saga of Noggin the Nog, The (1959)

Saga of Noggin the Nog, The (1959)

Animated Viking saga made for children's television

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