From the puppets created for Bagpuss and The Clangers, to the paper cut-outs that shaped the world of Noggin the Nog, the archive of Smallfilms has been meticulously detailed in a new publication from Four Corners Books. It’s both a celebration of handmade creativity and a tribute to British eccentricity and imagination…
The book has been put together by Jonny Trunk who is, as comedian Stewart Lee suggests in his introduction, something of an archivist of British popular culture. Trunk’s methods as a cultural excavator are, Lee says, a perfect fit for a visual history of one of the UK’s most cherished creative companies.
Eva Herzog’s highly detailed photography captures all the figures, puppets, sets and drawings used to create The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, plus a selection of Smallfilms’ lesser known series, including The Pogles and Pogles’ Wood, Tottie: A Doll’s House and Pinny’s House. Each object is documented, quite rightly, as a piece of art.
Smallfilms was the result of Oliver Postgate’s belief that he could make better children’s television programmes than those being aired in Britain in the late 1950s.
As a stage manager for ITV he made props for science programmes and sit-coms and, in 1958, after a brief experience of children’s television, he wrote a six-episode story entitled Alexander the Mouse, which was then commissioned by the channel.
To make the backgrounds and character design for the programme, Postgate contacted Peter Firmin, a freelance illustrator and lecturer at the Central School of Art in London.
After collaborating on an early animation technique whereby characters were moved around on a zinc table via magnets held underneath, the pair worked on carboard constructions which were animated live by levers and sliders positioned behind the card.
Postgate eventually purchased a camera and taught himself to animate, while Firmin, based in Twickenham at this time, began to construct 3D models and puppets. The raw materials were essentially household objects that they had to hand – fabrics, cotton reels, computer tape and foil would be mixed with felt, paper, wire and glue.
When the Firmin family moved to a farmhouse in the village of Blean in Kent in 1959, the outbuidings and barn provided Smallfilms with a workshop studio.
Shortly afterwards the Postgates moved to nearby Whitstable and The Pingwings and the The Pogles (1965-68, spread shown above) became their first animated films to use models (the latter was filmed outdoors, something that Postgate later advised against ever doing again because of the ever-changing light).
As a general rule, Trunk writes, Postgate would come up with a series idea and Firmin would produce the sets, models and puppets – which Postage would then film. Firmin’s wife Joan was also integral to the process: she made many elements for the programmes, including costumes and clothes and even the knitted Clangers themselves (above).
Soon enough, Smallfilms became something of a cottage industry – albeit a small-scale, highly imaginative one – that went on to produce the children’s classics which would make its name in the 1960s and 70s, namely: The Clangers (1969-74), Bagpuss (1974), Ivor the Engine (1958-59 in b/w and 1975-77 in colour, two spreads shown below) and Noggin the Nog (1959-65 in b/w and 1982 in colour).
While Firmin (now 85 – and still working) has clearly kept the Smallfilms archive extremely well preserved, credit must go to Trunk and Richard Embray at Four Corners for pursuing the idea of bringing it all together in book form.
Herzog’s photography is so good that the experience of looking at the pictures of these well-known characters from yesteryear feels more like quietly studying them in an exhibition.
In his introduction, Lee states that a minor danger in enthusing about this kind of work is that fans can appear reactionary; the world in which Postgate and Firmin created these films has long since ceased to exist: “The social circumstances and value systems that shaped those paper and scissors, arts and crafts cowshed visionairies of another era, Firmin and Postgate, are long gone,” he writes.
But to see this world preserved in such a beautifully produced book is a real treat. And perhaps something of Postgate and Firmin’s method does live on, or has been renewed, in the digital age. Their adherence to salvaging and recycling things, using their hands to turn unassuming objects into a brilliant kind of folk art, still speaks to the modern audience.
The Art of Smallfilms – The Work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, edited by Jonny Trunk and Richard Embray, is published by Four Corners Books; £25. The book is designed by John Morgan and features photography by Eva Herzog. Art direction by Morgan and Kirsten Hecktermann