Ptolemy Mann meets Bagpuss creators Peter and Joan Firmin
In a white farmhouse near Canterbury, Kent I meet an elegant couple, Peter and Joan Firmin, who had a huge impact on my childhood even though we have never met. Any child of the 1970s and 80s will know exactly who I am describing if I mention pink marmalade fur, whiskers and a pair of twinkling blue eyes.
The cosy dining room where we sit seems familiar; this generously proportioned bay window was once the backdrop of a shop owned by a little girl called Emily. A place where creatures would come to life under the watchful eye of a cat called Bagpuss. Peter Firmin is a man of extraordinary imagination – I’m in awe when I realise not only did he create Bagpuss but also the Clangers, The Saga of Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and Pogles’ Wood not to crafting mention Basil Brush – “Boom, Boom, Boom”. These characters are so deeply embedded in my childhood and millions of others that an attack of nostalgia is inevitable.
Joan and Peter met at Central School of Art in 1952. He was studying illustration and she, bookbinding – they quickly married and he was soon offered a job making props, which in turn led to an opportunity to work on a children’s programme called ‘Playbox’ which ran throughout the 50s and 60s and was filmed and broadcast, live, every week with three cameras and three animators. Peter met his long term collaborator Oliver Postgate and their company Smallfilms began to take shape. Postgate bought a 16mm Bolex camera and their single frame stop animation technique was put straight to use with Ivor the Engine and many other programmes. Peter’s ability to shift from 2D to 3D was incredibly versatile.
One gets the sense that this was a deeply creative time in kids TV when entertainment and imagination was deemed more important than the educational, adult interaction style TV that came later with programmes like Rainbow and Playschool. These early animated shows are about storytelling, family and community and have a real sense of the handmade – they are approachable, intimate tales of mythical places and timeless characters.
Peter did everything by hand – character drawings and development, building the skeleton animatronics underneath the glorious textile characters. As we talk a toad sits on the table overlooking our conversation – Gabriel the Toad from Bagpuss to be exact – and he looks like he could start strumming his banjo any minute. In 1959 the Firmin‘s moved to Kent and set up the Smallfilms workshop in the garden. Over the next two decades, whenever the BBC or Thames Television wanted a new programme for children Smallfilms would oblige in 2D or 3D styles of animation often mixed together.
Joan was always a creative influence behind Peter’s work. Mother to six daughters she somehow found time to smock miniature costumes – the boundaries between their home and work life seem to have been pleasantly blurred. Oliver Postgate also moved nearby and the outbuildings attached to their farm house served as a filmmaking hub.
The Pingwings – knitted penguins made by Peter’s sister came to life in 1961. Pogles Wood – a family of woodland pixie gnomes followed in 1963. It’s tempting to imagine that reality wasn’t so far removed with the Firmin’s six daughters (all 2 years apart) skipping around the Kentish landscape. Certainly the origins of Bagpuss lie close to home – Joan grew up in a shop herself and their youngest daughter, also called Emily, who was 6 or 7 in 1974, plays herself in those Bagpuss sequences (of which there are, astonishingly only thirteen). But those episodes were aired every year throughout the 70s and beyond. In 1999 it was voted the nation’s best children’s TV programme ever.
Peter confesses with a twinkle in his eye that when he went to collect the Bagpuss fabric a terrible mistake had been made and instead of the requested orange and white stripes it was pink and white – but Peter, always a man to make do to what he has, used the pink anyway to great affect.
The Firmin‘s celebrated the publication of their charming new book about their work called ‘Smallfilms’ (2015) which coincided with the BBC remaking another of their great successes; the Clangers. The BBC are spending a cool £5 million on the new series narrated by Michael Palin. Peter is co-producing – and insisting that the mice are still hand knitted and captured in stop motion, single frame format.
Created by Peter and knit by Joan in 1969 there were 26 eight-minute episodes following the Clangers on their ‘undistinguished moon’. Joan tells with pride how she had a new sewing machine at the time and used it to create the characters space-age metallic embroidery. Joan’s current project is similarly detailed; she is ‘knitting’ her family tree. As you might expect these are no ordinary dolls; they are detailed, witty, accurate portraits on a miniature scale.
The emphasis in this house is forever on making and imagination – Peter still makes exquisite lino and wood block prints, publishes many children’s books and gained a BAFTA while Joan continues with her textiles. Like a Kentish Charles and Ray Eames they are insatiably creative well into their 80s. Inspired and honoured to have met them, I say goodbye while the original Bagpuss sits quietly in the corner and I feel sure as soon as I leave the room he will offer a great yawn and open his eyes.
The Clangers, Bagpuss & Coopens, 19th March- 9th October
The Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London, E2 9PA, UK
This Article was extracted from the Ageless Issue.