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On 50th anniversary of first Bagpuss episode on BBC we speak to children of iconic cat’s creators

Fifty years ago today, the nation was first introduced to Bagpuss, the pink and white cat who would come to life alongside friends to inspect broken or lost items left by his owner, Emily.

Described as "the most important, the most beautiful, the most magical, saggy old cloth cat in the whole, wide world", the creation was the work of Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate – together known as Smallfilms production company.

Oliver Postgate, left, and Peter Firmin with The Clangers
Oliver Postgate, left, and Peter Firmin with The Clangers

Based in Blean, near Canterbury, Smallfilms managed to turn a disused cow shed on the Firmin family farm into a dream factory in which the country’s favourite moggy was born.

To mark the 50th anniversary of the first episode – which aired on February 12, 1974 – KentOnline spoke to Peter Firmin’s daughter, Emily, and Oliver Postgate’s son, Daniel, about how Bagpuss changed their lives.

The production of the show was very much a family affair.

Peter’s wife Joan helped create some of the props used on set – Madelaine the rag doll perhaps the best-known contribution.

And the Victorian child in the show, Emily, was Peter and Joan’s daughter.

Peter and Joan Firmin
Peter and Joan Firmin

As the youngest of the six, the real-life Emily was the most appropriate age to star alongside Bagpuss, having been eight at the time.

The story goes she was paid for her cameo appearance with a bag of sweets, though she cannot herself recall this and has only been told this by other people.

The grown-up Emily has an artistic hand just like her mother and father – and still lives in the Canterbury district.

Speaking to KentOnline at The Beaney in Canterbury – where Bagpuss is proudly shown off to the city’s many tourists and residents – the now 58-year-old beams as she discusses the everlasting legacy of her father’s creation.

“The thing is, he wasn't a kitten when we opened our shop – the programme's been on for 50 years but he's a little bit older than 50,” she said.

Emily Firmin poses with Bagpuss in The Beaney in Canterbury
Emily Firmin poses with Bagpuss in The Beaney in Canterbury

“It took about three years for him to finally be ready to be seen by the world.

“Inside him is a Meccano skeleton. I remember going out and about with my dad because both he and Bagpuss had been to the BAFTAs.

“Bagpuss’ tail was floppy. There are balls which have got two bits of Meccano over the side that act like a bone – a ball and socket joint but made out of brass and Meccano.

“They'd come undone, so my dad had to un-sew the base of the tail and go in and tighten up all the nuts.

“Now [Bagpuss] doesn't really move much. When you move him he creaks like an old cat.”

Peter Firmin at home with the original Bagpuss
Peter Firmin at home with the original Bagpuss

In a rather tender moment, a woman and her partner looking around The Beaney recognise the cat in Emily’s hands – then they recognise Emily too.

They say never meet your heroes, but for this lifelong fan, the chance to grab a picture with one of the cornerstones of her childhood must have been priceless.

“He’s loved by so many people, he’s got such a gorgeous face,” said Emily.

“We vet everything [new] that comes out – sometimes they get it wrong and you can really tell.

“It’s so many different stories in one. The continued interest in Bagpuss doesn’t surprise me at all.

Emily starred in the opening sequence of Bagpuss as a Victorian child
Emily starred in the opening sequence of Bagpuss as a Victorian child

“When I was in secondary school, people did know about it and it was just a bit annoying.

“But I've got over it and grown to love the legacy and joy that it's brought everyone.”

For those who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, the show was one of the few constants in a fast-changing world.

Its 13 episodes were regularly repeated between its first airing in 1974 and 1986. They would also often be rolled out of retirement for special occasions.

In 1999, a BBC poll named Bagpuss the most popular children's show of all time.

Emily Firmin estimates Bagpuss is really about 53 years old
Emily Firmin estimates Bagpuss is really about 53 years old

While Peter Firmin made the artwork and the character, Oliver Postgate did the animation, wrote the scripts and performed them.

Nowadays, Oliver’s son Daniel has inherited Smallfilms, which was owned by his father.

Since then he has successfully rebooted The Clangers while also winning a BAFTA for his writing work.

Daniel told KentOnline that Bagpuss’s longevity does not come as a surprise – and a reboot isn’t completely out of the question.

The 60-year-old said: “Bagpuss is a nice cuddly cat but also he was a sort of portal to storytelling.

Daniel Postgate, son of Bagpuss creator Oliver
Daniel Postgate, son of Bagpuss creator Oliver

“Every episode had its own different story and different characters that Bagpuss dreamt up – it has kind of a multifaceted sort of quality to it.

“I think Dad thought he was making programmes to make money and feed the family and they would eventually pass into history.

“But if anything, since his death they've become more and more popular and their kind of notoriety, so to speak, has grown.

“It may seem quite rudimentary but kids found it kind of bewitching because, in some respects, it took a certain amount of their imaginations to be engaged in it.”

Thirteen episodes is an odd number to settle on, but Bagpuss was simply never commissioned for a second season. The BBC decided to move in a different direction.

Peter and Emily Firmin with Oliver Postgate and Bagpuss
Peter and Emily Firmin with Oliver Postgate and Bagpuss

The temptation to bring Bagpuss back has been something both Daniel and the BBC have entertained in recent years – but as of right now, a return seems unlikely.

Daniel said: “There has been temptation but the BBC isn't interested in doing it as it was – there's too much that they want to change.

“I had an idea for bringing back the mice and the mouse organ and telling stories with them. I thought it was a nice idea to bring back that mythology of Bagpuss but the BBC didn't want to do that.

“I think in this day and age, it would be quite demanding because of the way that Bagpuss was made – it would be quite a hard one to pull off.

“I’d never say never though, and when people say ‘Oh no, children have moved on, they want different sorts of programs’, I'm not too sure about that.

Bagpuss and three of the six mice
Bagpuss and three of the six mice

“I think they'd probably be quite happy with nice little stories with Bagpuss but the world has changed a little bit and quite a lot as far as TV goes.”

Oliver Postgate died in 2008, followed by Peter Firmin in 2018.

Their genius wasn’t just limited to Bagpuss, with Ivor the Engine and Clangers also coming from the Smallfilms studio – as well as Noggin the Nog.

Their first collaboration was on Alexander the Mouse in 1958, a show Oliver had created and which used a series of magnets to allow the characters to move – Peter was drafted in to provide the backgrounds.

They worked on 13 productions together between 1958 and 1985, with more than 250 episodes and short films.

But none had quite the impact Bagpuss had.

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