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Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin: How Smallfilms in Blean, helped by Bagpuss, changed childhoods

They say not to meet your heroes; that the emotional baggage and weight of expectation you bring to any such encounter will result only in disappointment.

But six years ago I met an icon of my childhood and he was just as I had hoped.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin filming the Clangers. Picture: Smallfilms/Victoria and Albert Museum
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin filming the Clangers. Picture: Smallfilms/Victoria and Albert Museum

On the main road which links Canterbury to Whitstable is the village of Blean - too often a blink-and-you-miss-it settlement where motorists tend to drive too fast as they skip between two of east Kent's most popular destinations.

Yet it was on this very stretch of road that a dream factory was created.

And from its lovingly-crafted production line would emerge characters which would help mould young minds and win the hearts of generations.

Few will realise, as they drive along the road today, that they pass the very place magic happened.

A farmhouse, set just back off the road, saw the ideas conceived, before the out-buildings - an old barn and converted pig sties - became the maternity ward for the likes of Ivor the Engine, The Clangers, Noggin the Nod, Pogles' Wood, Pingwings and, of course, that saggy old cloth cat himself, Bagpuss.

Bagpuss can be seen - once it reopens - at The Beaney in Canterbury. Picture: The Beaney
Bagpuss can be seen - once it reopens - at The Beaney in Canterbury. Picture: The Beaney

Because this is the place where two masters of their craft formulated and then perfected characters for children's television - becoming the Lennon and McCartney of the medium.

We owe much to the talents of Oliver Postgate, who lived in a former pub a short drive further down the road towards the coast, and Peter Firmin who raised his family in the property at which he also worked.

Postgate, with his instantly recognisable, honey tones, would provide many of the voices, write the scripts, do the filming and, more often than not, conceive the ideas. Firmin, a talented artist, was tasked with making the characters which caught the nation's children in their spell.

Both have now passed on to the film-making studio in the sky but their legacy is likely to live on for generations to come.

My trip to the theatre of dreams back in 2014 had been to interview Firmin on the occasion of Bagpuss' 40th birthday.

Peter Firmin and the Clangers
Peter Firmin and the Clangers

He was 85 at the time and remarkably sprightly.

I was sat at his kitchen table, chatting to Dan Postgate - Oliver's son who inherited Smallfilms upon his death in Broadstairs in 2008 at the age of 83 - and examining the skeleton of a Clanger; its knitted skin long since gnawed away by a hungry mouse, when my hero arrived, unannounced in the room.

He took a seat, on the table, next to me. It sounds a bit like an odd dream, or drug-induced episode, but I assure you I was awake and coffee was the strongest stimulant coursing through my veins.

Peter Firmin had brought down the original Bagpuss puppet - as used in the opening scenes - in all his baggy glory. If he was a "bit loose at the seams", as the show's opening credits suggested, he certainly didn't show it. In truth, he was clearly taking to middle-age well.

For those of us who grew up in the 1970s and 80s, Bagpuss seemed omnipresent on the BBC's children TV schedule. Granted, there were only ever 13 episodes made, but it's fair to say the Beeb got their money's worth.

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin admire the Bagpuss and Friends display at the Museum of Canterbury which has since closed
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin admire the Bagpuss and Friends display at the Museum of Canterbury which has since closed

His vibrant colours and friendly, inquisitive face, were just as I remembered them. And, to be honest, looking all the better for not being confined to a dusty museum display case (the other original Bagpuss can be seen at Canterbury's Beaney Institute).

I got to hold him. In fact, I got to hold him outside the window at the back of his family home which doubled as the shop window in the show itself.

Firmin, perhaps surprisingly given how many millions of questions he must have fielded over the 40 years of Bagpuss' life, was happy to chat about his most famous creation.

"We had no inkling Bagpuss’ popularity would last so long," he admitted.

“Certainly at the time we were making it, I felt we were doing well.

Oliver Postgate lived in Broadstairs at the time of his death
Oliver Postgate lived in Broadstairs at the time of his death

“We had done the Clangers, we were writing books, they were still showing Pogles’ Wood and there was an amazing concentration of work we were involved in.

“Bagpuss was like the culmination of everything we’d done before. It became the pinnacle of what we did.

"It was our best thing ever and I really enjoyed making them.”

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

It was a family affair too. Emily, the little girl holding Bagpuss in the programme, was Emily Firmin, the daughter of Peter and his wife Joan. Today, she's a successful artist in her own right in Whitstable. And, just to make you feel old, in her mid-50s. His wife Joan also knitted the Clangers.

Peter and Emily Firmin and Oliver Postgate
Peter and Emily Firmin and Oliver Postgate

Peter Firmin was 30 when his path crossed with Postgate's, in London in 1958.

Having emerged from art school he had worked in a variety of roles in the world of art - from working in a stained glass studio to lecturing on the subject - and was trying to establish himself as an illustrator with varying levels of success.

He explained: "I had been trying to freelance as an illustrator after leaving a studio I’d been working for, in Bond Street.

“Then Oliver came along looking to find someone to do the drawings of some live animation he was working on in the studio. Oliver was working in TV and thought he could do so much more in children’s television.

“He’d been referred to me by the Central School of Art, where I’d been teaching. He had asked if they could recommend someone hard up enough to do a lot of work for little money. I reluctantly agreed.

Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate working on the Clangers in November 1969 at Firmin's Blean barn. Picture: Images of Canterbury
Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate working on the Clangers in November 1969 at Firmin's Blean barn. Picture: Images of Canterbury

"I thought as it was only six weeks I’d give it a go. I thought television was a bit crap – and it was back then. Children’s television was all live, with string puppets and crude animation.

“I found I could work things with cardboard mechanics and Oliver brought his camera and taught himself to do animation so between us it worked well.”

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

It impressed TV bosses enough for Mr Postgate to form Smallfilms – the production company which would become synonymous with a host of much-loved shows.

Moving to Blean in order to raise their children in a rural setting - Firmin says he "instantly fell in love" with the farmhouse the first time he saw it - the duo worked tirelessly over the years.

Peter Firmin and his wife Joan who were married for more than 60 years
Peter Firmin and his wife Joan who were married for more than 60 years

While the firm will always be synonymous with the pair of them, it was actually wholly owned by Postgate. Firmin simply kept ownership of all the characters he had crafted.

It effectively meant the artist's seal of approval was required for each deal struck – ensuring the pair would be wedded together when it came to the fruits of their success.

And he was indebted to Postgate's role in their success.

“Nothing could have happened without Oliver,” he reflected.

"He was hugely inventive; using Meccano to make cameras and equipment that worked for animations. He was great like that. I can always draw things, but I’d not have the faith to do those sorts of things.

Ivor the Engine was one of Oliver Postgate's creations
Ivor the Engine was one of Oliver Postgate's creations

"But the two of us worked together well.

“Ideas flowed between us and that was really why we had the drive to go on.”

He also had a "gentleman's agreement" when, on a side project, he had created Basil Brush for Ivan Owen.

Oliver Postgate's death in 2008 was mourned as a familiar voice for so many childhoods was silenced forever.

Peter Firmin passed away at the home he cherished on July 1, 2018. He was 89.

Bagpuss and their other creations will live on.

Read more: Rupert Bear 1920-2020 - How Canterbury's Mary Tourtel created an iconic character 100 years on

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