The ‘father’ of Bagpuss: The full story
- Credit: Archant
The world would be a better place if we had more people like former Colchester Art School student Peter Firmin, and with the values that shone through in his work
Just before Christmas 2014 I spent the most amazing morning at the home of Peter Firmin: ‘father’ of Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers and more. Below is the interview we ran. Following his sad death, I hope it shows something of the man, and of his attitudes and skills that should never be forgotten.
And if these characters have a place in your heart, do let us know. Email email@example.com with your memories and thoughts. We’d love to hear.
When you’re in your 50s, it’s not ‘cool’ to get all star-struck. But in visiting the magical place that helped shape his childhood – the home of The Clangers, Pogles’ Wood and more – STEVEN RUSSELL just can’t help himself. Sorry
Stop. Wait. Let me get this straight. This room where we’re sitting – this very room with its bow window looking out at the garden of Peter Firmin’s old farmhouse – is Bagpuss’s “shop”? The one in the sepia-tinted opening titles of the TV classic, where young Emily presents her saggy old cloth cat with an item she’s found, and thus kick-starts an adventure?
“Yes,” smiles the patient Harwich-born illustrator, lauded as a national treasure.
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“Yes. I’ll go and get the armchair Emily sat in, if you like. And Bagpuss.”
I sit by the window. On her chair. With an original a-bit-loose-at-the-seams pink and white striped cat on my lap. I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
I’m actually too old to be a fully-signed-up member of the Bagpuss generation, but had a three-year-old sister when the programme launched in 1974 and so the magical cat, pompous woodpecker Professor Yaffle and a string of high-pitched singing mice found a place in my heart. There they joined other Oliver Postgate/Peter Firmin treasures, like The Pogles (more my era). And I was born in 1962 – near enough the time Peter co-created Basil Brush, the fox with a line in awful puns. I’ve a lot to thank Peter for, and tell him. He smiles. Modestly.
He’s even responsible, partly, for the name of my daughter. Bagpuss’s Emily – portrayed by one of Peter and Joan’s own girls – was an Edwardian young lady of poise and gentleness. The name and its associations lodged in my mind.
Others, too, cherish his imagination and creativity. There, on the dresser, is his bronze Bafta – awarded in November by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts to recognise his outstanding contribution.
It was handed over by actor Bernard Cribbins, and Emily – now in her late 40s – accompanied her dad on stage (along with Bagpuss and a Clanger). “Ever lifted one before?” asks Joan, nodding at the theatrical tragi-comic mask design on its plinth. It’s weighty: 3.7kg, if Wikipedia is right. “Do you think we’ll often have to rub it with Brasso?” she grins.
It’s the early 1970s and Oliver and Peter are riding high, having given children such TV favourites as Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and now The Clangers: anteater-like characters that live on a planet and speak in looping whistles. The BBC’s pleased. “Got any more ideas?” it asks. Inspired by a ginger cat drawn by Czech animator Jirí Trnka, Peter has been pondering for a while about a potential character but hasn’t really been able to develop it. Oliver wonders. “We’ll have a go with the BBC,” he says. Bagpuss is born.
“It was Oliver’s idea that a cat’s natural home was in a shop window, in the sun, dozing away,” Peter explains. “We started building on that idea and thought ‘Where can this be?’ and Oliver said ‘Look! There’s the window!’” It’s that bow window of the very room in which we sit, two days before Peter’s 86th birthday. It was 54 years ago that he and Joan bought this old farmhouse near Canterbury for £4,500 and moved from London. Oliver followed later and settled at Whitstable.
“We had this extension built when the girls were bringing boys home and we were feeling a bit crowded, so we built this extra little bit for us to have as our sitting room and they could be in the other room,” explains Peter. “Joan’s brother was an architect. She wanted him to design it, and could she have ‘a shop window’ because they were brought up in Devon in a shop – their father ran the general store – so she fancied this bow window. That was 1968. Within six years it was used as Bagpuss’s window. It was mainly because we were so mean, or so badly paid, that we tended to use what was around us. Oliver did the photography, and Joan made Emily a dress.” Peter made most of the Bagpuss puppet, with Joan responsible for the paws and other detailing. She also knitted Clangers from bright pink wool. A true cottage industry.
We head for the outbuildings. The couple’s dog, Tiny Tim (he was a small puppy when bought one Boxing Day) zig-zags about, hoping for the scent of a mouse. In these Kent outbuildings was where the creative alchemy happened. Smallfilms – Postgate technically adept and like the director of a play, coaxing subtle gestures from little models, and Firmin the artist and maker – gave us such warm and gentle tales.
In those days before computer-generated imagery, the ingredients were the story, the tone, cardboard cut-outs, puppets, and sets and characters made from pipe-cleaners and table-tennis balls.
We go into the barn, which Peter had converted after moving in so they had somewhere sound to make Pogles’ Wood, about some little characters living in the countryside. The Clangers were made in this very spot, too. “It’s a bit of a mess now,” he muses. Ah, but the gentle vibration lies deep in the wood and bricks.
It was in the late 1950s that Oliver – unable to get on with the artist assigned to breathe life into his character Alexander the Mouse for TV; “they were two strong-headed people”, suggests Peter – went looking for a replacement. His inquiries led him to the door of Peter’s ground-floor flat in Battersea.
“There was a knock on the door. Joan looked at him and said ‘Oh, he’s all right. He’s got a black suit but brown shoes. So he can’t be that posh!’ I said ‘I’m not that keen on drawing for television.’ Television was pretty ropey in those days. I wanted to be an illustrator of serious books. Anyhow, he said ‘It’s £30 a week.’ I thought that was pretty good” – Peter was then getting £12 a week in an art studio – “and it’s only for six weeks... and of course it never stopped.” Their first work involved animation using magnets under a table, live, “which was interesting but a bit hazardous! So we started making things with levers and strings to make it a bit more reliable”. Oliver had been working as a stage manager for Associated Rediffusion when he set out to produce some better TV for youngsters. After Alexander, Oliver pursued single-frame film animation, working in his spare room with a film camera adapted with Meccano and string! Peter, meanwhile, began an eight-year association with a programme called The Musical Box – a weekly stint, “usually without much of a script”, that generally involved creating hand-operated cards to illustrate a nursery rhyme as a song was sung. He got £15 a time.
Then the Postgate-Firmin partnership really began to motor: Ivor the Engine for ITV in 1959; the Saga of Noggin the Nog, which took them to the BBC; from 1965, their series about the Pogles. Initially, a witch was ruled too scary. Toned down and named Pogles’ Wood, the series proved a hit. The end of the 1960s and first half of the ’70s were the unforgettable years of The Clangers and Bagpuss. “We jointly created these films. Oliver came up with Ivor, The Clangers and The Pogles. I had the idea for Noggin and Bagpuss. But in all of them Oliver was the producer and animator. He wrote all the scripts and chose the cast and music. I made all the sets and puppets, and did the drawings, backgrounds and cut-outs for the animated stories.” Over the years they’d also work on stories for Pippin comic. (I used to have that when I was five.) Peter would occasionally draw a Noggin spread or two pages of a Bagpuss story. He remembers getting decent money: £30 a page.
The last Smallfilms production was Pinny’s House, in the mid 1980s.
Peter and his creative partner never had a proper contract drawn up by lawyers. “He would write me a note on a bit of paper, saying I’d do what he needed, and I’d say OK and sign it. We never had any problems.” The final film having marked the end of an era, Peter returned to his craft. He won commissions to illustrate books and relaunched his career in printmaking. In his studio, he shows me the 1861 Albion press he uses. Why does he think those Smallfilms left such a mark on children like me? My theory is that they’re about fair folk, and a strong sense of community.
“We never had aggression,” Peter agrees. “For Oliver [who died in 2008, at 83] it was all about getting on with people, though he could be quite difficult himself! He had such strong ideals that he did not suffer fools gladly. Even in The Clangers, there were no baddies. There were awkward ones, like the Iron Chicken that ate bolts... but troublesome; not bad.”
Noggin the Nog was Peter Firmin’s brainchild: a Vikingesque saga of goodnatured Noggin, whose father Knut was king. When Knut dies, Noggin must find a bride to rule with him or cede the crown to uncle Nogbad the Bad, who continually gets in the way of the quest.
The series was inspired largely by the “Lewis chessmen” – 12th Century chess pieces found in 1831 in the Outer Hebrides – but Peter is also sure that his childhood on the east coast lay the foundations.
He belonged to something called The Harwich-Esbjerg Club, which fostered goodwill across the North Sea just after the war, and he also had an uncle in Denmark whom he visited as a teenager, “which I’m sure led to the Noggin story”.
Peter’s father’s family hailed from the Colchester area. Dad Charles was a railway clerk whose brother Bill was a policeman in Harwich. Bill had a girlfriend and asked Charles to come along on a blind date. Which is how he met Lila, the daughter of a Harwich seaman. They married, lived in Wood Green and had a son. Charles was then posted to Parkeston Quay and Peter was born in Cliff Road, Dovercourt.
The family bought a smart semi–detached house on The Green in about 1929 and the boys also acquired a sister. (Gloria later taught at Ipswich High School for Girls and today lives in Suffolk. She knitted “Pingwings”, penguin characters, that in the early 1960s featured in the first Smallfilms production to use stop–frame animated puppets instead of painted card.)
Peter remembers playing on that wide green, walking over fields to the marshes, the rollerskating rink and the tennis courts. They went to the infant school in the 1930s and at 10 he got a scholarship to the high school at Harwich.
He wasn’t even 11 when war broke out. Peter and his brother were evacuated to Gloucestershire, staying in a fairly primitive thatched cottage with a widow upon whom the Pogles’ Wood witch was based!
She was lovely, but Peter remembers arriving and seeing her in the distance – a stooped lady in a shawl, gleaning on a field, trailed by a cat. “I’m sure that stayed in my mind.”
They stayed a year or two.
Back in Essex, he went to grammar school in Colchester and then high school in Clacton.
At 15 he got a place at Colchester Art School. A spell in the Navy for national service saw his first posting to Parkeston Quay! Because war had interrupted his education, Peter later got a £260–a–year maintenance grant that enabled him to go to London and the Central School of Arts. There he met Joan. They met in the spring of 1952 and married in July. It was, he says, “pretty quick”.
“I can remember looking across the canteen and seeing this girl in a white, ex-Navy duffle coat. We got chatting, and I remember asking her to go to an exhibition of wallpaper with me. I remember sitting next to her on the bus and thinking there’s an aura, somehow. We got chatting.
She had had a pet badger and loved animals, and I loved animals. There were so many things in common.”
When Peter left art school, Joan still had a year to do. He’d drop her off – by tandem – and spend the day looking for commissions. The couple had a room in Shepherd’s Bush and he struggled to make a living as a freelance illustrator. He did have a job in Surrey, as a general artist at a stained glass studio, at £6 a week.
Peter was there two years. They did a lot of work replacing glass in churches damaged by bombing.
Then he was taken on by a studio in Bond Street that produced publicity material. He did that for a couple of years, before going freelance once more. It went all right until the terrible winter of 1957/58 saw work dry up. By then the couple had three daughters (another three would follow, and all six are creative) and so Oliver Postgate’s arrival, with the offer of work, was timely.
It allowed them to leave for Kent: a nicer place for the girls to grow up and space for that magical studio...
In later life, Peter’s parents moved to Ipswich, to a bungalow at Rushmere St Andrew, opposite the heath.
Asked if he has a favourite character from his association with Oliver, he invariably replies “Not really... Everyone loves Bagpuss” – voted the UK’s favourite children’s programme in 1999 – “but I always think of Noggin as my creation. I was in the Harwich-Esbjerg youth club.
The mayor and others decided we should get together with the Danes – the boats went across from Harwich – and we formed this club. We’d visit them and they’d visit us. I remember we had to take some ‘English culture’ to show them, so we learned morris dancing.
“We had to dress in cricket flannels and do some stick-dancing. Good fun!
“The Norse sagas seemed very exciting, and there was the Battle of Maldon. I had a Danish uncle, married to my mother’s sister, so I suppose we had that sort of connection.”