Once upon a time in a cowshed: the lasting legacy of Smallfilms

Over 50 years ago, there were two not so little chaps called Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. And they lived and worked together in a disused cow shed in rural Kent, making some of the most iconic and well loved British children’s television series for several generations.

Smallfilms is one of the most widely recognised names on British television to this day, and all from a fairly homemade, cottage industry world of animation and puppet making. From Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog, to Pogles Wood and Pingwings, to evergreen favourites The Clangers and Bagpuss, Oliver and Peter’s myriad of enchanting on screen creations remain as essential a part of British childhood as Beatrix Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

A new book, ‘The Art of Smallfilms‘, written by Jonny Trunk, has been recently published, celebrating their many works and the true artistry behind them all. For it’s fair to say that their shows’ lasting appeal comes from the fact that both Postgate and Firmin never really set out to ‘make’ television for children. It just happened by accident. Peter was the arty side of the pairing, his fantastical way of imagining worlds and kingdoms evident in the many fantastical sets for the Clangers’ home planet, or the olde-world feel of the Norse castle backdrops in Noggin the Nog.

And Oliver? He was – as was once beautifully described – ‘the voice of God’ to thousands of people who’d grown up around his calming, avuncular tones coming from their TV screens, be they the yawns of Bagpuss, the saggy old cloth cat, or the parochial charms of Dai Jones the Steam on the Ffestiniog railway in Ivor the Engine.

Both were country boys, and their way of viewing the world, and all its growing advancements at that time – the 1960s/1970s – and how small communities of people still mattered, was particularly in abundance through all their work, be they the rural environment of Pogles Wood, or the far off galaxy in which The Clangers‘ home planet resided.

Listen to the opening speech of any episode from the latter, particularly the ones where Oliver, one of our most well versed and well read minds in recent history, describes our planet, the Earth, as the most complicated and troubled of all, and the most not at peace, that it suddenly displays a grounding and a hidden depth that makes these wonderful creations more than just a television show for younger viewers.

Being born as I was at the tail end of the 80s – by which point they’d wound down operations following the completion of their forgotten but equally charming series Pinny’s House – I was in quite a fortunate position in that, whilst the BBC had stopped the yearly reruns of their shows, Channel 4 had picked them up and were showing them at lunchtimes after Sesame Street. Coming home from nursery and sat blissfully on our lounge floor with a bowl of bread and butter, I was instantly captivated, and so the likes of the Soup Dragon or Professor Yaffle the Woodpecker became as much a part of my early televisual upbringing as those who were 2 or 3 in say, 1971.

And though both are sadly no longer with us – Postgate passed away in 2008, and Firmin just last year – their legacy lives on, just as calmly and endearingly as it always has. In 2015, three years before his death, Peter exec produced and oversaw the revived and faithful series of The Clangers for CBeebies, now helmed by Oliver’s son Dan Postgate, and lovingly narrated for a new generation by the equally melifluous tones of Sir Michael Palin.

50 years on from the woolly knitted space mice’s debut on BBC One, the third run of the revived series starts this weekend to mark the occasion, as well as that of half a century since the first Moon Landings, which will be commemorated in the first episode, titled, appropriately enough, ‘The Visitor’.

Time will tell if Bagpuss will join them, or whether Ivor the Engine will puff into revived action again, but beyond the pipe cleaners, the wool and the Meccano-esque forms, with Smallfilms, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin created the opportunity for young and not so young imaginations alike to be captivated and challenged to explore many worlds – some, as Mr Postgate once said, not so very different from our own.

‘The Art of Smallfilms’, by Johnny Trunk and Richard Embray, is available now, published by Four Corners Books, and the third series of The Clangers starts for UK viewers this Saturday at 6pm on CBeebies. Twitter: @HelloClangers @DanPostgate

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