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Peter Firmin 1928-2018

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Peter Firmin, one of the great pioneers of British children’s animated television series has passed away aged 89.

Peter Firmin

For more than 30 years Firmin was responsible for co-creating countless animated television series such as Ivor The Engine (1959-63), Noggin The Nog (1959-65), The Clangers (1969-72) and Bagpuss (1974) along with Oliver Postgate.

Born in Harwich, Essex, in 1928, Firmin trained at the Colchester School of Art. In the late 1950s, he met Postgate at the Central School of Art in London. Firmin worked in advertising and magazines and was looking for freelance illustration work. He did not own a television and thought that the TV he had seen up to this point was “rubbish”. Postgate persuaded him to work on this new medium as a six-week commitment and so their partnership began.

The following year, the pair moved from London to the South of England and formed the company Smallfilms in Blean near Canterbury, starting with the television series Ivor The Engine (1959-63) for ITV (later remade in colour in 1975-77 for BBC). It was the story of a Welsh steam train who longed to sing in the local choir. This collaboration set in stone the process in which the pair would produce films for the next three decades.

As their company title suggests, Smallfilms was an extremely intimate affair with a staff of two. Postgate wrote, animated and narrated the films while Firmin painted the backgrounds, designed the characters and constructed the sets.

L-R Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate Animating Pogles Wood

However, it was Firmin who came up with the concept of a saggy, old cloth cat named Bagpuss. Their approach was to give all the characters conflicting personality so that they could teach each other morals and lessons which would be passed on to the young audience, buying into the BBC’s public service mission statement to “inform, educate and entertain.”

Bagpuss captures both Postgate and Firmin’s skills at the height of their talent which is perhaps why it is often held in the highest regard of all their work. Little surprise when in 1999 Bagpuss topped a BBC poll of the UK’s Favourite Children’s TV Programme, highlighting the popularity of the series 25 years after it was first broadcast.

In his later years, Firmin retired from television production and returned to his artistic routes produced engravings and linocuts. He continued to speak at animation events and helped inspire the next generation of artists and animators. He received the Bafta Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014.

In October 2013, it was announced that after more than 40 years, The Clangers would be remade for television with a new series on the BBC’s pre-school channel CBeebies. Firmin was on hand to offer advice and make sure that the series was true to its original counterpart.

L-R Michael Palin, Peter Firmin and Daniel Postgate

His work with Postgate had a profound effect on children’s programming in the 1960s and 1970s. Their films represented a period of readjustment after war time, they offered audiences safe magical worlds to explore in their minds, where toys could come alive and strange creature could play.

Characters such as Bagpuss and the Clangers remain as cult figures today in the minds of the viewers and there can be no doubt Smallfilms’ influences can be found in many contemporary children’s programmes.

Skwigly Animation Podcast #60 – Peter Firmin & Daniel Postgate

Their work helped to change the landscape of British children’s programming and pioneered the way for children’s television to push beyond the boundaries of basic story telling into a far more imaginative and challenging series of worlds. Their story ideas were ahead of their time, focusing on the notion of reusing things and recycling items. They relished the creative freedom of working as an independent studio and their work would have been all the poorer for outside involvement.

Firmin died at his home in Kent after a short illness. He leaves behind his wife Joan, six daughters and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Peter Arthur Firmin, 11 December 1928 – 1 July 2018

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