The artist who made children’s storytelling a craft

With Oliver Postgate, Peter Firmin created characters and stories that enriched Andy's childhood and generations to come. Andy marks his passing.

Some things are so evocative.

A smell, a particular piece of music, a certain food, a picture.

Conjouring up your past so vividly that you feel you can reach out and grasp it.

The work of Peter Firmin, who along with Oliver Postgate, formed Smallfilms and made magical children’s TV for my generation, does just that for me.

The mere whistle of a Clanger or the yawn of Bagpuss, and I’m back in those technicolour, (well browns and oranges mainly) Butterscotch Angel Delight for tea days of the early seventies.

Pogles Wood, Noggin the Nog, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine and of course Bagpuss, were all down to Firmin and Postgate.

You know you are getting old when you have to explain to subsequent disbelieving younger generations just how basic life was then.

No computers, let alone iPhones, tablets, CGI, AR, AI, or for than matter, sodding GDPR.

Just telly, and only three channels until 1982.

TV then was something special. Something to be cherished.

These two, armed with no resources (Firmin’s wife Joan used to knit The Clangers) but so rich in imagination created characters and stories that enthralled millions of kids – and still do, as The Clangers was re-introduced on CBeebies in 2015.

They both had a twinkle in their eye and an uncanny ability to be prescient albeit with knitted space mice, swanee whistles and a wooden woodpecker. The Clangers first appeared in the November of 1969 – just months after the Apollo moon landing. And in the era of powercuts, British Leyland and the four day week, even the mice on the mechanical mouse organ once threatened to go on strike.

Such was their capacity for mischief that the scripts for the Clangers (yes, they actually had scripts) were nearly censored by good old Auntie, as Oliver Postgate recalled:

“Their scripts had to be written out in English, for Steven Sylvester and I to use Swanee whistles; we just sort of blew the whistles in Clanger language for the text that was there, so it didn’t matter much what was written. But when the BBC got the script, [they] rang me up and said, “At the beginning of episode three, where the doors get stuck, Major Clanger says ‘Sod it, the bloody thing’s stuck again!’. Well, darling, you can’t say that on Children’s television, you know, I mean you just can’t.” I said, “It’s not going to be said, it’s going to be whistled” but [they] just said, “but people will know!” I said no, that if they had nice minds, they’d think, ‘Oh dear, the silly thing’s not working properly’. So the BBC said, “Oh, all right then, I suppose so, but please keep the language moderate.”

Peter Firmin has just died aged 89. Oliver Postgate passed ten years ago.

When I heard this news, although sad, I was overwhelmed with warm and wonderful memories and transported right back to forty plus years ago.

I may be melancholy at his passing, but I honestly can’t think of anything more rewarding as a legacy than having created such magic for so many young children.