In a disused pigsty on the outskirts of Canterbury, two men created worlds that have entertained children and adults for more than forty years.
Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin had worked together on a couple of early children’s television shows (including live animation!) when they decided to start their own production company, which they called Smallfilms. From 1958 through to 1986 they made 15 series, many of which are considered to be amongst the finest programmes in any genre of all time.
Their first widely broadcast series was Ivor The Engine which ran from 1958-1963 on ITV and was shot in black and white. They remade these shows in 1975 in colour for the BBC.
The Saga Of Noggin The Nog followed in 1959 and ran for five years. This followed the classic Smallfilms format of Postgate narrating the stories he had written and animating the characters which Firmin had drawn.
During this period of the early 60s they also made a number of programmes for ITV, such as Pingwings and The Dogwatch, but these don’t seem to have proved as enduring as the BBC shows, probably because they have rarely been repeated and were largely in black and white.
Smallfilms’ last black and white series for the BBC was Pogles Wood, the tales of small folk who lived in a tree. This ran till 1968 when it was replaced with The Clangers, their first foray into colour television. To create the Clangers’ world, Peter Firmin built a planet in his pig-sty and populated it with aliens knitted by his wife Joan. Once again, Oliver animated the tales that he had scripted himself.
In 1973 there came along and old saggy cloth cat which, nearly a quarter of a century later, was voted by BBC viewers as the greatest children’s television programme of all time. Bagpuss started out as an idea of Peter’s. He thought of a retired army cat living in an Indian hospital where he told stories to the children. This proved too costly a concept to recreate so between then Peter and Oliver made the old shop, Emily’s shop, and populated it with the character we know and love.
Smallfilms carried on making children’s programmes for more than a decade after Bagpuss finished in 1974 but the advent of faster-paced programming and a lack of imagination from producers meant they fell out of favour and fashion. How wrong people were - today Bagpuss, The Clangers and Ivor The Engine enjoy high ratings on satellite television and are masters of an extensive merchandising empire.