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Smallfilms: A History of Britain's Biggest Little Animation Company

Before Aardman Animations. Before Cosgrove Hall. There was a British animation studio that won the heart of the nation and became a key part of millions of childhoods- and its name was Smallfilms.

In fact, calling it an animation "studio" maybe a little inaccurate- such a description brings to mind images of giant companies like Disney, Dreamworks or Pixar, with huge buildings housing hundreds of employees. Smallfilms was basically two blokes in a shed. Between the late 1950's and the late 80's, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin produced several of the UK's most iconic children' television series in a cowshed on Firmin's farm, in Blean, near Canterbury in Kent. Smallfilms was, as the name suggests, a small operation. But there was nothing small about their success.

Their working relationship began when Postgate convinced Firmin to produce painted backgrounds on the series Alexander The Mouse. The series was produced using a magnetic system (invented in Ireland) that enabled a simple form of animation to be broadcast live. Following from this first collaboration,  they worked together on their first true stop-motion animation, Chinese story The Journey of Master Ho.

After setting up shop in Firmin's barn, they set to work on their first Smallfilms production Ivor The Engine, first broadcast in 1959. Set in the "top left-hand corner' of Wales, it centred on a steam train named Ivor, who (among other adventures) wanted to join the local choir. It was animated using cut-out stop-motion. Firmin produced the artwork, while Postgate, wrote and narrated the stories and produced the animation. This was the same set up that would prove so successful over the next three decades.  Originally, 32 black and white episodes were produced and broadcast on ITV.  In the 70's, another 40 episodes were produced, this time in full colour and shown on the BBC.

Postgate (top right) and Firmin (bottom left) at work.

1959 also saw their second series (and their first for the BBC) Noggin The Nog. Inspired by Norse mythology, it starred a Viking named Noggin who has to step up to become ruler following the death of his father., King Knut. Noggin drew on classic storytelling and myths, not shying away from some darker themes- showing that there was more to Smallfilms output than their cosy, reputation suggests. Noggin the Nog ran for 36 episodes between 1959 and 1965, with a short-lived comeback in 1979, running for a further six episodes.

In 1965 they produced The Pogles, a series following a family of fairy-like beings who lived in a tree stump in a wood. Their peaceful woodland lives were disrupted when they were menaced by an evil witch with shape-shifting powers. The BBC at the time felt this was much too sinister and frightening for the intended audience, and the initial six episodes were never shown again. At the BBC's request, the series relaunched as Pogle's Wood, a much lighter sequel series focussed on the Pogle's everyday life.

Later in the decade, much of the western world was excited by the space race. The BBC asked Smallfilms if they could make "something about space", and in 1969 (the year of the moon landing), The Clangers first aired. It featured a group of pink, mouse-like creatures who lived on an unnamed moon, alongside the Soup Dragon. Communicating only through whistles (provided by Postgate using swanny whistles) the Clangers went on to be one of the duo's most iconic creations. The original Clangers aired for two series, and was the first Smallflms production to be made in colour. Cheekily, Postgate would later claim that in the Clanger's language they were actually "swearing their little heads off".

If any Smallfilms series is more beloved than the Clangers, then it would have to be their next production, Bagpuss. Originally aired in 1974, the series featured the "saggy old cloth cat" with pink and white stripes. He got his distinctive colouring entirely by accident- he was intended to be a more traditional ginger cat, but an error in production caused him to come out pink. Bagpuss lives in a shop window and when the humans leave, he (along with other toys) come to life. It was an unusual shop where lost and broken items are displayed so their owners can come and find them. Every episode a new object would come to the shop, and the toys would mend it.

Only 13 episodes were ever made, but it was frequently repeated for many years afterwards. Not only on the BBC, but later it also became a regular fixture on Nick Junior. DVD and streaming mean that even today's kids can fall in love with the saggy old cloth cat, too.

Noggin The Nog

Smallfilms produced a number of other series, which while popular, none of which quite had the same impact as their most fondly-remembered works. The likes of  Pingwings (1960-65), Little Laura (1962) and The Seal of Neptune and The Mermaids Pearls (1960-62) are now rarely seen or spoken about. However, The Dragons Friendly Society set up by Postgate and his friend Loaf have released some (although not all) of their more obscure works on DVD.

Their final productions were both something of a departure for the little company. Tottie-The Story Of A Doll's House (1984-1986) was unusual in that it was an adaptation rather than an original idea. Adapted from the books of Rumer Godden, it's also notorious as it is allegedly "the first children's series to include a murder".   Pinny's House (1986) was a return to 2D animation, and was unusual in that it was both illustrated and written by Firmin, and animated and directed by Postgate.

Postgate and Firmin didn't do quite everything by themselves- they enlisted others to provide the music and additional voices. Firmin's wife Joan also had a big part to play too, knitting the original Clangers puppets and creating other models such as Bagpuss's Madeline.

Still, it's impossible to overstate the influence that Smallfilms had on generations of Brits. Postgate's warm tones were part of the soundtrack to so many childhoods, whether you grew up in their heydey or not. And their influence on British animation? It's hard to imagine that the UK would have such a booming pre-school animation industry today without the groundwork laid out by Postgate and Firmin.

Whilst they stopped making films in the 80s', their story did not end there. They continued to publish books based on their creations for many more years. When in 2014 it was announced that Clangers would be getting a revival, Firmin was instrumental- alongside Postgate's son, Daniel- in making sure that it stayed true in spirit to the original.  The scale may have been many times the original (with a budget reported to be around £5 million) but Firmin insisted the show remained stop-motion and not CGI. The revival has gone on to great success with both children and adults alike.

Their local area are rightfully proud of their part in animation history. Postgate and Firmin were given honorary degrees from The University Of Kent, and Firmin was given the freedom of the city of Canterbury.  Many of the original models and artworks are on display in a local museum, and there's even a tribute to them as part of a mural (below).

While both Postgate and Firmin are now sadly no longer with us (Oliver passed away in 2008, Peter in 2018) they leave behind an incredible body of work. And for as long as there are people who remember that saggy old cloth cat and his friends and that whistling family of moon-dwellers, their legacy will live on.

Once upon a time, Not so long ago, there was a little girl and her name was Emily. And she had a shop.  It was a rather unusual shop because it didn't sell anything. You see, everything in that shop was a thing that somebody had once lost, and Emily had found, and brought home to Bagpuss. Emily's cat Bagpuss. The most important. The most beautiful. The most magical. Saggy old cloth cat in the whole wide world.