Header Ads

Beyond Bagpuss : A History Of Smallfilms Animation Studio [Book Review]

If you live in the UK, even if you don't know the name Smallfilms, you're likely at least somewhat familiar with their work. As such, the only surprising thing about Chris Pallant's in-depth history of the studio is that it's taken this long for someone to write it.

Beyond Bagpuss isn't the first book to cover the work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, but it is intended to be the most thorough. It's intended to go deeper and beyond the well-known stories surrounding this most unique of studios.

The book is in broadly chronological order, with each chapter centred around a single series (or in a couple of cases multiple series). Each series is used as a jumping-off point for Pallant to explore a particular element that he believes contributes to the appeal of the studio's work. These include world-building, technology and what Pallant calls "whimsical authenticity."

The chapters also include more general discussion surrounding each series, recounting stories surrounding their production. The author was given unprecedented access to the archive by Postgate and Firmin's family, and is able to draw on interviews with the film-maker's children and surviving collaborators.

The book reproduces a number of artefacts from the archive, such as letters, scripts and sketches, as well as frequent screenshots from the series themselves. It's still very much a text-based book (if you're after an art-heavy read you'd be better off with The Art Of Smallfilms) but they are fascinating inclusions nonetheless. 

As well as telling the most complete version of their story, another aim of the book is to shine the spotlight on the lesser known Smallfilms productions. It goes beyond Bagpuss, The Clangers and Noggin The Nog. The more obscure Smallfilms series such as Sam On Boff's Island and The Seal Of Neptune are given the same thorough treatment as their better known brethren, even if some of them are largely lost to history. It even includes their anti-nuclear film Life On Earth Perhaps that is omitted from most previous histories of the studio,

Another of the book's aims is to give proper credit to the other people who contributed to the success of Smallfilms. The popular romantic image that the series were entirely the work of two men in a cowshed in Kent is only part of the story. This book highlights the work that the likes of Joan Firmin, Linda Birch, Sandra Kerr, John Faulkner and others brought to the films.

The book also draws on an extensive audience study, allowing the general public to share their thoughts on the Smallfilms filmography. This prevents it becoming too dry a read, although Pallant's academic background is evident in his writing style. As such this is recommended to animation and film students and those seriously interested in the history of animation rather than the more casual Bagpuss fan. It's also not best approached as a total newcomer to Firmin and Potsgates' work- it assumes the reader is at least somewhat familiar. 

Ultimately Beyond Bagpuss succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do. You won't find a more detailed or in-depth exploration of one of British animation's most beloved names.