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Sunday, July 08, 2018

Peter Firmin (1928-2018)

Peter Firmin, co-creator of many magical and enduring children's TV favourites and an illustrator of dozens of books and annuals based around his creations and those of others, died at his home in Kent after a short illness on 1 July, aged 89.

Firmin is best known for his collaborations with Oliver Postgate, with whom he set up Smallfilms in 1959. "He did the writing and I did the making," he later said of their partnership. "I could draw the things that he imagined. It was the perfect partnership, really." Their shows were notably relaxing, thanks to Postgate's gentle stories and calm narration. Firmin explained his relationship with his partner in 2016: "We sometimes disagreed, but generally we agreed in the end as we had the same sort of taste and, also, we both rather liked the idea of gentle stories where there was no aggression really and everyone was rather happy, gentle and content."

The two had met in 1957 when Postgate, a stage manager on children's programmes at Associated-Rediffusion, was looking for an artist to draw the characters and backgrounds of his newly created Alexander the Mouse (1958).

Postgate recalled in his autobiography how he hoped to find "an artist to do over twenty different backgrounds, as well as several cut-out figures for a fee of £30 an episode." He asked a friend, Maurice Kestelman, head of Fine Art at the Central School of Art and Design if he had any suggestions. He did: Peter Firmin had just had another child – his third daughter – and would probably welcome the extra money.

The two met at Firmin's Battersea flat, and Firmin was uncertain as "television was pretty ropey in those days. I wanted to be an illustrator of serious books. Anyhow, he said 'It's £30 a week'." Firmin was then earning £12 a week at an art studio and thought the pay was pretty good... and it was only for six weeks.

Firmin delivered, the animation being done live using a system of magnets, which sometimes caused the characters to fall over. Still, Firmin's talents were soon spotted by others and he was invited to produce work for Musical Box, his animations  using levers and moving panels to tell the stories of nursery rhymes sung by Rolf Harris and Wally Whyton which he did for eight years.

Postgate, meanwhile, had made his first foray into filming his work with The Journey of Master Ho (1958) and a friend from drama school, who had worked as an engine-fireman, helped inspire his next creation, set in the top left-hand corner of Wales and featuring a locomotive working for the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company Ltd. Postgate approached Firmin with an opening scene scripted and a rough storyboard; two days later, Firmin had fleshed out the characters and countryside that was to feature in Ivor the Engine . The original series ran to 6 ten-minute episodes (1959-60) telling the story of how Ivor wanted to sing in a choir, which he achieved by the series' end.

On a trip to the British Museum, Firmin saw a set of 12th century Norse chess figures discovered on the island of Lewis in 1831. These sowed the seed for The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), the initial story telling of how Noggin had to find a bride in order to stop his uncle (Nogbad the Bad) becoming the new King of the Nogs.

When TV Publications began planning the children's comic TV Land for launch in October 1960, Postgate was asked to create a weekly series of 8-panel stories featuring Ivor the Engine, which Firmin drew. While TV Land lasted only 68 weeks, it provided the inspiration for a second and third series of animated Ivor adventures when Postgate was asked to bring the character back by Associated-Rediffusion.

Over the next few years, Smallfilms was responsible for The Seal of Neptune (1960-63), Pingwings (1961-65) and Pogle's Wood (1965-68). At the same time, Postgate and Firmin were responsible for writing a great many spin-off books based on the Smallfilms' characters, beginning with Ivor the Engine (1962) and including a yearly Pogle's Wood Annual which ran for seven volumes (1968-74) as well as a regular weekly strip in Pippin, although this was drawn by Bill Mevin. The new comic, also from TV Publications, was named after one of the Postgate & Firmin's characters, the son of the King of the Fairies who was put in the charge of Mr. and Mrs. Pogle.

Other Firmin creations outside of Smallfilms included Basil Brush, who made his debut in the ITV series The Three Scampis in 1962 alongside Spike McPike, a Scottish hedgehog also made by Firmin, and Howard Williams. Basil was voiced by Ivan Owen, modelled on the caddish tones of Terry-Thomas, and went on to star as a side-kick to magician David Nixon in the late 1960s and then to his own show (1968-80). Firmin also created Fred Barker (also voiced by Ivan Owen) and Ollie Beak for The Five O'Clock Club (ATV, 1963-66).

One of the most memorable of Smallfilms' creations were The Clangers (BBC, 1969, 1972). A precursor to these alien creatures had appeared in one of the Noggin books (Noggin and the Moonmouse, 1967), while the show itself was suggested by the planned landing on the Moon. The Clangers were a family of tiny, tailless mouse-like creatures who lived underground on a planet that resembled a Swiss cheese, with metal lids over the holes leading to the Clangers' home. They live on soup and blue string pudding and spend their days collecting space debris from which Major Clanger makes useful things. Other inhabitants include the Soup Dragon and Iron Chicken.

Bagpuss (BBC, 1974) ran for only one 13-episode season, but was voted the UK's favourite children's TV programme in 1999. The stuffed, saggy pink cat lived in a shop where a young girl, Emily (Firmin's daughter), displayed lost or broken toys in the window. Bagpuss and the other toys would all come to life when nobody was watching and discuss the newcomer, which often required mending by a workforce of mice. (Bagpuss was intended to be a marmalade-coloured cat, but a mistake at the fur-dying company meant he became pink.)

After a revival of Ivor the Engine for the BBC (1976-77), Smallfilms later produced a series of 5-minute shows based on Frank Muir's What-a-Mess books about a scruffy Afghan puppy (1979), two series of Tottie: The Story of a Dolls' House (BBC, 1984, 1986), based on the novel The Dolls' House (1947) by Rumer Godden, and Pinny's House (BBC, 1986), a series of 13 episodes written and animated by Firmin alone, which also featured dolls.

Peter Arthur Firmin was born on 11 December 1928, the son of Lewis Charles Firmin (1901-1985), a railway telegrapher, and his wife Lila (Eliza Isabella, nee Burnett, 1903-1995), who Charles met on a blind date thanks to his brother, who was a policeman in Harwich. The two were married in 1926 and moved to Wood Green, although Charles was posted to Parkeston Quay and Peter, their second son, was born in Dovercourt.

From an early age, he enjoyed drawing on surplus teleprinter rolls brought home from work by his father. At the age of 10 won a scholarship to the High School in Harwich; however, the Second World War broke out and Peter and his elder brother (Lewis) were evacuated to Gloucestershire, living at a thatched cottage belonging to a elderly widow on whom the witch from Pogle's Wood was based – although she was nice, Firmin's first impression was of her, stooped, wrapped in a shawl and followed by a cat.

Returning to Essex after a year or two, Firmin attended the grammar school in Colchester and then high school in Clacton before earning a place at Colchester Art School at the age of 15. His National Service was spent in the Royal Navy and a grant of £260 a year meant he could resume his education and attend the Central School of Arts. There, in 1952, he met Joan, who was studying bookbinding. Discovering they shared many common interests, they married after only a few months.

Living in a room in Shepherd's Bush, Firmin tried to find work as a freelance illustrator while Joan completed her studies. He found work as a general artist at a stained glass studio in Surrey, which paid £6 a week. For two years he helped replace glass in churches damaged by bombing during the War. After that, he spent a couple of years working for a studio in Bond Street producing publicity material and then turned freelance. Work came in for a while, but dried up during the winter of 1957/58. Oliver Postgate's arrival was quite timely.

In 1959, thanks to the £100 per episode Smallfilms were offered per episode for Ivor the Engine, Firmin moved his family to a farmhouse in Blean, Kent, which had a range of outbuildings, including a cow shed, pigsties and a large, leaky barn. Postgate moved to nearby Whistable and the two worked together in the cow shed, Firmin's artistic studio at one end and Postgate's animation equipment at the other.

Making the films was a family concern. Firmin's sister, Gloria, knitted the Pingwings penguins and wife Joan knitted the pink skins of Clangers that were fitted over a skeleton of Meccano and wire, and made Bagpuss's paws. Emily, Firmin's daughter, starred in Bagpuss, as did one of the family's toys, a rag doll named Madeleine. Thanks to the shoestring budgets, most of the characters and sets were made from whatever Firmin and his family had laying around in the house and farm buildings. However, it was the simplicity of the creations that helped give the shows their enduring appeal.

Like Ivor and Pogle’s Wood, other Smallfilms shows inspired comic strip adventures, with Postgate and Firmin often producing them, notably for Playland and Pippin in Playland, which included strips based on Noggin the Nog (1967), The Clangers (1971) and Bagpuss (1974)—the Smallfilms website estimating that “Over the years, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin wrote and illustrated something like four hundred weekly strip stories for weekly children's papers called TV Land and TV Playland (sic). They also produced longer stories to go in the Annuals and Summer specials of those papers.” The Noggin pages from Playland were later collected in Nogmania (1977).

When the shows came to an end in the 1980s, Firmin returned to illustration and worked on many books. He was commissioned to produce engravings on vinyl, which renewed his interest in printmaking, which resulted in exhibitions in Whitstable, Canterbury, Saffron-Walden and Aldeburgh.

In 1987, Postgate and Firmin were awarded honorary degrees by the University of Kent and, in 2007, they received the Action for Children's Arts JM Barrie Award for a lifetime's achievement in delighting children. He received the BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. A retrospective exhibition of his work was put on at the V&A's Museum of Childhood in 2016.

He worked as a design consultant and co-executive producer on the revival of The Clangers narrated by Michael Palin in 2015 – William Shatner voiced the series in the US – and "continued to work with great enthusiasm on creative projects right up until the beginning of 2018," according the Coolabi, the production company behind the revived series.

He is survived by his wife, six daughters, eleven grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Five of his daughters – Hannah, Charlotte, Josie, Emily and Lucy – went to art school, while Kate works in accounts.


Books illustrated by Peter Firmin

Ivor the Engine (all by Oliver Postgate):
  Ivor the Engine. London, Abelard Schuman, 1962.
  Ivor’s Outing. London, Abelard Schuman, 1967.
  Ivor the Engine: The First Story. London, Fontana, 1977.
  Ivor the Engine: Snowdrifts. London, Fontana, 1977.
  Ivor the Engine: The Dragon. London, Collins, 1979.
  Ivor the Engine: The Elephant. London, Collins, 1979.
  Ivor the Engine: The Foxes. London, Collins, 1982.
  Ivor’s Birthday. London, Collins, 1984.
  Ivor the Engine Annual. Stafford Pemberton, 1977.
  Ivor the Engine Red Story Book (omnibus; contains Ivor’s Birthday, Ivor the Engine: The Foxes). Glasgow, Richard Drew, 1986.

Noggin the Nog (all by Oliver Postgate):
  King of the Nogs. London, Kaye & Ward, 1968
  The Ice Dragon. London, Kaye & Ward, 1968.
  The Flying Machine. London, Kaye & Ward, 1968.
  The Omruds. London, Kaye & Ward, 1968.
  The Island. London, Kaye & Ward, 1969; as Noggin and the Island, London, Fontana, 1990.
  The Firecake. London, Kaye & Ward, 1969.
  The Flowers. London, Kaye & Ward, 1969; as Noggin and the Flowers, London, Fontana, 1990.
  The Pie. London, Kaye & Ward, 1971.
  The Game. London, Kaye & Ward, 1972.
  The Monster. London, Kaye & Ward, 1972.
  The Blackwash. London, Kaye & Ward, 1975.
  The Icebergs. London, Kaye & Ward, 1975.
  Early reader series:
    Noggin the King. London, Edmund Ward, 1965.
    Noggin and the Whale. London, Edmund Ward, 1965.
    Noggin and the Dragon. London, Edmund Ward, 1966.
    Nogbad Comes Back!. London, Edmund Ward, 1966.
    Noggin and the Moon Mouse. London, Kaye & Ward, 1967.
    Nogbad and the Elephants. London, Kaye & Ward, 1967.
    Noggin and the Money. London, Kaye & Ward, 1973.
    Noggin and the Storks. London, Kaye & Ward, 1973.
  Three Tales of Noggin Vol.1 (omnibus; contains Noggin the King, Noggin and the Whale, Noggin and the Moon Mouse). London, Kaye & Ward, 1981.
  Three Tales of Noggin Vol. 2 (omnibus; contains Noggin and the Dragon, Noggin and the Elephants, Noggin and the Storks). London, Kaye & Ward, 1981.
  The Saga of Noggin the Nog (omnibus; contains Noggin the King, The Ice Dragon, The Flying Machine, The Omruds). London, HarperCollins, 1992.
  Nogmania. London, Kaye & Ward, 1977; revised, The Dragons Friendly Society, 2007.
  The Sagas of Noggin the Nog. Four Tales of the Northlands. The Dragons Friendly Society, 2007.

Pogles' Wood (all by Oliver Postgate):
  Tog Sees the World. Feltham, Paul Hamlyn, 1967.
  Pippin Fishing. Feltham, Paul Hamlyn, 1967.
  The Pogles Annual [with contributions from Stephen Sylvester, Hilda Offen and Sylvia Kenyon]. London, Polystyle Publications, 7 vols., 1968-74.
  The Magic Milk Cart. Feltham, Paul Hamlyn, 1968.
  Pogles’ Wood Story Book. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1969.
  A Bag of Magic. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1969.
  Tog’s Train Trip. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1970.
  Pippin’s Castle. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1970.

The Clangers (all by Oliver Postgate):
Major Clanger’s Rocket. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1970.
A Thing for Flying. Feltham, Hamlyn, 1970.
Clangers Annual. London, Polystyle Publications, 2 vols., 1971-72.
  1 The Iron Chicken. London, Little, Brown & Co., 1992.
  2 The Music Trees. London, Little, Brown & Co., 1992.
  3 The Hoopicopter. London, Little, Brown & Co., 1992.
  4 The Sky-Moos. London, Little, Brown & Co., 1993.
  5 The Top Hat. London, Little, Brown & Co., 1993.
  6 The Tablecloth. London, Little, Brown & Co., 1993.

Bagpuss (all by Oliver Postgate):
  Bagpuss Beginners series:
    1 Mr. Rumbletum’s Gumboot. London, Pelham, 1975.
    2 The Song of the Pongo. London, Pelham, 1975.
    3 Silly old Uncle Feedle. London, Pelham, 1975.
  Bagpuss in the Sun. Glasgow, Collins, 1975.
  Bagpuss on a Rainy Day. London, Collins, 1975.
  The Bagpuss Annual. London, BBC, 1974.
  The Second Bagpuss Annual. London, BBC, 1975.
  The New Bagpuss Annual 2001. London, Egmont World, 2000.
  The Little Book of Bagpuss. London, Walker, 2005.
  The Big Book of Bagpuss. London, HarperCollins Children’s, 2007.

Basil Brush:
  Basil Brush at the Seaside. London, Kaye & Ward, 1970.
  Basil Brush Annual. Manchester, World Distributors, ?11 vols., 1970-80.
  Basil Brush in the Jungle. London, Kaye & Ward, 1970.
  Basil Brush Finds Treasure. London, Kaye & Ward, 1971.
  Basil Brush and the Dragon. London, Kaye & Ward, 1971.
  Basil Brush Goes Flying. London, Kaye & Ward, 1972.
  Basil Brush Goes Boating. London, Kaye & Ward, 1972.
  Basil Brush Gets a Medal. London, Kaye & Ward, 1973.
  Basil Brush Builds a House. London, Kaye & Ward, 1973.
  Basil Brush on the Trail. London, Kaye & Ward, 1979.
  Basil Brush and the Windmills. London, Kaye & Ward, 1979.
  Three Tales of Basil Brush [Book 1] (omnibus; contains Basil Brush Goes Boating, Basil Brush Goes Flying, Basil Brush in the Jungle). London, Kaye & Ward, 1979.
  Three Tales of Basil Brush [Book 2] (omnibus; contains Basil Brush and the Dragon, Basil Brush Builds a House, Basil Brush Gets a Medal). London, Kaye & Ward, 1979.
  Two Tales of Basil Brush (omnibus; contains Basil Brush Goes Flying, Basil Brush Goes Boating). London, Fontana, 1982.
  Basil Brush Takes Off (omnibus; contains Basil Brush in the Jungle, Basil Brush at the Seaside). London, Fontana, 1983.

Other Illustrated Books by Peter Firmin
The Winter Diary of a Country Rat. Tadworth, Kaye & Ward, 1981.
Chicken Stew. London, Pelham Books, 1982.
Tricks & Tales. Tadworth, Kaye & Ward, 1982.
The Midsummer Notebook of a Country Rat. Tadworth, Kaye & Ward, 1983.
Pinny in the Snow. London, A. Deutsch, 1985.
Pinny Finds a House. London, A. Deutsch, 1985.
Pinny and the Bird. London, A. Deutsch, 1985.
Pinny and the Floppy Frog. London, A. Deutsch, 1987.
Pinny’s Party. London, A. Deutsch, 1987.
Nina’s Machines. London, A & C. Black, 1988.
My Dog Sandy. London, A. Deutsch, 1988.
Making Faces. London, Picture Lions, 1988.
Hungry Mr Fox. London, Belitha, 1989.
Boastful Mr Bear. London, Belitha, 1989.
Foolish Miss Crow. London, Belitha, 1989.
Happy Miss Rat. London, Belitha, 1989.
Magic Mash. London, A. & C. Black, 1989.
Press-and-Build Theatre of Varieties, with stories by Charlotte Firmin. London, Walker, 1991.
Paper Tricks and Moving Pictures. London, Picture Lions, 1991.
Story Castle, with stories by Charlotte Firmin. London, Walker, 1991.
Ships and Cranes. London, A. & C. Black, 1994.
Mills and Big Wheels. London, A. & C. Black, 1994.
Racing Cars and Cycles. London, A. & C. Black, 1994.
Flying Machines. London, A. & C. Black, 1994.

Books by others illustrated by Firmin
Town Life Through the Ages by R. W. Morris. London, George Allen & Unwin, 1952.
The ‘Blue Peter’ Book of Limericks, ed. by Biddy Baxter & Rosemary Gill, illus. with Edward Lear. London, Pan Books, 1972.
The ‘Blue Peter’ Book of Odd Odes, ed. by Biddy Baxter &  Rosemary Gill. London, BBC, 1975.
Stanley: The Tale of the Lizard by Peter Meteyard. London, Deutsch, 1979.
The Last of the Dragons by E. Nesbit. London, Macdonald and Jane’s, 1980.
Melisande by E. Nesbit. London, Macdonald & Co., 1982.
What’s the Difference? by Heather Amery. London, Usborne, 1985.
Then and Now by Heather Amery. London, Usborne, 1985.
Summer and Winter, Spring and Autumn by Heather Amery. London, Usborne, 1985.
The Jenius by Dick King-Smith. London, Gollancz, 1988.
Ziggy and the Ice Ogre by Chris Powling. London, Heinemann, 1988.
The Land and The Garden by V. Sackville-West. Exeter, Webb & Bower, 1989.
The Monster from Underground by Gillian Cross. London, Heinemann, 1990.
Swanbrooke Down: A Century of Change in an English Village by Rosamond Richardson. London, Scribners, 1990.
Best Pest by Pat Thomson. London, Gollancz Children’s Paperbacks, 1991.
Messages Through the Letterbox by John Simmons. [N.p.], Royal Mail, 1994.
Billy the Squid by Colin Dowland. Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 1998.
Seeing Things by Oliver Postgate. London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 2000; with a foreword by Stephen Fry and an afterword by Daniel Postgate, Edinburgh, Canongate, 2009.
Weevil K. Neevil: Stuntbug by Colin Dowland. Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 2001.
Billy the Squid Rides Again by Colin Dowland. Edinburgh, Barrington Stoke, 2003.
Folk Tales of Britain: Legends Volume 3, collected & edited by Katherine M. Briggs. London, Folio Society, 2011.
Clangers: Make the Clangers and their planet with 15 easy step-by-step projects. London, Collins & Brown, 2012.

The Art of Smallfilms: The Work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, ed. Jonny Trunk & Richard Embray. London, Four Corners Books, 2014.

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