Innovative designer who co-created the children’s TV shows Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and The Clangers
Mon 2 Jul 2018
The artist Peter Firmin, who has died aged 89, was a pioneer of children’s TV. The classic programmes he made with Oliver Postgate, including Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and The Clangers, were loved by generations of British viewers.
The world they created during their 30-year partnership involved a crude but innovative animation system. Characters were moved by magnets positioned under a table that acted as the set – in a studio established insidea disused cowshed at Firmin’s farmhouse in Blean, near Canterbury, Kent. Postgate came up with programme ideas, wrote the scripts, directed and produced them, and provided the narration, while Firmin designed the characters – whether drawings, models or puppets – and sets.
Their first major success, Ivor the Engine (1959-64), the story of a Welsh steam engine that wanted to sing in a male-voice choir, was Firmin and Postgate’s first series made by their own production company, Smallfilms. The 32 black-and-white episodes commissioned by ITV were so popular that, a decade later, Ivor the Engine was revived by the BBC for 40 colour films (1976-77).
An even bigger hit was Bagpuss (1974), voted No 1 in a 1999 BBC poll of children’s programmes. It featured a pink-and-white-striped “saggy, old, cloth cat, baggy and a bit loose at the seams” in just 13 episodes that were repeated regularly for 13 years – but one of the secrets of its success was the result of an error. “I drew a picture of a marmalade cat,” Firmin told the journalist Richard Webber. “I then asked a company in Kent to produce some marmalade-striped material, but a mistake with the chemicals left it pink!”
The cat’s owner, Emily (based on one of Firmin’s daughters), collects objects for her “shop”, Bagpuss & Co, but nothing is for sale. She puts them in the old-fashioned window alongside Bagpuss, who sleeps there on a cushion until woken from his slumber by Emily’s magic words, spoken entrancingly by Postgate at the start of every episode: Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss / Old, fat, furry cat-puss / Wake up and look at this thing that I bring / Wake up, be bright / Be golden and light /Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing.
One of Firmin’s own favourites among the programmes he made with Postgate was The Clangers (1969-74), featuring small, pink, knitted, mouse-like creatures living on a blue moon, with neighbours including the Soup Dragon and the Froglets – and the first of their productions to be made in colour. Firmin designed the characters and his wife, Joan (nee Clapham, whom he married in 1952), knitted them.
The series was revived three years ago, with Michael Palin narrating it in the UK and William Shatner in the US, and Firmin as executive producer and design consultant. Made in stop-motion, rather than the modern CGI, the new Clangers won a Bafta award as the best pre-school animation. “I hate CGI faces on humans because you look in the eyes and there’s nothing there,” said Firmin. “There’s no soul.”
Without Postgate, Firmin created the 1960s TV puppets Fred Barker and Ollie Beak, as well as the mischievous fox Basil Brush for Ivan Owen to operate and voice in the manner of the British cad actor Terry-Thomas in an ITV series, The Three Scampis (1962-65). Basil, with his “Boom! Boom!” catchphrase, returned in the magician David Nixon’s series Now for Nixon (1967) and The Nixon Line (1967-68) before beginning his own long-running show in 1968.
Firmin was born in Harwich, Essex, the son of Lewis, a railway telegrapher, and Lila (nee Burnett). On leaving Harwich county high school, he gained diplomas from Colchester School of Art (1947) and the Central School of Art and Design (1952) in London, either side of national service in the Navy (1947-49). He then painted pictures of saints for the celebrated stained-glass artist Francis Spear. “I’ve always had the fault of drawing people with heads that are too big for their bodies, looking slightly humorous,” said Firmin. “Some of the saints in my stained-glass windows had rather large noses and funny faces.” After work designing posters in a London publicity studio, he went freelance as an illustrator for New Scientist and other magazines.
In 1958, while teaching at Central, he met Postgate, who was working as a stage manager on children’s programmes at the ITV London company Associated-Rediffusion and looking for someone to draw the characters and backgrounds for his own creation, Alexander the Mouse (1958), about a mouse born to be king. This was followed by The Journey of Master Ho (1958), the story of a Chinese boy and his buffalo – aimed at deaf children – for which Firmin created a willow-pattern background.
The pair’s first BBC series, The Saga of Noggin the Nog (1959-65), Firmin’s idea based on Norse legends after he had seen the Lewis Chessmen at the British Museum, was revived in colour in 1982. The duo’s other early programmes included The Seal of Neptune (1960), about sea horses in an undersea kingdom, and Pingwings (1961-65), featuring penguin characters in Firmin and Postgate’s first series with stop-frame animated puppets rather than painted card.
The Pogles, made for the BBC’s Watch with Mother slot in 1965, was deemed too frightening for pre-school children with its story of two countryfolk threatened by a witch, so only the first of its six episodes was screened. However, the programme returned as Pogles’ Wood (1966-68), with a family living in the root of a tree, minus the witch.
Postgate and Firmin’s final series were Tottie: The Story of a Dolls’ House (1984), based on Rumer Godden’s children’s novel, with a sequel, Tottie – A Doll’s Wish (1986), and Pinny’s House (1986), about a race of tiny people.
They were jointly presented with the 2007 Action for Children’s Arts JM Barrie Award “for a lifetime’s achievement in delighting children”. Postgate died the following year, and Firmin received a special award at the 2014 Bafta children’s awards. In retirement, Firmin enjoyed engraving and print-making, skills he had learned at art school.
He is survived by Joan and their six daughters, Charlotte, Hannah, Josephine, Katharine, Lucy and Emily.
• Peter Arthur Firmin, artist, illustrator and animator, born 11 December 1928; died 1 July 2018