Obituary: Peter Firmin, artist who co-created Bagpuss and the Clangers

Peter Firmin in 1999 (Picture: Toby Melville/PA Wire)
Peter Firmin in 1999 (Picture: Toby Melville/PA Wire)
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Peter Arthur Firmin, television producer, writer, director, puppet-maker and illustrator. Born 11 December 1928 in Harwich, Essex. Died 1 July, 2018 in Kent, aged 89.

Unlike most film and television producers, Peter Firmin shot most of his productions at home, more specifically in a barn beside the farmhouse where he lived. And, even more unusually, he got his wife to knit some of his most famous characters.

Firmin was co-creator of many of the best-loved characters on children’s television in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, including Basil Brush, Noggin the Nog – honoured with a postage stamp in 1994, drawn by Firmin – and Bagpuss, “the most beautiful, the most magical, saggy, old cloth cat in the whole wide world”. Bagpuss was voted the most popular children’s programme of all time in a BBC poll in 1999.

And then there were the Clangers, the cute, little, pink extra-terrestrials, who looked like mice, lived on a small planet made of cheese, spoke only in whistles and were supplied with sustenance by the Soup Dragon.

In reality they had skeletons made out of Meccano and other bits of metal by Firmin and were fleshed out with pink wool and knitting needles by his wife Joan, whom he met in art school and to whom he was married for 66 years, until his death.

Firmin’s other significant long-term partnership was with Oliver Postgate, with whom Firmin created Smallfilms in the 1950s. They worked together on most series, with the notable exception of the rascally fox Basil Brush. A glove puppet created by Firmin, Basil Brush became the star of his own show, appearing with various human stooges over many years.

The son of a railwayman, Peter Firmin was born in Harwick, Essex, in 1928. He drew from an early age, created his own comics and even made his own little films. After National Service in the Royal Navy, he attended the Central School of Art and Design in London and then found work painting stained-glass windows for churches that had been damaged during the Second World War.

He linked up with Postgate in 1957 when Postgate was looking for an illustrator for an ITV animation series he had written called Alexander the Mouse. Someone at the art school suggested Firmin, who agreed to do it despite reservations about the budget – £30 per episode. Firmin would get the princely sum of one whole pound per episode (about £23 in today’s money.)

He drew the characters, which were cut-outs. There was a magnet on the back of each character so they could be pulled across the painted scenery by another magnet behind the scenes.

At least that was the theory. These were early days, it was live television and things did not always work as planned, with characters sometimes falling off.

But Postgate and Firmin hit it off and a lasting partnership was born. “We thought along the same lines,” said Firmin.

“He was a frustrated artist. I could do the drawings he would have liked to have done and he wrote the sort of stories I would have loved to have written,” Firmin added, though the delineation was not always quite so clear-cut.

Ivor the Engine, the light-hearted adventures of a Welsh railway engine, also used cardboard cut-outs, but this time it was recorded in advance using stop-motion techniques. It was followed by The Saga of Noggin the Nog, their first production for the BBC.

Firmin was inspired to create the Norse characters after seeing the famous Lewis chessmen in the British Museum. Success enabled the purchase of an 18th-century farmhouse in Kent, which became his family home and workbase. Postgate subsequently bought a property nearby.

Basil Brush debuted in 1962 and was one of the few Firman projects not done in partnership with Postgate. The voice was that of puppeteer Ivan Owen and was inspired by actor Terry-Thomas, who specialised in caddish roles, and Basil’s brush was apparently real, retrieved by Firmin from a dead fox he found on the M2.

The Clangers began its run in 1969, to tie in with the Moon landing. The original programmes went out between 1969 and 1974, though the show has been revived in recent years, with Michael Palin taking over from Postgate as narrator.

Bagpuss was broadcast in 1974. It was seemingly set in a Victorian shop and each episode opened in sepia. A girl called Emily (played by Firmin’s own daughter, Emily) brought lost and broken items back to her shop. The images changed to colour when she woke Bagpuss from his slumbers with a magical poem, and various other toys came to life – Madeleine the rag doll, Gabriel the toad, a whole mischief of mice and the woodpecker bookend Professor Yaffle (based on the philosopher Bertrand Russell), with the catchphrase “Those mice are never serious”. They would repair the lost item and it would be placed in the window for its owner to reclaim.

Despite earlier successes, Bagpuss was made on a shoestring budget. Many of Firman’s creations were made from household items and that was part of their appeal.

There were only ever 13 episodes of Bagpuss, each 15 minutes long, but they have been regularly repeated over the years. In later years Firmin spent much of his time engraving and print-making. Postgate died in 2008.

Firmin is survived by his wife and six daughters, five of whom are artists.

BRIAN PENDREIGH