Small wonders... SmallFilms
credits... Oliver on
'Bagpuss', 'The Clangers', 'Noggin The Nog', 'Ivor The
Engine' - just four of
the fabulous childrens series conceived and animated
by Oliver Postgate
and his SmallFilms partner, the camera-shy Peter Firmin.
Working from their
converted cow shed in Canterbury, Oliver and
Peter imbued their 'small' films
with much melancholy and musing. The budgets were minimal,
minimalist (cutouts for 'Ivor' and 'Noggin', simple stop-frame
for 'The Clangers',
and 'Bagpuss' ) but the stories were timeless and each
little world uniquely
realized. These films still hold their heads up high
above the technical,
overblown kids shows of today.
Oliver was the writer and director for most of
the films, sharing animation duties
with Peter, and narrating them too. Then there were the
tie-in books, the TV-Land
comic strips and annuals. In all SmallFilms were in
production for twenty five years,
spanning generations, filling the BBC's 5.30pm slot just
before the news, or the
lunch time slot just after it, or repeated during those
long Summer Holiday mornings
until the mid-80s, when 'The Powers That Be' deemed them
too old-fashioned and
out of touch with their modern audience.
SmallFilms was put to bed in 1985, but the enduring
popularity of their series filtered
through the populance, like some steady drip, drip,
dripping of nostalgia until at last,
in 1999 the floodgates opened. That was the year 'Bagpuss'
was voted the most
popular children's program of all time. A swathe of tie-in
licensed products were
launched and our 'Bagpuss' - old fat furry sagpuss
- became a High Street star.
Nostalgia was 'in', and incredibly, the SmallFilms'
oeuvre was at the head of the
Oliver Postgate himself is a fascinating character.
His autobiography 'Seeing
Things' makes for most affecting reading. Here is
a truly old-fashioned, gentleman
and artist and actor who seems to have stumbled into
animation wholly by accident.
He's your favourite madcap Uncle, almost Heath Robinson
like in his passion for
invention and design and creation. He despairs of those
who analyse and study his
films in academia, as if it is some exacting science. Indeed,
during a mis-guided
stint as a Film School Lecturer in Western Australia
he was moved to say:
'I know how I choose the shots I
take. I know how all of
the directors I work with chose their
shots. They chose them
because they looked right....'
And that's the crux of his and Peter's success as
film makers. There was no
Great Plan, no Grand Concept spanning the media. The
stories simply evolved
in to the right format. Everything 'felt right' then,
and still feels just-so today.
In those intervening years between SmallFilms of the
past and SmallFilms now
Mr Postgate has occupied his mind with such weighty
affairs as theology and
nuclear disarmament. He has produced at least three
provocative pamphlets for the
Quakers and a short film, 'Life On Earth Perhaps'
which included a direct message
to the UNA. You can see the thought processes behind
his stance developing even
as far back as1969, in 'The Clangers'. Each of
those films deals with a deeper issue
about our own world. We are asked to look closely
at the Clangers' tiny moon and
see just how they behave when influenced by the affairs
And Oliver has since looked even deeper into the celestial
firmament. In 1988 he
and his partner Naomi were invited to create a fifty-four-foot
long illumination of the
life and death of Thomas Beckett for Kingfisher Books.
This was followed by a
second vast illumination, The Discovery Of America by Christopher
Kent Universty asked Oliver to produce a extensive mural depicting
Canterbury Chronicle. Nowadays he contemplates the world
from his Broadstairs
home and seems genuinely touched by the enduring appeal of
How ironic that these simple little stop-frame worlds and
stories have now spawned
best-selling DVDs and CD-ROMs!
You know, Oliver and Peter bottled lightning in that
shed of theirs. Their films
feel so warm, so comfortable, like a favourite pair
of slippers or a fireside chair.
And many, many folks around the world continue to love