Animated Spotlight: Smallfilms

A small introduction:
Hello my name is Bresson but some of you might know me as a windmill (owner) or Todd. I did some writing on the old avocado but disqus really drowned out allot of the stuff which didn’t really motivated me to post allot. But now we are here, with a real website, so here we go

Animated Spotlight will be a very inconsistent list of longer and smaller pieces with one overreaching theme: animation. Stop motion, shadow puppets, hand drawn, computer animated, comics everything goes. I’ve always found animation to be a bit of a forgotten child on allot of sites that write about media and it’s easy to understand why.

It’s a art form mostly known for being children’s entertainment even through it being one of cinemas longest running genres and one of the hardest to classify. Classify we won’t in this series but we will take a closer look at animated films from tv, movie and even dvd/video only releases and their creators.

Like the two man unit that was Smallfilms today. It might not be my finest work and there will be better-paced stuff coming up but there was so much to talk about here.

Two guys and a shed

If your British and were a child between the 50’s and 80’s Smallfilms might ring a bell. The two-man unit working from a old sheep shed consisting of animator-writer Oliver Postgate and model maker-illustrator Peter Firmin produced children tv from 1959 to the end of the 80’s. While working for various television stations they are most known for creating BBC’s kids shows.

Smallfilms’s output while stop-motion animated or hand-drawn was easy to recognize through it blend of unique camera and sound effects, overall British feel of it all and imperfect handmade puppets which gave the shows it’s handmade warm feel. A bit dusty even like a toy shop coming alive and telling your life lessons and mostly folk stories & tunes. It’s a perfect showcase of the two man that created and even voiced most of these shows.

Oliver Postgate

Oliver Postgate came from the famous Postgate family who included food scientists, latin translators, microbiologists and a Labour Party leader. His father was Raymond Postgate, a founder member of the British Communist Party and the inventor of The Good Food Guide, and an outspoken political figure in the time. This lead to Postgate being brought up with communist ideas and a do it yourself attitude which all played a huge part in his work. He was a conscientious objector to the draft in the second world war II but after it ended went to work with the red cross in Germany.

Educated at drama school he never found his real passion or motivation in that field of work there till he became the stage manager for ITV in 1957 where he got motivated to improve the children programming on a very cheap budget. He also met Peter Firmin here.

Peter Firmin

Peter Firmin was born in 1928 and after a stint in the navy during WO II became a student of Central School of Art and Design and later became a teacher and illustrator. He was always the less vocal part of small films doing the production side of things while Postgage did most effect, voice-acting and writing. His wife Joan Firmin worked also on the clangers, knitting the little puppets.

The most famous thing he produced beside Smallfilms’s series is another British childhood favorite Basil Brush. The loud fox who has has been on tv in the 60s and is still an ongoing puppet on various kids shows.

The start of it all:
Smallfilms came to be around  1957 when Postgage wrote Alexander The Mouse, a story about a king mouse and asked Central school of art teacher Peter Firmin to do backgrounds for it. The series was made with a magnet system which moved the characters; when the animator moved the magnets on the back of the background the puppets would move. They made around 26 of these programs in 1957. The amazing thing about these long lost programs was that they were done live-to-air with finicky magnets which sounds like a amazing ton of hard work.

They followed it up with his first stop-motion series; The Journey of Master Ho: a Chinese epic, about a small boy and a water-buffalo. Also long lost like most tv from that time it was produced on a budget of  £175 per program(£3975 adjusted to inflation or around $5198) which was a very low-budget even for that time. It was very positively received and led to enough money to kick start Smallfilms as a loose production house.

Through the sheer number of output by Smallfilms I preferred to write short small pieces about the most important ones and interesting ones. Excluded in these are The Seal of Neptune, the mermaids pearls and What-a-Mess which are lesser known short series by Smallfilms.

1959’s Ivor the Engine

Ivor the Engine was the first production by smallfilms for then just 2 years old ITV. While crude in animation and clearly produced on a very low budget it showcases Smallfilms charm in full effect. A mix of English(in this case a fictitious take on Welsh) history, social themes, fantastical things in a very real setting and folk tales it was a smash hit for the then just really exploding tv market. Based for a huge part of the poetry and tales of one Welsh most famous citizens Dylan Thomas it was a story of a train engine that just wanted to be accepted by the people of his town. Does that sound familiar?

In a time where there wasn’t a lot of Welsh influences on tv Ivor the Engine stood out quite a bit. Even it was mostly English actors(mostly Postgage) speaking with a thick but still understandable Welsh accent it’s like a grandfather reading a book to his grand-kids. Postgage said allot that he based it on a semi-fictional side of Wales like he read about in Dylan’s books but Wales accepted Ivor a bit a mascot. He was computer animated later to be BBC Wales’s mascot.

In a time where most children’s tv animation was clunky hand puppets shows or near classroom looking affairs Ivor the engine was unique in its animation and message of just be yourself/be nice to people and you will get accepted by who you want. Ivan’s goal was to sing in the town’s choir and in the end he did. It’s by far the most dated smallfilms effort but not without it charm mostly through the amazing cut-out animation on it that still holds up.

Maybe the most important part of the series and smallfilms in general over the years is it’s sound design and music. Ivor The Engine had a score made by bassoonist Vernon Elliott which was full of deep tones that are playful and remind of the loud sounds of a train engine. A thing not to be overseen is Postgage doing the chugging engine start sounds which plays every time Ivor starts riding with his mouth. It’s extremely minimal but efficient and will not leave your head for weeks.

Later remade in color by smallfilms for the bbc in the mid 70’s

1959’s Noggin the Nog

Noggin the Nog went forward with what Ivor started: charming low-fantasy tales made through marvelous drawing and cut out animation.  Noggin the Nog was more static in animation then Ivor, it was most drawings with at time movement through cut-out animation like people building a ship or the king dying in the first episode. It’s more timid and at times darker then Ivon tackling subjects like death and meeting new people and overlaid with monotone narration by Postgage. It lacked the score most of Ivon had always, trading it in for loads of silence beside Postgage’s voice which makes it kind hard to watch these day.

Noggin the Nog also spinned off in a couple childeren books also made by Smallfilms which beautifully showcase Peter Firmin illustrations and Postgage’s skill for good story writing. If to experience Noggin this is the best way through it being in a color and less stilted then the cartoon.

Later remade in colour  by small films for the bbc in the 70’s and 80’s

1961’s Pingwings

Pingwings might be the most important production Smallfilms ever made for itself. Stepping away from cut-out animation and painted backgrounds and going full in on stop monition puppets they mostly came to know for. Hand knitted by Joan Firmin there is a very charming do-it-yourself charm to it with the little penguin alike puppets looking more like a children’s doll come alive with their jerky movements. Being shot outside doesn’t help Pingwings in the modern day either because you can clearly see the grass jumping around between the various shot that was needed for the little Pingwings to move.

Pingwings is as British as it comes. A charming outdated kids show about a family of penguin-like birds puppets living in a garden and going on adventures. Adventures like getting ice-cream, discussing things with the goat that lives on the farm and shadowing the real-life actors mr and mrs farmer. It’s all a bit bland but also showcases allot of things to come with it’s clever use of animation and story telling. Why not all episodes stand up there are some really well-done ones with the ones with the family needs to find a new house because the box they live in the yard is getting thrown away being my favorite.

1965’s Pogles & Pogles’ Wood

I’ve heard people on the internet refer quite often to Bagpuss as nightmare fuel but if a Smallfilms production was really that it’s Pogles wood.

Part of the pre-school Watch with Mother block Pogles and it’s follow up Pogles’s woods are hard to be seen as children programming these days with it’s potato-like lead characters who live in a tree and the witch that tries to scare them for ages.

The original Pogles series is wonderful. It showcases perfectly what the studio learned after the Pigwigs and has some impressive animation/set designs in it which Postgage combined with a bunch of original stories that could’ve been straight out of German fairytale books. The pogles get kidnapped, haunted by the witch and save a king from being a wooden bird. Postgage himself said that he tried with the original Pogles wood series to make a more darker take on children television and it works. The haunting witch is a owl-like creature that becomes more haunting through it’s jerky(on purpose) animation and combined with some smart camera tricks it makes for something that treads deeply in a bit uncomfortable for children tv. This being made for pre-schoolers BBC wasn’t a fan of it and said to Postgage that he should make the follow up series allot more child friendly.

Pogles’ Wood was a return to a more Pingwings alike setting. Simple stories about the Pogle family finding stuff in the woods and learning something about the woods or the modern world.  It also had the proper introduction of the Pogles child(the first one was introduction in the last regular Pogles episode) and their house rabbit. While it was a return to the mundane nature of Pigwings Pogles’s woods started to do what Smallfilms would get known for. Interludes of different sorts of animations to tell the stories that were told by the characters in the show. Shorts like a charming tale about a family of cards raising a tree made with cut-out card figurines. Pogles’s wood was a bigger success and had reruns till the early 70’s. It was also the last show by small films to be shot in black and white.

1969’s Clangers

Color television became a more common thing in the end 60’s so the BBC ordered the studio to produce a color series. Introduced in a earlier form in a Noggin storybook the Clangers might be Smallfilms’s most successful series.

Clangers is quite a leave from the earlier earth based low-fantasy adventures with it’s main setting being a planet far away from earth which a bunch of mouse like creatures live. The Clangers are simple in their designs(purple mouse without a tail and a Roman armor like outfit) but their series is the best that Smallfilms ever produced. An absolutely brilliantly animated series of shorts(like most smallfilms show’s episode were around 10 minutes) which are full of an amazing playful score, the endless soothing whistling of the clangers and the always a bit clumsy soup dragon family getting the family into various problems. Problems like teaching kids how to share, how music notes work but most importantly that together you can achieve allot which showcases quite a bit of Postgage’s communist upbringing.

The Clangers is were Smallfilms hit their finest moment with a mix of a near avant garde sound mix and some of the most charming puppets it ever created. With a very music based feel to it, clearly handmade feel to it and none talking puppets it makes for a bit at times surreal wonderful program that still holds up. Even more so a rebooted Clangers is now one of BBC’s most watched kids shows.

1974’s Bagpuss

Were Clangers are pretty timeless Bagpuss looks older then it’s production year would say. Made up by puppets coming alive in the evening to sings songs, talk about British myths and learn a bit about things like friendship it’s the perfect showcase of what everything Smallfilms stood for.

Stop motion animation for most of the show but also the return of cut-out animation with wonderful drawn backgrounds by Firmin to tell the stories about various myths from around the world. It also had the return of Pogles woods’s tell a story about a new object set-up for the episodes. Which would be then fixed and be placed in the shop window were all the puppets lived but not before the Mice would sing the extremely catchy ‘we will find, we will bind it’ The Mending Song to the tune of Medieval English folk song Sumer Is Icumen In.

There’s something strangely compelling and unnerving about Bagpuss old-timey look. The show is said to be set in the early 20th century which explains the old-timey toys and their love for British folk music. Yes British folk music, Bagpuss had songs made by Jason Faulkner and Sandra Kerr. Some were written for the show but some were classic folk songs and seas chanties like Saw A Ship A Sailing. It’s all realistic looking old-timey toys who spoke with thick stiff upper lip English accents and would go into song mostly led by a banjo or a mini organ. Everything looking dusty and a bit grimy which seems to be a staple for British children’s tv till the early 80’s. If your not bothered by this Bagpuss is the most British show out there which doesn’t really even covers that much British folk tales. It’s just the breakfast tea and biscuits of kids tv.

1984’s Tottie: The Story of a Doll’s House

Tottie is a oddity. Based on Black Narcissus writer Rumer Godden children’s book it’s a dark macabre story which is about a doll family living in a exhibition house and then getting joined by a other doll(Marchpane) who later burns the mother of the house alive because she is easily flamable. Also she does this through placing her son in the fire so she needs to save him but willingly kill herself doing so. But before this she turns everyone in her servants.

I wish I was making this up but it’s the setting of this distributing weird piece of British children novels which even becomes more uncanny in animated form. The jerky stop-montion style of small films works fine with animating the creepy ceramic dolls and their discussions about their look and who is more important. It’s clear to see also that Postgage knew about how twisted the book is and sticks close to it. The doll burning scene is amazing in it’s creepiness.

It’s one of the most unique and bizarre pieces of BBC produced or even stop animation content i’ve ever seen and is well worth seeking out if you can stand a bit of creepy dolls.

After SmallFilms

While Smallfilms never officially stopped through the changing of times and tastes in kids tv in the end 80’s their work wasn’t much of it’s time anymore. With the influx of Japanese (inspired) animation and cheap cartoon shows SmallFilms felt a bit stilted and old. Beside doing some later animation for some bbc things the team stopped working. The shows remained beloved bur they were hard to get a hold on for much of the 80’s and 90’s.

Postgage set up Dragons Friendly Society in 2000. A site were he gave some small background on his shows and would sell the shows with permission out of the BBC. While allot of 50’s/60’s tv is lost most of Smallfilms works beside the early shorts are still in print. Some are from VHS home recordings some are straight from the BBC archives.

Since Postgage passing in 2008 distribution rights have been with universal who keep most of the stuff in wide circulation besides the private Dragon issues. It even led to a rebooted Clangers in 2014 led by Firmin and Postgage’s son Daniel for the CBBC. It’s true to the original show based on stop monition animation with some spare computer effects.


What really was Smallfilms?

Charlie Brooker did a tremendous video primer on it if you want a small showcase of Smallfilms work

Personally it’s hard to explain what the appeal of Smallfilms was and why it’s still embedded in British culture. My fondness for it has to do with the delightful homemade feel of it all and the warmth Postgage writing about pretty complicated themes like adopted family and working together showcases. Mostly it’s the simple nature of it all, just two guys working in a cow shed making worlds and making a weird hybrid of various styles of British tales. Or like how Bagpuss was explained in the series ‘just a saggy cloth cat, baggy, a bit loose at the seams, but Emily loved him’.

But mostly it’s like tea on a rainy day were you don’t have any plans.


‘Bresson gave a big yawn, and settled down to sleep’

Sources used/further reading:

Smallfilms’s wiki []

Oliver Postgate – A Life In Small Films [tv docu, BBC, 2009]

Ivor the Engine and the story of Smallfilms [tv docu, BBC, 2005]

Something For the Children[TV docu, BBC, ?]

Offical small films site []

Bfi’s screenonline portal about smallfilms []

The dragons’ friendly society []

Various episodes of smallfilm shows on youtube

Screenwipe’s Tribute to Oliver Postgate[BBC tv, 2008]

Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin dope street[Channel 4 tv, 1997]

An Interview with Oliver Postgate[Clive Banks, ???,]

The Art of Smallfilms: The Work of Oliver Postgate & Peter Firmin [book, 2005]