The Art of Smallfilms – the work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin

A pink knitted mouse-like creature looks upwards, in quiet awe. He is a Clanger, as almost anyone who was alive in Britain in the 1970s could tell you.

His bronze breastplate suggests a primitive and dangerous world; the Clangers planet is a barren distant rock menaced by Froglets, the Iron Chicken and Skymoos.

 

 

The Clanger might be staring at the heavens or the stars, but in fact he is looking up at the words ‘Smallfilms’ hovering over his nose, the name of the stop-frame animation company that made half-a-dozen television series for children between the early Sixties and the late Eighties.

The Art of Smallfilms is celebrated in an astonishingly beautiful book from Johnny Trunk, a man who has carved a wayward career as a freelance archivist of the most eccentric corners of the British Isles. There is nothing more eccentric or British than Smallfilms, responsible for masterpieces like Ivor the Engine, which owes much to Dylan Thomas; Noggin the Nog which draws upon the Hebridean Viking past embodied by the Lewis chessmen; Pogles’ Wood, which imagines a bucolic English woodland life that resurfaces with added sex and swearwords in Jez Butterworth’s stage play Jerusalem; and perhaps most loved of all, Bagpuss, a heady brew of Victoriana that now looks like an earlier, gentle version of steampunk.

Smallfilms are an English folk collective. Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin began work in London but soon moved to Kent, working in a converted barn and pig-sty and bringing their families into the business as actors, costume designers and technicians. Like all English folk artists, the whole edifice is built upon a kind of forward-looking nostalgia. Musicians of the time cheerfully used Indian sitars, electric guitars and borrowed liberally from jazz and the blues, which became ‘folk’ only thanks to a kind of off-kilter amateurishness. In the same way, Postgate and Firmin made a feature of the handmade-ness of their creations, making sure the Meccano, the clothes pegs and cocktail sticks were always on display.

In a warm and fond introduction, comedian Stewart Lee buys a little too deeply into the Smallfilms folk mythology. He celebrates the company as a forgotten cottage industry which could have no place in corporate neo-liberal Britain. This ignores how self-consciously crafted and, in a sense, inauthentic the Smallfilms world actually was. Lee also forgets that, even today, successful animation often begins in small eccentric corners, no matter how big it might later grow, just think of Aardman or South Park or Peppa Pig. Yet Lee is right to see how deeply Postgate and Firmin draw upon British folk art, which is why their films continue to mean so much. Leafing through Johnny Trunk’s book is a deeply emotional experience.

The Clangers first appeared in 1969, the year of the Apollo moon landings. The great film masterpieces of the space race are held to be Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972): an American film and a Soviet film, facing off against each other like two bleak opposing visions of the universe and man’s place within it. Perhaps we should put The Clangers (1969-1974) between the pair. This is space seen from a sidelong, British viewpoint. Loving yet off-balance, the Clangers somehow puts life on earth into perspective.

The Art of Smallfilms, the work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin by Jonny Trunk is published by Four Corner Books

words Nicholas Blincoe

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