BBC4 has been running an animation season recently, showing old and new animations and running documentaries about them. I caught one about Smallfilms — a tiny animation studio run by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin which produced classic animations like The Clangers, Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine. For any Brit of my generation, these programmes were an integral part of our childhood. They were simple, beautifully drawn and with whimsical, delightful stories. Even as a child I thought that they also had a deliciously melancholy air as well — particularly Noggin the Nog.
Smallfilms was literally a cottage industry. In fact, it was a stable industry, as all the films were made in an empty stable attached to Peter Firmin's cottage. Peter did all the drawing and backgrounds and made the models, while Oliver did the narration, wrote the stories, did the stop-motion animation and the editing. Their budget was minuscule, so everything was handmade, picked up in junk shops or lashed together with sellotape. In the film, Oliver proudly showed off a piece of apparatus he made to dim the lights, which was made of junk and rotated one click at a time. When you wanted to raise the lights, you just had to move the elastic band — ingenious! I also love the fact that the Clangers had Meccano skeletons.
The Clangers — for the uninitiated — were small, knitted pink creatures who looked like a cross between a mouse and an anteater. They lived inside a moon which had a core of soup, tended by the Soup Dragon, and populated by orange blobs called Froglets and an Iron Chicken. The Clangers' dialogue was provided by swanee whistles. Amazingly, they actually wrote full scripts and then 'spoke' them with the whistles. Apparently, they got told off for one 'line' which went, "Sod it, the bloody thing's stuck again". I still love the Clangers, particularly Tiny Clanger.