Peter Firmin R.I.P.

Farewell a true genius

I wish I didn’t have to write so many of these.

Peter Firmin, one half of Smallfilms with Oliver Postgate, has died in his sleep at the age of 80, after a short illness. I really shouldn’t need to tell you this, but Firmin was the co-creator of Bagpuss and The Clangers, along with his late partner, Oliver Postgate. It would be crude to call Postgate the conceptual genius and Firmin the practical genius, for both men were part of  a greater whole, but Firmin it was who mostly constructed genius out of materials no-one else would even consider trying to use for animation.

Yet the very simplicity, the compression of both men’s artistic genius into such tiny and worn and obviously hand-made things, was an essential element of what made Smallfilms magic. Only a frame was needed to demonstrate clearly that this was the work of complete individuals, whose work came from inspiration without commercial consideration of any kind.

But children never thought that way. Children just watched and loved, like I did, almost sixty years ago, in black-and-white on a small set in the corner of our living room, enthralled by the adventures of Noggin the Nog, in the lands of the north, where the cold winds blow.

This is another day when a piece of what makes this world worth living in has been taken away. Bagpuss, dear Bagpuss, Old Fat Furry Catpuss, Wake up and look at this thing that I bring. Wake up, be bright, be golden and light, Bagpuss, oh hear what I sing. Can Professor Yaffle and the mice from the Mouse Organ please fix this into something new again, for us all?

Visiting That London: Third Time Around

And Emily, all grown up...
And Emily, all grown up…

For the third time this year, I’ve been off to That London on a Museum trip. After nearly a decade without visiting Our Nation’s Capital, I seem to be visiting with a frequency unmatched since the glory days of the Eighties when, at the height of my fame in British Comics fandom, I was a regular at UKCAC (United Kingdom Comics Art Convention) and at the bi-monthly Westminster Comics Marts.

This third outing is to the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green where their long-running Smallfilms exhibition is nearing its end. Smallfilms, and I am shocked if you don’t already know this, was a two man film production company, comprising the late Oliver Postgate (absolute genius) and the still-with-us Peter Firmin (a different genius). For almost fifty years, Postgate and Firmin made animated films for children. They made some of the best children’s animated films ever made, creating characters that will still be treasured a hundred years from now. This is going to be a good day.

I’m not going to bore you with my paranoia about missing the train: I think you’ve got the message by now and nothing exceptional happened en route to the Railway Station.

Indeed, I have actually been organised enough to buy the tickets for my November visit to the Lakes this morning, before catching the train, getting the usual two singles at a very economic price so far in advance. This will mean at least an extra pint in the Ambleside Tavern when the rain comes down in the afternoon.

It’s a lovely, sunny, clear morning in the North West, clear enough that, as we pull out of Stockport Station, that I can see across the plains of South Lancashire to the tower blocks (!) of Warrington and the coastal hills north of Liverpool. Unfortunately, we’re not even near Macclesfield and grey clouds have drabbed the sky over, making it look like October.

I’m on the ‘outside’ of the carriage, a window seat facing west and travelling backwards. Opposite me is an attractive young woman, in her early forties, wearing a wedding ring. She has soft brown hair, worn in a pageboy style extending below her shoulders, and I would enjoy the sight of her so much more if she didn’t remind me so much of my sister!

By London, it’s actually raining, not that I’m above ground for a while yet. This is not a walking day, not when I’m traveling further east that I’ve (consciously) been before. I’m through the ticket section rather more rapidly than when I was off to South Kensington, and it was cheaper too. My old luck was in today: at all the stops there was a train within a minute, and I kept finding the door in front of me.

I’ve got to go a somewhat roundabout way, south on the Northern Line to Tottenham Court Road, then east on the Central Line to Bethnal Green. The change of lines at Tottenham Court Road required the usual wandering up and down corridors, stairs and escalators until I feel like I could fill-in for the Ancient Mariner if we were not quite so inland.

One station out of Tottenham Court Road, another brunette young lady sits down opposite me. She has dark brown hair with a jagged parting, and is wearing a print dress over dark tights, but it’s the smile on her face that picks her out, so wide and bright and brilliant, and I don’t know what’s happened to make her so happy, but it lifts the spirit to see it, and to know that this world still contains things that can make people look that happy.

At Bethnal Green, I get temporarily disoriented and start off in the wrong direction, until a helpful guy in Sainsbury’s points me back in my tracks, and the walk could hardly be shorter.

The V&A Museum of Childhood is a wide, open-plan space with galleries along both walls, and lots of space for kids to run around in excitement. The Smallfilms Exhibition is by no means obvious and when the man on Information directs me, it’s disappointingly small for something I’ve traveled so far to see.

But that’s entirely appropriate for two geniuses who expressed themselves in tiny ways, by tiny means and tiny things. Postgate and Firmin were brilliant miniaturists who operated on a farm, with a studio that was a converted pigsty, and created miniature worlds that we all of us would have walked into had we given a moment’s chance.

I’m old enough to remember Noggin the Nog, to be unable to even type the words without hearing Postgate’s wonderfully authoritative, dry, measured tones, the perfect Uncle reading you stories. I watched it avidly, booing the villain, Nogbad the Bad, and supporting Noggin’s friends: the bluff and not particularly bright Thor Nogson, the bird Graculous and the Ice Dragon.

Curiously, my memories of Ivor the Engine are very cloudy, and whilst I remember more of the stop-go outdoor puppetry of Pogle’s Wood, and Pippin and the excitable Tog, but that was more my sister’s thing, her age, six and a half years younger than me.

But the classics, the ones that are and will still be legends, are the Seventies’ series: The Clangers and Bagpuss. These I have to confess I came to from the wrong direction. I was a man, I spoke as a man and thought as a man, and I put away childish things. I came to both of these in an older adulthood, marveling from that more lofty perspective that both series’ were something brilliant, that they didn’t so much touch upon sheer creative brilliance as leave it in their wake.

Sometimes, when I talk to people I work with, people thirty years or more younger than me, they listen to me summarise concepts like these and they cannot imagine that the creators weren’t on drugs.

I’ve been guilty of that myself: I still find it difficult to accept that Teletubbies was the product of a totally straight mind, I mean, the Noo-noo, Tubby Custard, no it’s not possible. But what ran through Postgate and Firman’s veins was a streak of creative inspiration a mile wide, nothing more (nothing more, he says! Pfui!)

The Exhibition shows a great deal of Peter Firmin’s work, from the little cut-out figures that were moved by infinitessimal degrees across the long, flowing backgrounds that boom with life. There’s even a concept sketch that conjures a whole world to life and which remains as fresh to the eye as it did when Firmin dashed it off forty years ago.

There were a couple of machines to enable kids to make their own mini-movies, shuffling characters around on one of Firmin’s background, and there were scripts annotated by Postgate with the meticulously measured number of frames – shot one at a time – that each moment required. But we adults could look in astonishment at the actual equipment that Smallfilms used to achieve these miracles in shoestrings. If any of you had a Dad like mine, good with his hands, practical, with a workshop filled with tools that he not only knew the names of but what each was to be used for, you too would have looked at this gear and been unable to escape recognising the very ordinariness of it.

But oh, there were the puppets. Big, baggy, saggy, friendly old Bagpuss himself, the Bagpuss you see on screen, not some machine-made duplicate, surrounded by his friends and allies, waiting for a seven year old girl to sing to him and waken him from that overlong sleep again. Dear old fat, furry cat-puss, who you long to pick up and cuddle, especially if you’ve got a streak of sentimentality a mile wide, as, beneath this cynical exterior, I discover I possess.

If the Bagpuss gang look smaller in real life than you’d take them to be from the screen, then the Clangers were entirely the opposite. Not the Soup Dragon, or the Iron Chicken, but the Froglets and those amazing, absurd, pink-knitted, long-nosed whistling creatures look far bigger than in their adventures.

Everything is set out in an open-beamed little gallery meant to suggest the halls of the men of the Northlands where they sit by their great log fires. Small but impeccable, like the films.

(I had to fight long and hard with myself to leave without buying a Bagpuss doll).

Rather than shoot back to Central London, where the best thing on offer was another pointless and crowded descent into Forbidden Planet, I decided to explore Bethnal Green. There wasn’t much to see, especially along Cambridge Heath Road, but I slipped into a quiet, dark pub to get out of the rain and enjoyed a leisurely pint whilst watching the lunchtime football. Twenty minutes in, Swansea were leading Liverpool 1-0 and it stayed that way until half-time, when I left (but it ended 2-1to the scousers).

Bethnal Green Road was more like it. By now, I was looking for grub. There was a McDonalds and a KFC, and every kind of local hot food takeaway or eat-in that a man could wish for, except that is for the man who wants a take-the-weight-off, stuff-your-face pizza. Though I did find my goal in a takeaway in which I was the only non-Muslim, where it was only £1.50 for a 7″ with chicken and sweetcorn, and volcanically hot cheese that burns the roof of my mouth.

After that, it’s Central London or nothing. My return ticket to Euston has gotten too crumpled for the automatic barriers so from here on in I have to get the staff to let me in and out. I pay that pointless and crowded visit to Forbidden Planet after all, wandering casually around for longer than usual, though to the same crowded and pointless end. Those visits of decades ago…

By now, the loo is demanding my presence, so I pop into another quiet and dark establishment called The Angel, paying for my indulgence with a rather pleasant half of Sam Smith Organic 5% lager (with lime). It’s sunny and bright outside, Stockport’s early morning weather having caught me up. Time is being killed gently but there’s still two more hours before my train, not that I think I’ll go sunbathing in any parks this time.

I do pay an impulse visit to Foyles and I do impulsively buy a book. I’d marked it down as being of interest when it caused a stir in hardback, being about Hillsborough, the Premier League, Murdoch and everything that’s happened to football since, but it had slipped my mind until finding the paperback here.

But that’s the extent of it. A short tube ride north – no brown-haired females of any note this time – and I’m back at Euston with not that much more of an hour until my train leaves, which is impressive for me. I have with me Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which I bought last summer in one of Tesco’s two-for-£7 deals, but which I have only ever read it on long train journeys. It will serve me for about 200 more pages of reading, until my hand starts to cramp up from holding the thickness of it.

It does rather put a crimp in my people-watching (Oh, alright, I admit, looking at females who catch my eye), though there is a minute or two whilst I observe a smallish woman with her back to me, staring up at the Departure Boards. She’s wearing a long-sleeved black top, tight back jeans over a well-curved pair of hips and has auburn hair curling gorgeously halfway to her waist, but I can’t see her face. Nor am I fated to: when she moves, it’s directly away from me, then she veers left across the concourse only for the patchy press to conceal her every time she even half-turns my way. C’est la vie.

A bout of angry railing at the self-service till in W H Smiths (abominations, abominations I say, and job-stealers) and it’s into the train. I have a reserved window seat traveling backwards into the night, the aisle seat of which is reserved from Crewe. My fellow traveller is a blonde, with hair pulled back, to starts to sit but then realises that neither of the seats on the other side of the table are occupied, so sits opposite me. I’m amused to see that she’s reading Neil Gaiman’s American Gods but decide not to try to strike up a conversation based on our mutual appreciation of the novel.

And that’s it for this year at least. I have no Museum Trips planned for 2017 yet, but at least I know that it’s a perfectly feasible prospect for a day out, so we’ll see what comes along next year. A traveling companion would be nice too. I’d even put up with her falling asleep on my shoulder half the way back.

A Day Out – Otherworlds

Ever since I’ve become dependent upon public transport, I’ve become increasingly paranoid about bus and train times, and with good reason. It’s exacerbated in those cases where the cheapest advance tickets are two singles, tying me to specific trains there and back.

For my day in London, I needed to be at Stockport station for 8.43 am so, by my standards, it was cutting it exceedingly fine to arrive with only fifteen minutes to spare.

This trip has been planned for over a month, but a new, unforeseen dimension was added yesterday. I’m off to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington for the Otherworlds Exhibition, a collection of space photography from the last fifty years, prepared by Michael Benson. In keeping with my paranoia, I’d allowed very wide margins. My train was due at Euston at 10.43 am and my booking was for 12.30pm.

This was based in part on my assumption that South Kensington was South of the River, and therefore a lot of traveling would be involved. Of course it’s not (I have not been in that part of London previously) and the travel planners I consulted assured me the journey from Euston would take only 27 minutes, walking included, though their estimate of walking speed may be fractionally faster than my reality, making my arrival considerably premature.

But on Friday, I learned of a new exhibition, opening on March 19th, featuring the wonders of Smallfilms Ltd, the production company of those great geniuses, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, the creators of The Clangers and Bagpuss. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, next door to the Natural History Museum.

If only I’d booked an earlier slot at the Natural History Museum. The hour or so’s grace would hardly be enough for Postgate et al so I’d just go over after finishing with Otherworlds. There would be ample time, my return train not being until 6.00pm.

The journey was a breeze. After Stockport, there were only two stops before London, at Macclesfield and Stoke. I had a window seat reserved, with the aisle seat reserved from Stoke, so I dumped my bag on the spare seat for now, rather than have to dig into it between my feet. But Stoke came and went without anyone taking up the the seat, so I luxuriated in the space all the way.

I was on the right side of the carriage so, as we sped through North London, I craned my eyes left for the traditional sight of Wembley. I have never been to the New Wembley nor, frankly, can I foresee any chance of doing so, and like most older football fans I will always miss the Twin Towers. When it flashes by, it’s a shock to see it loom so close to the track. I don’t remember the Empire Stadium being that close.

I haven’t used the Tube since Mark Rustigini and I came down for the 1999 Cup Final. I’ve always loved it, since I first visited London in 1977, though it does have the effect of reducing the city to a series of disconnected circles, centring upon various stations. I want the Victoria Line to Green Park, changing to the Piccadilly Line for South Ken.

The queue for tickets is massive – the last time I used the Tube, they still had people behind grilles – and an all-day return is nearly a tenner, but when I get down to the platform, it’s like the late Seventies/early Eighties are back. At both stations, the train arrives within a minute of my hitting the platform, and the old lucky judgement is back as the doors open where I’m standing.

The only bugger is the walk from one line to another at Green Park, which takes miles of corridors.

There’s even a subway at South Kensington, so the first I see of London above ground is the Museum itself, a proud, noble and impressive building, opposite the French Consulate. This is where things get stupid.

There’s a queue towards the Museum gates, and an even longer one inside. As we approach the gates, we realise that there is a similar queue from the opposite direction. Thus far, the security guards have been alternating streams, but as I reach the gate they decide that it’s going to be one queue only, and it’s going to be the other one. We have to stride out to join the other end of it.

Once inside the gate, we snake in moebius-lines towards the bottom of the ramp curling up to the entrance. Only as I reach this, do I realise that there’s a whole other garden area beyond, round which we queue even further, just to get bac to here.

Being British, I queue placidly. It’s one of our great contributions to humanity, the orderly queue, everyone in their turn. That doesn’t mean that I don’t hate the vast majority of those in front of me, who are forever slow abut catching up gaps that appear before them, especially the young foreign couple, directly ahead, who are too busy talking selfies to notice that ten yards have opened up before them.

Smartphones have a lot to answer for.

It seems like my wasted period of grace before my booking has been very important after all. All told, it takes over fifty minutes to get from gate to entrance, a distance coverable in under two, even by me. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to find queues to get in, but it wouldn’t have happened like this in Manchester.

The lady on the ticket desk takes it on trust that I am sixty and eligible for the concessionary rate (my first!). I ought to be offended: this is not meant to be a boast but most people tend to underestimate my age by up to a decade which, when I look at myself in a mirror, leaves me very worried about their judgement – or their eyesight!

I supposea large part of why I am here is down to Dan Dare, and his adventures across the other planets in our Solar System. That opened the door for me, the door to space, to strangeness, otherness, the unimaginable. This is the natural culmination, the actuality of what our planetary neighbours are, without the art and the imagination of Frank Hampson, Keith Watson and all the others.

Michael Benson has pieced these photographs together from hundreds of tiny pictures beamed across millions upon millions of miles, from rockets that have traversed our Solar System in a way that we yet are unable to do ourselves. They are photographs of things we haven’t seem, may never see ourselves in the flesh, but which the things we have built can reach and can send back.

I’m hit first by an incredible statistic: that the Sun alone comprises 99.86% of the mass of the Solar System. Earth, it’s fellow planets, dwarfs, moons, asteroids, comets, add up to the thinnest of statistical margins of error. Does that humble you? It humbles me.

We begin with the Earth and the Moon, but in the context of what the exhibition goes onto, these are oddly conventional. I can almost be blase about these sights, they are so close, so familiar, but for the rest of the exhibition, from picture to picture, all that goes through my head, endlessly, is, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!” and my mouth is almost permanently open in awe at what I’m seeing. These are the faces of the bodies that share our system, objects of our imagination, photographed from distances that are unimaginable in themselves but which, in context, are the equivalent of over-the-fence snaps of your neighbour’s back garden.

Curiously, it is not the beauty of Saturn, the Ringed Planet, our System’s jewel, nor even the remoteness of Pluto that nevertheless offers a blue sky, that affects me most, but rather Mars, the Red Planet, almost a cliche. This is because the photographs in this section are not just from space, but also come from the surface of the planet.

I remember a Saturday morning, in the late Nineties, sitting in front of the television in my lounge, watching the live broadcast of a camera on the planet Mars, looking at a landscape that, for all its dryness, its desert waste, looked achingly familiar. There was a blue sky, a daylight sky, an astonishment to someone who had grown up expecting planetary skies to show the night and the stars, and there were mountains, buttes and ridges that could be climbed, to look upon views beyond imagination.

I have the same feeling looking at these Martian landscapes, none more so than the one that shows the broad tracks of a Mars Rover. We have not been there, and maybe we won’t get there, who knows, we haven’t even been back to our own Moon in forty-four years, but we have set some kind of feet on the surface of another planet, and we have moved beyond imagination into reality.

That I, an eight year old boy at play in Dan Dare’s Universe, should have lived to see this! That it’s been done and in my lifetime. My heart is in my mouth and tears threaten. I want to take that eight year old boy by the hand and tell him that it will come true after all, it is all real, and he will see for himself, in a London Museum one day.

I try to explain something of that to the young woman in the shop. I’m buying the book of the Exhibition – how could I not buy the book? – and I’m talking of the sheer wonder of it. At this moment, I can’t think, and neither can she, of what humanity might do, or where it might go that seems impossible now but which will come about within her days, but I hope for her sake and her generation’s sake that there will be something to give her that same frisson one day, because everybody deserves to feel this. That I have lived to see…

From there, I cross over to the V&A Museum, fully prepared to move from the Sublime to the Gloriously Ridiculous, but that’s when I run into the second and bigger hitch of the day. I have not read the web-page well for the Bagpuss Exhibition is actually on at the V&A Museum of Childhood, and that is not in South Kensington, but rather in Bethnall Green. Even my fragmentary knowledge of London geography tells me that it’s a long way from where I am (indeed it is, we’re talking east London here, my son). Another expedition will be required, once I have saved up for the train tickets again.

So, with the unexpected bonus unexpectedly busted, I revert to plan A and head back to Oxford Circus. My luck with Tube trains still holds, in fact it improves. I barely have to wait fifteen seconds at both South Ken and Green Park for trains that open their doors before my nose, but once I ascend to ground level at Oxford Circus, the ticket-barrier retains my return ticket, even though I’m not at Euston.

I stroll east down Oxford Street, noting with mild regret the disappearance of landmarks like the old Virgin Megastore and the big, big HMV Shop, but what I notice most is that that near hour of queuing has done for my feet. My progress is increasingly slow and painful, turning into Charing Cross Road, so I take the load off them, all too temporarily, in the Montague Pike, where I down a pint and a beefburger, desultorily watching Wales extend a 7-0 lead over Italy to 27-0 at half-time, when I move on.

Having visited once within the last twelve months, I soon find Forbidden Planet, which is a little unjust considering how long I wandered around last year, after checking maps, but once again it’s noisy, cramped, crowded and holds nothing out of the ordinary that I can’t just as easily put my hands on back home.

So, with my feet having made their position non-negotiable, I slowly trudge back to Tottenham Court Road, where a single to Euston is even more bloody expensive. The escalator is steep and long, and I suffer from a brief but unwelcome bout of vertigo that I have to fight throughout the descent. My train luck runs out: I have to wait nearly ninety seconds for a train and I have to search for a door.

By the time I’m back at Euston, there is an hour and forty-five minutes before my train is due, which is ridiculous even by my standards. Last time I was here and waiting was after my last United Kingdom Comics Art Convention (1988? 1989?) when John Mottershead and I decided to blow off early on Sunday afternoon, and we bumped into Alan Moore on the concourse and went into some cheap, not-busy cafe and talked for over an hour until his train for Northampton was due to leave, but there don’t seem to be such places in 2016.

I ended up sitting on one of those metal benches for over an hour or so, way past when my bum started getting numb, and making a break for the train as soon as boarding was announced. I’m in coach C, which is about half way to Watford Junction, and I settle down with great delight. It’s another window seat, on the non-Wembley side of the carriage, and to my delight, no-one claims the supposedly-reserved aisle seat, so it’s a double space all the way back to Stockport, reading R A Lafferty’s magnificent Fourth Mansions (bought in a no-longer-existent back street Stockport bookshop over forty years ago) and listening to my mp3 player all the way.

If I were getting off at Manchester, I’d have had to wait half an hour for a 203. Getting off here, I only have to wait five minutes to catch the service from the other end. My feet feel better for the rest, but I get a bad bout of cramp in my left shin later on, and I know my calves will be killing me in the morning.

But it’s been a great day out and for all the expense, and the time of another journey to London, I’m not sorry to have to go back for Bagpuss. I could do with getting out more often. Maybe often enough to justify an Old Person’s Railcard? Gotta start taking advantage of my advanced years, haven’t I?

Kill Two Birds

I’m off to That London tomorrow for the day, on a cultural visit, to the Otherworlds exhibition at the natural History Museum in South Kensington. I first read about Otherworlds in the Guardian about six weeks ago, and have had everything planned out for ages: ticket booked, train tickets booked, details of how to get most easily from Euston Station to a part of London I’ve never visited before. It’s sorted, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Then I was glancing at the Guardian website again today, in a quiet moment at work, and discovered this. An exhibition of original puppets and materials from Smallfilms, the work of those geniuses Olive Postgate and Peter Firmin: The Clangers, Bagpuss, Pogles, a dream of an exhibition.

And it starts tomorrow.

At the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Which is next door to the Natural History Museum!

On a plate, or what? My cup runneth over, and trust me, you’ll hear about both of these when I get back.