RIP Peter Firmin and thanks for the TV (especially The Clangers)
PUBLISHED: 09:00 07 July 2018
The Clangers was one of my favourite programmes when I was a child – melancholic, eerie, slightly dark, cryptic, plenty of strange homemade costumes, somewhat meditative… and then there was the programme itself, which was almost as weird as I was.
Is there anyone over a certain age whose childhood wasn’t hugely improved by Peter Firmin’s creations?
Along with co-creator Oliver Postgate, Firmin worked on classics such as The Clangers, Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and Pogles Wood and with Ivan Owen he brought the world the irrepressible Basil Brush (who remains one of the best interviewees I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with).
Firmin, who died on July 1 at the age of 89, had a career that spanned more than six decades and worked in a remarkably wide variety of creative disciplines as a fine artist, craftsman and author and his work was adored by viewers. In 1999, Bagpuss was voted the most popular children’s programme ever made.
Born in Harwich in 1928, Firmin trained at the Colchester School of Art and, after a period of National Service in the Navy, went on to attend the Central School of Art and Design where he later taught – and met Postgate, with whom he formed Smallfilms. Clangers producers Coolabi said: “Peter continued to work with great enthusiasm on creative projects right up until the beginning of 2018, most notably on a new series of Clangers, which won a BAFTA in 2015.”
On which note - you don’t want to drop a clanger when you’re rebooting a classic children’s television series – as production companies should have learnt from the ghastly CGI remakes of Fireman Sam, Postman Pat, Noddy, Thunderbirds and, most terrifyingly of all, The Wombles.
The Clangers was one of my favourite programmes when I was a child – melancholic, eerie, slightly dark, cryptic, plenty of strange homemade costumes, somewhat meditative… and then there was the programme itself, which was almost as weird as I was. As a precocious nipper I could even parrot bits of the narration: “This calm serene orb, sailing majestically amongst the myriad stars of the firmament…” imagine how much of a laugh I was at pre-school.
When I heard The Clangers were coming back after 40 years, I wondered what planet the BBC was on. You do not mess with Postgate and Firmin, surely it’d be hubris or insanity – I’m still smarting after what they did to Paddington, once the cutest thing from Peru, now the creepiest (I’m not saying the films are bad, I’m saying I wouldn’t want to meet Paddington down a dark alley).
I’m not sure which committee stopped the Cbeebies production team from reaching for the CGI whiteboards and asking One Direction to provide the whistling, but whoever it was, hooray to them. The pink moon-mice are still knitted and still stop-motion, the stories are still as dream-like and still a bit barmy and surreal.
Granted, it’s more polished, but when you consider Postgate and Firmin shot the original in a barn that was also the home of mice (who nibbled off the original Soup Dragon’s hand) and starlings (who regularly pebble-dashed Planet Clanger from their lofty vantage point) it’s hardly surprising.
The BBC may have agreed to hold off the computer-generated, halfwit-favoured nincompoopery, but to ask them to shoot the new £5 million Clangers series in a barn full of vermin and defecators seems a step too far: that’s Channel 4’s remit.
Replacing Oliver Postgate’s hypnotic narration was Michael Palin, whose words are warm to reflect the (very slightly dumbed-down but then again what four-year-old knows what ‘firmament’ or ‘myriad’ or ‘celestial’ actually mean? It’s not like our day when we could all read Latin at four, etc etc) script, which itself retains the same gentle ribbing of the Clangers when they do something ridiculous, like fall down a hole or spill some blue soup.
I did miss a little of the poetry (“…if we think about other planets, other, less fortunate stars, we realise that life there might be very different...The solitary fisher, setting off to catch what she can in the vast empty spaces of the universe, may feel very much alone…”) but I accept children these days might not want their television programmes to channel prog-rock lyrics. Their loss. Incidentally, in America, the series is narrated by William Shatner. WILLIAM SHATNER. If they didn’t have all those guns and if their healthcare was free I’d move over there right now to hear William telling me how the Earth is a tiny, wet planet, lost and alone in the vase silence of space.
Most importantly, the themes were familiar: being nice to people/other moon-mice/looking after your environment/not being greedy and falling over a lot while whistling, in fact the only thing that was rubbish about the new series of The Clangers was the bin-lid front doors on the Clanger caves and the space junk. Lovely. Thanks for the memories, Peter.