Smallfilms was a British company that made animated television programmes for children, from 1959 to the 1980s. It was a partnership between Oliver Postgate (writer, animator and narrator) and Peter Firmin (modelmaker and illustrator). Several very popular series of short films were made using stop-motion animation, including The Clangers, Noggin the Nog, and Ivor the Engine. Another Smallfilms production, Bagpuss, came top of a BBC poll to find the favourite children's programme.
In 1957 Postgate was appointed a stage manager with Associated-Rediffusion, which then held the commercial weekday television franchise for London. Attached to the children's programming section, he thought he could do better with the relatively low budgets of the then black and white television productions.
Postgate wrote Alexander the Mouse, a story about a mouse born to be king. Using an Irish-produced magnetic system – on which animated characters were attached to a painted background, and then photographed through a 45 degree mirror – he persuaded Peter Firmin, who was then teaching at the Central School of Art, to create the background scenes. Postgate later recalled they undertook around 26 of these programmes live-to-air, which were made harder by the production problems encountered by the use and restrictions of using magnets.
After the relative success of Alexander the Mouse, Postgate agreed a deal to make the next series on film, for a budget of £175 per programme. Making a stop motion animation table in his bedroom, he wrote the Chinese story The Journey of Master Ho. This was intended for deaf children, a distinct advantage in that the production required no soundtrack which reduced the production costs. He engaged a painter to produce the backgrounds, but as the painter was classical Chinese-trained he produced them in three-quarters view, rather than in the conventional Egyptian full-view manner used for flat animation under a camera. This resulted in the Firmin-produced characters looking like they were short in one leg, but the success of the production provided the foundation for Postgate and Firmin to start up their own company solely producing animated children's programmes.
Setting up their business in a disused cowshed at Firmin's home in Blean near Canterbury, Kent, Postgate and Firmin worked on children's animation programmes. Based on concepts which mostly originated with Postgate, Firmin did the artwork and built the models, while Postgate wrote the scripts, did the stop motion filming and many of the voices. Smallfilms was resultantly able to produce two minutes of film per day, ten times as much as a conventional animation studio, with Postgate moving the cardboard pieces himself, and working his 16mm camera frame-by-frame with a home-made clicker. As Postgate wholly voiced many of the productions, including the WereBear story tapes, his distinctive voice became familiar to generations of children.
They started in 1959 with Ivor the Engine, a series for ITV about a Welsh steam locomotive who wanted to sing in a choir. Based on Postgate's wartime encounter with Welshman Denzyl Ellis, who used to be the fireman on the Royal Scot, it was remade in colour for the BBC in the 1970s. This was followed by Noggin the Nog for the BBC, which established Smallfilms as a safe and reliable pair of hands to produce children's entertainment, in the days when the number of UK television channels was restricted.
In 2000 Postgate and his friend Loaf set up a small publishing company called the Dragons Friendly Society to look after Noggin the Nog, Pogles Wood, Pingwings.
After Postgate's death in December 2008 Smallfilms was inherited by his son Daniel Postgate. Also, Universal took the distribution rights to the works of Smallfilms. Any such agreement does not include the materials Oliver published with The Dragons Friendly Society.
Series development and philosophy
Postgate and Firmin recognised that their product was not to be sold to or bought by children, but by the commissioning television executives. Postgate described in a later interview the then "gentlemanly and rather innocent" business of programme commissioning thus:
|“||We would go to the BBC once a year, show them the films we'd made, and they would say: 'Yes, lovely, now what are you going to do next?' We would tell them, and they would say: 'That sounds fine, we'll mark it in for eighteen months from now,' and we would be given praise and encouragement and some money in advance, and we'd just go away and do it.||”|
Postgate had strict views on storyline development, which perhaps resultantly restricted the length of each particular series development. When asked if the Clangers adventures were quite surreal sometimes, Postgate replied:
|“||They're surreal but logical. I have a strong prejudice against fantasy for its own sake. Once one gets to a point beyond where cause and effect mean anything at all, then science fiction becomes science nonsense. Everything that happened was strictly logical according to the laws of physics which happened to apply in that part of the world.||”|
The Smallfilms system was reliant on the company's only two employees – Postgate and Firmin – and was devoid of the modern considerations and essentials, as Postgate pointed out: "excused the interference of educationalists, sociologists and other pseudo-scientists, which produces eventually a confection of formulae which have no integrity. No, the mainspring of what we did was because it was fun."
Recognising their commissioning audience, Smallfilms purposefully developed storylines which were engaging for both adults and children. While the storylines and production were remembered by children, the adult jokes like those about the Welsh in Ivor the Engine, or the fact that the Clangers swore occasionally; gave them both an instant parent engagement as well as a later revival with children who had grown up and were re-watching their favourite programmes.
In October 2008, production company Coolabi acquired the merchandising and distribution rights until 2013 to a number of the Smallfilms productions. Coolabi planned to introduce Bagpuss to a new generation; the company said there was "significant potential to build on the affection in which this classic brand is held".
- Alexander The Mouse (1958)
- The Journey Of Master Ho (1958)
- Ivor the Engine - (1959–1963, black and white for ITV; remade in colour in 1975-77 for the BBC)
- Noggin the Nog (1959-1965 remade in colour in 1970 and 1981 also for the BBC)
- Pingwings (1961–1964)
- Pogles' Wood (1966–67)
- Clangers (1969–1972)
- Bagpuss (1974)
- Clangers election special: Vote For Froglet (1974)
- What-A-Mess (1980)
- Tottie: The Story of a Doll's House (1984)
- Pinny's House (1985)
- "Bagpuss cream of television". BBC News. 1999-01-01.
- "An interview with Oliver Postgate". Clive Banks. March 2005. Retrieved 2008-12-09.
- Peter Firmin pages at the Dragons' Friendly Society
- "Obituary, Oliver Postgate". BBC. 2008-12-09. Retrieved 2008-12-09.
- "Cult TV - Interview with Oliver Postgate". BBC Cult TV. 2005-04-27. Retrieved 2008-12-09.
- "Bagpuss poised to make comeback". BBC News. 2008-10-24. Retrieved 2009-05-24.
- The Big Cartoon DataBase entry for Smallfilms
- The Smallfilms Treasury
- Smallfilms filmography
- The Dragons' Friendly Society – further information about Smallfilms productions