Peter Firmin, the artist who gave shape to Basil Brush, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and many other well-known characters, talks about
Puppets and Pictures
Pencil stubs to stained glass saints
I can’t say I come from an artistic background. Mum used to paint flowers when she was young and Dad liked to write out texts and sayings in fancy lettering.
Mum would sit my brother and me down with pencils and paper when it was raining in the holidays to keep us out of her way. We were never short of materials. Dad worked in the railway telegraph office and he kept us supplied with ends of the rolls from the teleprinter and pencil stubs.
In my family my six daughters have always had drawing and painting materials around. So far, four of them have taken up art in some form. Katy is studying cartography, Josie is doing textile design, Hannah is at the Royal College doing graphics and Charlotte, the eldest, has written and illustrated several children’s books.
I went to Colchester Art School after School Cert, just before the end of the war, and did illustration there for three years. After national service in the navy, I went to The Central School in London for three years. I met my wife Joan there. She was doing bookbinding and we got married the summer after I left.
I tried freelancing for a while but there was not enough work to live on. I took a job in a stained glass studio, painting saints in church windows. I think style in drawing comes from trying to conquer our weaknesses. I always had trouble with proportion and the sort of figures I draw now probably started then. I’m sure I was responsible for some very odd saints with large heads and big noses!
At the same time I was doing magazine illustrations and (when we could afford it) collecting illustrated books especially those of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. I think I’d always wanted to illustrate books from the time I saw Cruikshanks’ illustrations in our family’s set of Dickens (Odhams). I’ve always been obsessed by that etching of Fagin in the condemned cell. But that didn’t really start until I had been working for television for some years. It happened because of all the characters I created for TV.
From live TV (magnets, levers and string) to films
In 1958 I met Oliver Postgate (he was working for ITV devising gadgets for programmes like Dr Bronowski’s science series). We’ve been working together ever since. It started with a story about a mouse called Alexander, which Oliver had written for TV. He asked me to do the drawings.
It was a live programme in which the pictures were bits of card animated with magnets in front of the cameras. This method created problems which we solved by adding levers and strings. They became sort of cardboard puppets. It involved three cameras, actors, three animators as well as me doing the drawings and Oliver writing and reading the story.
All this became very expensive and the TV company asked us to think of some more economic way of making programmes.
This led to different methods of animation. Oliver bought a camera and made his first animation table. It worked, although it seemed to be made of firewood and bicycle chains. He taught himself the art of single-frame animation and we made films for the BBC like Ivor the Engine and The Saga of Noggin the Nog. In these the figures were cut out of cardboard and moved bit by bit on a drawn background. What have been referred to as ‘cut-price cardboard cartoons’.
Quite a team
Developing the cardboard puppet idea I devised a live programme for ITV with animated nursery rhymes and puppets. Rolf Harris was the first presenter of this programme called Musical Box. (That was before he became famous.) He was followed by Wally Whyton. Wally and I introduced talking puppets into the programme. Remember Joe Crow, Simon Scarecrow and Muskit – a sort of large water-rat? (I did the voice for him.)
We never really had a script. It’s hard to believe, and I don’t think I would dare do it now, but the `links’ in which the puppets chatted were all impromptu. Wally would phone me on Sunday. `Well, what shall we do tomorrow, Pete?’ We would decide on which of the Rhymes to do and the songs to go with it. We did two rehearsals and then the live programme. It was all done by lunchtime! We did that programme weekly for eight years.
We were quite a team, devising and producing children’s programmes for the Small-time series. Oliver Postgate, Wally, Howard Williams and Ivan Owen who is the voice and animator behind Basil Brush .. . Well, he is Basil! Basil Brush is just one of many puppets I have made. He’s the one who has achieved most fame and fortune.
Oliver Postgate and I have also made animated puppet films for the BBC. Between us we have created The Pogles (for Watch with Mother), The Clangers (a race of pink mouse-like creatures who live on a blue planet in outer space) and Bagpuss. These films are made in a barn where I live near Canterbury. Oliver and his family live in the same village. We’ve recently remade the Ivor the Engine films in colour for the BBC. We’d like to do the same with Noggin!
Books at last
All these television programmes led to books. Ivor the Engine, Noggin, Clangers, Pogles and Bagpuss, have all found their way into hardback and paperback in stories written by Oliver Postgate and illustrated by me.
As well as the longer stories of the Noggin saga we did some in simpler form as `first readers’. Kaye and Ward wanted a new character for some work in this style so I wrote the Basil Brush stories- my career as a writer had begun. So far I have written and illustrated ten; they’ve been published in America and South Africa and even translated into Japanese.
A real illustrator
Until recently the only books I’d illustrated not based on our own characters were occasional ones like The Blue Peter Book of Limericks and Odd Odes. But I’ve just become a real illustrator! Macdonald and Janes asked me to illustrate an E. Nesbit story, The Last of the Dragons, as a picture book and I’m doing a second one for next year. I do seem to have drawn a lot of dragons. There was the little Welsh one in Ivor, the ice dragon in Noggin, the soup dragon in Clangers, and then there was Stanley, a Tale of the Lizard (Deutsch). That was a long poem written by Peter Meteyard, an old school friend of mine.
I’m working at the moment on two new books which I’ve written with completely new sets of characters. When I have an idea I like to work it out right to the finished book stage. That is, I type it out, paste it on the pages and make it into a dummy book with pictures and a finished-looking cover. I want the publisher to say: `I wish we had published that book.’ So that I can say: `And so you can.’
I enjoy putting lots of detail into picture books. That way they can be enjoyed on different levels. A book should give pleasure to as many people of different ages as possible, and a picture book should be well enough done to please the adult and the non-reader as well as the child who can read it. After all `books are for keeps’.
Books illustrated by Peter Firmin
The Last of the Dragons, E. Nesbit, Macdonald, 0 354 08098 9, £2.95
Stanley, the Tale of the Lizard, Peter Meteyard, 0 233 97071 1, £3.25
Basil Brush readers, Peter Firmin, Kaye & Ward
The Windmills, 0 7182 0330 5, £1.75
On the Trail, 0 7182 0329 1, £1.75
Three Tales of Basil Brush 1, 0 7182 0331 3, £2.95
Three Tales of BasilBrush 2, 0 7182 0332 1, £2.95
Noggin books, Oliver Postgate, Kaye & Ward
Nogmania, 0 7182 1180 4, 95p
Noggin Saga: The Blackwash, 0 7182 0300 3, 75p
Noggin Saga: The Icebergs, 0 7182 0301 1, 85p
Noggin Readers: The Money, 0 7182 0367 4, 75p
Noggin Readers: The Storks, 0 7182 0368 2, 75p
Noggin books, Oliver Postgate, Picture Lions
Noggin and the Flowers, 0 00 661708 5, 85p
Noggin and the Island, 0 00 661707 7, 85p
Ivor the Engine books, Oliver Postgate, Picture Lions
The Dragon, 0 00 661500 5, 75p
The Elephant, 0 00 66151 5, 75p
Snowdrifts, 0 00 660875 2, 75p
The First Story, 0 00 660874 4, 80p
Bagpuss in the Sun, Oliver Postgate, Picture Lions, 0 00 660830 2, 65p
Bagpuss on a Rainy Day, Oliver Postgate, Picture Lions, 0 00 660689 X, 80p