Being an 80’s kid, and before everyone had a Nintendo console, entertainment came in the shape of action figures and morning television. Each morning after my dad had left for work, I would sit with my fold-out tray balanced over my legs with a bowl of Coco-pops and watch Ivor the Engine without fail.
I loved the idea of a town like the one I lived in (Kent) having a community which lived alongside dragons. I was obsessed with monsters as a kid, watching Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad films trying to work if they were real or not.
When I made my first short film after University in 2006 in Canterbury, while doing an interview I was told by a journalist that Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin ran their company Small Films from Peter’s farm just down the road. There isn’t much animation made in Kent: with our studio still the only company producing stop-motion animation in the county (if not a large chunk of the South East). So you could imagine how excited I was to hear stop-motion had been produced on my doorstep. Back then I was making my films between my dad’s garage and using kit at my local University. To my surprise Peter was listed in the local phone directory so nervously I called him up. I told him I had made a film from my dad’s garage and he without hesitation invited me up to his farm to show him.
I was thrilled that someone that did what I wanted to do had shown an interest in my work. I travelled to his farm, only five minutes from my home, and which I’d passed a thousand times without ever realising it was there. A small farm set back from the road on a wide, sweeping corner. On arrival I was met by a spritely little man, very welcoming, who greeted me and apologising that he had just been tending to an old donkey in the field. I hadn’t met many people from the world of animation, so in my mind I didn’t know what to expect. Peter instantly put me at ease as a young graduate.
Peter showed me around his house, outbuildings barns and garden, all filled with paraphernalia from Oliver and his productions. Bits of Clangers were in the garden, odd bits of cut-outs in a variety of different envelopes. All pieces of my childhood favourites spread around a charming little farm. I was so excited the whole time, trying to keep my cool as Peter strolled around talking fondly of making productions with Oliver, and his children being paid to work on productions during their summer holidays.
It was so inspiring to see how Peter had built these creatures created from Oliver Postgate’s mind in a shed much like my dad’s garage. Peter used Meccano for the Clanger’s armatures, and his wife knitted the bodies. This simple, hand-crafted approach was similar to what was available to me at the time. It was so inspiring to me I can’t tell you how quickly I ran out of the farm and straight to my father’s garage to start sculpting, painting and making.
The second time we met I asked him to sign a copy of Ivor the Engine but he insisted he would only do it if I signed a copy of my short film for him. This was Peter: always kind and giving. I met Peter on many occasions after that, all of which were meetings which he willingly gave up his time for me just like on that first visit. He supported our animation festival which I directed: Canterbury Anifest. He visited the studio, as well as agreed to appear on a short animation series which I presented back in 2008. The interview can be seen below, with Peter, Bagpuss and myself (boasting hair and a rather splendid belt!)
I have footage from a second interview with him somewhere discussing cut-out animation using Ivor which was never edited or used. I must hunt this down and try to put it together.
That clichéd proverb reads, ‘never meet your heroes’, which is true in many instances. But meeting dear Peter was something which shaped me, inspired me, and – if I had not received his encouragement, I might not be making animation today.
Thank you Peter. I hope somewhere you and Oliver are back to your old tricks again…
Also published on Medium.