Peter Firmin is the award-winning artist behind television classics Bagpuss, The Clangers, and Basil Brush. His models, drawings, and sets created some of the best-loved television ever made, and Firmin has a place in the childhood memories of a whole generation. In 2014, he was honoured at the BAFTA Children’s Awards for his outstanding contribution to children’s media and entertainment. Having been awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Central Saint Martins, he spoke to UAL and Gabriel Tate (The Guardian, Channel 4) about his time as a student, famous creations, and brush with Scientology!
Q: How does it feel to be honoured by University of the Arts London with this award?
A: Strange! I left Central School as it was then [now Central Saint Martins], didn’t do what I really wanted to do, which was book illustration, worked for this thing called television, and in a way thought I was being disloyal to my training, and yet suddenly I’m being honoured for it. And it’s great, I mean it’s a really great – so flattering. I mean it’s flattering enough to get a similar sort of award by Essex, which is my home county, but to get the Central School award – great, I’m so pleased.
Q: What was the experience of studying at Central Saint Martins, as it was then?
A It was great fun… going to Central suddenly I was surrounded by people who were interested in the same things as I was, and met new people from not only different parts but all over the world… We didn’t talk much about art but you know, that’s the sort of general feeling that was what life was all about then.
Q: How did it feel when Bagpuss topped the BBC poll for the most popular children’s programme of all time?
A: We didn’t know at the time… it was a surprise to us all! When you think of the high tech animated films that were being produced in various forms of animation – there was cell animation and live animation and all sorts of different ways that people were producing programmes… [But] people liked to feel a comfort with Bagpuss, I think. Emily used to say it’s because there’s a little girl with her puppets, with her pets, in a shop, and there’s no adults around to interfere, so that was a comforting thing for kids to go to. But I never managed to explain it, really, the fact that he was – he is – still so popular.
Q: Do you see your influence in things that are around today?
A: Nick Park said he was influenced by seeing Ivor the Engine and thinking, ohh, I could do that. In fact, that’s the main thing that, I think, is valuable about doing simple animation is that children can watch it and there’s this magic thing on television – but no, they’re seeing something happen and they now can actually do it themselves… Oliver [Postgate] and I were innovators in our own way, struggling against the odds. What we managed to do with very limited things does inspire people.
Q: Have you always been interested in illustration and animation?
A: I was always drawing. My mother, who was very keen on keeping the house tidy, used to sit my brother and me down with pencils and paper, and we had plenty of those cos my father worked on the railway and he was a telegraphist. So we had lots of paper and pencils and we used to scribble and draw all the time… I wasn’t very sporty, I always remember when we used to play with the other boys, we had a green, and I remember playing with the other boys and whereas they played all the parts, my brother and I used to make the money. We used to draw hundreds of dollar notes – yes we used to actually draw pound notes – so we could buy sawdust beer in the bar!
Q: What was one of the most unusual jobs you’ve done?
One of the jobs I was offered was with L. Ron Hubbard… I had this enquiry, someone wanted some illustrations for some leaflets for a thing called Scientology – which I didn’t know anything about. And I had to go up to a place in north London to meet L. Ron Hubbard… who was sitting there to interview me surrounded by three or four young men in suits asking me what I did. And I said, well, I showed you him portfolio and I said, most of my work is sort of decorative, and he said, well we’re very decorative. But I didn’t get the job because it wasn’t really what they wanted. Strange man.
Q: What advice would you impart to students who might wish to pursue a career in illustration?
A: Don’t go after the cash because it never works that way… Follow your own intuition and do things. I was thinking about this the other day actually. I always remember hearing a quotation from Picasso, he said, ‘Copy anybody but don’t copy yourself.’ So you’re not trying to repeat yourself all the time. The other thing was, do produce things that your own self when you were younger wouldn’t be ashamed of. Because we all start out with great ambitions and ideals and things and quite often we get sort of seduced by the money or the ambition or something or other, and we end up doing things that we never intended to do in the beginning. And I think the main thing is just to remember what you wanted to do in the beginning and never be unfaithful to your own ambition.