Other people’s work: whistles, string and metaphysics

There are a lot of things about Britain in the Seventies that no one should miss: tufted carpets and leatherette seats; sweaty nylon sheets; a near-universal colour scheme of orange and brown; some truly disgusting food; drink-driving for the men and Valium for the wives.
It was, though, a golden age for books and television for children, and Smallfilms, the production company of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, made some of the best of it.
From an old cowshed, with cutting-edge animation supplies like knitting and blu tac, Smallfilms produced programs for the BBC for twenty years, including Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, the Clangers and Bagpuss, voted the favourite British children’s program of the 20th century.
In interviews he gave in the early 2000s, Postgate described a set up program makers and commissioners today would hardly believe could exist, let alone work – basically, he and Firmin would turn up in London once a year with a fresh batch of programs, be taken to lunch and given some money to make more. The technology might have been primitive by modern standards, but they could produce two minutes of program footage a day – and fifty years on, Aardman might expect two or three seconds on a good day.
A large part of Smallfilm’s work endures because of nostalgia (not to mention a hugely successful merchandising arrangement); modern children can find them slow or just plain weird (even when they were first aired, many people assumed that hallucinogens were involved in their creation). But watching them again with my (only mildly interested) children, it struck me that these endearingly clunky shorts are actually complex things that ask more questions than they answer; and have the quality (rare in modern life, let alone children’s telly), of treating their audience with respect.
As a one-off in 1974, Smallfilms made an episode of the Clangers with came closer than usual to satire. It was only broadcast once, and in an interview towards the end of his life, Postgate himself presumed it lost. But sometimes YouTube works in mysterious ways…