Every homo sapiens needs an outbuilding within the curtelage of their property
Welcome...to my Shed!
I’d set the alarm for 0830 but I can’t seem to get passed 0600 these days without that first waking up – you know, the one where you’re not going to get back to sleep again but you lie there in the vain hope, checking the clock (or, in my case, the iPhone) until you give in a get dressed. Sharing a quick coffee with Mr C and a bijou quantitette of post-yesterevening match analysis (that was a hard game of Agricola, Glory to Rome was odd with me not completing a second building etc), it was school-run time when I trundled from the familiar drive and toward the M40 (a motorway). Despite the coincidence with child drop-offs, there was no queuing through the lanes and I was cruise-controlling down the slip road, fully aircon-ed and satnav-ed.
Outside it was HOT; well, ‘hot’ for the UK at least, with my helpful on-board computer pronouncing 31 degrees. Stopping only for after-tasteful spring water and an expensive biro, I reached my destination ‘just outside Canterbury’ at 1115HRS, pulling up into the square courtyard walled by a barn, a house and a cow-shed. I ding-a-linged the doorbell, but all of the doors were open to the heat and Joan Firmin greeted me with a hearty handshake and smile, calling out to her husband that I had arrived. Peter was in the dining room, a badger’s cough distant from the entrance porch in which I stood – I could see him sat at the table occupied with something. He rose, turned and stepped on to the patio with a bearded grin.
At this point, there will be some of you who have picked up the subject of this blog entry but for those not yet in the know I shall include an internet link:
This is the stuff I grew up with: worlds of wit and charm, beautifully written and realized, that still bring a dewy tear to the eyes of British adults. Oliver Postgate provided the stories and Peter Firmin the art – scenery, cut-paper figures, puppets, props and landscapes. It is Smallfilms’ late 50s and resurrected late 60s Ivor the Engine series that is the reason for my visit – as I have mentioned in other blogburps – because I have designed a game about him and I want to publish it with his blessing.
The genial octogenarian, now shaking my shaking hand, is the surviving half of that genius duo – the man responsible for me taking up cartooning, the man who has visualized the stories I have read (and am still reading) at bedtime to all of my children. I am not a little trepidacious.
We talk of the wonderful weather, put in an order for drinks and then I get the first part of a guided tour; the house and outbuildings have been the Firmin family home (Peter, Joan and their six daughters) for 50+ years and the place they constructed and filmed their beloved series’ in. Peter is officially retired but his studio – his shed (!) – is still stacked with paper scraps, cuttings, layout sketches, lino and vinyl prints (framed and unframed), rejected pressings and – teasingly – some wonderful works-in-progress (about which I am sworn to secrecy)! Craft knives, paint, balsa wood, model aeroplanes and papier mache masks, book samples, proofs and pencil shavings. Animation was a diversion for Peter who, after leaving Art School had yearnings to be a formal illustrator (woodcuts and the like); glorious happenstance put him and Oliver together and it was no easy job to make their careers from the new ‘childrens TV’ market. They experimented, first, with magnetically-moving mice on live television, a Welsh engine (first in monochrome), penguins and wooden puppet folk; later came Viking sagas, psychedelic moon mice and a saggy old cloth cat.
Peter had been distracted in the dining room (see my arrival paragraph) by a box of Pippin magazine cuttings – hundreds of pages of Ivor the Engine in B&W and then full wraparound cover glory. He dismissed the early pages with some disdain – pointing out the odd proportions of the bodies/heads and the simplicity of detail: ‘not very good’ he said; ‘I think I’d use the word “charming”’, I replied.
The game design has 60 or so cards with illustrations on almost all of them – the stock library I have from the licensing company covers about 2/3rds of my needs - so Peter suggested he could (re-)draw from the rest using these magazines to remind him. The fact that he’s willing to produce new art for the game – including the map for the board and a new cover – is a fantastic development, brimming with Boydell family cameo possibilities! Peter doesn’t have access to the originals (just the faded cheap comic printing) because the publishing company had kept them all; they tried to auction them off in London a few years back and Peter fought to get them back, which he did. He decided to have an Open Day at his home and let locals pop in and pick them up for £50 a pop – denying those naughty dealers and giving us ordinary folk a little piece of British history.
I set the game prototype up and talked Peter and Joan through the mechanisms – not going into too much detail because they both admitted to being ‘not very good with games’; my presentational focus was, therefore, the trueness of theme and respect for the source.
Oliver Postgate was always the one for games, apparently, coming up with abstracts (for the Noggin The Nog world in particular) including his own rules for Hnefatafl a couple of years before the British Museum posited their own.
Joan nipped off to serve lunch, so Peter and I ambled around the lush, cottage garden and chatted some more: here an acacia, forty foot plus, grown from a seed pod brought back from Zimbabwe by his youngest (the Emily from the Bagpuss series), there an oak tree grown from an acorn planted by their eldest. He showed me a field at the back - gone to wildflower seed – recently bought from a neighbor, now high-grass and uncut-able with his little mower.
Tales of family holidays in Europe, of huge hand-made kites and odd German hotels and back to the weather-beaten cast-iron table for pork chops, (freshly-dug) boiled new potatoes and salad fresh from the garden. The shade, and the homemade Elderflower cordial, kept the three of us cool in the hazybaking afternoon; I don't think I could’ve dreamt a more idyllic setting.
Digesting the simple summer luncheon, Peter showed me the famous barn where all of his and Oliver’s labours were undertaken: now a stock room cum gallery…‘that's where Oliver had the camera set up’, ‘here was the Clangers’ moon’, ‘Noggin was filmed there’ and so on.
Our time was drawing to a close, however, as Joan took their little terrier for a walk around the meadow; Peter and I discussed ‘next steps’ and he dug out a couple of his crafting / make-and-do books for my children (including a model aeroplane book, which he signed, for Arthur). Too soon it was goodbye and the air-con roared in protest against the stifling heat as I crunched along the gravel drive to the main road and I was heading home.
A grand day out by any measure.