Case C: Clangers
Writing in his autobiography, Oliver Postgate lavishes considerable praise on Peter Firmin regarding his contribution to the design and creation of the Clangers’ realm, yet his account of Joan Firmin’s contribution is much more economical: “Joan Firmin knitted them and she dressed the ladies, Mother Clanger, Tiny Clanger and the aunts, in patchwork coats”.1 With Postgate dedicating just nineteen words and less than two lines to Joan Firmin’s contribution to the creation of one of British television’s most iconic families, it is easy to see why her part of the Smallfilms narrative is often marginalised. Despite Joan’s influential contribution, helping to define the look of the Clangers, her name is often omitted as a consequence of the focus placed on both Postgate and her husband Peter.
To address this imbalance, I interviewed Joan in 2019. During this interview, Joan recalled how the Clangers would need to be unpicked regularly so that the Meccano armatures could be extracted, thereby allowing for the joints to be re-tensioned. After handing over the armature for maintenance, Joan would then take that opportunity to clean the knitted elements. Noting that the Clangers “only had one set of clothes”, Joan recalls how “with them handling them out there in the barn, they did get quite dusty, dirty, and looking manhandled”. This was an activity that Joan undertook without prompting: “they didn’t notice things like that, they would give it to me if one had to be undone because its joints needed tightening, or something, and I’d give them a wash. And that acrylic wool, the colour doesn’t run. I could wash them and hang them on the line, and it didn’t shrink or anything”.
Regardless of potential continuity issues, with Clangers suddenly becoming much cleaner and thereby pinker between scenes, Joan notes how “there were a couple of series, so there were plenty of times when I’d be washing them”. Given the importance placed by the BBC on Clangers being a colourful show, Joan’s frequent washing of the knitted elements constitutes an important – but hitherto neglected – production process. It is not an exaggeration to see Joan’s labour, on multiple levels, as contributing significantly to the show’s iconic visual appeal.
Dr Chris Pallant
Reader, School of Creative Arts and Industries
Faculty Director of Enterprise (Arts, Humanities and Education)
Canterbury Christ Church University
Chapter 6: Technology and Inventiveness within Smallfilms animation: Clangers (1969 – 1974), in Chris Pallant, Beyond Bagpuss: A History of Smallfilms Animation Studio (London: BFI, 2022), pp X – X