As I get older, this keeps happening to me more often; I look up the news of the day and someone I know has passed away. Then I feel sad for a bit and get on with things.
But this morning, when I got the news that we have lost Peter Firmin, aged 89, I was struck by how much Peter and his colleague Oliver Postgate (whom we lost in 2008) had influenced me and the stories I grew to love. When I think of the series I would regularly watch as a child, Ivor the Engine, Noggin the Nog and the Clangers stick out to me alongside Michael Bond’s creations; The Herbs and Parsley, and of course Paddington Bear.
Of course I wasn’t alive for these tiny masterpieces to be around the first time, but my parents had loved them so much that they would seek them out in reruns and on VHS tapes to share them with my sister and I. Because of this I learned that stories, good stories, are meant to be shared with the people we love, passed down and remembered fondly, not to mention that strange moment as a child when you realise that your own very-grown-up parents were children too once upon a time! Madness!
In honour of the joy that Peter brought to me and many others as children, I thought I’d list a few of the things I took away from his programs and have applied to my won writing over the years.
1. Keep it short
The episodes for shows like The Herbs, Noggin the Nog and Ivor the Engine were only about 10 minutes long. That’s not a lot of time, especially when you have to factor in the introductions and the credits at the beginning and end. But like a lot of children’s shows, the stories didn’t really need more time. They were well-told shorts, any more time and they’d have felt bloated and over-stuffed with padding.
I bring this up particularly in a age of big-budget remakes, especially for the big screen of cinema, in which plot-lines are stretched out and over-complicated far beyond what relatively simple concepts can support. Sometimes your story isn’t a nine-hour epic. Sometimes shorter is better.
When I sit down to write, I always find that I start out planning something the length of The Order of the Phoenix and it’s only thanks to kind writing-buddies with sensible questions that I come to realise that my plot will only really stretch to a novella.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Bigger isn’t always better, we need smaller stories too.
2. Inspiration can come from Anywhere
In an interview, Peter Firmin is said to have come up with the name of Noggin after travelling on the London Underground and seeing Neasden Station, which made him think ‘Noggin’. I’m not entirely sure I follow this, but it obviously made sense to him, and he’s the only one who needed to follow that anyway.
Visually the show was inspired by a trip Peter and Oliver took to the British Museum, the look of the characters drawing heavily from the Lewis Chessmen.
In 1969 (the year of NASA’s first landing on the Moon), the BBC asked Smallfilms to produce a new series, but crucially they neglected to specify a storyline. Oliver Postgate adapted an idea from one of the Noggin the Nog stories ‘The Moonmouse’ in which a spaceship crash lands in the new horse trough and its waistcoat-wearing mouse pilot needs fuel to get home, and behold! A series about knitted pink mice-like creatures living inside the moon was born. And naturally they would speak only in whistles. The connections are so obvious!
I do remain sad that Star Trek never visited the Clanger’s moon… I always wanted to see Bones interact with the Soup Dragon, but that may just be me and my weird brain…
I suppose where I’m going with this is that, as any child knows, anything can be the basis of a new story. Anything can spark an idea for a good plot. Be always on your guard and alert to new possibilities, for plot-bunnies lurk around all corners, for those swift enough and watchful enough to catch them!
3. Don’t take yourself too seriously
Noggin the Nog was one of the biggest early influences on my writing and the stories I wanted to tell, because it was a very skilful blend spine-tingling atmosphere and folkloric gravitas while being utterly aware of its own absurdities too.
I know that in the years since Nogging the Nog made his way onto the television screens, there have been a lot of humorous takes of the myth and fantasy landscapes – Dealing with Dragons being a personal favourite – but often such works are all comedy and they never feel quite like a tale told for centuries, like Oliver Postgate’s opening narrative makes me feel:
“In the Lands of the North, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale…”
It sounds so epic, and yet this is a show in which the titular character is called Noggin the Nog, King of the Nogs, husband to Nooka of the Nooks. You can’t even read that with a straight face, can you?
Fantasy is inherently a little silly; there are dragons and goblins and the logic behind the magic and world-views are pretty strange and arbitrary. You could treat it all as a super-serious subject, but you’re going to lose something in the process. I have a Green Man who is literally all green, and another character with horns sticking out of his head in my stories, and no matter how epic the plots end up becoming, I will always be happy to embrace the ridiculous image that conjures up for me!
4. Roll with your weirdness
Something which really stuck with me about a lot of the shows I watched as a child was how they had such utterly bizarre premises, but never felt the need to overthink any of them.
The Herbs has a premise of ‘Herbs are all alive and they have personalities and adventures’ and just throws that at you without explanation. These aren’t magic herbs, they are merely herbs in a herb garden, which must be opened with the magic word: Herbidacious. What?
The Clangers are these weird little pink knitted aliens that live in the craters of the moon, and heck yes there’s a Soup Dragon! What? How else will the Clangers get the green pea soup they live off without him? Huh?
It’s a similar feeling to the opening of The Hobbit for me. The books begins with this:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
And goes on for several paragraphs before we get this:
What is a hobbit? I suppose hobbits need some description nowadays, since they have become rare and shy of the Big People, as they call us. They are (or were) a little people, about half our height, and smaller than the bearded Dwarves. Hobbits have no beards. There is little or no magic about them, except the ordinary everyday sort which helps them to disappear quietly and quickly when large stupid folk like you and me come blundering along, making a noise like elephants which they can hear a mile off. They are inclined to be fat in the stomach; they dress in bright colours (chiefly green and yellow); wear no…
It’s terribly easy, especially when you’ve put a lot of thought into your world-building to over-explain everything. You want to make sure that you don’t lose people, and so you carefully hold their hands and take them in tiny steps through the premise until you’re absolutely sure that they must have got it.
These shows, and indeed many good shows made for children, don’t not explain everything in great detail because it’s being saved up for a mystery later. They just dispense with it all as unnecessary. Explaining why Ivor the Engine has a personality would be redundant, all we need to know is that he does have a personality, and free will, and that everyone around him knows that, and off we go. There are stories to be telling here, who cares why the train engine has a soul?
Have a bit of confidence in your weird premise, chuck it with confidence at your readers and trust them to catch up. So long as you’re consistent in your weirdness, so long as everything has some form of weird logic, it just doesn’t matter how everything works.
I like to call it the ‘Just Roll With It’ principle. As in, whenever I throw a new strange thing into my stories, I write “[Just roll with it]” in the body of the text to save myself from wanting to throw a paragraph of exposition after the strange concept. Then I give the story to my beta readers and see if any of them really can’t keep up without some form of explanation. If no one questions the thing, I take out the little note to myself and move on.
5. Dragons Make Everything Better
What TV shows do you remember as a child? How did they influence you? Please say I’m not the only one who remembers these little treasures?
Catch you next time on Chronicles in Creation!