Peater Firchlis

4 07 2018

Peater Firchlis RIP

Last week’s passing of renowned animator Peter Firmin – the cove that did Bagpuss, Ivor the Engine, Pogles’ Wood etc etc – has sadly overshadowed the demise the same day of his distant Leodhasach cousin, the slightly less successful Peater Firchlis.

Firchlis and his fellow animator, the late Oliversbrae Rustgate, were so skint when they started off in 1958 that they couldn’t even afford a shed to work in. Their company, Smủirfilms, was so named because it was based in a sheltered spot round the back of Firchlis’s peatstack. But from small beginnings, Firchlis and Rustgate went on to disappoint generations of Outer Hebridean children with their famously ruppish puppets and badly animated cardboard cartoons.

Smuirfilm’s first big break came in 1959 when Maciver & Dart TV commissioned them to produce “Neogan the Knock”, a magical series about a drunken Rubhach Viking and his adventures – which usually started with him staggering out of the Crit, missing the Point Bus, trying to find his way home and getting lost. Married to Queen Gooka of the Nishooks (an Eskimo Princess from the Frozen North), Neogan was always getting in scraps with his wicked and equally drunken Townie uncle Nobad the Barred, who was determined to get Neogan’s croft off him so he could sell it and spend the proceeds in Cathy Ghall’s.

Another big hit for Smủirfilms was an enchanting tale of a group of forest-dwellers, entitled “Bogie’s Wood”. Filmed in the Castle Grounds (usually in the mornings), each episode would typically involve the charming cast of woodland creatures stumbling across a mysterious object and then telling a story about what it was and how it came to be there. Invariably the object in question would be empty when found, and each character’s story would be about how it definitely wasn’t them that had drunk it to the dregs and chucked it in the rhododendrons when the rest weren’t looking. Bogie’s adopted ‘children’ in the show were Meppan – a wee free elf with pointy ears, and Tog – a stripy creature somewhere between a rabbit and a squirrel, who Bogie would often summon with the famous catchphrase: “Balach Tog!”

A masterpiece of dodgy accents and racial stereotyping, “Ivorhill The Engine” was set among the picturesque peatmines, valleys and slagheaps of Bayview. Ivorhill was a plucky little steam locomotive who worked for the “Mossend and Llanplasterfield Railway Traction Company”, with his pioneering transgender role model driver Blones the Steam, and their friends Dai RadarStation and Aonghas the Dragon. Ivorhill’s dearest wish was to sing at the Local Mod with the Blar Buidhe and District Male Voice Choir. Eventually he succeeded, when in one episode his whistle was temporarily replaced with an old chanter, and the choir won the gold medal in the Seann Nòs.

The ever popular Clachangers were a staple of tea-time kids’ telly on BBC Alba in the 1970s. The show featured the adventures of a family of alien beings (or they could have been beings from Aline) living on a barren and atmosphere-less Moor (most likely the Barvas one). The iconic puppets themselves were made by Firchlis’s wife out of leftover wool from TB MacAulay’s shop. The distinctive Clachanger nose was made from knocked off bobban reels from the Kennedy Terrace Weavers’ Colony.

The Clachangers famously communicated with each other by chanter noises, prompting many’s a Chanter Class to descend into chaos as the kids pretended to be Clachangers. It was later revealed by Firchlis that the Clachangers were actually swearing away at each other, rather than having polite musical conversations – much like pipe music.

There were several Clachangers in the family: Major Clachanger- (always teaching them music); Small Clachanger- always trying to buy an underage carryout ; Tiny Clachanger – managing to buy an underage carry out. There were also a few supporting characters including the Spủt Dragon (who would cook a pan of hangover reducing green broth for Tiny and Small Clachanger on a regular basis) and the Iron Guga. (Several incidental cast members on the Clachangers also appeared in “Bogie’s Wood”)

A Saturday late afternoon favourite was The Barvas Brush Show. Brush was a wily weaving fox who used the electric to power his loom, for which he was always after Highlands and Islands Enterprise grants. Brush is best remembered for his catchphrase ‘HIE HIE HIE Loom! Loom!’

Perhaps the most loved of Firchlis and Rustgate’s creations was Bacpuss – a mangy old cat from Vatisker, made out of fuidheags, who sat on a shelf in the shop at G*rd*n D**sel’s, waking up occasionally to bore everybody to fleek with some ruppish yarn he’d told them hundreds of times before. Bacpuss’s pals in the shop included Professor Bachle, a seagull and erudite theological scholar made out of an old tackety boot from Domhlann’s, Lochmaddylene, a rag doll “on holiday” from Uist assembled from 2 old iteachans and a bobban sock, Gabrevig the melodeon-playing toad constructed from an old communion hat, and of course, the lovable singing Church mice and their mouse organ.

Famously, all but 2 of the mice disapproved of the mouse organ and after a big argument at the end of episode one, the majority broke away and established another shop next door, where they sang only unaccompanied Gaelic psalms.

Let us leave you with the rhyme, fondly remembered by children of all ages, that brought the saggy old bobban cat to life each week:

‘Bacpuss, gneach Bacpuss

Old Vatisker Cac puss

Wake up and look at this crap that I bring

Wake up and be bright, be glic and light(hill)

And tell us something right, instead of making up sh**e

From Gress down to Coll, your breugan appal

And even in Brevig, nobody believ-igs

A word of the sgeul that comes out of your beul

It’s enough to give the cuiream to oneofthembleigeardsfrom Gearraidh Ghuirm

Bacpuss oh hear what I sing’

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