Monday, 1 February 2010

A Disguised Medium by Graham J. High

Very few books have been written about British animation, so it was a pleasant surprise to find out that a new one surfaced a couple of years ago.

Written by Graham J. High and self-published through in 2008, A Disguised Medium: Adult Political and Social Themes as Portrayed by British Cinema Animation 1941 to 1987 takes a look at four feature films: Animal Farm, Yellow Submarine, Watership Down and When the Wind Blows. Each film, the book argues, is a snapshot of its social climate and a historical document worth studying.

The book is an amended version of a dissertation that High wrote for an Open University MA History course. It's a slim volume, coming in at just under ninety pages, and High himself admits in an introductory note that details are frequently skimmed over to fit the requisite word count. Similarly, the stock of animation-specific references drawn on by the book is fairly limited - BBC4's Animation Nation documentary series turns up repeatedly in the footnotes, and anyone who's seen the documentaries themselves will learn little new about British animation history from this book.

But that's really not the point of A Disguised Medium. The book sets out to examine at the social contexts in which the films were made, treating them as valuable reflections of the political anxieties and social trends of their respective decades. On a larger scale it also aims to help legitimise animation as a segment of British film deserving of study, arguing that it has been unfairly overlooked:
Why is British animation an almost unstudied topic? (...) Hardly any attempt in any published material I have discovered has been made to place the four films examined in this text in the subject area of British cinema generally, despite all four films covering areas and ideas easily as complex and controversial as those of the widely studied 'New Wave' cinema of the 1950s.

Two of the films studied in this dissertation (Yellow Submarine and When the Wind Blows) have no stylistic equivalents anywhere in the world. They are unique artefacts purely on aesthetic grounds, but any historian wishing to consult a scholarly monograph placing such films in a worldwide context even in this area will find the academic field barren except for fragmented scraps in obscure journals.
There are times when the book overstates its argument (at one point High makes the dubious claim that "[n]owhere else in the world will you find such a diversity of adult subjects covered in just a few films") but the enthusiasm remains infectious. High obviously cares deeply about his subject, and the final chapter of A Disguised Medium takes on the tone of a manifesto:
[Nick] Park and Aardman have managed to haul British animation into the global film industry limelight. Now is surely the time to look back and investigate the rich British animation heritage upon which the later award-winning work stands. If this dissertation leaves no impression to the reader other than to emphasise the necessity, urgency, and importance of a thorough academic study of such a heritage, it will have done more than enough to please its author.
A Disguised Medium: Adult Political and Social Themes as Portrayed by British Cinema Animation 1941 to 1987 is available from at £4.15 for a printed copy or at £2.50 as a download.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Neil,

    Apologies for commenting so late on the above.

    Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my book so thoughtfully: It is much appreciated.

    With all best wishes