Alan Gilbey has been active in animation writing since the late nineties, playing key roles in such series as Rex the Runt, Aaagh! It's The Mr Hell Show!, Bounty Hamster, The Foxbusters, the revived Pinky And Perky Show and Frankenstein's Cat and co-founded Peafur Productions with Dave Freedman. In this interview he speaks out on his past, present and future.
LC: How did your first experiences with the animation industry go?
AG: I'd always drawn comics and cartoons and when I left school at seventeen (I went to the kind of East End secondary modern where kids who went to university were rarer than Elephant Men) the Central London Careers office sent me for interviews at animation companies.
This was in the days when there was still lots of advertising money in animation and lots of animators actually animating around Soho Square, but you had to start at the bottom. They were looking for runners. I failed to get a job at Richard Williams Animation. In fact I didn't get any further than the foyer (I was a chubby kid so perhaps they thought I wouldn't be much good at running) but I did get to see the Oscar he'd just won for A Christmas Carol.
Next I was sent over to Halas and Bachelor in Covent Garden and climbed ten thousand stairs in an old warehouse to be interviewed with Mr Halas himself. When I showed him my comic strip work, which was a bit Sex Pistols meets Jack Kirby, he frowned and said he found it too aggressive (well, he had made the Jackson Five and Osmonds cartoons!) So it was back down those ten thousand stairs again and the end of my attempts to get into animation for a very long time.
Fast forward twenty years and a visit to Hibbert Ralph Animation (later Silver Fox Films) for a chat about scripting a new BBC Christmas special, The First Snow Of Winter. This was one of our first paid jobs and I couldn't put my finger on why the place felt familiar, but when my eyes wandered round the room they fell upon an old metal sign, wedged down the back of a filing cabinet. It said 'Halas And Batchelor.'
LC: How did you meet Dave Freedman?
AG: We were both gigging around the sub-basements of the London comedy circuit. I had been in a musical double act for a year or so and Dave was just starting out as a stand-up. He was American, a graduate of the New York School Of Visual Arts and was working in advertising art direction, which meant he knew many animators - like Golly (Richard Goleszowski) the creator of Rex the Runt.
We both drew. We both loved cartoons. We both had all the same books. One day Dave suggested that perhaps the standard of animation writing in the UK was now lagging behind that of the sassier new US shows like Rocko's Modern Life (of which we were both fans) and The Simpsons. But if a couple of British based writers who had done well in other fields but understood animation got together perhaps we might make a bit of an impact. So we did. And we did.
LC: Can you tell us a little about setting up Peafur Productions with him?
AG: In the early days the name was just a way of being taken seriously. Two guys in a room writing is just two guys in a room writing, but Peafur Productions sounds like it has a receptionist and pot plants. Dave worked from home and I had a part time job as a community drama worker for Tower Hamlets Council so a lot of our early stuff was written in a swimming pool on the Isle of Dogs! This went on for several years as we worked towards the point we could give up our day jobs completely.
We got an agent in the States because Dave is American and not scared of making phone calls. The third agent he rang expressed an interest and asked us to write a spec script for a US series we liked. We did The Tick and the agent almost sold it! Then she got us a couple of episodes of Casper the Friendly Ghost for Universal, which was unusual for UK based writers. We also began to come up for hundreds of ideas for our own series, one of which was Mr Hell.
When we got the go-ahead to make The Mr Hell Show (eight years later!) we needed a production base for the series and staff had to take on, so Peafur finally became a proper company. Core members included animator/character designer Barry Baker (perhaps best known for his recently revived 'Red Car/Blue Car' Milky Way ad) and Jeff 'Swampy' Marsh, now co-creator of current Disney hit Phineas and Ferb.) Swampy had worked on The Simpsons and bringing him over was a factor in swinging the show with the BBC. They wanted someone with adult comedy animation experience on the team and he still owes me for a sandwich.
We all ended up in a small two story building round the back of a shop on Clapham High Street, which got broken into constantly. It was cramped but had just enough room for a spiral staircase up to the ‘executive’ offices , where the pot plants lived. Mr Hell was partly made here and later Bounty Hamster too.
LC: How did you end up working with Aardman on Rex the Runt?
AG: It's not what you know. It's who you know – a bit (although if you really don't know anything they soon find out!) Dave had already worked with Golly on some animation for the ad agency he was with then. So when he needed some help with Rex The Runt he thought of Dave.
In the wake of the early success of Wallace and Gromit Micheal Rose at the BBC animation department in Bristol (who has just produced The Gruffalo) was interested in other Aardman ideas, but Rex was a madder, more maverick prospect. The BBC were intrigued, but not convinced, so Dave and I were asked to help Golly write more structured stories.
We all sat about together, chatted a lot, played lots of games of consequences to keep the very random feel of Rex, then we went off and wrote thirteen five minute episodes based on all of that. These got the show commissioned. Indeed the BBC liked them so much they extending the running time to ten minutes.
After that Michael asked us to write some English dialogue for a French film the BBC were a partner in (Sylvain Chomet's The Old Lady and the Pigeons) and we got an interview with Brian Cosgrove of Cosgrove Hall. He handed us a children's book, The Foxbusters by Dick King-Smith, and asked what we would be with if it were an animated series. A few weeks later we pitched our take on it, got the gig and eventually our first TV series.
It all sounds a bit jammy really, but we starved a fair bit too!
LC: The Mr Hell Show and Rex the Runt are adult series, which is unusual for British animation - how did you find working in this area?
AG: It was great – and very frustrating. There were no rules for trying to be 'Britain's answer to The Simpsons' so you had to learn them on the job. But there's no cutting room floor in animation, especially animation produced to the kind of schedules we had on Mr Hell, so all your mistakes end up on the screen... and they're your first episodes! Add to that the way UK broadcasters seemed to lose faith in adult animation series incredibly quickly and slide them around the schedules so no one can find them, and you end up with a situation where your very best episodes are screened after midnight on a Sunday!
There's so much we could do with adult animation, but it needs time to fully bloom and consistent broadcaster support to find it's audience.. like most live action comedy does.
LC: Shortly after Rex the Runt first aired, I remember a letter printed in The Radio Times - very prominently placed, too, with a picture of Rex to go with it - that said something along the lines of "I want to express my disgust at the BBC's Rex the Runt. It was advertised during daytime television as an animated series about dogs, implying that it was for children, and I was shocked by the language it contained" (Funny how these things can stick in your mind). What do you make of this criticism?
AG: Although the animation department knew what they were getting, the schedulers (allegedly) didn't watch any of the actual shows and stuck it on the wrong time. Ignoring any notions that Rex was always supposed to be a quirky adult show, they just saw the name Aardman and thought 'Nice bit of cheese Gromit' then scheduled it for lunch times right across Christmas. As a consequence disturbed children everywhere got to see Bad Bob shooting Vince and calling him a bastard!
Really, there's not much of that kind of stuff in the show at all, just random weirdness, but I've been told that once you're labelled a problem series the label sticks and the BBC don't forgive you. So they've never shown any interest in repeating it since, although I suspect the Mighty Boosh generation would love it. In Japan there used to be a Rex themed bar!
LC: What cartoon would you say you enjoyed working on the most?
AG: It's usually any of them when they're in pre-production before executive notes come in and it all goes pear shaped!
Mr Hell was hell to make because of the insanely tight production schedule (thirteen shows from scratch to completion in nine months) so it was hard to enjoy it, but in retrospect those later episodes were really turning into something good. Foxbusters was fun because it was our first show and I still miss the characters. On Bounty Hamster I got to design spaceships, which made the nine year Alan very happy and Frankenstein's Cat looked so nice you felt great just being a part of it.
Today I'm loving two pre-school series that I've developed. One is about philosophy for very small kids (not easy!) and just won an award in Seoul...which was nice. The other I've created in a very deliberate attempt to honour the Oliver Postgate gentle storytelling tradition. All the characters are named after my uncles and aunts and I really, really hope we'll get it into production.
LC: Who would you say your influences are?
AG: For comedy it's definitely Spike Milligan and early Mad Magazine, whose influence you'll see all over Mr Hell. In comics it was Leo Baxendale, Jack Kirby and Don Martin. In animation it's all the stuff I watched as a kid, especially Ivor The Engine, Captain Pugwash and lots of Warner Bros. By the time I realised that people actually directed these things it became Tex Avery, probably the first director whose style I began to recognise and seek out more of . As a kid I also absorbed all those odd little public information films, whose stories I now know more about because of your blog.
Dave always said I had a mixed US/UK approach to things and I think that's true.
LC: What does your role as a consultant on Channel 4's animation schemes involve?
AG: It changes from scheme to scheme, but generally it's helping individual film makers with the thing I used to be pretty bad at myself – story structure. Often an animator's film looks great but there's just not enough going on to fully satisfy a viewer by the end. It's got a great technique and a nice initial idea but there's no extra development. Rather than taking you on a journey the film just stops.
I run active workshops for scheme participants where we explore story structure, then become one of the people looking at their subsequent scripts and animatics and giving my reactions.
The knack of it is not to swamp them with my own ideas of what their film should be, but simply help unlock any extra stuff they haven't thought of yet. You're not trying to impose some cliched Hollywood story template on them. It's more like song writing You're helping them find all of the riffs, rhythms and choruses which will make their films sing better.
LC: Is there anything you think is missing from British TV animation?
AG: Rolf's Cartoon Time. Really!
Just seeing him mentioned on your blog made me think how important that show, and later shows with Tony Robinson, were. To have a very popular kid's TV programme that celebrated the past, that exposed kids to all kinds of animation, that made them think 'Maybe I could make something like that one day too' was massively important – and massively missed.
Conveying a sense of authorship, be it Chuck Jones, Oliver Postgate, Nick Park or Marc Craste is vital to a healthy animation future, especially in the UK. We need to show children not all animation pours off a production line on the other side of the world. The best was and is made by all kinds of different people with all kinds of different voices, and maybe one day theirs might be amongst them too.
Apart from that, to the BBC and C4 generally, please just value what you have and show it, old and new. Treat it like it's got a bit of value and perhaps people will ask for more. BBC Bristol helped pay for Sylvain Chomet's first film but they never screen it. In Australia and Canada The Mr Hell Show was shown in consistent time slots, got decent audiences and won awards. But you'll never see it here again. Not that I'm still bitter. Grrrrrr.
LC: If a channel gave you sack of cash, complete creative control and a talented crew and told you to break new ground, what would you do?
AG: See if Rolf was busy!
Also I'd make animated inserts for live action comedy shows: bumpers like they added to the Tracy Ullman Show in the States. By breaking new characters to a mass audience this way we might also build an interest in seeing more of them and finally create the show that really was 'Britain's answer to The Simpsons'. And I'd make my really funny kid's show about a ferret.
LC: Any future projects that you're at liberty to tell us about?
AG: I've done a lot of development this year and, although it's dodgy to count cartoon chickens before they're hatched, things are looking good for quite a few of them. They're ridiculously diverse and range from the pre-school philosophy series I mentioned earlier - to a comedy adventure martial arts series based on a computer game - to a deliberately silly show about Belgium's number one girl band! (Sadly because of the state of the UK industry a lot of my projects come from mainland Europe now.) I'm also about to adapt a children's book by Michael Dudok de Wit into a series.
LC: Did you work on any projects that ended up axed?
AG: Billions. Mr Hell died three times before we finally got him to the screen and we just lost the second series of Frankenstein's Cat because the full finance package didn't arrive in time. It's a great shame as that show was really taking off with kids and the next series would have been animated in the UK (the first was made in France.) There's also been some lovely stuff which never made it even to partial finance. Have I mentioned a show about a ferret?
LC: Is there any advice you'd give to people who are hoping to enter the animation field?
AG: It's a tough question in this tough time. We really need to get tax breaks for UK animation from the government or all the work will continue to haemorrhage abroad and learning French or French-Canadian might be the best advice I can give aspiring animators. Being willing to travel may be essential for the cartoonists of the future who are seeking commercial work.
If you want to make your own films be prepared to go it alone and use all the new channels of distribution out there to build an audience for your films - like the Brothers McLeod have done so well. Other opportunities may follow.
If you're a writer, watch tons of animation - all kinds - all techniques - all different ways of telling stories. Please don't write lots of people just sitting around talking. That only works for Ricky Gervais.