In 2005 BBC4 ran Animation Nation, a three-part documentary series about the history of British animation which formed probably the single most comprehensive overview of the subject out there. It was an early inspiration for this blog and a source I've frequently turned to for information since.
For a while the series was available on YouTube, but only as an unauthorised upload which has since been removed. Animation Nation really deserves a wider audience, and so I've decided to put together a complete transcript for posterity.
Episode one, The Art of Persuasion, focuses on propaganda and advertising. Here's my transcript of the first half of the episode.
Footage from Matches: An Appeal.
Narrator: The oldest existing animated film in the world is British. It was made in 1899 by Arthur Melbourne-Cooper to advertise Bryant and May matches and created a sensation when it was shown for the first time.
Ken Clark: It was astounding. The fact that he could actually manipulate these matchsticks - because they were matchsticks - and they were wired together with light wire and animated frame by frame, so that these little characters ran about all over the place and even appeared to write the message on the wall.
Narrator: Matches: An Appeal asked patriots in the audience to donate one guinea to enable the Bryant and May match company to send a free box to every British soldier fighting in the Boer War.
Paul Wells: I don't think that Arthur Melbourne-Cooper realised this, but when he started to make a film called Matches Appeal, he was pulling together a film that was going to generate two of the most popular areas that have been taken up by animation: propaganda and advertising.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's famous Murray Mints advert.
Footage from a Spam advert - more stills from it here.
Footage of the 1930 promotional film John the Bull.
Footage from the Levi's advert Clayman, made at Passion Pictures by Mike Mort and Deiniol Morris.
Narrator: For over a hundred years, propaganda and advertising have been the twin engines of the British animation industry. Because when it comes to selling, animation has proved it reaches parts other media cannot.
Peter Lord: It really dives deep into human imagination. It's a fantastically condensed form of communication.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's Philips-sponsored film For Better for Worse.
Bob Godfrey: Animation does sell stuff. And it's memorable, and sometimes it's very funny.
Narrator: It was during the First World War that British animators became widely established as purveyors of propaganda. The style that these early cartoonists used was based on an old music hall act called the lightning sketch, in which a skilled artist would draw a picture in double-quick time. Animators took this one step further, jump-cutting the film to magically develop the picture before using animated paper cut-outs to play out a satirical scene.
Footage from John Bulll's Animated Sketchbook; animation by either Dudley Buxton or Anson Dyer.
Ken Clark: They weren't aimed at kids, no, certainly not, they were made for an adult audience. And remember, this was during wartime, so they had to be amusing at the same time. You needed levity in a state of tension.
Narrator: Cartoonists like Lancelot Speed would lampoon the German Kaiser - doubtless to the jeers and cheers of the audience.
Footage from Lancelot Speed's Bully Boy no. 1 (1914).
Paul Wells: Self-evidently we were in a position of conflict with another country. What propaganda does is to try and isolate things that the public can understand clearly as things that can be ridiculed. These figures, though dangerous, though obviously part of the enemy, they are ultimately people that actually will not be victorious in a war.
Narrator: These jingoistic cartoons were shown in theatres, and played an important role in keeping up morale. When war broke out again twenty years later, animation came into its own was a propaganda weapon. The technique had become more sophisticated, but the message was the same.
Robert Hewison: The point about animation is that it is a graphic medium, and that means that ideas are very quickly illustrated. So you can absolutely, simplify a message down to a simple set of images, very few words, a very minimal amount of movement, just to get a single message through. That's why it's good for propaganda, and that's why it's sometimes not very subtle.
Footage from Adolf's Busy Day (1940), by Lance White.
Narrator: As war with Germany esculated, animators were only too pleased to ridicule Hitler and the Nazis as part of the war effort. Soon, animation would be used in a much more purposeful way by the Ministry of Information, but only after they tried and failed with other methods.
Narrator: By 1941 British cities were being blitzed and there was a nationwide shortage of vital supplies like food and clothing, and raw materials for weapons. Through cinemas, the government launched a huge propaganda campaign.
Robert Hewison: What the government wanted to get across was the idea that this was a people's war. Now, lots of people can't participate - they're farmers, or they're housewives, and so on. So what they did with all those appeals to, you know, save rubbish, dig for victory and so on, what they were doing was trying to bring everybody into the idea that they were part of the war effort.
Narrator: Under the leadership of an ex-advertising man named Jack Beddington, the Ministry of Information commissioned a series of films of which this is a typical example. Its theme is the need to recycle scrap.
Footage from Ealing's Salvage with a Smile, a 1940 live action propaganda film which can be seen online here.
Paul Wells: Typical across a number of films, really, from the forties, is the idea that middle classness, in a very British sort of way, is kind of educating us. And those chaps who speak on those films, very much are telling us where the middle class want us to be. And the working class, of course, who are depicted in these films, are very much people who have to learn.
Narrator: The patronising tone of these live action propaganda films did not have the desired effect on the public. Instead of listening to the government's message, the audience would often groan when the ministry logo came up and often ignore the film completely.
Paul Wells: Even the cinemas had contempt for it, they sometimes actually pulled the curtains when the films were on, and effectively they knew that the public were waiting for the features. So they had to do something, and Jack Beddington, who was a very important figure really, recognised that animation could be the real point of access there.
Narrator: Beddington approached a recently established animation studio called Halas & Batchelor to make a film of the same subject- donating scrap for the way, and they responded with the cheerful patriotism of the Dustbin Parade. The film showed exactly where and how the civilian contribution could help, but in a way that was now witty and engaging.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's Dustbin Parade (1942).
Paul Wells: Suddenly tin cans take on a personality. The rubbish is literally processed into the needs of the war - army uniforms, shells - and it's so much more successful than the live action version.
Narrator: This was a new style of animation for British audiences, one that tipped its hat to the popularity of American Disney films, but whose message and tone were very British.
Paul Wells: You see the rubbish diving into molten vats, dying for the cause, literally. And you'd never see that in American cartoons, you'd never see that in Disney cartoons. And this sense of sacrifice is crucial in those animations.
Narrator: The combination of design, style and political commitment that became Halas & Batchelor's hallmark had its roots in the young studio's origins. A graphic artist who'd spent time at the famous German Bauhaus school of modern design, John Halas was a Hungarian Jew who entered Britain in 1938 along with thousands of other refugees fleeing the Nazi concentration camps. Here, he met and married a talented English illustrator called Joy Batchelor.
Vivien Halas: I think what they both had in common was ambition, and they both believed passionately in animation. They thought it was a new artform - or maybe not new, but they believed that it was an artform like any other, and they wanted to make a difference.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's Compost Heaps for Feeding (1944), viewable here.
Narrator: Among the first staff to work at the Halas & Batchelor studio was Vera Linnecar.
Vera Linnecar: The whole point about animation is, I think, you can tell a story in fifteen seconds that in live action would half an hour or twenty minutes. There's nothing like drawing for getting it across - it's quite an extraordinary medium, really, and you can also pack information very much more clearly. This is why I think they used it.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's Blitz on Bugs (1944), viewable here.
Narrator: In 1943 the studio was given an unusual commission: a series of cartoons to take the propaganda war to the Middle East. These films show the trials of Abu, a young Arab boy, at the hands of a Nazi snake and his helper, the Italian bullfrog.
Robert Hewison: Obviously the Middle East was crucial, because the Middle East was where all the oil came from. And it was a place where there were either neutral countries, or countries which were formally colonial countries. Consequently it was terribly important to win - to use the later phrase - the hearts and minds of people. And the way you did it, of course, was by entertaining them, by amusing them.
Footage from Abu's Poisoned Well (1943).
Narrator: Halas & Batchelor made four films in this series, which were translated into Arabic and Persian and widely screened in the Middle East.
Vivien Halas: They were anti-fascist films, and I don't think that they were exactly told what to do. They were given a brief, then they went away and developed it. And also, these films were made very quickly, if you think that during the war years they made over seventy films. So I didn't think they had much time to think - they got on and they did it. And sometimes one's best work is done under pressure like that.
Narrator: Halas & Batchelor drew on Arabian folk imagery and myth to present the Nazi threat as a venomous reptile which peasant peoples would naturally fear. The Abu films were unashamedly anti-Nazi and pro-British.
Robert Hewison: The British of course are presented, interestingly enough, as a military force, but as a sort of jokey military force, so that on the one hand they represent a kind of authority, but they also represent a sort of help.
Narrator: For the duration of the war such cartoons proved their worth as the sugared pill of propaganda. And although other animation studios were also producing information films, it was Halas & Batchelor who emerged after the war as the most influential. And because animation was so good at selling the government's message in wartime, it would have a role to play in moulding the shape of Britain in peacetime. The end of the war in 1945 was a catalyst for change. A Labour government was elected, set on creating a new kind of society.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's Cold Comfort (1944), viewable here.
Robert Hewison: When the Labour government came in, in 1945, with a massive majority it was committed to social change, social reform. Nonetheless you had to sell the idea - not just to the people who'd actually voted for the "new Jerusalem", but you also had to persuade the skeptical that what was on offer was something of real change.
Narrator: So the Central Office of Information launched a nationwide cinema campaign using Halas & Batchelor's expertise to sell its reforming message to the British public.
Footage from the Charley film Your Very Good Health (1948). More information here.
Dick Horn: At the time I moved in there, as well as the black and white stuff for the Central Office of Information, the Labour Government wanted a series of films to put over their programme of social reforms. So they came up with this idea of a character called Charley, who represented the average man.
Vivien Halas: Actually, he resembled my granfather quite a lot, and he cycles around being rather obtuse, and not wanting to have social security or be covered because he doesn't understand that it's to his advantage.
Narrator: Robinson Charley starred in six short films [note: he was only called "Robinson Charley" in one film, a send-up of Robinson Crusoe] and could never quite see the point of free trade, the new education policy or the new national insurance., but he was gradually persuaded by the argument of the film. Charley was meant to be the classless everyman, appealing to both blue and white collar workers. ~But some found the character unattractive.
Vera Linnecar: Well, I didn't find him very appealing. I thought that he was a bit pompous, really, always right. He had this enormous head and little tiny body, from what I remember. I didn't even like drawing him, he was horrible to draw!
Dick Horn: I think the fault was largely in the design of the character, it looks to me rather like a puppet that's been drawn as an animated cartoon. He wasn't flexible enough to show real feeling.
Narrator: And the product Charley was selling, and the way he was selling it, were inflexible too.
Paul Wells: Getting across the ideas about the welfare state does seem in some ways forced. Propaganda we understand, during the war, wants to impose its messages, wants to get the public on its side, but getting across political and ideological ideas that are not geared towards an enemy is a completely different notion.
Narrator: Halas & Batchelor wasn't the only animation house making cartoons for a new Britain. The Larkins studio was producing short films to the same brief, but with a very different style. And it was Larkins that was now to play a key role in the development of British animation through the work of its charismatic principal director Peter Sachs.
Narrator: Sachs made this film for the Tea Bureau, about the need to make the most of the little tea that was available through rationing.
Footage from Peter Sachs' 1947 film T for Teacher. More stills here.
Paul Wells: It was Peter Sachs' design sensibility that was very important, his graphic design training was effectively startling on the screen, in the kind of the almost... the sort of jagged, modernist lines that he used. It's a very sweet and engaging film, but it's important, I think, because because there's a recognition that at the heart of tea drinking and the qualities of tea, it's also about the quality of human life.
Narrator: Sachs' philosophy on life and art were coloured by his background. Like John Halas, Sachs worked as an animator in Europe before coming to Britain.
Bob Godfrey: Well, his background was central Europe, he was German, he was Jewish, therefore he had to get out of Germany otherwise he would've been thrown in a concentration camp. And he got into Britain, and then of course they rounded up the Jewish refugees and put them on the Isle of Man. But then someone found out that he had worked in the animation business, and they wanted animation films at that time desperately, to make films for the war effort.
Footage from Skymaster, one of Sachs' wartime films.
Narrator: Sachs had spent the war at Larkins' studio, making secret films for the British military using the clear lines of animation to help gunner tell the difference between friendly and enemy aircraft. Now he began employing his talents on information films for a variety of clients, experimenting with different styles of animation and technique.
Sachs' 1948 film Men of Merit. See this post for more stills.
Dick Horn: Peter's style was... the design came first, and the animation supported the design. If it was limited animation he didn't worry, he was much more concerned about the overall look.
Dick Taylor: He made you feel that what you were doing was important and good. The emphasis on quality was such that you couldn't get away with sloppy work with him.
Narrator: Sachs' reputation attracted some of the most gifted British animators to work with him.
Dick Taylor: Well, he was almost the animation version of the continental film director. "Zis schwill happen!", he used to say.
Vera Linnecar: I think his ideas were very forward-looking, and he had a very precise mind - he could analyse a subject very rapidly and try to think of a new way - like he'd come in and say, "this morning we'll try Picasso", you know - I mean, that sort of thing.
Bob Godfrey: He was like Mr. Toad, he was always having these tremendous enthusiasms. You now, he'd say, "this week we're all going to work like Steinberg" or something, I'd say "oh, yes, Steinberg", then he'd come an say "oh, forget that, we're all going to work like..." somebody else, you know. So we were always sort of following his enthusiasms.
Footage from River of Steel, made for the British Iron and Steel Federation. More stills here.
Narrator: This film for the British Iron & Steel Federation shows Sachs' love of German expressionism and his clever use of limited animation to maximum effect. The backgrounds were painted by a young trainee called Bob Godfrey, later to find fame as one of Britain's most successful aniamtors and who was given his first job by Peter Sachs.
Bob Godfrey: He didn't teach me, really, I mean I learned by listening to him saying that what really works in animation was big, generous movements or little, fiddly movements, you know, because your eye goes towards that movement. It was all saying kind of things like that. "If you can animate a horse, you can animate anything", you know, which is more or less true!
Narrator: In keeping with his passion for experimenting with arthouse styles, for this corporate film Sachs drew on the work of Bauhaus artist Paul Klee for inspiration.
Footage from Sachs' 1952 film Balance 1950. More stills here.
Paul Wells: Literally, really, Sachs took the Paul Klee issue of taking a line for a walk, and effectively these animated films often do that - they literally take a line, often as an abstract form in the first instance, but then form them into shapes and obviously objects, and artifacts from the real world that the public associate with. But the tension between abstraction and sort of narrative and figurative imagery is very powerful in his films. There's lovely ideas in it too, for example the naughts in big million figures are singing voices.
Narrator: It was no accident that Peter Sachs and John Halas were both emigrees who'd arrived in Britain needing to make their way. Their combined energies had established the bedrock of an entire industry.
Robert Hewison: Because they'd been used to running things in their own countries, they actually brought a kind of entrepreneurialism which meant that suddenly the British animation industry was forced to get its act together, 'cause here were people who weren't just good animators,they were also good businessmen.
Narrator: Animation's next big sell was of international importance, and it took it further onto the political payroll. The war had left many European countries and their economies in ruins, so the American government came up with a financial aid package known as the Marshall plan to restart trade and industry.
Robert Hewison: General Marshall, who became secretary of state in the United States government in 1947 - that's the equivalent of Colin Powell - proposed that huge amounts of American dollars were poured into Europe to rebuild the European economies. But of course there's a price to pay, and that is the condition for getting these vast sums of dollars from the Americans was that Western Europe should lower its tariff barriers- should, in effect, become what it did become which is the common market. The common market was something the Americans wanted to see happen, and that's why they were prepared to fund pretty folktale films promoting the idea of economic union.
Narrator: Halas & Batchelor were commissioned to make this film, the tale of a poor shoemaker and an elitist hatter, as an allegory about the potential benefits of free trade and the inevitable folly of protectionism.
Footage from Halas & Batchelor's The Shoemaker and the Hatter (1949).
Vivien Halas: The plot is basically the shoemaker, who's poor with a big family, and the shop next door, which is very exclusive - a hatter who only makes the best hats for the best people. And the shoemaker has this idea that you should make lots of shoes cheaply for everyone. And he realises that if he goes to another country, he can trade shoes for something that he needs.
Narrator: By the end of the film, the shoemaker succeeds in helping to overcome trade barriers between countries, and business thrives in a European common market.
Peter Sachs' 1953 film Without Fear. More stills here.
Narrator: The Americans had also commissioned the other principal British studio, Larkins, to make a film promoting the Marshall Plan and Peter Sachs responded not with a European folk tale, but with a more personal address to the people and the continent and he'd left behind. True to the aims of Marshall Plan propaganda, the film graphically illustrates the issue of European trade restrictions. But Sachs' film was also a political call to arms for Europeans to turn their backs on the growing treat of Communism. Marshall Plan money not only made these films, but also paid for them to be translated into the major European languages, including Russian, and shown all over the continent.
Paul Wells: What becomes much clearer now is the fact that the American government and the whole kind of American ideological agenda starts to impact very much on the process and the making of these animated films.
Narrator: As the Cold War between Russia and America intensified, British animation became a weapon in the battle for hearts and minds.
Robert Hewison: And the battle is fought by other means. And essentially it's fought by ideas - "my ideas are better than yours, my values are better than yours".
Narrator: Halas and Batchelor's high-profile handling of animation with political content brought them to the attention of an American producer called Louis de Rochemont. In 1952 he hired them to make Britain's first animated feature film, an adaptation of George Orwell's Animal Farm. The commissioning and making of this film was a great coup and Halas and Batchelor were touted in newsreels as the British Disney.
Vivien Halas: They went from being a small film studio with a good reputation to being the largest studio certainly in Britain if not in Europe.
Footage from Animal Farm.
Narrator: Orwell's story takes place on a farm where the animals are beaten and starved by a brutal farmer. The animals rise up and rebel, driving the farmer out, and a new leader appears - a pig called Napoleon. The animals soon realise they've swapped one cruel dictator for another. First published in 1945, Animal Farm is an allegory of the Russian revolution and the rise of Joseph Stalin.
Paul Wells: Animal Farm was being made as a serious piece of work. You know, it was trying to align itself with the feature-length live action films, transending aniamtion as a kind of popular novelty entertainment and using the language of animation for serious purpose.
Narrator: The film remains largely faithful to the book, but where Orwell left the animals under the terrible control of their new leaders, Halas & Batchelor changed the ending so that the animals overthrew the Stalin character for a better, if undertermined, future.
Vivien Halas: My father said, "Well, we had to change the end, I mean, you cannot send hundreds of audiences home disappointed - it would be too depressing." So I think he took a more commercial view.
Narrator: But this ending also fitted in with the ideology of the American backers, for we now know that the producer, Louis de Rochemont, was a frontman for the American CIA, and it was they who were funding this political warning of the perils of communism.
Paul Wells: In alighting upon Animal Farm as the perfect Cold War story and getting that made by a British studio, what they could do of course was reinforce their ideas about the conduct of the Cold War and the ways in which particular messages were made available to a general public.
Vivien Halas: Did they know that Animal Farm was really Cold War propaganda? Well, I do't think that they did. They'd been looking for a project that they felt was meaningful, because they'd spent the war doing work that they felt was meaningful, and therefore they didn't want to do something that was lightweight. And whether the CIA was behind it or not was really irrelevent, beause the film is what it is.
Narrator: The film premiered in New York in 1954, where its combination of animals, animation and politics was not an easy sell.
[Quotes from newspaper reviews are shown: "Too violent for children", New York Times; "Adult entertainment - cartoon not for kids", New York World Telegram; "It's British and no pig in a poke", Walter Hayes]
This cartoon is shown while the narrator comments on reactions from the press; its artist and place of publication are not named.
Narrator: Although the British press were more supportive, Animal Farm was not the hit its makers had hoped for. It remains, however, a milestone in British animation history.
Dick Horn: I think it made people like the advertising agencies aware that there was a British animation industry, so that when commercials came in only a year later obviously their thoughts turned to using animation.