Sunday, 20 May 2012

Animation Nation: Visions of Childhood part 1

Continuing my transcript of the 2005 documentary series Animation Nation. In the penultimate post, I'll be covering the first half of episode three, which focuses on children's television of the fifties, sixties and seventies.

Narrator: When British animation first appeared on television it was seen as a medium that could only appeal to a specific audience.

Footage from Bagpuss.

Brian Sibley: Animation on television has always been ghettoised because it was seen as being something that was for the children.

Narrator: But despite this ghettoisation, the first British TV animators applied their home-grown inventiveness to create distinctive worlds of fantasy.

Oliver Postgate: It's a lovely feeling to have total control over what happens, however extraordinary you happen to choose it to be.

Narrator: As the children who grew up with this early TV animation matured, so did the medium itself and the next generation of animation exploited its power to interpret their own childhood memories for an increasingly sophisticated audience.

Footage from the Quay Brothers' The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer.

Dave McKean: Animation can go anywhere, that's always been the great plus of animation. It really is spilling your head out on the page, it's getting inside someone else's mind and imagination.

Narrator: This is the story of how British TV animation came of age without ever growing up.

Footage from Peter Lord's Adam.

Narrator: Animation is the most successful conjuring trick we know. At its best it connects us with a deep and childish desire to bring things to life.

Brian Sibley: That is what children do. They bring their toys to life, they always have done. And that is of course the origin of where all puppetry comes from, and a little way down the line where animation comes from.

Footage from A Dream of Toyland.

Narrator: From its earliest beginnings, British animation used this transforming power to appeal directly to a child audience.

Brian Sibley: And it's interesting that one of the earliest pioneers of animation in Britain, Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, took exactly that idea. He said, 'supposing a child were to fall asleep and have that childhood dream that toys could come alive.' He went to his own child's toybox and said, 'if I were to use those toys, and manipulate them, I could make them appear to be alive.' And that's exactly what he did in his film Dreams of Toyland.

Narrator: Cooper's methods may have been primitive, but to an Edwardian audience his stop frame techniques were magical. As the medium developed, other animators used them to conjure up fantastical worlds of monsters and talking animals that had only previously lived in fairy tale.

Footage from a Lotte Reiniger film.

Marina Warner: And animation could actually bring these phantoms, these imaginary feelings, and figures, into the real physical world for the first time. It was an absolute miracle. You see a kind of material embodiment of what goes on inside your head with your eyes closed into the chamber of the mind, and that's how it relates to fairy tales and to fantasies and to dreams.

Footage from Noggin the Nog.

Narrator: In the nineteen-fifties, when British animation was first commissioned for television, animators understandably looked to the world of myths and children's stories to create new characters like Noggin the Nog.

Oliver Postgate: In writing them I tried to make them all the shape of a small saga, and that same story shape suited the six episodes which we had to make for the BBC.

Peter Firmin: Well, it was basically the other side of what happened in the twelfth century, but in a very confined little world in the northlands, with the fjord and the castles on the hill and that sort of thing.

Narrator: Noggin was more storybook than comic book, with Oliver Postgate's comforting commentary inhabiting a world of classical heroes and fantasy creatures that contrasted sharply with the glitz and frenzy of Disney.

Nick Park: Oliver Postgate's voice had a real impact, and an absorbing kind of power which was just wonderful and magical. And it completely kind of engaged you, immediately.

Oliver Postgate: (in character as the Ice Dragon) "I just want to go back to bed! I've been slept here in my ice cold cave for a thousand years, and now I've been smoked out! I just want to go back to bed!" I mean, one has to sympathise with an ice dragon.

Nick Park:
I loved seeing stories brought to life with animation on TV as a kid. I mean, it wasn't that sophisticated. In fact, it was quite the opposite: you know, the cutouts of Noggin the Nog, you know, they moved jerkily and very basically, but in a way the charm kind of got you past - you weren't concerned with the technique, that was part of the charm, in fact.

Narrator: The simplicity of Noggin the Nog reflected the economic and scheduling decisions that all British TV animation faced at the time. Other children's series like John Ryan's Captain Pugwash used jointed characters from pop-up storybooks for cheapened comic effect.

Footage from Captain Pugwash.

Gordon Murray: It was a very simple form of animation. these drawings had little levers at the side, and John Ryan and his team used to work them. And the effect was of an animation cartoon.

Narrator: By the end of the nineteen-fifties British children's television had helped to establish a cottage industry of animators working in a very different climate to their American contemporaries.

Paul Wells: I think what these programmes wanted to do was to kind of be distinctive in their own right. They weren't as it were borowing from a bigger tradition - from Disney, for example. So the children's audience were seeing a kind of different animation style, a different kind of storytelling device using this animation, which in fact was years old, but fresh to these eyes.

Footage from The Pogles.

Narrator: For their next series, The Pogles, the makers of Noggin the Nog created a more realistic, three-dimensional world of witches and woodland folk.

Oliver Postgate: I liked the idea of using single-frame puppets because I didn't have to push them about with a pin on the flat, they could move, I could push their bodies - they had stiff bodies - and so I looked for another set of characters which I might be able to use.

Peter Firmin: You got me to build you the world!

Oliver Postgate: Absolutely!

Peter Firmin: I made the world in the barn, so they were trees and there was ivy and there were cake tins full of grass.

Oliver Postgate: The first Pogles story I wrote was a traditional fairy tale with a witch, and it had a confrontation with a witch - "and in the mud at the end of the world you shall crawl to the lasting of my spite", and, er...

Peter Firmin: She was nasty. When they got rid of her one way, she found another way of magic - I mean, she turned up as a boot or a bottle or something knocking at the door. I mean, it was so frightening, really, when you think of what kids might think about at night when someone knocks on the door.

Narrator: But TV commissioners, concerned to make television a refuge for a generation still recovering from the horrors of war, were uncomfortable with some of the darker aspects of these modern fairy tales.

Oliver Postgate: The BBC didn't care for the witch, because they said - I think rightly - that witches in fairyland is alright, but witches in the back garden is something different. They thought children would be frightened of it, and indeed children are frightened of it when they see the videos of the film.

Narrator: So The Pogles became Pogles' Wood, without the evil witch, who was deemed too threatening for children.

Marina Warner: Well this was, of course, this very strong moral idea that children should be protected from things that are unpleasant, and that children suffered from fantasies and nightmares, were too vulnerable to this kind of projection, and therefore it should somehow be sort of calmed down. They should also be morally schooled into the right kinds of values and attitudes.

Narrator: In keeping with this moral stance on childhood, BBC children's commissioners sought to present a safer and More uplifting vision of society in general. Gordon Murray returned to Melbourne-Cooper's world of the toybox to create the cast of his whimsical world of Camberwick Green.

Footage from Camberwick Green, showing the iconic music box.

Gordon Murray: I wanted to start Camberwick Green with something that would catch the eye, and I thought about a music box going round, and this episode's character coming up who invites us into the story.

Narrator: Gordon Murray combined his expertise as a TV puppeteer with the model techniques used by Postgate and Firming to bring his world to life, frame by frame.

Behind-the-scenes footage from Camberwick Green.

Gordon Murray: You have a camera that takes one frame per click, in other words you have a movement tht has to be adjusted, click, adjust, click, adjust, click, adjust, click. And when you have 24 of those clicks you have one second of film. So you have to have terrific patience to be a puppet manipulator.

Narrator: Camberwick Green's success was to create a complete world in miniature, set to simple stories and song.

Footage from Trumpton.

Gordon Murray: Originally, the Camberwick Green programmes did very well indeed, and then they asked me to do thirteen more episodes. So I said 'well, why not move up the road to the local county town, and have Trumpton?' So they agreed and more puppets were made, and then Chigley came on top of that, and Chigley added more characters plus a biscuit factory, a stately home and a railway, a canal and a wharf, which extended the scope tremendously.

Footage from Camberwick Green.

Paul Wells: Effectively Gordon Murrary's  world reflected in something like Trumpton was a very nostalgic, small English idyll, very parochial, very patriarchal, everybody knows their place, there's a very distinct social hierarchy, everyone has a social purpose, and of course everyone gets on very well.

Narrator: Though hugely popular with the child audience, there was little in the world of Trumptonshire designed to appeal to a more sophisticated viewer.

Brian Sibley: Animation on television has always been ghettoised. I think it was ghettoised originally because it was seen as being something that was for the children. It was partly to do with the programming, it was programmed on children's television and really it's only due to one particular series that this ever started to change, and that's The Magic Roundabout, because by a quirk of scheduling, nothing more, The Magic Roundabout happened to be transmitted just before the evening news on the BBC, and suddenly the grown-ups, who were turning on their televisions to see the latest news broadcast, happened to run slam-bang into the world of Dougal, Zebedee, Florence and all those other wacky little characters.

Footage from Le Manège enchanté/The Magic Roundabout.

Narrator: The Magic Roundabout started life as Le Manège enchanté, a French children's series that was frenetic and noisy. It was made in Paris by Serge Danot and an Englishman called Ivor Wood. BBC commissioners again felt it should be toned down, and so they asked children's presenter Eric Thompson to turn this chaotic world into something more appropriate for a child audience. Thompson's response was to approach the series with a distinctive British sensibility, as his widow, actress Phyllida Law, recalls.

Phyllida Law: One day the BBC delivered this very strange machine, quite portable for the study, to have two pram wheels on it and the film just slotted through that, and there was a tiny screen, smaller than a make-up mirror, in the middle. He worked the two wheels, and he worked them with his feet and wrote down the script, looking at this tiny, tiny little picture of sugarlumps and small creatures buzzing about backwards and forwards, and just invented from there. He refused to look at the French script, absolutely refused. Thompson was very keen on naming things: and he called Dougal 'Dougal' because of the Scottish connection - I'm Scots, and he invented the first scripts of The Magic Roundabout in Scotland, in a tiny cottage. Somebody called it Alf Garnett's moustache out for a walk, which I think is brilliant. So he liked all that. And Ermintrude's supposed to be me, and Brian I think was Brian Cosgrove, that's the snail, we liked best because he was optimistic and thoroughly irritating, both of which he was.

Narrator: The script Thompson eventually delivered was surreal, and often frankly strange, full of cultural refrences that were far above the heads of its supposed core audience.

"'This is going to be the greatest picture ever made,' said Dougal modestly. 'This will make Ben Hur look like an advertisement for Turkish Delight. This will make Ken Russel spit with jealousy.'"

Brian Sibley: The essence of The Magic Roundabout's success was because it gave us an extraordinary and unexpected juxtaposition. It took images that looked sweet and cute and pretty and funny, and it put against them a very strong, knowing, satiric commentary. The authoritative storytelling voice suddenly isn't just the voice that's telling us a cosy tale, it's a voice that's actually a very quirky voice, a voice that's having very, very strange characters who are saying very, very off-the-wall things. Because what Eric Thompson brought to it was the sensibility of Tony Hancock, of the whole of the sixties satiric movement - That Was the Week That Was - which made this something which was not just for children but which as something adults could enjoy too.

Phyllida Law: I suppose he didn't know that that was going to work, and when it did work it took him down alleyways that were interesting, and different, and he got into it in some strange way, not another world - surreal activities.

Narrator: As Thompson expanded his whimsical world, the characters from The Magic Roundabout and Trumpton were reincarnated into the real one through a new development: merchandising. In the late 1960s the horizons of childhood were broadening, and animators were among the first to appeal directly to these new consumers.

Brian Sibley: Isn't it curious that we have these characters that we fall in love with, who look as though they are children's toys, and then we are sold a Dougal, and then we - as children - play with that Dougal, we play with it, we ourselves animate it, bring it to life, make it our Dougal and run it around the sitting room floor in the same way that Dougal runs around on the screen? So the whole thing goes full cycle, the tows inspire the film, that inspires the toy, that then inspires the child to play with the toy from the film.

Footage showing Magic Roundabout and Trumptonshire merchandise.

Narrator: In 1969 Trumptonshire and Magic Roundabout were the to top-selling toy brands in the UK. the revenue generated became an essential part of the funding for making more animated films and set the  pattern for the way in which British children's animation has financed itself ever since.

Gordon Murray: When I started the animation side of things it was extremely dicey. I relied very much on merchandise, hopefully, if I hadn't had the merchandise I'd be bust. In fact, by the time I'd done all the programmes, the whole of the Trumptonshire programmes, I had over thirty different titles on the market, and also the toys, the games, the puzzles and so forth. And life was very rosy.

Narrator: With the help of merchandising money, British animation was free to pursue more ambitious themes. At a time when boundaries of society and childhood itself were expanding, established animators like Postgate and Firmin responded with distinctive new voices.

Footage from The Clangers.

Oliver Postgate: In the beginning was the void, and the void was eight-by-five sheets of hardbord painted midnight blue. On the first day three we stars upon, even unto the uttermost corners, and we looked upon it and saw that it was terrible and started all over again. Would that the good Lord had had a chance to do the same.

Narrator: The Clangers' moon was a world where surreal things could happen, and frequently did. Musical notes grown on magical trees could power flying ships, and medical bags spout surreal sound-shapes to excited froglets.

Oliver Postgate: [Plays a flute used for the Clangers' voices] And this was out of the script, and let's say, actually, "oh, sod it, the bloody thing's stuck again." Because the big doors had stuck. People used to say to me, "how did you get the noise of the Soup Dragon's voice?" I would say... [performs the Soup Dragon's distinctive gurgling noise] "Oh dear," they said. "Yes, of course."

Narrator: Though its core was filled with soup this planet was not so remote from Earth that it remained untouched by the space race.

Oliver Postgate: When the Apollo space probe was going to the moon, Apollo 14 was due out, we made a Clangers film in which a spacecraft lands. Actually, on the moon - they're hiding, looking out for this, and the spacecraft comes down, actually a set of four penny Golden Ring fireworks fixed to the bottom of the spacecraft. It comes down and out of it comes a spaceman, an actual spaceman in his spaceman suit.

Peter Firmin: We decided this before there was a real landing with men, so at the time we weren't sure whether it would be the Americans or the Russians who'd land, do I invented a flag which has the stripes and the stars and the hammer and sickle in the other corner, so we could sort of go either way.

Narrator: Whilst the Clangers looked own on our worked with benign disbelief, Ivor Wood was using the skills he'd honed making The Magic Roundabout to create another imaginary world whose characters were rooted very much in our own.

Footage from The Wombles.

Barry Leith: It was pure Ivor insofar as he basically designed the whole lot and animated it, so somebody else might have been finding the finance, somebody else is writing it, but ultimately the transposition that he did was... you know, it was his magic, purely his magic.

Narrator: Like the Clangers, the Wombles were affected by human contact, but through Ivor Wood's magic their vocation was to recycle our worst excesses into something good. Tobormory, Uncle Bulgaria and the rest may have been ecological activists, but what made them a hit with young and old alike had more to do with pester power. Executive producer Graham Clutterbuck was acutely aware of their potential as toys and, having learnt the lessons of the 1960s, Wombles merchandising was in place well before the series went on air.

Barry Leith: When we were starting The Wombles, Graham, who was running the company then, he was very keen and very hot on its merchandising - 'cause he had to be, because of the financial side of things. But equally he was quite brazen, he would go in Hamley's and if the Womble merchandising wasn't near the front of the counter he'd shove all the other stuff aside and bring the Womble stuff out the front.

Footage showing Wombles merchandise.

Narrator: The Wombles became a merchandising phenomenon, worth seventy million pounds a year and translated into forty languages. They even formed their own pop group, fronted by composer and Orinoco impersonator Mike Batt.

Footage of the Wombles band.

Barry Leith: Without Mike Batt dressing up as a Womble, and putting the group of Wombles on the road, I think the success of The Wombles - it would have still happened but it would have taken longer.

Narrator: Bizarrely, the Wombles were one of the best-selling chart acts of 1974. But this new rock-and-roll lifestyle came with its own excesses.

Barry Leith: There was a young fellow, I won't say his name, he got a little bit of adverse publicity because he was caught smoking marijuana, and that hit all the press - "Wombles in drugs scare" and all this sort of stuff. That was a minor setback but it didn't stop anything in the end.

Narrator: The money from the Wombles marketing machine allowed Ivor Wood to produce animation that was a huge step on from the primitive stop-frame storytelling of the 1950s, but it was part of a genre that remained whimsically British.

Brian Sibley: If whimsy was originally one of the kind of defining features of children's animation on British television, it did survive despite whatever people tried to do to take it off on a different direction. That's why we have Paddington, that's why we have Bagpuss and all his entourage that comes alive but only in the secret world of where toys come alive.

Footage from Paddington and Bagpuss.

Narrator: Bagpuss and Paddington were the latest in a long line of animated TV characters to rival traditional fairy tales in the affections of children.

Marina Warner: We probably now think, especially children of the television age, we now have our thought process formed by these very vivid impressions. They are very influential - these are showcases of our values, of our shared values, and television entertainment is above all that, it is the mythic vehicle of our time.

Brian Sibley: Bagpuss is a cult image, the Clangers are a cult image, Parsley and Paddington - all of these characters now live in our minds in the same way that characters from fairy tales and folk stories do.


1 comment:

  1. It's fascinating (at least to me), to see the evolution of British animation for children in the TV realm. While America went down the path of cheap, hand-drawn assembly line work spear-headed by the cartoon mills of Hanna-Barbera, Filmation and others, UK animators had to rely on much cheaper means of resources and execution but were able to craft far more interesting stories than what could be done over the pond on our over-commercialized sets.