Thursday, 26 July 2012

Kathleen "Spud" Houston

Kathleen Houston at the 1987 Annecy festival.


The name of Kathleen "Spud" Houston will often come up if you dig into the history of British animation, but very little biographic information has been written about her. This is most likely because, while she had a long career lasting from the thirties to the eighties, she directed very few films herself.

Born Kathleen Murphy, the first film she worked on was The Fox Hunt, a 1937 short directed by Anthony Gross, Hector Hoppin and Laszlo Meitner. An article in a 1987 issue of Animator Magazine gives a brief overview of her formative years:
Kathleen “Spud” Houston was all set to become a dress designer following a five year Fine Arts course in Edinburgh. Then by chance she took a job at London Films in 1935 where Foxhunt by Hoppin and Gross was in production. There she discovered painting, tracing and animation.
The next year she worked with Anson Dyer on an advertising film called The King with the Terrible Hiccups, and for British Animated Films on How the Motor Works - Denis Gifford credits her as the sole animator on this production, so this may have been her directorial debut. She would not make a personal film until much later, however.

She continued to work as an animator on Dyer's advertising shorts, namely The Queen was in the Parlour (1939) and I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (1940) and put in a personal appearance in You're Telling Me, a 1939 documentary about Dyer's studio.

After this she began working for two fellow British Animated Films alumni, John Halas and Joy Batchelor. She served as an animator on a string of early-forties and propaganda films from the illustrious pair: Train Trouble, Carnival in the Clothes Cupboard, The Fable of the Fabrics, Filling the Gap, Dustbin Parade and Digging for Victory.

As Kathleen Houston - she appears to have married sometime in 1942 or 1943 - she worked on the Abu series, Tommy's Double Trouble and Six Little Jungle Boys.

According to Animator Magazine, Houston worked in Bombay from 1944 to 1948 for Information Films of India. However, Denis Gifford credits her with animating for a couple of Halas & Batchelor shorts in 1947, so I am unsure as to the exact chronology. She continued to work at the studio from 1948 to 1952 on a number of shorts, most notably on the Charley series of propaganda films.

Animator Magazine states that she worked on a Larkins short called The Potter and his Daughter during this period. I can find no other references to a film of this name; it is possibly an alternate title for Enterprise, a 1950 Larkins short which is about a potter and his daughter, but the BFI database does not list Houston in the credits.

After this she spent twenty years in New Zealand, helping her husband Ian, a fellow animator. In 1968 she made Petunia, her first personal film.

She returned to Britain and, from 1970, worked with Bob Godfrey on Henry 9 Till 5, Ways and Means, Kama Sutra Rides Again, Noah and Nelly in SkylArk and Roobarb; and for Larkins on The Electron's Tale, The Gas Genie and This is B.P. She then returned to Halas & Batchelor and worked on Kitchen Think (1974).

Houston's next jobs were Bill Melendez's 1975 feature Dick Deadeye or Duty Done, the the 1977 H&B Noah's Ark, the 1978 classic Watership Down and the 1979 Bob Godfrey/Halas & Batchelor/Zagreb collaboration Dream Doll. IMDB also credits her with working on the Hanna-Barbera series Scooby's All Star Laff-A-Lympics in 1978, but I can't confirm this.

In 1980 she completed How the Kiwi Lost its Wings, a personal film which she began in 1976; based on a Maori legend it was presumably inspired by her time in New Zealand. Afterwards she worked on the Marjut Rimminen-Christine Roche shorts I'm Not a Feminist, But... and Some Protection, made in 1986 and 1987 respectively.

Back in 1984 she had began working on Children of Wax, based on a folktale from Zimbabwe, and finished it in 1988. This appears to have been her last piece of work as an animator.

Unfortunately, I have not been able to obtain copied of any of her personal films and so can say nothing about Kathleen Houston as an artist. But it's clear that she had a long and remarkable career, lasting from the days of Anson Dyer to the era of Channel 4's experimental animation, putting her in the employ of John Halas, Joy Batchelor, Marjut Rimminen, Bob Godfrey, Bill Melendez and others, and spanning Britain, India and New Zealand.

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