Chapter 1: Animation and TV

(Chapter 1 of British animation: The Channel 4 factor by Clare Kitson)

British animation has experienced several great moments. It was great for a while in the 1930s and again in the 1960s. But in the late 1980s the animation world had to acknowledge that it had hit its best form ever. By the 1990s it was getting embarrassing. From 1990 to 1995 the UK won the animation Oscar® every year except one, and even in that year it accounted for three of the five nominations. The story was the same with the Cartoon d’Or for best European animation. Some of these winners were student films, some were supported by the BBC or S4C, but the majority were Channel 4 commissions. In 1993, a year in which all five Cartoon d’Or nominations were British, when it transpired that C4 had commissioned four of the five nominees the Channel was given its own Cartoon d’Or, for its ‘outstanding contribution to high quality animation in Europe’. Yet few at the time bothered to consider quite how extraordinary it was that a broadcaster should invest in these films, given that they were not standard TV half-hours, still less series, and very few were straightforward entertainment.

Animation, of course, is basically nothing more than a group of technologies which can create (rather than merely record) a moving image on a screen. They can be applied to any programming genre, from children’s series to sitcoms, experimental to entertainment to factual formats. Some of these are natural TV genres: script-led, narrative-based, long-form such as feature films, adult comedy and children’s series, but also extremely short-form genres such as commercials, title sequences and idents. All these are sent to animation festivals and the best of them – well scripted or stylishly designed as the case may be – win category prizes. But it is no surprise that television should commission these very natural TV products – indeed the real surprise is that UK television has largely failed to nurture home-grown longer form animation production, as American TV has. Channel 4’s own entries into these genres – two features and a handful of series – are discussed in these pages.

But in festivals, historically, the short film category has been considered the main one and usually furnishes the Grand Prix winner. These films can vary in running time from infinitesimal up to half an hour and in genre from comedy to documentary, from narrative to abstract or any combination of these. Likewise they can be produced in any of the many technologies now accepted under the headword ‘animation’ or in a hybrid of these and other techniques. They often constitute an intense and sometimes challenging viewing experience (and hence their need of the short film format). In many ways the art of animation can be compared to painting which, for the last century, has been developing in different directions, some of which are not accessible to all viewers; modernist ways which often minimise and sometimes totally eschew figuration, ways which offer much to contemplate and demand to be seen over and over. Edwin Carels, in the Rotterdam International Film Festival catalogue (2001), came up with a convincing description of the short film at its best: They are condensed and compact like a prayer, or abstract and open like a meditation. They were not made with a certain audience in mind, but are the result of a passionate belief, an interior dialogue between the artist and the medium.

But is TV the right vehicle for this art form, not made with a particular audience in mind? Short films are hard to fit into schedules based on half-hour units; television is a mass medium (and the general public will tend to prefer entertainment over challenge); and a brief single screening on TV will not satisfy that need to peruse and reflect that we feel after certain of the richest works. Yet one television channel, with an unusual remit from the government, struggled valiantly to make animation – and largely short-form animation – work on TV, with a degree of success which for a while convinced other broadcasters too that it could work. Between them they brought about a blossoming of British animation in the 1980s and 1990s which was acknowledged world wide.

This book examines the unique set of circumstances which led Channel 4 to embark on this endeavour in 1981 and the subsequent changes throughout a period of turmoil in the broadcasting world. But primarily it celebrates the unique body of work which resulted and the filmmakers responsible. Some names – Nick Park, the Quay brothers, Jan Švankmajer – are now known beyond the animation community. Some works – The Snowman, Creature Comforts, Pond Life, Crapston Villas, Bob’s Birthday, Alice, When the Wind Blows, Peter and the Wolf – have become favourites with viewers and critics. Others remain well-kept secrets, which this book intends to illuminate.