Animation Nation, BBC4

by | Oct 31, 2005 | All, Reviews

What to say if you liked it?

A chronicle of great British animation and its achievements in the field of persuasion.

What to say if you didn’t like it?

A boring trek round archaic adverts and propaganda that have no relevance to anything.

What was good about it?

• The showing of the oldest surviving animated film, which happens to be British. It’s an advert for Bryant & May matches from 1899 asking the audience to donate one guinea so that the company can give a free box of matches to every British soldier fighting in the Boer War. It was animated frame by frame using real matches, and despite how scratchy the film looks, the sequence itself has dated surprisingly well.

• Some good points about animation were made throughout: it simplifies ideas into images that are easy to understand in a shorter time than live action can, it can go into realms of fantasy that live action can’t etc.

• The interviews with great British husband and wife animated team John Hallas and Joy Bachelor’s granddaughter Vivien Hallas. She stated that during the war they made more than 70 films even though they had little time to do them, which judging by the high quality of the clips was surprising. “Sometimes your best work happens when you’re under pressure like that”.

• The clips of animated wartime propaganda included a British bulldog eating a German sausage from the World War One, and a World War Two film showed Hitler as Charlie Chaplin, along with other cartoons which showed Nazi vipers, Italian bullfrogs and, believe it or not, friendly, cheerful British tanks.

• Animator Vera Lineka’s extra-long multi-coloured shawl, looking like the female equivalent of Tom Baker’s Doctor Who.

• Salvage With A Smile from World War Two – a live action public information film with all the clichés satirised in Harry Enfield’s Cholmondley-Warner parody in which educated well-spoken chaps patronising stupid, poorly spoken working class people. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go down well with the public.

• Hallas and Bachelor’s The Dustbin Parade, a quite cheerful little film in which tin cans which have been thrown away “join up” to the war and become shells and army equipment.

• Balance, a film which looked like it was computer animated. It was actually from 1950!

• The surreal early 1950s animated advertisements, featuring marching fish, dancing crabs with medals, chickens riding on pigs, chickens playing the guitar and people riding shoes as cars.

• A strange advert for Barclay’s Bank made for West Africa, featuring a tribal street dance soundtrack and the jingle sang in a local dialect.

• The Archie’s-esque 1960s pop band singing about Spam.

• Revelations that the Homepride Flour Man were created by two Americans who thought all British men wore bowler hats, and that the Cresta Lemonade Polar Bear was based on Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider.

• Apparently Kenny Everett not only did the voice for Charly the cat, but also did the entire soundtrack – music, sound effects etc – except the little boy’s voice which was provided by a child of the animator’s next door neighbour.

• The brief clips of the Aardman Animations with the talking animals.

• Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer video, which was filmed frame by frame with the star, for example, painting his face blue, taking one frame, painting a bit of a white cloud on, taking another frame, then painting the cloud a little further on etc..

• Tim Hope’s rather beautiful video for Coldplay’s Trouble, which was made by scanning photos into a computer.

• Andrew Ruhemann, an executive producer from studio Passion Pictures, had some very concise intelligent comments, saying that anthropomorphism (giving animals human qualities and personalities) works well in animation because it does it literally and we as humans do it to our pets anyway. He also stated that the NSPCC advert with a real life man beating up a cartoon child worked well by using the graphic violence in Tom And Jerry where the cartoon characters just bounce back which contrasted sharply with the effect it would have on a human child.

What was bad about it?

• The programme somehow managed to have the worst of both worlds – the tone was very dull and turgid, but they seemed to whiz through everything and spend little time on anything. It seemed as though they had forgotten they had to cram more than 100 years of animation into an hour. The last 40 years were squeezed into about 10 minutes.

• The rather ridiculous forced nationalism. “Britain leads the world in animation” being one example. It seemed a bit obligatory to mention the fact the animation shown was British every two seconds and ended up sounding like Tom Baker’s Little Britain narration.

• Professor Paul Wells’ generally pretentious praise of some of the cartoons. He overused the word “literally” and his most annoying statements were of the cans in The Dustbin Parade “dying for the war cause – you’ll never see that in American or Disney cartoons, a sense of sacrifice” and that T For Teacher was “at the heart of tea drinking it’s also about the quality of human life”. It all sounded very dubious.

• The two irritating Charlys from government information cartoons– one from the 1940s being a smug, sweaty cycling bloke too stupid to understand the benefits of the NHS, free trade and social security, and the other being a cat from the 1970s squarking out that kids shoudn’t play with matches.

• It seemed rather safe and lifeless in places, and a bit of flavour wouldn’t go amiss. Then again, this was probably aimed at animation fanatics rather than a general audience, but even the “jingoistic” and “racist” material that was shown seemed rather mild, when there were definitely more things which look offensive today from the past. It seems as though they animators may not have wanted to show these as it would make them look bad.

• T For Teacher, a wartime film for the Tea Bureau about making the most of the little tea that was available It looked frightening more than anything, with creepy music and sinister twisted corpse-like characters. It was horrible.

• Hallas and Bachelor’s Animal Farm was indeed funded by the CIA who funded the film to show the flaws of Communism, the original George Orwell novel being an allegory of the Russian revolution and Stalin’s rise to power. But it was a little depressing that despite the ending being changed to fit US ideology, that Communism would be overthrown, and for commercial reasons, so that audiences wouldn’t feel depressed at the original bleak ending, it still attracted sensationalist headlines in the US as “Too violent for children!” and “Adult entertainment – cartoon not for kids!”

• The theme of this episode, The Art Of Persuasion, was rather boring. Most people switch off when they see government information films and adverts, so seeing a whole hour devoted to the animated aspect of them did get quite tedious at times. Next week’s subject is how British animation has challenged the status quo, which should at least be more interesting.

• The show ended with that AWFUL whistling “Hate something, change something” advert song.

Top 10 highlights of Animation Nation (episode two), BBC4

1 – The interviews with Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam, and the credit he was given by the programme for contributing one of the best things to the show. He was refreshingly honest about the “joy of being crude and childish”; how a lot of Python stuff was “very juvenile”; and how good it was to undermine hypocritical and pompous authority figures. Of his use of classical works of art such as Botticelli’s The Birth Of Venus and Michaelangelo’s David, he said “just because they’re beautiful, classical and done by a great artist it doesn’t mean I can’t f**k it up!”

2 – Gerald Scarfe’s Long Drawn Out Trip, a satire of Americana, featuring a naked woman transforming into suggestively shaped fruit, vegetables, ice creams and bombs dropped by an American Eagle. But best of all was a sequence with Mickey Mouse on drugs! Brilliant. Upon seeing this film, Pink Floyd commissioned Scarfe to animate their now classic Another Brick In The Wall video featuring marching hammers and a school teacher putting kids through a mincer.

3 – Monkey Dust’s producer Harry Thomson, saying the BBC3 show’s central idea is rubbishing the idea of Blair’s Britain as being Cool Britannia where everything is shiny and there’s no misery or seedy underbelly. He also wanted the animation to look beautiful even though the content is sombre and shocking. We were also treated to the familiar footage of Clive Pringle The Liar guiltily walking home to the sound of Goldfrapp’s Lovely Head.

4 – David Anderson’s Deadsy, a darkly beautiful animation about nuclear war, featuring lots of dancing skeletons, a sinister metal woman caressing a phallic-shaped nuclear missile and screaming female clowns.

5 – The colourful eye candy – or rather eye LSD – of Yellow Submarine, The Beatles’ psychedelic animated film from 1968. Some of the more describable things in it are flying rainbow fish, lizard canons which fire flowers, a dinosaur in a flowery dress and an elephant-deer-teapot thing. They also showed the highlight of the whole film, the delightful Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds sequence, made by “rota-scoping” – tracing live action images from old movies and painting them all kinds of colours.

6 – Candy Guard, the creator of Pond Life. She was actually very much like her creation Dolly Pond, so it wasn’t surprising to learn that she based it on life experience. “If it makes people laugh, chances are it’s happened to them as well.”

7 – The great clip from 2DTV when The Beckhams tell the Queen they named Beckingham Palace after her Buckingham Palace, and she tells them to “feck off” before announcing Tony and Cherie Blair as “the Kents”.

8 – Susan Young’s lovely colourful film Carnival, from 1985 about the Notting Hill carnival, made mostly with simple brushstrokes.

9 – The clip of soldiers coming out from under Queen Victoria’s dress from The Charge Of The Light Brigade.

10 – Bob Godfrey, one of the animators of Yellow Submarine, on when he was asked by the director of the film if he had ever tried LSD. “No, nothing stronger than an aspirin!”

Bottom 6 lowlights of Animation Nation, BBC4

1 – The interviews with Gillian Lacey, animator of radical feminist cartoon Murder Most Foul. She came across as incredibly smug and pompous, and looked like a young Reverend Timms. She made her praise of Candy Guard into a pat on the back to herself; “A building on what the generation before, MY generation, had to fight for. We fought for a space and Candy’s generation moved into that space”.

2 – Phill Mulloy’s Cowboys, a satire of machismo, ending with men having sex with horses, which lends weight to the argument that a lot of “cutting edge” work is gratuitous, shocking for the sake of shocking rather than actually saying anything.

3 – Robert Hewison on Monty Python’s Flying Circus: “It changed the way people acted, it changed the way people spoke and it changed the way people thought about the previous hierarchical world of deference and authority”. As great as the Pythons were, to credit them solely for entire shifts in cultural and social attitudes is fairly ridiculous.

4 – Bob Godfrey on his Karma Sutra Rides Again cartoon, featuring a couple in various slapstick sexual positions like on an escalator or on a bicycle. “We were kind of satirising the permissive society”. Society of the 1960s in general wasn’t permissive, apart from a few trendy places. This was backed up by the narrator stating immediately after that Karma Sutra was a hit on the adult film circuit but had limited distribution in the cinemas. Terry Gilliam’s claim that “it was naughty postcard humour” was the only sensible thing said amid a rather pretentious analysis of the cartoon.

5 – “From the beginning, Yellow Submarine was unusual. An animated film aimed at grown-ups not children”. Last week Animated Nation spelt out that animated films were originally intended for adults, so bang went that argument.

6 – Jonathan Hodgson’s animation about irritating people in Liverpool nightclubs was, unfortunately, quite irritating itself.

Top 10 highlights of Animation Nation (episode three), BBC4

1 – All the weird and wonderful things from The Clangers – mice living on the moon talking in swanee whistle voices, musical notes growing on trees, cyborg chickens, flying boats, frogs jumping into medical bags and soup dragons. But there was one clip that outshone all in absurdity: an astronaut from Earth lands on the moon and puts up a flag that has both the stars and stripes AND the hammer and sickle on it because the animators didn’t know at this stage whether the US or the USSR would be the first to land on the moon. The Clangers didn’t care either way – they used the flag as a tablecloth. That was hilarious!

2 – The Snowman was rightly called “a television classic”. But what was surprising was that two of the most memorable elements – the flying sequence and the snowman party – were entirely an invention of the film and did not appear in the original book. Everything else, right down to it mirroring the illustrations, was very faithful to Raymond Briggs’ classic.

3 – The clips of Danger Mouse were all very funny, action packed and still looked well animated even today. This programme revealed it was the first British animated series to be screened in America.

4 – Nick Park, creator of Wallace And Grommit, seemed so sweet, gentle and lovely. We were treated to the familiar clip of that cute breakfast scene from The Wrong Trousers, and got a preview of the forthcoming Wallace And Grommit feature film, The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit. Park described it as “a vegetarian horror movie”.

5 – The story of The Magic Roundabout, or Le Manege Enchante as its original French version was called. The BBC asked Eric Thompson to make the anarchic style of the original more suitable for children and his version was a surreal script filled with cultural references to Turkish Delight and The Chancellor Of The Exchequer. Thompson’s widow Phyllida Law revealed that Thompson ignored the original French scripts and rewrote the whole thing based on ideas he jotted down while watching it on a screen “smaller than a make-up mirror”. She also said that Thompson based the character of Ermintrude the cow on her!

6 – The dark fairytale imagery of The Sandman, a horribly fascinating and fascinatingly horrible animation which brought alive Dave Allen’s observation that we stupidly expect our children to go to sleep when we tell them there’s a lunatic coming into their bedroom ready to put sand in their eyes. It was taken to an, appropriately, nightmarish level here with The Sandman gouging out a little boy’s eyes and feeding them to his bird-like children in a nest.

7 – The Strings Of Crocodiles by The Brothers Quay, a sinister dark twisted but strangely attractive animation featuring tattered children’s dolls.

8 – The early 1950s cartoons of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, , who went on to create The Clangers. Their early work was Noggin The Nog and The Pogles/Pogle Wood. They were beautifully drawn even though the animation looks rather primitive by today’s standards. They featured characters such as a depressed dragon and a very entertaining evil witch, who sadly was axed by the BBC as she was deemed too frightening for children. The interviews with Postgate and Firmin themselves were great as well, both were very funny and could do a lot of weird voices.

9 – Ruth Linford’s icy gothic animation of Hans Christian Anderson’s little known fairytale The Child And Her Mother where a mother surrenders her daughter to The Grim Reaper.

10 – The dull, saccharine twee Trumpton/Camberwick Green was dismissed as unsophisticated and parochial, but it went in the programme’s favour that they also said that it served its purpose as it was popular with children even though anyone over five found it boring.

Bottom 9 lowlights of Animation Nation

1 – This episode was filled with even more agonisingly pretentious hyperbolic analysis than in the previous programmes, which is saying something. It’s too annoying to have to retype them all, and it was very tiresome, but the worst culprit was animation historian Brian Sibley.

2 – “The Snowman broke tradition and didn’t have to resort to comedy or dialogue”. What, like comedy and dialogue are bad things?

3 – It implied that Wallace And Grommit saved 1990s British animation because, apparently, by then it was more polarised, either very dark adult stuff or very mainstream commercial children’s programmes. The argument itself was a little dubious, but they used Bob The Builder as an example of what Wallace And Grommit saved UK animation from becoming. The fact that Wallace And Grommit predate Bob The Builder by about 10 years seemed to have escaped them.

4 – Personally we always found those mutated hedgehogs The Wombles irritating. This programme revealed that the merchandising for the series came out long before the show itself ever went on air. They were also “one of the best selling acts of 1974” and we had a clip of their dire Wombling Song. Mike Batt, who was responsible for that atrocity, has gone on to inflict Katie Melua on us as a soundtrack furniture adverts.

5 – The Bolex Brother’s The Secret Adventures Of Tom Thumb, made as part of the 1993 Christmas schedules. While we admired their creativity – Tom Thumb in this version was a foetus which had survived a miscarriage – and their technique, it was pretty horrible to watch. And frankly, why was so much of the programme devoted to this piece of work which has been largely forgotten?

6 – Professor Paul Well’s attempts at singing Walking In The Air. Just wrong.

7 – Paddington, Bagpuss and Postman Pat were all skimmed over in seconds. Sacrilege!

8 – Throughout the series, the lack of consistency in the arguments has been frustrating. In episode one, they said that animated films in pre-television days were aimed at adults rather than children. Last week they stated that Yellow Submarine was groundbreaking in that it was an animated film aimed at adults. This week they stated that the Magic Roundabout was solely responsible for getting adults interested in animation and later in the programme that television animation aimed only at children started in the late 1990s. All these contradictions make it look very unconvincing.

9 – As good as her film was, Ruth Linford herself was a living cliché, an aging Goth chick spouting such nonsense as “you can SMELL that film, it’s visceral!” and “the story was like a virus, I had to pass it onto someone else”. Her most annoying comment was of her own work, “I was convinced if I dared to tell this story, my children would die”.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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