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Making engaging TV for children is hard work. A balance has to be struck between sweetness and seriousness, between silliness and jeopardy, so that your audience (which is probably the most fickle of any audience ever) not only keeps watching, but feels welcome to do so.
To put it into a modern context, every digimated film which has spent a lot of time throwing in classic movie references for the grown-ups, at the expense of child-delighting slapstick, has proven to be less than brilliant in the final analysis. Those that create their own world and invite anyone to join it, are the real winners. And often, a good place to start when creating a new world is to avoid putting people in it.
So, here are five of the best British film-makers for children of all ages, whose work contains no live action (unless it’s performed by puppets).
There was a generation that came of age during the Second World War, who could turn their hand to pretty much anything. They were largely educated in British private schools, were a bit dreamy about what they wanted to do with their lives, but understood the basics of engineering and had made things out of Meccano when they were little. Roald Dahl was one of these astonishing men, as was George Martin, and so was Oliver Postgate. Not so much a film-maker as an eccentric inventor, who built the tools he used to make his beautiful stop-motion animations at home in an outbuilding, where he also filmed. He started by animating cut-out characters on paper, making such enduring classics as Ivor The Engine and Noggin The Nog, before building exoskeletons for his colleague Peter Firmin to dress up and move in three dimensions. The results, from the melancholy beauty of The Clangers to the recycling parables of Bagpuss, were always charming. The spells cast by Oliver’s creations, always with arresting musical accompaniment (lots of bassoon and banjo) were given full form and gravitas by Oliver’s singularly reassuring narrator voice.
Another of these inventory types, Gerry always wanted to direct action adventure feature films using real actors, but in post-war Britain there wasn’t the budget, and he found his progress impeded. In an astonishing stroke of genius, he decided to make puppets, and use those to make his adventurous ideas come to life instead. That’s the premise upon which all of his very greatest creations, from Thunderbirds to Captain Scarlet to Joe 90, were based upon. Of course he grew to resent his puppet creations, and even ended up directing real actors, once he’d untangled their strings for the last time, but nothing ever captured the public imagination in the same way as those supermarionettes. And when South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker were thinking of ideas for their post-South Park global action adventure film Team America: World Police, it was Gerry’s work that they attempted to recreate, albeit with more swearing and sex.
Another self-made animation magus, Bob’s singular style revolved around creating cartoons using marker pens on a white background, and they always seemed to have a peculiarly energetic feel to them. In Roobarb (which along with Bagpuss and Sesame Street must win an award for the best children’s theme music) the birds in the tree can’t keep still, and nor can the tree. Even the lettering in the title credits has got ants in its pants. The effect is known within animation circles as “boiling.” Bob went on to create the much loved Henry’s Cat, and Noah & Nelly (based on the Biblical story of Noah, only all of the animals are double-ended, like the push-me-pull-you), and to make numerous documentaries about the history of animation. He is also the only person on this list to have appeared as an actor in Help! and the original Casino Royale, to have influenced the animation style of Terry Gilliam AND to act as advisor on Yellow Submarine. A true renaissance man of British cartoon.
As any true devotee of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons will tell you, kids love a bit of anarchy. They are less concerned by how well a plot hangs together (although don’t take this as a green light to abandon plot altogether) and more interested in people being hit with things, thrown into things, falling off things and generally appearing to hurt themselves without actually hurting themselves. They also love smart-ass backtalk, and characters breaking the fourth wall in order to talk directly into the camera. The cartoon output of Manchester animation giants Cosgrove Hall (a kind of British Hannah Barbera) keeps that principle very dear to its heart. And in reward, two generations of children have kept their creations — from Jamie and the Magic Torch and Chorlton and the Wheelies to Danger Mouse and The Wind In The Willows — close to theirs. And that’s how they got the cream of British comedy talent to provide the voices, in particular David Jason, whose star turn as the eponymous hero of Danger Mouse (among other characters) gave him ample opportunity to stretch his comedy throat.
You could argue that what Aardman does is make a subtle distinction between that which is aimed at children, and that which seeks not to exclude children. Certainly all of the Wallace and Gromit films (as well as Chicken Run and Flushed Away) have been written for a family audience, but not necessarily just for the kids. This is how they can get away with throwing in the kind of film references we mentioned earlier (lots of film noir gags in The Wrong Trousers, for example, or The Great Escape in Chicken Run) without grinding the gears of the tone of the film. And it’s a reflection on the world view of Nick Park, a man who seeks to bring whole communities together around Wallace’s cheeseboard. Less screwball crazy than Cosgrove Hall, and more romantic than anyone short of the mighty Postgate, Nick Park’s genius was to introduce Alan Bennett-style Northern realism to the world of animation, and then deliver it to a world audience.
Who would you add to this list? Tell us here:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic