What is Animation? Bob Godfrey in Conversation

By Martin Pickles

“Well animation is not live action, I think that says it. Anything that is not live action which is actuality but is drawn is animation. And the thing about animation is that there are absolutely no rules. I mean these schools that are springing up all over the place ‘How to Walk’ ‘How to Run’, based on live action. How a live action man runs, how a live action person walks, you know, people in animation don’t have to walk, I mean they don’t even have to have legs, they can go up in the air. In animation you can do absolutely everything and I said I think that the only two restrictions are your bank balance and your mind. And, well, your imagination that you can grow, you know, providing the budget will allow you to. And when people are confronted with this absolute freedom they tend to freak out, they tend to say “We want limitations, we want gravity”. Basically, there is no gravity in animation, animation is free, it can fly, it can go anywhere. And I don’t think enough people realise this, they’re too earth bound. It’s not earth bound, it’s fantasy. You’ve got to have a very whimsical mind for animation I think, you’ve got to be able to take off and be not of this world. You can create a whole world which is not like the physical world that we live in. But if we start – the worse thing animation can do is to start copying live action. You know I’ve always said, when I was up in Liverpool teaching, I said “If this thing can be done with a live action camera for God’s sake do it with a live action camera” because we’re into doing things that the live action camera can’t do. And the Germans call animation “Trick Film” which I think is so clever because that is exactly what it is – trick film." 

Martin Pickles: So do you think perhaps the purpose of animation is an avenue for exploring all those ideas that run parallel to reality? Almost when one’s in a daydream state?

Bob Godfrey: Yeah, and I don’t think companies like ICI, or whatever, big companies, they haven’t realised that. When I first started working in animation I worked for Peter Sachs and he made a film called Balance for ICI which was ‘balancing the budget’, you know, and you have to do that every year. It was based a little bit on Fudget’s Budget – no I think he came before Fudget’s Budget – the UPA in America brought a thing out called Fudget’s Budget and that showed how Mr Fudget balanced his budget! But I think Peter was first, he did Balance and there’s a thing in ‘The Madness of George III’ where he says to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, “Marry! Marry! Marry Boy!” And he says “It does not please me Your Majesty”. And he says, “Well what the hell does please you?” And he says “A good balance sire”. You see that, you know, a good balance, so, you know, it’s important.

MP: Going back to the very beginning, I gather you were born at Horseshoe Bend, Lakeland, New South Wales so do you see yourself as Australian or British, or somewhere in between?

BG: My parents were British so I guess that makes me British, you know, just born upside down on the other side of the world! No, they left, my mother didn’t like Australia all that much and we left, the family left when I was about six months old so we came back. It took about 13 weeks to get from Australia in those days, not 24 hours! And so we came back and so I’ve been here ever since so I think of myself as being, you know, and there is an Australian connection – I’ve been back there a couple of times and feel at home, you know, this is ok you know. But um yeah, I’m British.

MP: The reason I ask is there’s something I really like about your films in the way that they are quite iconoclastic and they are also often about the little man versus the system and I was just wondering if perhaps being born in Australia, or something in your life has given you this slight rebel persona or attitude?

BG: Well I think it came from working for Peter Sachs in the 1950’s – 1950 I think I started there - and he was a German Jewish refugee from Hitler so he’d been on the Isle of Man, they put them all on the Isle of Man - Halas might have been on there, I’m not sure about that but Sachs was certainly on there and the Ministry of Information halfway through the war suddenly discovered that the Great British public were laughing and talking to and being influenced by cartoons more than live action and they suddenly realised that they’d got to have more cartoons because people liked them. So they said “Where can we get someone who does cartoons?” “Oh there’s this man on the Isle of Man” “Get him off the Isle of Man, we’ve got to get him working!” So Sachs came and I joined his studio in about 1950 after the war and he was a rebel, you see, he was Bauhaus trained which is a good start. And then of course the Nazis turned the Bauhaus into an officers’ training school but the Bauhaus was in Peter Sachs. He’d got away from Hitler and he got to Holland and then Hitler got to Holland so he had to take off again and get to the UK who promptly imprisoned him on the Isle of Man and then they realised that they’d got to have these cartoon films that people were instructed by and liked them – it’s a nice way of putting over propaganda, um, and there was Halas doing it and they got Peter Sachs doing it and I suppose because I went to work for him I discovered that he was a rebel. He said “When you say Walt Disney – spit!” “Yes sir!”, you know! Yeah, he was a rebel! Absolute rebel. And then I rebelled against a rebel! You know, I said “This guy’s a German – what the hell does he know?!” You know, all his jobs are German. So I rebelled against him so I was a rebel rebelling against a rebel.

MP: There seems to be a rebellious streak in British culture traditionally but I mean Emeric Pressburger was an Eastern European Jew who was displaced as well, as you say, Halas, Sachs and so on. It seems to be a massive contribution to British post-war film culture.

BG: Just after the war we owed a hell of a lot to Central European culture. Central European charm if you like, they were great charmers. And suddenly John Osborne comes along with his kitchen sink and bong, they’re out of it. It’s kitchen sink then and but they had about five years, good years of plays and films which had this kind of European feel about it so that when I joined Sachs in 1950 I suppose he was making these films and I was a background artist, I didn’t, you know, I didn’t get much – well everything was terribly departmentalised in those days – if you were a background artist you painted backgrounds. And Sachs never took me anywhere near a movie camera, an animation camera, I was just - and I painted background and he’d say “Paint that!” and then I’d see the figures moving about on my artwork and I’d say “What’s that?!” and of course it was animation. And so then I got heaved out in about 1954, they’d had enough of me. I got the sack for being a rebel so I immediately started – I bought a Moy & Bastie wooden handle turn movie camera with two wooden cassettes, I got it for about I’d say £2.50 or something and I discovered that it would also work as a projector, I could project light through it. It was one of the first old handle turn wooden cameras, box camera, nice lens on it. So I’d put one table on top of another and I put this thing up there – “Oh I’ve discovered animation, wow!” and I was taking these things down to Humphrey’s I think it was, somewhere in London, then West End and coming back with these little short ends of films and, you know, it was the most exciting time – I was discovering film 50 years after Free Screen! And it was great, you know, and the other thing that brought that to an end – well it didn’t bring it to an end, it really gave it a kick up the backside – was the coming of commercial television and suddenly instead of Halas and Bachelor and Larkins there were 40 little studios like mushrooms sort of shooting up all around.

MP: In order to meet demand?

BG: To meet the market and meet the, and because – and of course Halas and Bachelor and Peter Sachs were absolutely no good at this because they were doing the half hour movie, propaganda for ICI, for Shell, the half hour instructional movie. Suddenly, we’re in there, you know 30 seconds? That’s an eternity! Yeah we’ll do that yeah. A minute? Oh please! So we’re doing these little short films and so we learned quick dynamic communications through the beginning of commercial television and that stayed with me to this day. I love quick dynamic communication. That’s where I learned it is in those early days of commercial television and so, you know, and I worked with – Colin[Pearson], he was an agency copywriter and the copywriters knew this – they were doing the early commercials, they knew all about quick dynamic communication. And that’s what we got into.

MP: So in a way you were at the – you said that you were, you discovered movie films 50 years after free screen but in other respects you were there right at the beginning of a revolution in film making for quick communicative ads for…

BG: Oh yeah I think in the beginning of commercial television there were only these sort of oldies coming in with this heavy pedantic, you know, really ponderous “Here we have a man who’s chopping down a tree” so we got in there because we were like caged birds that had been set free, we’d suddenly had been set a minute – if we’ve got a minute, wow, 30 seconds or 15 second commercials and they had to be punchy and get the message over quick. And then we had to learn the radio side of it, you see, because the voices, the funny voices and that kind of thing because we hadn’t ever done anything like that, we were new to it.

MP: Did you do the voices for your cartoons from the outset then?

BG: I love doing voices. Yes I did, because there were two reasons for this. I’m incredibly mean and I didn’t want to pay anybody so that virtually came out of a vice and I was doing these voices – “I don’t want to have to pay him £250, I’ll do it myself!”

MP: Because the thing that really resonates for me is your very familiar voice, it’s one of those voices that is a really recognisable voice. I was kind of curious to know how far back that goes. So – I understand that the very first advertisement you did was for something called Crompton Parkinson?

BG: Crompton Bulbs, that’s right, and on the first night and it was so early on that we hadn’t, I lived in Tufnell Park then and we hadn’t even got a television so I was in partnership with a young man called Keith Learner and he lived in Coulsdon and I said to my wife look we’re going to have to go to Coulsdon to see this and she said “All that way to see some damned thing about a bulb?” Anyway we went and then she said “Was that it?” Yeah, we were on the first night! And that was Crompton Bulbs. And we, you know, there was only three of us and fortunately it wasn’t a bad combination because Keith Learner was about 17 at the time and he came from the amateur cine world, you know, there was nothing he didn’t know about film and all that, and I didn’t ask him about that side, I was contributing the artistic side, I was doing the painting and the drawing, and so we were right in there at the beginning and of course people like Halas never really took to it because it wasn’t their game and Peter Sachs certainly didn’t take to it and you know that was it, they couldn’t handle these 30 seconds and these 45 seconds. 30 seconds was about the average – 15 seconds, you know, commercials and we didn’t know a thing about sound, we had to learn about sound, go into sound recording studios and learn the names of the voiceovers and the people who were good and people who were not good and people who were funny. So it was like radio, we had to learn radio as well as, you know, picture. And so it was quite a magical time I think because there’s nothing like a time when things are just getting started – and we’ve got one eye in the land of the blind, you know, but all of us in the agencies, the advertising agencies, they didn’t know anything, we didn’t know anything and the people that did know something were a bit old and pedantic and fussy and stuffy and trying to do it the old way and so we were discovering these things from the agencies, the story boards. Sometimes the story boards came in from the agencies and sometimes they would just say “We want something that advertises Yardley’s lipstick” and I’d say Oh yeah ok and then Oh no what are we gonna do? So we were actually thinking up these things as well. It was a wonderful time because these little mushrooms were springing up all over the place and nobody really knew anything about this new thing – commercial television. And it was very good for the BBC as well because they had been the one and only BBC – suddenly they’ve got competition and that was good for the BBC. So it was good we had these two things going. We never worked for the BBC because they never paid anything, but the commercials were ok. So mostly I’d say I made these commercials and then with the money I made making the commercials I made one film for me because I could do then what I wanted to do and it would usually be about 5 or 10 minutes long. And then I would whack it around the festivals. So it was really, the agencies paid for those...

MP: What do you count as your first film ‘proper’ of your own?

BG: Polygamous Polonius I think, yes. And I think I made that when I was in Larkins - it’s probably why I got thrown out! I made this, I just simply, Polygamous is economy you know, total economy and I just wanted to make people laugh. So it’s kind of, it’s based on stagecraft really. I mean, the woman who’s singing and this idiot man comes out and interrupts, um, it’s very misogynistic really, oh my God, you know, this woman’s singing lost in the cradle of the deep or something and this idiot comes in and starts interrupting which is pure stage musical so I was bringing musical – I love the musicals. When I was working for Sachs and Larkins he used to say “Go to the ballet”. “What for?” “Go to the ballet and you will see animation. You will see people making beautiful movements in front of beautiful scenery and listening to beautiful music”. Ok, so I go and “What’s this got to do with animation? I want to go to the music hall. Collins Music Hall (sings ‘Yah da de da dahhh, ya ta te daaah’) – oh this is much better! So most of my subject is based on music hall and coming out and doing something and then somebody else comes out and shoots him – all that stuff, it’s all musical stuff which I love. So I found that animation was a wonderful way of making people laugh. And it was quick – well it’s slow really but I mean it’s a good way of getting laughs and that’s where I was looking and of course at that particular time I used to go to Collins Music Hall in Islington Green or somewhere and music hall was dying, it was absolutely dying – being killed by television or whatever, ‘Carry Ons” or something, it was dying. I just sort of loved it. At Collins you could stand in the bar watching Norman Wisdom falling down on stage and you didn’t have to leave the bar! And it was just wonderful but it was dying, it was dying. 

MP: You once said that in the 1950’s everyone was waiting for the 1960’s to happen, that it was kind of a quiet time, it was almost like everyone was waiting for a backlash and so on and you just described how music hall was on the way out and how the old kind of patrician animators or filmmakers with their authoritative voice didn’t understand these speedy new advertisements on ITV and so on – what was that like? Were you aware of just being on the brink of something exciting starting to happen?

BG: Yeah the 50’s were pretty deadly, I mean it was mostly about the American President playing golf and a war somewhere, there was always a war somewhere but, no, artistically they were pretty dull, I think they were waiting for the 60’s, the tail end of the 60’s, the Beatlemania and all that, that really hit and that hit in Soho and round there. Now we used to have characters like One Foot Jack and Rosie, this gay guy who wore a rose in his hair or something – I mean these were characters! Yeah look at Rosie – wow! And then suddenly everybody was a character. Everybody in Soho suddenly became a character. Soho was the star of the 60’s and then on to the 70’s. The 60’s and the 70’s were the time of the groups and all kind of stuff springing up and little companies springing up. It was a very creative time.

MP: You mention The Beatles, I understand you directed about four episodes of The Beatles cartoon series?

BG: No, that was mostly – there was Bi-Graphic I think we called ourselves then, just about to turn into Bob Godfrey Films and there was George Dunning and TV Cartoons. Now, The Beatles did two films – they did A Hard Day’s Night, they did Help and had a contract to do three films. They weren’t very good, Help wasn’t all that good so they said we’ll do it cartoon, cartoon film, we’ll call it Yellow Submarine so they went to George Dunning and George brought me in on that and he said “I want you to make the Yellow Submarine funny.” So I said, “Ok George, that sounds reasonable but where’s the script?” And he said “Oh well there is no script”. He talked like Senor Droopy from Guadalupe. “Ok, no script. Where’s the storyboard?” “Oh there is no storyboard”. “Oh my God, no script, no storyboard and you want me to make it funny? I mean what am I making funny?” He said “Well you’ve got all the Beatles numbers and we’re doing this and it’s psychedelic”. I was just going out the door when he called me back, he said “Hey Bob have you ever taken LSD?” I said “Hell no George! What’s that gotta do with it?” He said, “I’ll tell you why - this whole thing is a psychedelic trip” - which it was! It was a psychedelic trip, I mean I don’t know what he was taking but it turned into a psychedelic trip, nobody knew what – it had been going about three months and I hadn’t a clue. So, I thought I gotta make this thing funny, I don’t know how to make a Yellow Submarine funny. And so I think I thought of a couple of gags and these gags got into the – it was a really difficult film to make I mean because George Dunning turned himself into a Beatle – he thought that the Beatles music and the Beatles’ numbers were just psychedelia – just drawn out of the air by John Lennon or something! I think they were very professional, they had to be worked on. Anyway finally I got a couple of gags into Yellow Submarine and I think the Yellow Submarine somehow says the 60’s. There’s a film, you may have seen it – I’m trying to think of the name of the guy who did it – um, “Joie de Vivre”. And it is so 30’s. It’s the 30’s, it’s so 30’s. It’s about two naked girls swimming in a pond and a guy cycling through the air on a bike and he takes these two girls – one on the handlebars and one on the crossbar and he cycles through the sky! Oh what’s his name? He was a great animator. And that to me says the 30’s. The Yellow Submarine is the 60’s, it has to be. And they didn’t know what they were doing. George didn’t know what he was doing half the time. I think the Yellow Submarine killed George, I mean he was drinking, you know, whatever he was taking, I mean he died shortly after you know (indecipherable) – oh I know – he was doing my preview theatre seeing Great or something and I turned to George and said “Now you’ve done Yellow Submarine George, what are you going to do next?” and he said “I’m gonna do …” – oh something out of Shakespeare. And I said “Oh my God, why don’t you animate the Bible!” Yeah and that’s what he was gonna do and I saw some line tests on it and it was Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He was gonna animate that. And I’ve seen line tests of Shakespeare’s The Tempest done by George Dunning and I think you can see those courtesy of John Coates, he’s not very well I believe, but John Coates has got these, these incredible line tests and I saw these line tests and I mean if you’re offering work the last thing on earth I’d want would be The Tempest but you know but there it is, it’s wonderful. I don’t think that George could have handled the voices or the drama. I don’t think he was in any way theatrical but he was one hell of an animator. And so this thing people would have looked at it and the wonderful animation may have gone over their head but it was innovative. But it’s around somewhere and it’s very good.

MP: You said that Soho, suddenly in the 60’s everyone became a character and I know that there was an awful lot going on there, you had the Establishment Club and all these different clubs…

BG: The Dog And Duck pub which was full of animators left over from Yellow Submarine! Yeah, I mean it was a time when everybody was kind of rebelling against, er, Halas and Bachelor if you like, the traditional trace and paint way of doing things. I mean there are things in the Yellow Submarine which is paint on glass or something, which are absolutely knockout, you know. So a lot of things were going on. And we were experimenting as well.

MP: And did everyone know everyone else?

BG: I think this has always been the way in Soho. Halas and Bachelor were Halas and Bachelor. They employed more than anybody else and they did their thing and they did what they did. Aside from that you would get Richard Williams, you would get Bob Godfrey Films, you would get TV Cartoons and George Dunning and we all knew one another and we came together if there was suddenly a big feature that needed – or a series, I mean I was on a Beatles series before the actual Beatles film, I mean it was terrible that George rode it straight round and said “Give us a hand with this”, I said oh god!

MP: I used to watch that series on a Saturday morning here.

BG: Oh it was dreadful! We hated it. But you see full marks to George and TVC when these muscle men from King Features came over and said we want a Beatles – because the Beatles were like God, you know – we want a Beatles feature and we want it done trace and paint and all that and George, who was, um, you couldn’t fight George, that’s the amazing thing - take a blow at George it would go right through him, he was like ghost you know, people would say “Where’s he gone” and he fought these muscle men, Al Brodax, these real New York Hustlers. George fought these guys and they didn’t quite know how to handle him cos they were New York King Feature guys who were like rams butting each other and they’d hit George and he’d just disappear. They’d never fought anything like George before and he fought them. And George said “I want this thing to look like Twin mazagine” it was a magazine in Germany, it was like Yellow Submarine, it was linear and he said “I want to get hold of Heinz Edelman” who was the graphic artist who did this stuff. So he got Heinz over and he wouldn’t let him go back, he said “No you gotta stay and style Yellow Submarine”, and half the goddam time they didn’t know what they were doing, but they got The Beatles numbers and it’s The Beatles’ numbers that hold that film together, and I think that is an iconic film. That film says to me “The 60’s” I mean, if you wanna film about the 60’s – Yellow Submarine. and so, it’s not great, they put it out on release and I think it’s a generation divider, I mean my daughter says “Oh the Yellow Submarine!” and my wife said what was that load of rubbish? So it was a generation divider but the young people like it.

MP: It was re-released in the nineties.

BG: Yeah, it never made much. It was The Beatles numbers that kept it – I mean once the 60’s had gone and new people had come along it was a bit dated. Bit last year.

MP: So you were saying that in Soho everyone knew everyone else and particularly The Beatles films - you were actually in A Hard Day’s Night weren’t you? How did that come about?

BG: Mainly because we were all matey around that time, Dick Lester was a friend of mine so I appeared in a bit of A Hard Day’s Night or something, I had appeared in some of his films because he knew I had a secret craving to be an actor. And so then Joe McGrath got one to make and he put me in as well because Joe was a mate of mine. And so basically the Americans were coming over to London, because it was swinging London at that time and they were looking up - “Oh these guys are great, Dick Lester and Joe McGrath, oh wow man, we don’t have nothing like that in New York and Hollywood”. And these guys were good but they were only good on going out in the country and running around in a field or something. They weren’t crafted in the actual nitty gritty of film making you know, it was all very 60’s. Er, it was a good thing in a way because it had to happen. You couldn’t go on making things in the same old way. So the 50’s were a bit dull because they were waiting for the 60’s and the 60’s were where it happened. And then Jimi Hendrix! He died right at the end of the 60’s and that was the end of the 60’s I think because it couldn’t have gone on. The 70’s were something else. But the 50’s led into the 60’s, the 60’s were really creative and then the 60’s went into the 70’s and then we got the boring 80’s and the diabolical 90’s!

MP: Something to me that characterises your career is that you went from strength to strength in the 50s, what with the birth of commercial television, the 60’s with all the exciting things going on there, and then the 70’s you started to produce some of your most famous work. I mean, there was no stopping you, it’s not like you reached a point in a particular decade and after that things tailed off, I mean you go from strength to strength. So in the 70’s you have Great, of course, a string of your short films, for example ‘Henry 9-5’, but you’ve got a whole string of…

BG: Instant Sex, I mean they’re mostly sexy films and they, we had titles like Instant Sex because we wanted to get in the catalogue and people would go down and say Instant Sex I’m having some of that!”. So it was all done with a view to making some money. But I think when I got into Wardour Street, you hear people saying things and they said if you wanna lose money make a short. And I’ve never been able to prove that wrong!

MP: There’s a very interesting phenomenon of very famous artists working for a commercial studio and then using their equipment in the evenings to make their own stuff. Len Lyes’ first film he made in the basement of a commercial agency. I was very interested when you told me that you were working in commercials and then they paid for the short films because I started making films partly out of sheer frustration working as a designer and I didn’t really know much about the film making technology but the technology I was given at work was a computer so I started making films on that. I would shoot live action and then paint over it really crudely but it was interesting then to discover about your working practise and other people’s working practise so short films are where it’s at Bob!

BG: Yeah well you see it’s a bit dangerous to know too much because you become stereotyped or clichéd, you don’t want to know too much. It’s like child art. Child art is wonderful because nobody’s ever taught them anything and they go along until they reach about 12 or 13 and then something happens and they see adult work or something and say “Oh God I’m awful”. And then their work goes. They can’t keep that up. That’s something, you know it’s all - you don’t need to know too much because you will then drop into stereotype way of doing things, you do the walk like this or that, you know, and buses don’t fly through the sky but why not? They can in animation! But no they start aping live action and I think in every animated film there has to be something that says its animation. Now I’m doing some films with Kevin Baldwin and the first one is called Losers’ Club I think. It’s about a guy who was only half a man. Only one leg, one arm – he was half a man, well that’s pure cartoon! He had to hop everywhere. And it was great. And the second one he’s going, it could be made live action and I think a good cartoon could not be made live action. If it could be made live action then make it goddam live action because it’s quicker. Because animation is a little on the slow side.

MP: Going back to the 70’s you produced Great and at almost the same time you were doing Roobarb and Custard. How did they compete with each other?

BG: Well we had about 12 people at 84 Wardour Street right at the top there and some people were doing Roobarb and some people were working on Great. It was like the studio was divided right down the middle. People like Ann Joliffe was doing Roobarb because she could draw Roobarb and then Ted Connor said “I can’t draw that dog!” so go and work on “Great”. So the two things were sort of side by side. And Grange Calverley who wrote Roobarb he came in – there was a real dog called Roobarb – and he’d draw the key few drawings and everything. And the reason that Roobarb came about was because of the BBC’s miserly budget. And I said we can’t do this on this threadbare budget, I mean we can’t use any cell. What are we gonna do? So I said, we go right back to the start of animation where they did it on paper and hung it on the wall! ‘Hang it on a wall Bob? It’ll fall off!’ I said we’ll put it flat on a little rostrum and we’ll do it on 12 inch film paper and we’ll do it with black magic marker! ‘But it’ll wobble!!’. So make it a virtue! So the wobble became the virtue because it was alive. Animation should never stand still. If we ever held on… make it wobble, make it quiver.

roobarb-bob-godfrey.jpgRoobarb © Roobarb Enterprises 1975

MP: That I think is something that in a way revolutionised animation. Everyone thinks of Roobarb when they see a wobbly drawing it had such an influence through what you describe as a kind of an accident.

BG: It came through economy. It came from a necessity. And the Green Dog, I mean the Welsh Retriever was black. I said we can’t have a black dog. I said we’ve got a lot of green - let’s make it green! So we made the dog green and then right at the end of episode one this horrible cat suddenly appeared on the fence, so – what else have we got? Shocking Pink! Make him shocking pink. So this pink cat came in and he was given this awful voice (does impression of the cat) and so that built the character from episode one. And then writer took it up and made the cat this really odious thing. So it’s loosely based on Hancock and Sid James because Sid James’s terrible ‘Oh what’s he doing now?’ and the other one ‘Oh I’m just having a little rest’ so it’s the two voices contrasting with one another, it’s based on Hancock and Sid James basically. The cat is really odious and the cat, you see, is always on the fence or in the tree ‘Oh it’s too hot to do that’ and the dog is a complete idiot, he’s running about ‘Come on I’m going to Treasure Island’ or something, you know he’s always doing something.

MP: I used to get a sense of absolute joy just watching the opening shot of the house and the house would wobble and the birds on the lawn wobbled, and the sunrise and the trees wobbling – it had an amazing effect! When I was about 5 my parents got a dog that looked like Roobarb and I always thought of Roobarb and Custard because Roobarb’s green a bit like, you know, fresh, ripe, and at the time going to primary school in the seventies, with dinner ladies, the custard would often be bright psychedelic colours, and we used to have bright pink custard amongst other things so to my childhood mind it made absolute sense and I thought it was completely deliberate!

BG: Well Grange has done a second series which I didn’t get involved in because I said the first series was magic because you had a house, you had a dog, you had a cat and you had a garden and you had the seasons. And if you look at the first series it’s all about snow and sunshine and rain and fog. Heavy days when they were crawling about under the fog. It’s all about the elements. And so it’s great in that respect because you had the discipline of the elements. And it was based on a real dog that Granger had so it was a kind of love affair, he loved this dog, he understood the dog and kind of got inside the mind of the dog. Like when the pond was frozen over the dog thinks “Who’s double glazed the pond?!” The dog’s got a dog’s mind, he can only think in terms of double glazing – it was wonderful! It was a wonderful time because everybody loved working on it. And Richard Briers was such a wonderful voice, he was recommended to us by the BBC because we didn’t know much about sympathetic voices, so we got Richard Briers. We give Richard Briers the script, said in the box Richard, ok read it through, he read it through and not one flop, no going back, just wonderful, he was a wonderful warm and sympathetic voice so he was great. And then we had Grange and this dog and he was so enamoured of this thing – he’d taken that dog all around London and nobody wanted to get involved in it. I sort of saw it on the wall and saw that it was done in magic markers and I wanted to do that. It was different from anything else. So we had this terrible pong of the magic markers, people getting high on magic markers! But it was good because it was going on at the same time as ‘Great’ so people like Jeff Gould would say “I can’t draw that dog, I’m gonna work on Great’ so you got a choice, you either did this wobbly line or you did these steely– they was so different; ‘Great’ was all steel engravings and photographs cut up and the industrial revolution, you know completely different from Roobarb and Custard but they were both going on in the studio at the same time.

MP: Great is very varied. There are some beautiful sequences in which you – there’s an old Victorian film of the view from the cabin on the train - I think it’s the drive along Brunel’s railway, and that was very, very beautiful and I understand you’d printed these out, the frames from the old Victorian film and then hand coloured them.

BG: Oh yes that was taken from British Transport films or something and we coloured them. We made photographic copies and then we made what we call ‘Bleach Prints’ which were sort of in the middle tones and then we coloured them up and then we shot them again.

MP: And there’s this other beautiful sequence, again set to a song, of this rusting graveyard for trains and I think that’s colour live action as well.

BG: No, I can tell you about that – we were always running out of budget so somebody said “Bob we’ve got a lot of footage to cover and we haven’t got much money”. And then this guy came in and said look I’ve been down to the graveyard of the greats or something, there’s all these old trains down there, I’m sure you can get something out of. So we got a live action crew together and went down and filmed this old graveyard of the great just down near Bristol somewhere. And, er, we were clambering all over these things and there’s a shot where you’ve got this great piston, all rusty and everything, and you’ve got water dripping down and that’s me standing up out of shot pissing! So if you look closely and you see the water is yellow – sort of orange tinge! But we did this thing and we got this cheap footage, one day’s shoot down in the West Country and it was a graveyard full of these old trains and it was wonderful. And we got the music – “GWR – we’ve never been that far!”

MP: It’s a very sort of melancholic song…

BG: Yes it is a melancholic song…

MP: …and it feels very sort of mid-70’s…

BG: Yeah, and we got this girl singing ‘GWR….’

MP: You’re demolishing a few illusions for me! That’s absolutely priceless! So, you won the Oscar for Best Animated Short in 1976 for ‘Great’. Did you get to go?

BG: Yes I went and it was a wonderful experience really, I think it sort of – first of all it sort of trance when the cameraman comes out of the camera room and says “Ere, you’ve been nominated!”, “Oh that’s good! Is that good?”! So I’ve been nominated and then I thought well that means I’ve got to go. And the guys from 20th Century Fox, or whatever it was, across in Wardour Street, who actually put up some money for the film, they actually wanted to go as well of course, they said “Oh don’t take time out of your busy schedule Bob, we’ll go and pick up anything that has to be picked up” and I thought bugger you – I’m gonna go! So I arranged to go and it was quite incredibly – you’re sort of sitting there and then suddenly this voice says “Great” and they’ve put you near the gate(?)… so that a lot of people don’t have to get up and there’s this great sea of faces and you have to say something and you’re speechless really! You don’t know what to say. So it’s really a quite wonderful experience. I’ve been nominated four times so four times I’ve had this ordeal! But fortunately three of the times I’ve been with Nick Park who’s almost certain to win! So I’m totally relaxed.

MP: So did you get the chance – did you have to start chatting to Jack Nicholson over the canapés later or whatever? Did you mix with the great and the good of Hollywood?!

BG: No, the guy who handed me my Oscar was the guy who – oh I forget his name but he’s the guy who’s supposed to have murdered his wife or something.

MP: OJ Simpson??!

BG: Yes, OJ Simpson handed me my Oscar and I didn’t know OJ Simpson from flying in the air! And about a year ago Kev Baldwin said to me, “Ere, you know you got your Oscar from OJ Simpson?” and I said “Who’s OJ Simpson?” “He’s the guy who murdered his wife - it’s all a big scandal!”. Well I didn’t know did I, he was the bloke who gave me my thing. So it’s all like, it’s a bit like a dream. A fantasy you’re in, you’re gonna wake up and Oh yeah, had a terrible dream there! It’s a bit like that really. It’s unreal. Hollywood is not real. A great experience - I’m glad I’ve had it, I’ve had it four times but…

MP: You were nominated for Kama Sutra Rides Again, Great, Dream Doll and Small Talk.

BG: I didn’t go with any great expectations and we’re sitting there and you’ve got Nick Park about three bodies away and somebody said, “Go on, up you go!” I mean its automatic reflex with him but well deserved, well deserved.

MP: He got given an honorary doctorate at the Royal College of Art.

BG: Yeah I was there that night when, um, I missed the handing out of the MA’s and I had to sit in Hyde Park until it was all over. Then I went to the dinner and afterwards they had drinkies in the Senior Common Room and who should come up to me but Nick Park. And I just sort of, “Oh hello Nick, what are you doing here?” And he said, “I’ve got this thing” and he shows us the scroll! And I thought man you’ve stopped looking 17 thank Christ! You look about 37 now. Yeah, he certainly come there to pick up this honorary thing.

MP: Now, in 1976 and 1977 there were two big cultural revolutions in Britain; one of them was Punk in London in 1976 and the other was Star Wars in 1977, although it might have come out beginning of 1978 in England. And I spoke to one of your colleagues, Tony Fish, and he was saying that suddenly Soho was very different; he got accosted by all these Punks – he was editing Pink Floyd or something like that, something sort of prog-rock, on a Steenbeck in a glass fronted office and all these Punks heard this prog-rock and started banging on the door and terrified him. He turned off all the lights and hid behind the Steenbeck and hoped that they’d go away. Did Soho suddenly change with the Punk revolution? Did it feel a different place?

BG: Yeah I think we’d moved to Covent Garden and yeah there were some Punks just along the road from us and a German – there’s always a German television film crew and they’d come to interview these Punks. And they said “Are you Punks?” and they said “Yeah we’re Punks man” and they said “What do you do?” and they said “We go out and we slash car tyres man” and then they said “Can we come with you?” And they were gonna film these people slashing car tyres! And that was my sort of introduction to Punk and it was around Covent Garden and there was a lot of Punk going on with mostly bands playing awful row. I was out of Soho by then, I was in Covent Garden. When they knew I was going to Covent Garden they said “Oh you’re leaving the film industry?” And I said. “No – I’m only going two blocks!”

MP: Was it that departmentalised then?

BG: Yeah it was yeah, Soho was film and then Covent Garden, well God knows what Covent Garden was, trendy shops and everything. I was there because I had a lovely old building, Neal Street, looked like a Dutch dolls house, it was absolutely wonderful and that was then Covent Garden was changing into being photographers and all those people that were moving in. And then we had to get out at the end of the 80’s, in the 90’s we went to Kings Cross and then we decided we were fed up with paying rent and we’d buy that place in Kings Cross.


Henry's Cat © Bob Godfrey & Stan Hayward 1982

MP: So we get to the 80’s and then you did Noah and Nelly and, of course, Henry’s Cat, I think in 1983, which is another sort of ground breaking animation and you continued with the wobbly style on that although there was some cell in Henry’s Cat, is that right?

BG: There might have been, yeah.

MP: And you chose to do the voices yourself on that as well, how did that come about?

BG: We only had so much money to do it and we couldn’t get in a big voice. So we did it. I mean people say “Oh Bob, he’s the animator that hates animation”. There’s a reason, you know, it’s gonna cost. So it’s all low budget and not always a client at the end of it, so if you’ve got a client who’s gonna splash some money then fine, we’ll get a hold of Orson Welles, or anybody, get ‘em in! But no, it’s money.

MP: But Henry’s Cat – wasn’t that commissioned in advance by the BBC though? There was some money up front?

BG: Er, no. Grange Calveley had a dog called Roobarb, a black Welsh retriever who used to hang in a tree. This dog was a bit batty and he brought the dog into Wardour Street and he said “I’ve taken this everywhere and nobody wants to know about it” but I thought this could be ok. So we started to do Roobarb and the excitement of it all was generated and I had Peter Green, I had a good animator, I had Alistair McKilwen, he was good as well, I had Anne Joliffe, she was good, I had Graham Jackson, he was good, so what it came down to was we had 30 five minute episodes. And the first episode we were looking round for a punter and we went right through the BBC and eventually thank God we met Monica Simms, who liked dogs. So we went to Monica with this dog, “Ohh doggy, how nice”, you know. She decided to do it for the BBC for the five to six slot which was wonderful in those days because the grown ups were waiting for the news to start and the kids were waiting for Roobarb. Monica Simms we have to thank and if she hadn’t come in behind it I don’t know where we would have been. So we got a low budget about £2,000 an episode or something. Anyway we did it and it was revolutionary insofar as nobody had ever done anything like that before. The wobble, we made a virtue out of the wobble. If we held a drawing they’d say “Oh man that looks so static! Make it wobble!” So the whole thing had to wobble all the way through. And that was good. And of course we had great voices and, er, I think we had one great voice, that’s right.

MP: So in the 80’s as well as doing Henry’s Cat you were still doing advertisements and I remember your ‘Trio’ advert. I remember the little girl…

BG: That was taken from one of our films that they’d seen of this little girl who liked imitating foghorns! And they saw this and they thought it was great! It was just so funny that a little girl would open her mouth like that and do a great sound but it did come from one of our things, I can’t remember now what it was. It was a little girl – her hobby was imitating foghorns! Probably a Stan Hayward idea, very good.

MP: So up to what point were you making advertisements then? Was that continuously from 1955 up until when? 

BG: The way it happened was more and production companies came along, more and more competition and less and less work, you know, the agencies seemed to be going off animation or something, so what we did we did series, we took series, no matter how badly they were paid at least the studio would be energised and working. So we did series, we did Roobarb and Custard and other things as well.

MP: This allowed you to continue producing a prolific amount of your own short films, Dream Doll, for example but you also then got Kevin Saves the World?

BG: That was based on a book, yeah?

MP: And that was with Kevin Baldwin? How did you meet him? Well that in itself is quite a funny story because someone said to me we’ve got a film school going and we’re teaching young people how to make films but we can’t teach them how to animate so if we gave you some of their, half of what they pay, would you teach these people how to animate and I said yeah providing we don’t get too many, don’t want the place throbbing with would-be animators. So anyway under that theme, I think Kevin who was always film struck, he used to see about five films a week or something, he came into the studio on this course and he was learning how to animate on a scanner and he was doing it, you know, he was shaping up quite well and his time on the course came to an end. So I said Kevin I think we’re going to pass you out on full marks, you’ve done extremely well and I shall ring your course leaders and I shall tell them you are first class. Thank you very much and goodbye. And so he went. And then I went down to The Crown pub and he was standing in there and he said would you like a pint, so I said of course and I took a pint and I went out and said Cheerio and Good Luck and all the best, you did well. So the second night I went down there and he’s standing there again, so he said do you want a pint and I said won’t say no.. And I said you like it round here don’t you and he said yeah, I like I round here. The third night he’s there again. And I said, stop me if I’m wrong but I think you’d like to get a job at the studio wouldn’t you? I mean it certainly looks that way. He said yeah, yeah I would. So that’s how he got started. And he’s a great animator, I mean he’s very funny, very dark humour. So he stayed and he became the number one animator.

MP: It’s funny that story because years and years ago I met a background artist called Michael Gabriel who did some of the painted backgrounds for Pink Floyd’s The Wall and he might have been on The Snowman as well and I said “How do you become an animator?” and he said “Go and drink in the same pub as animators!”

MP: Yes, so how were the 80’s for you then? Was it a difficult time?

BG: Well I think in the 80’s I think I was just going over to Covent Garden and people were saying oh you’re leaving the film industry! But it wasn’t very far, only one block or something. So yeah I was in Covent Garden and it was mostly working on series and then the 90’s I moved to Kings Cross and finished in Kings Cross, yeah.

MP: In your short films of this period a lot of them were about the little man against the world and sort of notions of British masculinity and so on, where do you think that comes from?

BG: I’ve only ever had two writers and I think they tend to write what they think I would like or I should have. So it tends to come from the writing and then if I’m sympathetic to the writing then I animate to the writing and then I’ve got this little guy against the world or society or something. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing, I don’t think I’m consciously doing it but I’m, yes I’m probably doing it.

MP: Because I wondered if it might be a subversive part of your personality the fact that your films are very cheerfully subversive and iconoclastic in a really nice way. Are you a rebel?

BG: Yes I am a rebel and I think that when I moved into Wardour Street people said this street is the only street that’s shady on both sides! And these people, these distributors, the people that put the films out were like the enemy. I mean these guys were never gonna put money into my films and put them out even when they were done. So mostly I was against the system such as it existed and British films and I was more related to the festivals where I was better known in the festivals and some festivals I liked and some I didn’t but I’ve always liked Zagreb, I think Zagreb is a good place.

MP: I was admiring this trophy here…

BG: Oh the thing for Kama Sutra yeah, oh they gave me that when Kama Sutra came out. The funny story with that is the people who indecipherable and indecipherable ran it then he said ‘We can’t show this film in the normal run of the programmes’ and I said ‘Why not?’ and he said ‘The Russians must not see’, because it was the cold war. He said ‘There is only one way, we show this film at 2 o’clock in the morning.’ So we showed this film at 2o’clock in the morning and the audience is made up entirely of Russians! Who loved it! And then the oldest one, Ivana Vana, the oldest Russian said ‘This film must be [On the wall is a painted wooden trophy from the Animafest Zagreb festival, inscribed with the words:“The First World Festival of Animated Film ZAGREB ‘72”] burnt! I said oh what you mean like the Nazis and that? They all burn in the films don’t they?

MP: You’ve got another good story about Kama Sutra Rides Again haven’t you, because of a certain American film maker who phoned you about doing a title sequence of his – Stanley Kubrick?

BG: Oh yeah, that’s right. I sent the titles of Kama Sutra Rides Again, because I thought they were rather elegant and rather nice, to Stanley Kubrick because I’d heard he was looking for a Title Artist for one of his films. And I forgot about it and then one morning the phone went and he said ‘Stanley Kubrick’ – oh hello sir! ‘Listen I wouldn’t have you do titles for me if you were the last Title Artist in the world’ and I said oh that’s fair enough sir, thank you very much sir. ‘I’ll tell you what I will do. I’ll show Kama Sutra with A Clockwork Orange – oh sir thank you! So I got a little bit of money because it did actually go out with A Clockwork Orange. And I was trying to make the connection and the only connection that I could make was that at the end of A Clockwork Orange this guy, Roger, has got his leg up in plaster and at the end of Kama Sutra Rides Again the wife has her leg up in plaster, so that’s the only connection I could make between the film and my film.

MP: I saw Roman Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers a few years ago and your name was on that as well?

BG: Yeah it was the titles doing dripping blood, yeah I had to do dripping blood for Roman Polanski. You know I’m a very indifferent Title Maker, you know I just get these jobs from time to time. I didn’t like doing that very much. But the other was ok, doing the other one was ok but you know titles are, I don’t put much thought or creativity into them, no.

MP: Now we were talking about the 90’s. In the 1990’s you did – was it Kevin Saves the World in the 1990’s or was that the 80’s?

BG: No, Kevin Saves the World came at the end of the 90’s, yes quite the latest serious thing I’ve done with Danny Postgate, son of Oliver Postgate and he’s taken over where dad left off, you know, he’s pretty good.

MP: Because then of course you did 1066 and all that and then also you did Millennium – the Musical for Channel 4, about the Millennium Dome and I remember reading about that while that was still in production, although I have to admit I never saw it – I missed it on Channel 4 and I never went to the Millennium Dome so I’m going to try and track down a copy of it.. How was that, because that was a very ambitious film?

BG: Yes and I think that I’m not sure but I think Clare [Kitson, former commissioning editor for Animation at Channel 4] had the money for something else that was never spent on something else and I went to see her and said I’ve got this thing, the Millennium, you know, and it’s very ambitious and I don’t have any money and she said oh yes you do have some money I’ll give you the, whatever it was it cost, I think it was about a million. And she got me the money and I did it in time for the Millennium.

MP: And that was in the Kings Cross studio wasn’t it?

BG: Yes.

MP: And what kind of studio staff did you have at that time? Was that quite a big production?

BG: Yes I think Kevin Baldwin worked on it, I worked on it, how many other animators worked on it? Anne Joliffe may have worked on it, I had a team of tracers and painters. It was a full production. It was big money. Yeah, the Millennium.

MP: And you’ve also been painting and print making and life drawing?

BG: Yeah well when I left Chuck’s [King’s Cross?] – studio and I was out and I was very, it was quite a traumatic time for me and I was wondering what the hell I was doing with myself and my wife picked up on this and she said ‘Look, I was in the library the other day and saw this life drawing and print making at the Art House in New Cross. Why don’t you go along and see how that works out?’ So nothing lost, I went down and I immediately like the life class because my drawings have always, I’ve been insecure about my drawing and I started doing life drawing, and it turned out ok, and then I was doing mono-prints which is something completely new to me, and still is, and the people were 100% very nice people so we’re in a recess now but in September when they start up again I shall start up there again. So two days a week I’m going to be in the Art House working away and basically meeting other artists because I think it’s very essential that artists meet other artists and we can talk about your troubles and somebody’s not doing this and somebody’s not doing that, and we can have a good moan together. So that’s a good thing.

MP: If you don’t mind me asking then, did you have to close down the Kings Cross studio after Millennium? Was it sometime after that?

BG: Oh, a long time after Millennium, I think the work just dwindled away. And, also, the advertising agencies – (a) they’d gone off animation a bit, and also they weren’t getting the people who support advertising agencies, they weren’t advertising. So the advertising agencies wanted to do quick cheap things and, you know, it was just a bad time. And in that time a lot of the studios went down. I think there’s only the one in what we called ‘Noho’, which is north of Oxford Street, ‘Passion’ is still going, they’ve got some good people. There’s only two or three studios actually going. The rest is freelance. Now the way the scene is at the moment, Kevin is not working on the film we’re working on because he has to get money. So what they do now is they call an animator in and they won’t let that animator work in his own place. They want him there so they can keep an eye on him or her. And so for three or four weeks he’s away from the project. And so the project is missing an animator so this is – they call in animators as and when they want them, rather than have a studio like Passion [Pictures] where they’re employing people and paying people sometimes to just sit there and pick their noses or look at the ceiling, you know, but they’ve got the animators there should they want them. Well this is sort of going and now we’re gonna have animators when we want them and when we don’t want them and goodbye. So that is the bad scene for animators. 

MP: Sounds like Thatcherism...

BG: Exactly, it is Thatcherism. So the studios are down to Passion and Sherbet – there’s only those two I think.

MP: I mean there’s Slinky.

BG: Yeah, Slinky. Two people and a dog. And a telephone. Slinky’s okay because he keeps it small you see. He’s down in Old Street or somewhere. He’s down in the brewery place, so you get these little clutches of people working. And it’s a very, very bad time and I think we’re gonna have to – I’m going to Bradford and I expect we’ll have talks there about, um, we’re gonna have a discussion on how animation is used in advertising. So the answer to that is – it isn’t!

MP: When I spoke to Clare Kitson a while ago she said that the major problem in television nowadays is that the advertising revenue is now divided between dozens of channels whereas it used to be just between ITV and Channel 4 and this has caused an awful lot of problems for the stations themselves, because whereas Channel 4 might like to commission interesting work, it just relies on ratings for things like Big Brother and dross like that. She wouldn’t quite say why she left Channel 4 but that it was a number of different causes and that she’d been unhappy for some time, but the impression I get is that the schedulers were moving in and tidying everything up and I think it’s to her considerable regret that they closed the animation department at Channel 4 which I think is a cultural disaster frankly, very, very sad, and we’re all the worse off for it, you know the fact that one of the main commissioners of animation is now no longer in existence. It’s interesting now with the internet – I mean what you described about everyone’s a one band now, there’s a lot of young animators coming through who don’t seem to get commissions any more – people are doing it at home just on a computer, you don’t need a rostrum anymore. I think it’s sad that people don’t learn the skills. There’s a lot of stuff being produced on a kind of an amateur level that get shown at festivals.

BG: I said to Kevin, Kevin make these films and play the festivals. They want you. They can’t exist without you because you make the films. So play the festivals, get a festival reputation and then through the festivals you will get known by Bloggs of you know, wherever, you’ll get your reputation that way because you’re not going to get it through the advertising agencies and commissions for this that and the other because the industry – once it was a cottage industry, God knows what it is now! A one-horse industry.

MP: So to sort of bring us up to date, you moved into this Acme Studio Space and you’ve been painting, life drawing and print making and so on?

BG: I’ve got three studios; I’ve got this – this is number one, the fifty pound a week special. And I’ve got another studio at the bottom of my garden which I can only use in the summer and there’s another one at the top of my house where I do intricate work.

MP: And are you working on a project at home at the moment? Well, Shakespeare is the one I want to get together with Colin Pearson on that and get it organised. Colin is the kind of writer that likes to come down on the set. Every producer or director will tell you the first thing you do is get rid of the writer because they’ve got really firm ideas of what should and what shouldn’t be done. And if writers directed there’d be a lot of awful films about. So, no, having written, the moving finger having written should wait for the premiere. I’ve said Colin I’ll give you a credit title with a band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and arrows pointing and rockets going off, you’ll get the full treatment. But he knows I’m taking things out and it has to be, you know, and when writers write feature films they’ll probably go and see it and say they’re never gonna write again, you know, ‘This man has ruined my thing!’, and then it goes on to be a great thing.

MP: Is that Colin Pearson or Stan Hayward with ‘Great’?

BG: No, actually, I read a book about Isambard Kingdom Brunel and in those days hardly anybody had ever heard of him. And I read this story and thought I dunno, how do I make this an action man? I’ve gotta make a film about this man. I mean, he’s only 5ft 2, wonderful. So was my idea and I started to clobber it together. And then I go to – Stan had nothing to do with it, it was Colin Pearson and then Colin and I fell out – oh he fell out with the musician, he didn’t like the musician, Jonny P Hodge, he didn’t like him. So he said I want my name taken off this film. And we were halfway through, took his name off the film. So I said ok. So the second half I had to write myself because I had no writer. And when Colin saw the finished film he said I want my name put back on. So I said sorry that cost money, we’ve done the titles. So he never got back on again but I think he was quite pleased with the result. Fortunately, when he walked off the film he’d written the lyrics to the songs. And I think they are the cement between the bricks, I mean those songs are great. So we got it done, it took about four years to make, I mean it’s the longest film I’ve made. But everyone fell in love with Brunel and thought what a wonderful little man he was and we were making it at the same time as Roobarb and Custard! But, you know, I fell out with the writer on Roobarb and Custard with the second series because Roobarb had gone digital and the Mouse was this thing you’d have on a computer pad so I said oh no way, no, this must be a house, the garden, the seasons and that’s what makes it great, its simplicity and I can’t get involved. And once you say that that’s it, you’re off. But it wasn’t as good, it’s never as good. I don’t really like re-makes, they never kind of work in a way. The first one was done in a year and it was clobbered together but everybody loved it and thought it was great.

MP: It’s really stood the test of time, I mean my six year old niece got given a video of it and she loves it and, you know, it’s timeless.

BG: Yeah, I think the people who made it enjoyed doing it, they loved doing it and I think that shows! You know, that whoever did this was enjoying themselves and that comes through. I say to Kevin, if you have a hard time, the audience will have a hard time - if you have a good time, the audience will have a good time. And I think that’s getting to him now.

MP: You told me a lovely story once about the very beginning of your career when you take a few feet of film into the lab and then you couldn’t wait to get it home.

BG: Yeah, early days of doing very short ends. Humphreys Lab, in those days were in Villiers Street or wherever, and they used to have in 200ft reels and there’s me going in with about 2 and a half feet of film. But I was so enthusiastic, I couldn’t wait – I used to cycle down there and hand this thing in and they said, oh my god it’s him again, and they used to do that and then I think it must have been about 9ft of film and I thought I can’t wait to go home, I’ve gotta see this thing! Where can I see this thing? So, the gents toilets on Tottenham Court Road. Right, so I rush into the gents on Tottenham Court Road, the cubicles were like, you know, the walls are down on you, opened this thing and went in and there were all drawings on the wall and everything. But the walls don’t go right down to the bottom, there was about a six inch gap, underneath, between the cubicles. I was so enthusiastic, I didn’t want to go to the toilet -I stood on the seat. And I unreeled this thing. And I’m looking, and I got this image and I can see something, you know, oh wow, look at that, you know, and then I feel this tug on this film and the guy in the next cubicle had felt underneath and had got hold of this and thought I was looking at something pornographic. And I was trying to say - here put that down! That’s mine that is! It was like a tug of war. He finally let go and I got the thing back. But I couldn’t wait to get home and see it, you know. I used to charge down on my bicycle to Humphrey’s and put my stuff in. I used to put it in at night and go the next day to pick it up.

MP: And was this all made on little hand crank camera that was also a projector?

BG: Yeah, the Moy yeah.

MP: And am I right in thinking you used to put on films shows on those days as well?

BG: Well I had quite a few of my own films 16mm, that I’d made, like Karma Sutra and well, I dunno, I must have had about eight or nine films that were my private films and so I used to give – and in those days they had things called film societies, there were no DVDs or anything like that, happy days! And in those days I rode a motorcycle so I got a compass and I drew a 50 mile radius around London and I thought inside there I will do my gigs. I think in those days it was £12 a gig, so I get a call from somewhere in Canterbury or somewhere and I drive with panniers on the back with these16mm in and then more 16mm on my back and I was invariably late cos the thing would blow up or something, I’d get there and they’d all be sitting there waiting for the show and I’d put on the show and I got £12, that was quite a lot of money in those days. That was very good you know, it added to my income.

MP: Well, Bob, thank you very much indeed.

BG: Just one thing that might be useful to you, you were talking about the studios getting together in a state of crisis, well things like Yellow Submarine and other things, invariably the studios would merge under one director and that was because there weren’t enough people in the business in Soho to cope with this thing. Halas never allowed his people go near any other studio or anything. We were all pretty friendly, I don’t think George Dunning was very friendly with John Halas didn’t like him very much. But I think John, in amongst all his stuff there is Harold Whittaker, he had a very good animator down in Slough. You see during the war, all the animators, mostly women - all the men went off to war and the women went down to Slough and formed this little colony down there and I think Harold Whittaker, I don’t know maybe he wasn’t well enough to be in the services, he went down there and he was like the number one animator down there and he did a lot of work for Halas and Automania 2000 was one of his things and I think that is one of Halas’s best movies because it’s actually criticising society, that if we carry on with this maniacal things that we’ve got now it’s gonna clog up the roads or something, something’s going to go wrong. So what he’s saying there, I don’t know when it was made, what he’s saying there has come true. Normally Halas is not critical, he’s usually making a commercial for Britain or something or the other. I think George Dunning was very avant-garde, he was very way out and if you take a look at that animation – The Tempest – ask if could just see George Dunning’s animation for The Tempest because John Coates [animation producer] treasures that, he’s know that he’s sitting on a goldmine there, that proves without a shadow of a doubt that George Dunning was an animator, wow - I mean he died, I mean if he’d carried on he couldn’t have made it work because he couldn’t do the dramatic side, he couldn’t direct actors or actresses, he didn’t know anything about that, all he knew was the animation of the trees in the winds and The Tempest blowing and all that, he could handle that and he could do it very well. He couldn’t direct voices or get performances out of people so I’m glad in a way it stopped there because we have that little gem, that little piece, you know, and he was a sad man, very sad man. He had a rough time on the Yellow Submarine, I mean he just didn’t know.

MP: But as you pointed out he presided over the coming together of all these different animation studios to work on one common project. Would you say that in this country could that be perhaps the salvation of some of the companies to have a massive feature come along and suddenly have to draw all these animators together again – could you see that happening? Maybe something like a British version of Belleville Rendezvous, something that is animated in the traditional style?

BG: That would be a big help I think because actually I heard that he [Sylvain Chomet]’s working up in Scotland somewhere now, he doesn’t like – he’s French and he likes to work with French speaking people, but I think he’d like French speaking Canadians or French speaking Scottish - he’s fallen in love with Edinburgh! Good God man, wait til it gets to the winter, you won’t like it very much! No, I think he’s the kind of guy it’s very important who he works with. I don’t see him as the saviour of the industry because I think he’s very specialised and he’s very fussy about who he gives work to. I don’t see him being the answer really. There was something started with digital animation, it was about gallant British sparrows and awful German hawks or something – Braveheart, or something.


Roobarb © Roobarb Enterprises 1975

MP: Valiant?

BG: Valiant! That’s right. Absolute pile of crap. It was supposed to be saving the industry or something, it saved nothing. They did it cheaper than anybody else, well that’s no criteria.

MP: You made the very good point that we hadn’t touched on the political aspect of animation, political, social and economic that when you started it was because companies like Shell had something called the…

BG: Excess Profit Tax. Ok, we go back about half a century or more to when I started in the industry as a background artist, we were working on industrial films for the Film Producers’ Guild - if you can imagine anything today called the Film Producers’ Guild but that’s what it was called! Peter Sachs, my boss was the director and producer of these films, he was part of the Film Producers’ Guild, and this Excess Profit Tax was people like Shell and ICI, enormous corporations who were making profits of course and any excess profits either had to be paid to the government or put into industrial films singing the praises of ICI and Shell. So those were the things that we were working on and they were usually about half an hour long.

MP: You mentioned the political side, another political ramification or whatever is that in the 1980’s when the Thatcher administration decided there was no such thing as society and a lot of tax concessions for the film industry were tightened up and I think as a result there were six feature films made in the UK in 1989, I imagine that would also have serious repercussions for animation as well because there was quite a hostile attitude towards the creative industry. Did you feel that as well?

BG: I think one only begins to feel that when you tout around looking for your sponsor or a backer and then you come out nodding sagely saying, yeah, you know, then you don’t feel too kindly disposed towards the people who put the money behind – I mean we went to see some people in Oxford Street, whose job it is to lay money before things and we got absolutely nowhere there. We even took the player along and played them a bit of it, saying said we’ve only just heard about you so we started without you, this is what it’s going to be like and I think that was the Shakespeare one and they weren’t moved by that at all. I got the impression they were just money people, they weren’t simply – they didn’t know anything about film making.

With thanks to Bob, his grandson Tom Lowe and to Jules Shevlin.

Martin Pickles is an animator. Visit: http://www.martinpickles.com/