Long before I started animating, our family had a touring puppet theatre. One day we were working on a play with flashbacks. These we could not think how best to portray without having long scene changes. The artist who was painting the backcloth was an animator and said “What about animation?” We knew nothing about animation but his idea sounded exciting. So under his guidance we took our first steps. We added two smaller stages either side of the main stage and through one of them we back projected through a mirror our animated flashbacks. After this, in all plays with flashbacks, journeys or cutaway scenes we used animation alternating with live puppetry. So began my initiation into animation.
It was another few years before I made my first puppet animation films in Super 8. The extended part of our kitchen, used as much for modelling, painting and recordings as family meals, now became my part time studio. My 16 to 18 inch puppets, inherited scale from the theatre, told their story from the kitchen table while family life continued around them. The recording of their voices, sound effects and music, as practised in every puppet play, was familiar ground. However, breaking down the dialogue to get animated timing was unknown territory and I have no idea now how I did it. It was a long time later that Barry Purves introduced me to the dope sheet. But I must have learnt something, for those first two Super 8 films rewarded me grants from Southern Arts and TVS. I took a one-day course in 16mm filmmaking and a weekend course in animation – a very inadequate training on any terms – and launched into my first 16mm 4 minute puppet animation film.
Animation continued on the kitchen table. For the post production I went to art centres, to learn to use 16mm editing equipment – well that’s to say I was shown to an editing machine – and since there was only one poor man rushing round doing a hundred other things, mostly left to work it out myself. I learnt enough to get by. Then to Portsmouth, the only art college to have a dubbing theatre, taking with me my three edited tracks of dialogue, sound effects and music for the final mix. All a slow and laborious sort of training, but it taught me a lot and was fun.
My next film, The Burglar, a 10 minute puppet animation film, changed my life. I commissioned my first two heads with moving eyes and mouths from a sculptor who worked in a huge warehouse in Wopping. He had the bright idea of making the mouth and eye movement work by radio control – Not a great success as not only were the mouth movements too small and inexpressive but when I started to animate, the mechanism continually broke down. So back to Wopping I’d go. However, I had better luck when I met an out of work camera and lighting man. He agreed to come each day to our house and set up the lights and camera for the set in the kitchen, then leave me to get on with the animation. He was very good and I really began to learn. Indeed, when he had to leave before the film was finished I was confident enough (just) to take over the camera and lighting and finish alone. This stood me in good stead for the future series, Willoughby Drive, when having a camera and lighting man would have been quite impractical and exorbitantly expensive. Often, a model-maker would be working in the garden, while a little band of dressmakers made puppet clothes in the sitting room. There was seldom a dull moment. Brilliant though some of these people were, they had their off moments. So it was not unusual for one who suffered from schizophrenia to retire upstairs to a darkened bedroom, while another, an alcoholic, periodically had to be rushed to hospital. After a brief interlude, all returned to normal and work would progress. Finally the film was finished and my small, unauthentic company disbanded; one to the solitude of the mountains, another to die tragically of alcohol poisoning and the rest to resume peaceful lives.
The Burglar, much to my astonishment, was very popular, winning many awards and somehow – I can’t remember how, eventually found its way to Channel 4. They were interested in it as a pilot for a series about the characters in The Burglar and asked for twelve scripts. These were the precursors of Willoughby Drive.
My life now changed radically. Channel 4 agreed to raise half the money if they could negotiate a co-production. They found me an independent executive producer to show me the ropes in film production. She arrived one morning on our doorstep with a pile of example budgets, time schedules and cash flows which I now had to emulate for my series. Nightmare!
Apart from these, I was enjoying visits to the production houses interested in a possible co-production. I was taken to Film Fair, who showed us round everything, including the minute space where Paddington was made. I went to the places where Thomas The Tank Engine and Noddy were made, both of which had lovely sets and, unlike Film Fair, lots of space. Everyone was very friendly and eager to help. I got rough estimates for the budget to report back to Channel 4. My favourite production house was The Film Company. Their budgets were the lowest but, more importantly, they were in most sympathy with the series and would be fun to work with.
Less fun was going to the investors my city worker cousin had set up. Their smiling welcome and initial enthusiasm suddenly, for no apparent reason, evaporated. No explanations; telephone calls not answered; complete mystery. I suspected some sort of intrigue going on, but never fathomed what. Good material for a television drama!
There were endless meetings at Channel 4 when the executive producer, the assistant commissioning editor, a charming accountant and others sat around with cups of coffee, all very relaxed and enjoyable. What these meetings achieved I don’t know, as I remember little apart from the speculation about all the brilliant merchandise this mythical series would engender. As time passed there was a sort of thumbs up feeling and we all waited for the go-ahead. Little did I know!
One day towards the end of the second year, I received to my horror an invoice for nearly seven thousand pounds! I was being billed by the executive producer for the time taken to raise money to make the series, tripling Channel 4’s original investment; for the time taken for meetings, reading my scripts, restructuring budgets, for cabs, telephone, postage and correspondence. Our shocked response was that we understood these items should come within the budget when and if there was a contract. Until then we were in no position to pay. Then I was threatened with legal proceedings. Nasty moment! In the end Channel 4 came to the rescue and the matter was settled out of court.
Nevertheless, things continued to look hopeful. The Film Company, chosen favourite, was lined up with its team of set makers, model-makers, animators, camera and lighting men and all the rest, ready to go.
Then, suddenly, from one day to the next the whole project, like a pack of cards, toppled to its destruction. The Channel 4 prime mover for the series had, after two years, to re-apply for her own job according to the custom of Channel 4. To everyone’s shock she didn’t get it. Later, a letter from her successor told me her programme would be designed for the under fives, not suitable for Willoughby Drive.
If initially disappointed I nevertheless owed to Channel 4 the confidence they had given me to decide to make the series without a commission – a crazy decision to any self-respecting filmmaker. So began the making of Willoughby Drive, free of salaries, few dead lines, and absolute freedom. And never for one moment have I regretted it.
(See www.dolphinpuppetfilms.co.uk History of the making of Willoughby Drive.)