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Book Review: 'British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor'

Irene Kotlarz reviews Clare Kitson's book on U.K. Channel 4, charting a golden age of British animation.

Clare Kitson's book discusses the golden age of British animation, chronicling it and lamenting its passing.

Clare Kitson's book discusses the golden age of British animation, chronicling it and lamenting its passing.

At a recent preview screening of Coraline, (which is brilliant, by the way), I commented to Henry Selick how great it was to see what he could do with creative freedom, and what a wonderful time it is these days for animated features. Selick's reply was that we're in a golden age of animation. Clare Kitson's British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor charts a previous golden age -- when a whole generation of British animators blossomed. Now that particular party's over and they're having trouble adjusting to the loss.

To give some background, Channel 4 was a phenomenon of the 1980s. For those of you who weren't born, or don't remember, the Reagan era had its British equivalent: the Thatcher years. Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister in May 1979. Because Britain has no limit on how long a premier can serve, she returned to office again and again until her own party kicked her out at the end of 1990. The Conservative Party remained in power until they finally lost in May 1997. Almost two decades of philistine right-wing government wreaked havoc on the arts and education through slashes to funding (excuse the emotion -- I was trying to raise money for animation festivals at the time). Into this seemingly unfavorable cultural environment, in November 1982 arrived Channel 4, one of the most progressive television channels in history. In fact, it was a lifeline throughout those years.

To understand "the channel" (as it was known), you have to realize that it had its origins 20 years earlier, in the 1960s -- the age of lefties, the rise of feminism, gay and minority rights. Film and television were believed to have great cultural influence. And the prospect of a new channel being floated back then energized liberal media and arts types and independent producers and resulted in a (successful) lobby on the government to influence its nature and identity.

The fourth channel was to make up for shortcomings in the other three (BBC1 and 2 and ITV), and was to be "different," as laid out in a 1981 Broadcasting Act. Those main points were: it was to appeal to tastes and interests not covered by ITV; it was to encourage experiment and innovation in form and content and it was to include a proportion of educational programs. Importantly, its programs were to be made by independent producers, not in-house like the other channels. And it was to be financed by ITV, which sold Channel 4's commercial airtime, freeing it of commercial pressures.

As Kitson points out, there was no mention of animation in Channel 4's "remit." Much was left to the interpretation of founding Chief Executive, Jeremy Isaacs, and the team of commissioning editors he hired, with the help of an onslaught of suggestions from lobby groups and individuals. There were plenty of ways you could interpret the remit to include animation, and animators lost no time in pointing these out.

Kitson was commissioning editor for animation from 1989-99, arriving after Isaacs was replaced by the more populist Michael Grade, and the channel was preparing to move into the real world of having to sell its own advertising. It was all the same an enviable job because there was a tidal wave of energy in British animation that had been building since the late '60s. Kitson, with her annual budget of around £2 million (this was 20 years ago), was in a position to harness the momentum into commissions for films, which in the early '90s swept the board of prizes at festivals as well as the Oscars. But there was a rub. Channel 4 presented great opportunities for artists, and festival audiences loved the films. But TV audiences were something else, and she describes a growing battle with schedulers to get good screening slots. The shorts were awkward lengths, and considered an interruption to schedules designed to keep people watching from one popular program to the next. The result was that more and more animation was relegated to after midnight graveyard slots.

It was a losing battle, reflecting an inherent contradiction in Channel 4's origins when, with no need to attract or please a mass audience, Isaacs had aimed at a modest 10% audience share. With the emphasis on experimentation, minorities, and independent production, there were criticisms that the "audience [was] not part of the equation... a triumph of amateurs who never had to think about their audience," according to an anonymous ITV controller, quoted in Dorothy Hobson's Channel 4: The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy.

The first commissioning editor for animation, Paul Madden, was part-time, with several other responsibilities. The channel's output in the '80s was bookended by the instant classic, The Snowman, and in late 1989 the superlative Creature Comforts; and in between, many other audience pleasers. There were also more experimental and challenging films, including several by the Quay Brothers such as their masterpiece Street of Crocodiles.

The Quay Brothers were artists who flourished under the patronage of Channel 4. Kitson asked if they ever considered the interests of viewers. "No, never," was the response." She elaborates: "And for two very good reasons: firstly, that it is impossible to gauge what an audience will respond to and, secondly, that if audiences are asked they will invariably want what they already know, thus precluding the possibility of challenge and innovation." I don't agree -- I think there is such a thing as audience building; an audience surely built up for the Quays own films as they developed as artists and their films had more exposure, marketing and critical success.

Another great plus of the '80s was that the advertising industry had a kind of edgy, cocaine-fueled street-smart competitiveness that engendered experiment and risk. Animators could alternate earning money from ads with making films for Channel 4 -- the two existed in a symbiotic relationship as the commercials were often derived from ideas developed in personal films. Conversely, a well-kept secret was that many people subsidized their Channel 4 films from commercial income; although the budgets were good, they were often not enough. One has the impression that Kitson didn't realize this.

Also in the 1980s, MTV arrived on the animation scene, looking for experimental artists to create idents and artbreaks. In 1988, as Kitson mentions ruefully, the controller of BBC2 entered the fray, "Observing Channel 4's success... and wanting to mount some competition." I understood it a bit differently. I was hired by BBC2's Youth Editor, Janet Street-Porter, at the time to do Animation Week; I think she was responding more to the growth of popularity of animation in youth culture, as evidenced by MTV, animated music videos (a major theme of the week), commercials and the growing number of young animators. Channel 4's animation success was as much a symptom of the '80s zeitgeist as a cause, which is where I differ slightly from Kitson on events and what shaped them.

Joanna Quinn was one of many British animators in the 1980s who got their first break at Channel 4.

Joanna Quinn was one of many British animators in the 1980s who got their first break at Channel 4.

Kitson includes a brief but informative history of British animation, which left me wanting more (I'm trying to persuade her to make that her next book). The largest section is devoted to detailed descriptions of 30 (mostly stunning, groundbreaking) films, covering a span of 26 years. These cover biographical info on the artists, budgets, insights into the creative, technical and production process and anecdotes. Who knew that a young Joanna Quinn, during the voice recording for Girls Night Out, decided to get the actors drunk to get them in the right mood? They finished just in time before they all started passing out.

Behind-the-scenes detail on Channel 4's inner workings is fascinating to those of us who were on the receiving end (I produced one film for them, Paul Vester's Abductees). Producers and would-be producers will find the information on co-production deals useful. But mostly, it is a book full of personal stories -- the first written account of multiple oral histories. I gather Kitson had many problems sorting conflicting memories of the same events, Rashomon style. Robert Bradbrook (Home Road Movies) says of his first interview by the selection committee for an Animate grant (a joint scheme by Channel 4 and the Arts Council to fund low budget, experimental animation) that he was given a terrible grilling. I was on that committee and my memory is that we were completely charmed by him (I hope you read this, Robert -- we thought we were being nice -- honest!).

Kitson returns often to her increasingly-fraught relationship with schedulers. The pressure was on to maintain audience share, and most animated shorts were thought not to cut it. Ironically, with The Simpsons, there was a growing young adult audience for animation; the 18-24 age group had especially become the holy grail. Kitson was unable to buy the series because of budget constraints. For the same reason, she lost Wallace & Gromit to the BBC. MTV's cult series Liquid Television was acquired by BBC2 for their youth slot. Some of her animations were, in Kitson's words "challenging." Her forays into series production had limited success, largely for reasons of scheduling. Increasingly, a note of despondency creeps in.

Peter and the Wolf, the Oscar winner for Best Animated Short last year, has a connection to the current management at Channel 4. © 2006 BreakThru Peter Ltd & Se-ma-for.

Peter and the Wolf, the Oscar winner for Best Animated Short last year, has a connection to the current management at Channel 4. © 2006 BreakThru Peter Ltd & Se-ma-for.

Kitson, succeeded by her assistant, Ruth Fielding, with Camilla Deakin, who had no animation experience, tries to sound cheerful about the future for animation at Channel 4. They acquired South Park and Futurama, and continued several lower budget, experimental schemes, including Animate, and AIR (for first films after students graduate), which have continued to generate amazing work, including Gaëlle Denis' City Paradise and Run Wrake's Rabbit. Deakin and Fielding are now also gone, but the commissioning editor for arts, Jan Younghusband, is apparently an animation fan, partly financing Peter and the Wolf. The newest venture is a broadband channel called 4mations.

It sometimes crosses my mind that Channel 4 gave young animators directorial expectations and a false sense of security. Some have made it big -- Aardman Animations' exponential growth was triggered by a chance encounter between Peter Lord and David Sproxton with Isaacs at the 1981 Cambridge Animation Festival (of which the channel also became a major sponsor). Kitson quotes me as saying that by 1990, I felt there was less buzz around British shorts at festivals. I don't remember putting it that way, but I did think the action was shifting to the U.S. by the '90s as American TV and feature animation were taking off. Talent has to be in the right place at the right time (as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers).

There's no doubt Channel 4 (along with MTV and the BBC), with their enlightened support of artists, changed the face of animation. Several generations of filmmakers, from Nick Park to Selick, cut their creative teeth on shorts with their help. The location may have shifted, but the party carries on.

British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor by Clare Kitson. London, U.K: Parliament Hill Publishing, 2008. Co-published in North America: Indiana University Press. 240 pages. ISBN 978-0-9560002-0-0. ($29.95).

Irene Kotlarz is founding director of PLATFORM International Animation Festival and former Director of the Cambridge, Bristol and Cardiff Animation Festivals in Britain. She has taught animation history and theory at the University College of the Creative Arts, Royal College of Art and the National Film and Television School and was executive producer at Speedy Films in London. She has also produced and consulted for programs on animation for the BBC, Channel 4, ITV and MTV. She is now based in Los Angeles.