Cosgrove Hall, home to Dangermouse, Duckula and now Albie, is one of Europe's largest and most prolific animation studios. As it celebrates its silver anniversary, Andrew Osmond asks how the company is facing the next quarter-century.
There's an episode of Cosgrove Hall's new series Albie, about the fantasy world of a little boy, that encapsulates what fans love about the studio. Albie has been sketching animals ('impressionist moose') before going to bed. His mean sister warns him of nightmares. Sure enough, Albie is woken by his drawings, that complain about their lack of realism. 'These legs would look daft even on an elk!' one moose whinges in a Manchester accent. 'It's artistic license!' Albie protests. 'It's indecent assault!' the moose retorts.
After that, things get seriously strange. There's head-swapping. There are harmony-singing Welsh buffalo ("We are Welsh and we come from Wales," sung to "Men of Harlech"). There are two hippos that blow up Albie's garden. One hippo looks at his partner and exclaims, 'You were only supposed to blow the ruddy doors off!' in a Michael Caine accent. After that, Terry Gilliam might lie down.
All in a ten-minute segment supposedly aimed at young children. And that's not mentioning the technical innovations. Albie and his environment are traditionally drawn, but the animals (at least in their daylight appearances) have CG textures, creating a reality-fantasy contrast that works extremely well. Small wonder Albie is picking up prizes. So far it's snagged the British Animation Award for Best Children's Series, the Best European Programme at Cartoons on the Bay and the Best Young Writer award in the U.K. trade Broadcast.
A Successful History
Albie represents a new generation of programmes from a 25-year institution, now Europe's biggest toon studio. Founded in 1976 by college friends Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall, Cosgrove Hall started life in a disused warehouse near Manchester, north England. For American readers, its three most familiar creations are Dangermouse, about a hero rodent agent, Wind in the Willows, a puppet version of Kenneth Grahame's classic, and Duckula, about a neurotic vampire duck.
Head of public relations AJ Read knows the trio's enduring popularity: "If you do a search on the Internet, you get 180,000 returns on Dangermouse. It's still on in the States and I get American emails every week, chasing information and merchandise...It's huge." In its heyday, Dangermouse pulled in vast audiences and was among Britain's most-watched programmes. "I think that for a children's cartoon, it would be very difficult to get those figures now, mainly because of the spread of channels," says Read. "A lot of children just put on Cartoon Network. It would have to be a stunning piece of well-marketed animation to get near Dangermouse."
Other keynote Cosgrove Hall titles include the 1990 feature The BFG, based on the book by Roald Dahl; the same year's Truckers, a beautiful model version of Terry Pratchett's novel (with animation by the late Paul Berry); and the Emmy-winning Peter and the Wolf (1996), co-produced with Chuck Jones. There have also been Foxbusters, Fantomcat and Rocky and the Dodos, while the model Animal Shelf airs in America. An exhibition of the studio's history is running at the Lowry Centre in England.
The early days of Cosgrove Hall Films were spent in a refurbished tobacco warehouse. © Cosgrove Hall. Today, Cosgrove Hall Films is housed in a state-of-the-art complex. © Cosgrove Hall.
Today Cosgrove Hall remains near Manchester, but is now housed in custom built studios, covering 25,000 square feet. The site includes Avid and post-production facilities. Beside the traditional twin-tracks of model animation and 2D, the studio has embraced the CG age, establishing its own subsidiary Cosgrove Hall Digital. Albie combines CG textures with 2D animation, while the preschool Andy Pandy, Engie Benjy and Bill and Ben mix CG with stop-frame. Several other CG titles are in development, including the children's sci-fi shows Thunderpilots and Code Warriors (the latter combining CG with live-action). There is not, however, a CG Dangermouse as rumoured in some quarters.
Most of the current titles are aimed at very young children. Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben revamp classic 'Watch With Mother' BBC shows. The characters first entertained Britain's tots in the '50s, when no-one worried about visible strings. As the Albie summary shows, though, Cosgrove Hall retains its Monty Python spirit. "There's a little bit of mystery, of anarchism, involved in Albie's storytelling," says creative director Ben Turner. "The audience always ends up somewhere they didn't expect to be."
Andy Pandy appeals to the preschool set with its mixture of CG and stop-frame animation. © BBC Worldwide Ltd./Ben Productions. Wind in the Willows is one of CHF's best known shows. © FreMantle Media.
"These days, a lot of TV animation is very child-focused and child-centered, because of the wants of commissioning editors," Turner continues. "It's all about the environment of the child, what a child will understand at a particular age. But with Dangermouse and Albie, there are unexpected surprises, a surrealism mixed into the humour. I like stories like that, and I think many kids do."
A New Age
How is the cartoon environment different now from 1976? "There are two ways," says managing director Iain Pelling. "One is the way in which we can make our shows, the technology, which is better. The second is the issue of financing shows, which is worse! It's a harder environment; there's far more competition. The amount licensees pay has fallen, because of the increased supply in the market and the principles of co-production. It's the way the market works. But the opportunities offered by technology are much greater, with new ways to get our shows out there."
In order to succeed in today's media landscape, Pelling believes Cosgrove Hall must cultivate partners and think globally. Early on, the studio could make its shows primarily for a British audience. "Our programmes have to be more international now," says Pelling. "It's not that we're tailoring them for France or Germany or America, but they have to work in those places."
Co-production is fairly new territory for Cosgrove Hall, though the studio has worked for hire. Both Andy Pandy and Bill and Ben were made with the BBC and the U.S. company Ben Productions, but Cosgrove Hall had a fairly free hand. "As a creating studio, we haven't done many co-productions," says Pelling. He acknowledges form and content can work against collaboration. "It's especially difficult with stop-motion, because of how the animation is made. And we didn't want to go the co-production route with Albie, because of the nature of the humour."
Nonetheless, Pelling sees the studio doing many co-productions in the future. "It's a way to share the risk, given how expensive cartoon series are today," he says. "Many of the CG titles we're developing will not be possible without partners." He sees co-production as a trade-off. "On one side, it's working out how to keep the partners' sympathy. On the other, it's a matter of our animators deciding what they really want to do. They make a distinction between the bits of the programme they're determined to keep and do themselves, and the bits where they can work with a partner. It makes you think more about the production process, how it's structured."
Duckula was co-produced with Nickelodeon, but many later Cosgrove Hall series have not been seen in America, despite selling in over 150 countries. "We don't have a great track-record of selling shows to America," admits Pelling. "That's why we're looking for companies with access to the U.S. market. We want to play to the partners' strengths." Pelling hopes new trends will make sales over the pond easier. In recent years, Teletubbies and Bob the Builder sharpened U.S. interest in Brit preschool programming. This may help nursery shows like Bill and Ben and Andy Pandy, though whether the eccentric Albie finds a place remains to be seen.
Just the Beginning?
Viewing an episode of one of Cosgrove Hall's new shows -- Albie with its singing buffalo, or Engie Benjy with its seamless model backgrounds and wider CG landscapes -- is slightly poignant. It's a reminder of how a single TV cartoon can look both crafted and individual, without a trace of the production line. At a time when TV airwaves seem infested by Pokemon-alikes, can this continue? How does Cosgrove Hall do it?
"We make a distinction between quality and cost," says Pelling simply. "At the moment, we're looking at a nursery CGI show that would be very cost-effective, but we'd still put in the quality elements that Cosgrove Hall has. We've never believed in, 'Pile it high, sell it cheap.' If we tried to be more cynical, we'd just get it wrong anyway! We always ask what's the best we can do in each bit of animation.
Brian Cosgrove (left) and Mark Hall hold specially made sculptures presented to them at CHF's 25th Anniversary Ball, which was held May 14, 2002. The statues are of the founding partners' heads with Dangermouse and Penfold alongside. © Cosgrove Hall. CHF animator Pete Dodd works on the preschool show Fetch the Vet. © Cosgrove Hall.
"We never exceed a budget, but there's always an inclination to exceed quality," Pelling concludes. "I'm not saying other studios don't try, but Cosgrove Hall seems able to match intention with delivery. Maybe it's because we've been going so long." Twenty-five years on, Cosgrove Hall doesn't look like it is slowing anytime soon.
Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.