TVC, one of Britain's most innovative studios is getting ready to shut down. Jill McGreal talks to John Coates, who succeeded founder George Dunning, and celebrates 40 years of creativity.
There are moments in The Wind in the Willows, TVC's feature-length animated adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's Edwardian children's book, in which the romance with the land, that very English phenomenon, is intense and magical. After Mole and Rat rescue Portly, the young otter who has wandered too far downstream, they all return home by boat. When dawn breaks the landscape is suffused with a "silvery, climbing phosphorescence" as the mists lift and another day on the river begins. To capture this--the essence, of Grahame's book--requires a special mindset, a certain kind of understanding, a carefully guided team ...
John Coates, Managing Director of TVC, occupies the office right at the top of his central London studio, surrounded by the paraphernalia of nearly 40 years in the business--awards and certificates, photographs of many friends and colleagues; proud, happy moments arranged carefully round the walls of the small, friendly space. John, approaching 70, joined TVC in 1957. He's a quiet, round, bearded man with a faraway look in his eyes that in an instant turns into a twinkle. An oldfashioned English gentleman, semidisplaced in the closing years of the 20th century, who speaks nostalgically of the sixties when all the pretty TVC paint and trace girls wore miniskirts and shopped for trendy clothes on Carnaby Street during their lunch hour. A Kiplingesque character who peppers his talk with capital letters, referring to himself and his long time associates as The Old Gang or, more affectionately, as TOG. He lives in Kent with Christine, his "Lady Love," and rides whenever he can. I catch the excitement when he reminisces about his first experience of riding to hounds.
A Wet Tory
The English tradition, to which John certainly belongs, comes out of the 19th century through the mad Ruskin, the last great English critic, ardent supporter of Turner, passionate opponent of Modernism. It moves through the decorative idealism of William Morris, takes in the eccentricities of Lewis Carrol, permeates the compositions of Elgar and Delius, encompasses both the malice and the sublimity of Kipling's prose, reappears in the deeply romantic films of Powell and Pressburger, the common sense writings of Oxford philosopher John Austin and in the politics of preThatcherite Toryism. The reader will be able to add other names to this list.
John Coates belongs here. He can't, for instance, locate himself within the radicallychanged political environment of the last two decades. "I'm a very wet Tory. Well, I'm a socialist really." A natural Tory who now cannot identify with the new politics of conviction; whose idealism today seems quaint and illfitting within the Dorothy Parker range of British politics.
Nevertheless, sidelined or not, John Coates has given TVC a new lease on life and a different personality since George Dunning died in 1979. As the psychedelia of the sixties ebbed away, exemplified in the unfinished fragment from The Tempest which George left behind, John's own interests asserted themselves. In the three years before the appearance of The Snowman, he turned around TVC from a commercialsled to an entertainmentled company which has subsequently produced a string of successful TV Specials including Granpa and Father Christmas; a feature film, When the Wind Blows, and a 6 x half hour series based on the Beatrix Potter books; he is currently working on an adaptation of the Posy Simmons book Fred the Cat with director Joanna Quinn and with director Jimmy Murukami on an adaptation of John Burningham's Oi! Get Off My Train. TVC's last production will be an adaptation of another Raymond Briggs book, The Bear, for which John has already written the end credits stating that this is TVC's last film.
The Snowman. Courtesy of TVC London.
The distinct, rounded, English animation style of TVC's recent productions, the emphasis on adaptation rather than original works--are both characteristic of the literary tradition. This narrative tradition is itself embedded in the romanticism of the landscape painters, novelists like Scott, poets like Wordsworth and unique English formations like Gothic literature and Victorian architecture. And this list clearly belongs with the other list above. The coming together of the elements of the tradition and the artists who work within it produces an instantly recognizable visual culture of which TVC's work is manifestly a part.
End of an Era
Last year John Coates gathered his small, permanent, production staff together and gave them all two years notice. By June 5, 1997, TVC's 40th birthday, the production side of the company will cease to exist. By then,TVC will have made nearly 1,500 commercials, more than 70 documentaries and over 80 entertainment films--an enviable track record. It's the end of an era. It really is. Maybe the move into Europe, with all its uncertainty, the globalization of communications through the Internet and the leap forward into postmodernism have left TVC (and John and The Old Gang) behind, trapped in nostalgia and a mythical past where chums like Ratty and Mole and the childlike Toad could idle away innocent days together.
John has had enough of the responsibility of keeping a boutique style production company going. There was a moment in the history of British production which favored the small independent producer. Inevitably this moment involved the setting up of Channel 4, the British broadcasting phenomenon which occurred in 1982. Until then there were two broadcasters and only three channels available in the UK: the BBC which was, and still is, responsible for two channels, BBC1, established 1936 and BBC2, established 1962 and ITV, the commercial channel established in 1956, which was, and still is, comprised of different regional ITV franchise holders who together transmit across one national network. All of these broadcasting organizations are produced in house, only rarely going out to independents to make their programmes for them. What makes Channel 4 distinct is that it has no in-house production--all its nonacquired programming is commissioned from independent producers.
Famous Fred. Courtesy of TVC London.
This situation created a boom in the creativeled, independent production sector, which allowed companies like TVC to grow and which lasted until recession hit in 1990. By that time there were too many small companies chasing too few commissions and staying in business became a struggle. During the recession, when John Coates was raising the finance for the Beatrix Potter series, TVC survived an entire year on Snowman revenue. In other words, to stay in business and maintain the confidence which is crucial at that delicate moment in financial negotiations, TVC had to consume its profits.
The postrecession economy has been characterized by consolidation. The individual talents that once thrived in the higgledypiggledy creative soup of the eighties, when there was enough for everyone, have run for shelter into the emerging larger production companies, now that times are leaner. These companies are often locked into output deals with TV franchise holders, thus tying up a large part of the resources available for independents. In this situation, the small and genuinely independent producer has become increasingly squeezed.
Worse, as TVC fought its way out of recession with, first The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends and subsequently The Wind in the Willows, a new blow has struck--an acute international shortage of animators caused by the aggressive recruitment policies of American studios. The international success of animated films like Beauty and the Beast has led to a boom in the production of American feature production. Over a year ago, the American studios started competing for animators, first in the States and then in Europe. Hire costs trebled everywhere and the British market has been decimated by the demands of a foreign feature industry which can afford to remove and retain all the indigenous talent from the marketplace. John Coates has lost 10 of his animators to Warner Bros. and for the first time he has been forced to put some of the animation for his new production, The Willows in Winter, into another studio. Meanwhile, it's especially galling for John to learn that The Enemy, nice Kate Mallory, Warner Bros.' Studio Manager, can't put her animators to work yet and they are all hanging around idle in Warner Bros.' posh Covent Garden premises. In a mood of defiance, John had some little badges made up which say "I haven't been asked to work at Warner Bros." The remaining TVC staff wear them proudly.
Something of the History of TVC ...
By 1957, the Hollywood studio era was coming to an end. Canadian animator George Dunning was working for UPA's London studio when it was closed down. But George wanted to stay in London, so he decided to set up a new commercials studio, recruiting fellow countryman Richard Williams on a freelance basis as a studio animation director to help get TVC going. The time was propitious. Independent Television had been established in the UK for less than a year and the commercial break was something of an enigma for British directors and producers. As a result, companies like TVC, a dedicated commercial house headed up by an experienced team, were instantly successful.
John Coates was brought in to do the business side. Already established in a career at Associated Redifusion, one of the original ITV companies, as Assistant Controller of Programmes, John was nevertheless restless and bored. In typically English fashion, a meeting between George and John was arranged through a mutual friend in a pub, as a result of which a partnership was formed which was to last 22 years until George's death in 1979. Dunning, a talented animator, fitted in his own work around the production of commercials. The Apple (1959) was made during "down time," with several TVC staff working on individual segments, and was followed by the awardwinning Damon the Mower and The Flying Man--all of which opened up a new, nonstudio style in British animation. Until then, only John Halas with his Eastern European sensibility and Bob Godfrey with his anarchic, goonshow surrealism, were working outside the mainstream.
Dunning's success brought a contract to TVC to make The Beatles series during the sixties which ran on ABC Television in the States from 1966-68. Yellow Submarine followed in 1968. John Coates describes the occasion when George Martin invited a small group comprising himself, George Dunning and Jack Stokes over to the Abbey Road Studios to hear the first pressing of the Sergeant Pepper album. Dunning, who had reservations about making a cinema feature based on a TV series, was suddenly won over. Yellow Submarine turned out to be a perfect match of music and image, a genuine celebration of the sixties youth rebellion, a highpoint of hippie ideology and culture. During the press screening, which was overrun by young people dancing in the aisles, John Coates experienced a moment of excitement which became part of his vision for TVC's future--the power to entertain.
John read the government White Paper--"the only one I've ever read"--on the setting up of Channel 4, with its promise of support for the independent production community and its commitment to innovation and difference, with great interest. The Snowman had been lying on his desk for nearly a year and his £500 option was running out. He hastily assembled an 8 minute animatic set to a tune composed by Howard Blake and took it to Paul Madden at Channel 4. He raised £100,000 from Paul, £75,000 from the publishers and mortgaged his house. The rest, as they say, is history.
TVC's new Cardiff-based production, Fred the Cat, is being directed by Joanna Quinn, whose short film credits have included Girls Night Out, Body Beautiful and Britannia. It's Joanna's first time in commercial production and she's finding the demands of a tight schedule hard. The lack of trained animators is an additional problem. But she's supported by John's calm professionalism and his belief that her natural exuberance and tremendous talent will produce work of Oscarwinning quality. It would be a fitting exit for a fine company.
Retirement? Don't Even Think About It!
After TVC closes down its production arm, which will be after the last production has been put to bed, John plans to slip into a new role as consultant to other people's projects, only coming in from the rural idyll of his home in Kent for a civilized schedule of lunchtime meetings. However he murmurs imperceptibly that there may still be one or two projects that he'd like to do. I glance at his desk. There's a battered, schoolboys' copy of Henry V halfhidden in a pile of papers ...
Jill McGreal owns and runs her own Londonbased animation production company, CODENAME The Animation Agency. She produces television series for children and represents many wellknown international directors for commercial work. She continues to write and teach about animation and film in general.