Out of the Animation Ghetto:
Clare Kitson and Her Muffia
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by Jill McGreal
Dolly Pond from Pond
Animation moves around the globe finding the right conditions of production
and digging in for the duration. At various times, and for various reasons,
the best work has to come out of America, Canada, Eastern Europe...wherever
the climate permitted.
Sometime in the eighties it landed in Britain, where animators began to
produce increasingly confident work resulting in the recent run of international
prizes. At the recent Pre-Selection Committee for the Zagreb World Festival
of Animated Film, now thankfully back on form after a rocky war-torn patch,
there were 450 entries to the competition section, of which 133 were from
Britain--by far the largest number for any one country.
The standard of this work was high and the range of subject matter, techniques
and individual styles stretched across the board. There were robust showings
of experimental, political, personal and narrative work commissioned or
produced by a host of national and local funding bodies.
It's an interesting time for any filmmaker to be at work in the UK. In the
past decade and a half, along with other Western democracies, we have, according
to the pundits, entered a new post-modern era. In Britain, this era was
ushered in by Thatcherism in 1979, where the population is still held in
the moral grip of its right-wing politics of conviction--despite the succession
of scandals, resignations, sackings, by-election losses and a distinct change
in the political atmosphere.
But not all of the social change of the last decade has been for the worse.
The trickle down effect of the 1974 Sexual Discrimination Act began to speed
up as the eighties-style ideologies promoted individualism wherever it came
from--post-feminism arrived as part of the post-modern package.
Deregulation of the public service sector--a Thatcherite imperative and
definitive of the pattern of social change in the UK over the past decade--started
in a small way when Channel 4 began transmitting on November 2, 1982; it
was a daring move, which increased the number of television channels available
in the UK from three to four!
Animation for Adults
The channel's mandate to deliver innovative work to specialized audiences
was interpreted generously and, as part of a wider scheduling experiment,
animation for adults was given its own commissioning department. It's impossible
not to link this development with the growth of animation in the UK; indeed,
Channel 4's role in the benign circle of funding and stimulation of talent
has been recognized at all levels.
Channel 4's Commissioning Editor for Animation, Clare Kitson, continues
to commission difficult but award-winning work, much of which has been directed
by women. For reasons adequately covered elsewhere, and especially in Jayne
Pilling's introduction to her book, Women and Animation (BFI, 1992),
animation has always been able to accommodate women. So, the present animation
boom in the UK, taking place in a late 20th century climate which is generally
more supportive of women, has sustained many female directors.
Over the last few years, women have worked in every genre: personal--Karen
Watson's Daddy's Little Piece of Dresden China (1988) and her new
film Sweet Heart (1995) address the issues of childhood sexual abuse
and anorexia from an autobiographical point of view; lyrical--Susan Young's
Carnival (1985), Karen Kelly's Egoli (1989) and Stressed
(1994); documentary--Marjut Rimminen's Some Protection (1987), the
Leeds Animation Workshop's Through the Glass Ceiling (1995) both
to do with the treatment of women, in prison in Rimminen's film and at work
in the Leeds film; experimental--as in Vera Neuebauer's The World of
Children (1984) or her Lady of the Lake (1995); abstract--Erica
Russell's Feet of Song (1989) and Triangle (1995); narrative
without dialogue--Joan Ashworth's The Web, Alison Snowden's Second
Class Mail (1984); narrative with dialogue--Sarah Ann Kennedy's Nights
(1992) or any of Candy Guard's many short films.
Narrative is no longer the province of male filmmakers--if it ever was.
Certainly, when Kitson's budget was increased in 1994 and she modified her
policies to include series work, she felt that only Sarah Ann Kennedy and
Candy Guard were able to write dialogue and structure narrative sufficiently
well to move forward in this direction. As a result of this bold move, Kitson
has been accused, unfairly, of running a 'Muffia'; but, in fact, her decision
to move into series production, a program space previously occupied exclusively
by producers of children's programming, has once again extended the boundaries
In gratitude Crapston Villas, Kennedy's model animation series about
the flat-dwelling inhabitants of a run down Victorian house in a seedy London
street, won Best New Program in the 1996 Broadcast Awards (Broadcast
is a major British trade magazine), and for the first time, animation went
up against live action and won--a major coup for Kitson and Channel 4. It's
unsurprising, therefore, that Kitson's irritation is only half-concealed
when she notes that the BBC has now also started commissioning adult animation
Kitson's real move forward is into mainstream comedy and out of the animation
ghetto. She has been so successful that she will now have to watch her back
for product-hungry comedy commissioning editors straying onto her patch.
Neither Crapston Villas nor Candy Guard's Pond Life are Grand
Prix winners at traditional animation festivals like Annecy or Zagreb--the
source of many awards, honors and prizes for Channel 4. But both Kennedy
and Guard have expressed a desire to move into live action. Animation is
perhaps, for both, a route through the glass ceiling.
Candy Guard has been working on Pond Life since 1992, when the pilot,
I Want a Boyfriend ... Or Do I?, was co-commissioned by S4C and Channel
4. The 13 x 11 minute series premieres on Channel 4 later this year. Kitson
put the Pond Life concept into research before giving the series
the green light. "When results of the research came back," Kitson
said, sounding surprised, "the male participants had identified Pond
Life as to do with 'women issues,' whereas I believe that the issues
that Candy addresses are universal."
Kitson was being disingenuous. The issues--career, driving test, clothes,
friends, rock music, holidays--are universal, but the tale on them is assuredly
not--women may go awkward, silent and tongue-tied the minute they think
a bloke fancies them (see I Want A Boyfriend ... Or Do I?), but men
get loud, show off and clown about in front of the girl they fancy ... (Or
Not that Guard thinks of herself as a feminist. "It's not a word that
I use about myself. I'm much more likely to describe myself as a socialist,"
is her initial response to my question; but knowing that I will ask her
if she is a feminist, Guard has consulted her boyfriend on the matter, who
clearly thinks she is one--"Because I get cross about things,"
she says. "I get especially cross about women's role in the film industry,
both as actresses and creators. Taking sex scenes, for instance, in which
male directors forever have women bouncing up and down on top of the male
actors, presumably so that you see their tits better. Even in Toy Story,
which I really enjoyed, I felt the filmmakers could have tried harder. Why
did all the toys have to be male?"
Guard respects Kitson's judgment although she doesn't necessarily always
agree with it. In fact, when her friend and colleague, Sarah Ann Kennedy,
was commissioned to make Crapston Villa before Pond Life got
to go ahead, Guard confesses to being dismayed. Crapston Villas offers
a different kind of humor than Pond Life. It's more lavatorial--the
dialogue sparkles with smut and filth--so it's more British and perhaps,
for that reason, easier to commission.
A More Daring Kind of Comedy
Guard likens her work to American series like Roseanne, Friends,
and Ellen. And it's true that Pond Life, which centers on
the angst-ridden life of Dolly Pond, explores issues in a more personal
way than Crapston Villas, where the humor is spread across a broader
social canvas. And, as is well known, the British can poke fun at the idiosyncrasies
of their class system, but they get coy about showing their emotions. In
this sense Pond Life takes a step forward into a more daring, international
kind of comedy.
What Pond Life and Crapston Villas share is attitude to women's
issues in which female desire is OK and political correctness is a thing
of the past. Crapston, in particular, revels in the shagging culture
of the nineties. Take, for instance, this slice of dialogue from Episode
3. Marge, the late thirty-something mum, who lives at the top of Crapston
Villas with her delinquent, glue-sniffing children and senile old mum, is
having a telephone conversation with her black female friend, Denise. They
are both smoking and drinking:
Denise: "What you need is a good shag" (laughter). Marge: "Yeah,
I quite fancy a handyman (gales of laughter). I've got a few odd jobs that
need doing (shrieks of laughter). I don't care what he looks like as long
as he can screw a few things in for me (more Shrieks). I'll advertise for
an odd job man preferably with a large tool" (more shrieks). Denise:
"Or what about, 'Scaffolders wanted, quick erection only, site in desperate
need of attention,'" (collapse into hysterical laughter).
Pond Life takes a different route into equally taboo subjects as
Dolly Pond pours out her neuroses to anyone who will listen. But neither
series is afraid of representing women. The moral high ground, once occupied
by first-generation feminists, in which all representation was offensive,
has given way to feistier generation of women who have more self-esteem
and are, therefore, less fearful of their self-image, and less moralistic
and judgmental in their attitudes to their own sex.
Guard certainly doesn't think of herself as a feminist filmmaker, at least
not consciously. On the other hand, it wouldn't have been possible for her
to write Pond Life for a central male character. "So, in fairness,
you can't really blame men for writing scripts with strong male leads,"
she remarks confidently. She wonders, though, whether Pond Life would have
been made if the Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 had been a man...a question
which thankfully, we are not able to answer.
Jill McGreal is an animation producer at Code Name: The Animation Agency,
in Hampshire, England.
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