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Out of the Animation Ghetto: Clare Kitson and Her Muffia

Over the last few years, Channel 4 has helped put a new face on British animation. Jill McGreal reports how women will lead the broadcaster into series television using the irreverent talents of Candy Guard and Sarah Ann Kennedy.

Dolly Pond from Pond Life.

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.

Crapston Villas.

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.

Kitson's Muffia

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 of animation.

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 series.

Pond Life

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's Pond Life

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 do they?).

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 Villas 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.

Sarah Ann Kennedy's Crapston Villas.

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.