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The History of Channel 4 and
The Future of British Animation

by Irene Kotlarz

One of Channel 4's greats - The Snowman Courtesy of TVC London.

Channel 4 Television has a world-wide reputation as the powerhouse of British animation. Clare Kitson, its Commissioning Editor for Animation for the last ten years, recently resigned however, and the tributes to her have become mixed with profound anxieties about the future of animation at Channel 4.

There is much misinformation. For instance a recent prominent article in the British trade magazine Televisual, while showering accolades on Clare, completely writes out of history her predecessor Paul Madden, who commissioned some of the Channel's greatest successes including Nick Park's Creature Comforts. Depicting history as the story of the Great Individual, while it may make for an easy journalistic angle, is neither the entire picture nor even, I believe, helpful to the current situation. It ignores any other influences, which in the case of Channel 4 is ironic since the Channel itself and its progressive support of animation resulted from many combined efforts and force of circumstances.

Change is in the Air
To try to understand the future prospects for animation at Channel 4, it helps to appreciate that its history has been an evolutionary process. It definitely looks like the Channel's policy toward animation will change, since Clare is not being replaced with another full-time specialist. It may also be worth mentioning that animation is not alone; there is right now major concern and debate about the direction Channel 4 is taking generally, as it seems to be steering a course firmly toward more populism and light entertainment at the expense of the arts, innovation and its original public service remit to address minority interests not represented by other channels.

The way Channel 4's publicity has handled Clare's departure has moreover been exceptionally offhand. Clare, who was very well-known and highly-regarded in the animation world even before her appointment to Channel 4 ten years ago, resigned from her job in March. The Channel's public relations department decided not to make any announcement at that time. Although there was no strategy ready for replacing Clare, they did not feel the news of her resignation needed to be kept secret. Since her contract was not actually up until September, Clare began telling people informally, by agreement with the Channel, that she was leaving.

There was rumour, compounded by Channel 4's silence, that Clare was not going to be replaced at all. Given Channel 4's prominence in animation, ripples of alarm quickly turned to shock waves which reached as far away as Los Angeles. Pretty soon it was too late for the Channel's publicity to act.

No official statement was made about plans for replacement until early July, four months after Clare's resignation, when an undated circular letter was sent around the British animation community from Clare's boss, Kevin Lygo, Head of Arts, Entertainment and Animation. In the meantime, not surprisingly, speculation and panic had gripped the independent animation world.

What Kevin Lygo's letter said essentially was that Channel 4 had made an internal appointment by adding animation to the job description of the Deputy Commissioning Editor for Arts and Music, Camilla Deakin. Deakin is a recent arrival in television, having joined the Channel in February from her job as a producer at a live-action company. There was also going to be some other reshuffling, with Cheryl Taylor, Deputy Commissioning Editor for Entertainment, who specialises in comedy, helping to develop new series. Clare's former assistant Ruth Fielding is being upgraded, and Clare will stay on as consultant for Christmas specials.

The fragmentation of responsibility for animation, and failure to appoint a senior full-time commissioning editor, plus the casual way this decision was relayed, seems a bit of a smack in the teeth to a genre in which the Channel has traditionally excelled.

The awards to Channel 4's animation over the years listed in their catalogue include two Oscars (plus several more nominations), two Cartoon d'Or (meant to be the European Oscar equivalent), three British Academy Awards, two Prix Jeunesse, fourteen British Animation Awards, two Dick Awards for the most controversial, innovative and subversive film of the year; fourteen Grand Prix at major festivals around the world, as well as over one hundred and fifty other festival awards -- the list goes on and on, and that's just up until the catalogue was printed last year. Channel 4 itself was also awarded a special Cartoon d'Or for its contribution to European animation. The catalogue is also effectively a "Who's Who" of British animation (with a fair smattering of international auteurs like Jan Svankmajer, Raoul Servais, and Paul Driessen as well). Given all this success, it does seem odd that the Channel should seemingly be whipping the rug out from under its own achievements.

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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.