Scratch – Making an exhibition of himself

Happy birthday Paul Thomas and Scratch

Scratch creator Paul Thomas celebrates his 50th birthday today (12 January 2012). Also, Scratch is thirty years old this year. To mark this auspicious occasion Paul has written a summery of his life in animation and beyond.


Click on the pictures for larger versions.

By Paul Thomas

I’ve been in the business of creating something from nothing professionally for over thirty years. Out of one particular day’s nothing in 1982 came something that would change my life.

During a thunder storm one wet week day afternoon in London while sitting at my drawing board, I drew with a green felt tip pen a cartoon character that I named Scratch placing him in a strip cartoon that same afternoon adding Itch mouse as his sidekick.

In the autumn of the same year I attended a meeting with Christopher Pilkington producer of BBC TV’s children’s series Take Hart. I wanted to make short animated films for the programme and among the handful of ideas I’d taken along was a cel of Scratch in a variety of colours. I favoured red. My shaggy dog was chosen to appear in the forthcoming series.

Scratch would be blue. Itch passed the audition too and would be green and red.

Having shot the first three adventures on 16mm film stock at BBC television centre I took a mute video tape copy to Paddy Bush, Kate’s multi talented brother, to create a familiar Scratch theme tune. Paddy created three melodies. However the BBC was not prepared to pay for original music. A pre-recorded track from the BBC library remarkably similar to one of Paddy’s originals was used.

I took the same video tape to the great British animator Alison De Vere whom I would often visit at her home in London’s Kensington. Her advice was to fill in the long linear ears of Scratch else they may disappear against a background. I did and Scratch was complete.

Scratch in String Puppet from Take Hart.

For a moment I toiled with the idea of an offshoot animation series for Itch, Merlitch the Mouse Wizard. A handful of sketches exist but I abandoned the project feeling it pointless to pursue. However, many years later Merlitch made an appearance in the Salisbury Journal.

I created the Scratch voice. A superb mimic of it was spoken by the actor David Owen Smith.

The stories took place in a London alley. I amused myself by writing messages on the brick wall background. My fully cel animated cartoon character made his debut on the 23rd of March 1983 in Take Hart. I was trading as Tiger Trax Animation. Scratch would span series seven and eight with ten films. The latter series received a BAFTA award.

Scratch in Number Machine from Take Hart.

Scratch and I received a big thank you in 1984 for our contribution and alarming news that Scratch was no longer required. The series was being up-dated, re-named Hartbeat and required new characters. I did deliver the goods for several series more but I still wanted to draw Scratch.

To further my newly created characters career I took an opportunity to escape London and visit Devon for the first time. The invitation came from my friend Sean Orford who was fortunately a musician. Sean recorded a marvelous music soundtrack for my twenty minute Scratch featurette film Marshmallow Moon.

On my return to London I felt my mini movie was weak. Production cels, layouts and a storyboard were created but I was still unhappy. I left the idea in a box for twenty five years. When lifting the lid after so long I still felt the project was lacking but I liked the title. It inspired
a new Scratch strip cartoon that I completed quickly.

While in Devon I was taken for a short trip to a town destined to be a major part of the Scratch story, Totnes.

The Mole Film from BBC TV's Hartbeat (the follow up to Take Hart).

My next attempt at continuing the career of my creation was at the suggestion of Kate Bush’s father to meet Keith Shackleton whom had produced Kate’s merchandise.

We met at the Institute of Directors in London and decided to pursue cassette books as a new outlet.

I contacted and met with the actress Fiona Fullerton. She agreed to be my narrator. Keith would try and get a publishing deal. He failed. The project collapsed.

Salvation came later that year with an article featuring myself in the magazine Animator. I put it to the editor David Jefferson that he includes Scratch as a regular strip cartoon character. He agreed. In 1985 my now black and white Scratch and Itch were back in the public eye being drawn under the pseudonym of Dr Scratch.

My friend Andrew Leech and I set about an enterprise to create customized Scratch merchandise.

The Paint Family from BBC TV's Playdays.

We had a lot of fun often at Andrew’s flat. It was mildly successful albeit short lived as life interfered and we went our separate ways.

Making Better Movies appeared in the shops up and down the country. The magazine contained a three page interview I gave to Steve Herbert. I spoke of Scratch, Hartbeat and my love and knowledge of my craft. It was the first time I was able to pick up a magazine in a high street shop and read about myself.

In that same year I met with Biddy Baxter the legendary Blue Peter producer. We discussed an item for the programme celebrating British animation. To remind her of my visit I presented Biddy with a full colour cell of Scratch and Itch on board the Blue Peter ship. To my amazement as the first episode of the new 1985 Blue Peter series opened my Scratch cel sat proudly in view upon the studio set. It remained there for several episodes.

Scratch, the television series! My dream project! I had the footage, the strip cartoons.

The Paint Family.

I prepared a traditional series of thirteen, five minute episodes with storylines, a format and cast. Four attempts were made to raise the money by approaching TVS, Yorkshire Television, Terry Wogan’s production company and Sir Paul McCartney, I received four replies of ‘No!’

Animator magazine was discontinued in 1995. Scratch had a ten year run. Although a regular part of my portfolio with an impressive history I could not place him anywhere. Scratch was homeless.

Paul in 1985. Photo by Gary Florence.

I did make an attempt to include him in the BBC children’s TV series Live and Kicking. On seeing my show reel producer Angela Sharp was troubled. I will always remember her worried tone when she exclaimed, ‘It’s on film!’ Angela preferred her animation on tape. I pointed out that film was the medium of the time and therefore couldn’t be helped. Angela remained troubled and Scratch was rejected.

1995 was the year when my industry dramatically changed. Computers were in. The TV producers I’d known were out. Trying to convince the new wave that Scratch was worthy failed.

In 2007 I moved to Salisbury and began to take stock of my career, archive my work and re-discovered forgotten dreams. It was then I realized Scratch had been neglected for twelve years.

There was a golden moment amid this frustrating time. I spoke with Tony Hart about my contributions to his shows. Tony enjoyed the films I’d made. He was a charming, genuine man. His calm, polite delivery touched millions. There will never be his like again.

Paul with a recent Scratch strip
from the Totnes Times.
Photo by Judi Thomas.

It occurred to me that the Salisbury Journal didn’t have a strip cartoon. Quite quickly the idea to employ Scratch was discussed with the editor Bill Browne. Bill agreed to bring Scratch back.

In January 2008 my shaggy black and white cartoon creation was launched once more. Many years of unused material was realized in the Journal. I unlocked a large backlog and in turn unleashed brand new ideas. The cast was larger too. Along with Itch. Judi the bat. Tubbs the duck. The Moles. The backwards echo. A sarcastic thinking hat and of course Eve. My imagination ran riot!

After four years and one hundred and ninety two strips Scratch took a trip to Devon and the town of Totnes to appear as a weekly strip cartoon in the Totnes Times, Brixham News and the South Devon & Plymouth Times newspapers. With two further additions to the cast Ted the sheep and Ellen the hare.

An item from the Totnes Times.

As 2012 unfolds Scratch will be thirty years old. His creator will be fifty. A perfect excuse to celebrate!

Scratch and I will be reminding everyone of our existence. We hope you enjoy our fun.

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