Bob Godfrey asserted his independence when he left the comparatively safe haven of W.H. Larkins and became self-employed in company with Keith Learner. Although we did not know it then, they were soon to be joined by Vera Linnecar and Nancy Hanna, to become the four corner posts of Biographic Cartoon Films Ltd.
Bob won the respect of everyone at a Grasshopper Group screening of The Hot Eight, a 9.5mm cartoon synchronised to a Louis Armstrong record, and The Big Parade, both made with Keith’s help, using cut-out jointed figures. Our audience appreciated the brash humour, distinctly original draughtsmanship and economy of style. Over the years these traits have become his hallmark. He once told me in confidence he was ‘a sort of High Priest of Minimalism’ – and I’ll not argue with that.
It is an acknowledged fact that a good character animator should also be a good actor, and inside Bob Godfrey is a true thespian struggling to be seen and heard. His urge to be a live performer first found expression in Bride and Groom, a pixilated comedy in which he co-starred with Audrey Vayro (Mrs John Daborn) and Gerry Potterton (producer of so many excellent Canadian cartoons). This Grasshopper Group production was made for the British Film Institute who keep a 16mm copy in their library. Cast and crew signed my wife’s 21st birthday card, which gives me the feeling we have come full circle. 1986 marks the spot. Bob Godfrey Cartoon Films celebrates its 21st anniversary, long may it prosper!
With this event in mind I visited him at his studio:
Ken Clark: Bob, last year I attended a wake, when your former partners Keith, Vera and Nancy closed the doors forever on Biographic Films. What made you decide to part company twenty-one years ago?
Bob Godfrey: At the time I felt I no longer wanted to be part of a quartet; I needed to be able to make my own decisions and that seemed the right moment to do it.
As it happened it turned out to be quite the wrong time. The mid-Sixties marked the end of the boom years for commercial work, we survived by the skin of our teeth up to 1970 when our prospects began to change for the better. In ‘76 we moved to this address and it marked the end of an era and the start of a new one.
I had made some successful films, including four – or was it five? – sex cartoons by Stan Haywood, and three with Stephen Penn: Instant Sex, Dream Doll and Bio Woman. Then we felt we had exhausted that seam and, of course, the declining state of the cinema influenced us as well. We simply do not make short cartoons for the cinema any more.
When I started I was told: ‘If you want to lose money, make a cinema short.’ I did not believe them and set out to prove the pundits wrong – and I failed. They were right and I was wrong. Oh! I did succeed once, with Kama Sutra Rides Again, but that only provided me with money to offset my losses on Roobarb.
K.C.: How much of Kama Sutra’s success was due to the fact it went out on release with The Clockwork Orange?
B.G.: If you accompany a big film like that, then you do stand a chance of making money; but as a general rule absolute rubbish is shown alongside big pictures, no doubt due to Wardour Street politics – or the fact some big-wig’s nephew made it – who knows? In our case, it was because Stanley Kubrick saw our cartoon and thought the two films shared a common affinity – I believe we both had scenes of men with their legs up in plaster – or something of the sort -anyway, he wanted Kama Sutra to accompany Clockwork Orange, and that was wonderful luck for us. It happens all too rarely.
K.C.: Well, I know the situation has always been far from perfect and this was a reason why our old friend Derek Hill formed The Short Film Service. When the British Animation Group had its first public exhibition at Kodak House, Kingsway in March 1964; the final display panel announced:
We’re proud of the talent in B.A.G.; and we’re tired of being told we’re lucky to get a month in the West End and half-a-dozen scattered screenings later. As things are it is not just unlikely for a British short film maker to recover his costs in his own country, it is absolutely impossible. If he recovers as much as a third of a rock-bottom budget he will have done exceptionally well.
Derek said it had been intended to head the exhibition with the devastating comment: ‘No independently produced British animated film has ever been given a full general release in this country.’ You were chairman of B.A.G. at that time and can readily vouch for the situation.
B.G.: In the old days it was virtually impossible to get a short into the cinemas, but it is just possible now. They used to compare our films with American shorts and say:
‘It doesn’t look like a Tom and Jerry or a Mickey Mouse.’ They would not accept our films on their own merits.
Before the commencement of When the Wind Blows, John Coates and I were hawking the idea of the feature film Jumbo around, but there were no takers – none at all! We’re not alone. After his celebrated Passage to India even David Lean had no offers following its enormous success. We’ve had offers from America but none from this country.
We’ve even lost the Eady money which halves anything we might make.
Soon, the cinema short will be a thing of the past, a situation already reflected at Annecy. Most, if not all, of the British entries came from the Art Schools or the Film Schools which run animation courses. At Festivals, I look at all that love and care and money and energy up there on the screen, and where does it go after the Festival? – back on the shelf!
K.C.: The industry has sought a solution to the dilemma for many, many years, Bob. Today, it seems, we have a choice limited to features or TV productions.
B.G.: We have got to find a formula for making features, and we have got to make features that will attract financial backing and entertain large audiences. There are TV specials, to be sure, but a lot of the networks are cagey about commissioning them because it involves big initial outlays. In contrast to the multi-million dollar live-action epics, animated features now cost less, but they have acquired a bad reputation due to a number of unsuccessful productions. Distributors will not believe in them until they see for themselves that the picture is good. This attitude affects potential backers when asked to put up something like a million pounds – a nightmare budget – because these days it isn’t enough.