Ken Clark chats with John Coates – Page 2

K.C.: Do you have a favourite Dunning film?

J.C.: Oh, yes! Damon the Mower – a most amazing film. We have copies of all his films here on U-matic.

When George died we gave a memorial screening, because he wasn’t a religious person and a normal service seemed inappropriate. We booked the BAFTA screening theatre and invited everybody in the animation business – together with all our friends – to a little potted history screening of all the things George had been connected with, it ran for about 40 – 45 minutes.

K.C.: Which films did you include on the reel?

J.C.: The Flying Man won the second-ever Annecy Grand Prix and caused something of a stir – that’s on the reel, together with Damon, The Tempest, The Apple and just about everything. In the introduction there is a shot, taken on the roof of the old studio in Dean Street, of a great many people who have gone their separate ways. We carried a staff of about 35 people in those days. Charlie Jenkins, now famous for his trick films, was our tea-boy then. Ah yes! So many people have worked for TVC.

Characters from The Beatles TV series.

K.C.: It is what you might call a nomadic existence.

J.C.: Yes, but we remain good friends. From a creative standpoint, the history of TVC up to the time of George’s death was wholly concerned with things he did. After he had gone, I sat in my office wondering whether the phone would ever ring again – but it did, and we continued making commercials. And the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to make something we owned. We had become too dependant on the telephone. If it didn’t ring for a month, we worried! I wanted to make something which would provide us with an income, and The Snowman was our first attempt. The film was bought for ten TV-runs in this country; seen over the whole of Europe and North America; and triggered off a whole range of merchandising schemes.

K.C.: It seems a long time ago now, but I remember sitting alongside Stan Cox as he worked, discussing the merits and aspirations of BAG, the ill-fated British Animation Guild. Its place has now been taken by the Guild, with which you have had a very close association.

The Ever Changing Motor Car, an early TVC cartoon.

J.C.: We started the Guild of British Animation nearly four years ago, a sort of combined effort by Carl Gover and Lee Stork, with myself as President the first year. It is well attended and has become a thriving concern. First we pushed through a Union agreement, a much better structured document than the earlier appendage to the Live-Action agreement, where the differentials were never properly decided. Our agreement wasn’t perfect – they never are! but we remained on very friendly terms with the ACT, and it was a start.

We introduced a whole new movement to Channel 4 so that they took up the sponsorship of the Cambridge Animation Festival; and we negotiated a new agreement for the practise of advertising. The old standard form for TV commercials never made any allowance for animation, at all. Animation is a very different medium, it requires different allowances. There are lots of things for which we should pick-up fees, for example: the design of characters, at present we get nothing.

K.C.: What about repeats? Do they earn you extra money?

J.C.: No! – they ought to, but they don’t. Something else we need to resolve with the ITA and the BBC is the principle that an agreed percentage of all animation shown on television should be British. I feel very strongly about that issue. They buy so cheaply from us they could easily afford to put something back into British animation. I haven’t forgotten Bob Godfrey’s series and the Melendez series but they were very low budget.

K.C.: Cosgrove-Hall are the exception rather than the rule?

J.C.: Yes – they have a deal of money behind them.

K.C.: In spite of all the shortcomings, there are more and more experienced people prepared to go it alone or in the company of one or two friends, and there appears to be no shortage of newcomers wishing to join the profession.

When the Wind Blows.

J.C.: British Animation is a story of movement; it is full of talented people. There are many coming out of the Art Schools, but it is no good expecting them to come with great knowledge of the medium. We took on two young art students: Joanne, who was responsible for a very nice sequence in Snowman, and Richard who is now Animation Director on When the Wind Blows. People come into the studio all the time looking for openings, we cannot afford to take them all on.

K.C.: The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe wasn’t made for this country, was it?

J.C.: No. I think I am right in saying, it was the only animated show to have gone out at American peak viewing times. CBS ran the film in two 1-hour screenings with a ‘cliffhanger’ stop at half-time, on a Sunday and the Monday and achieved a pretty good rating. It even won an Emmy Award.

K.C.: How do you react to the fact all of our feature entertainment cartoons have depended on American backing?

J.C.: The Beatles series, The Yellow Submarine and The Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe were all made for America. It always bothered me we could not have a home market for animation, and that British TV companies bought cheap American Saturday morning material from Hanna-Barbera and the like, it was so irksome! Then, one day, I sat and read the fine print of the Act of Parliament passed prior to the formation of Channel 4, and I discovered it said a substantial part of the programming must come from independent British production. It went on to define ‘independent British production’ – not the subsidiaries of Thames Television or the other ‘biggies’, but small companies, like us. And I thought: This is the moment to get something off the ground!

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