“Hand put me to work on a very different style of film because the entertainment cartoons were costing so much. He told me, ‘Make an animated film with very little animation in it, principally a succession of still pictures’. Then he ran the ‘Baby Weems’ sequence from a Disney feature, gave me a script titled Thames and sent me off to direct the picture. Well, it was a success, receiving the better notices and made at a quarter the cost of the fully animated films – an arrangement which kept John Davis very happy.
“We used George Mitchell’s choir on the tracks of several of the Paintbox films and we had Ray Jenkins working for us. Sound tracks were written by Henry Reed who took favourite songs of the particular county, jumbled them up and turned them into a music track. I listened to it and then assembled a storyboard. We made Thames, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Yorkshire Ditty, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall and there were six others on the drawing board.”
Although it was very easy for Henry Reed to gather together appropriate tunes, a few were denied him. “He wanted to use a recording of Harry Lauder singing ‘Roamin’ in the Gloamin” said String, “but they told him it was not free from copyright. I wrote to Harry pleading with him to let us have it, unfortunately he was prevented from doing so by his agent. The same thing happened with ‘When Irish Eyes are Smiling’ – we were denied the rights by M.G.M.”
Bruce Woolf? s partner, Mary Field, had taken over the responsibility for Childrens’ Entertainment Films releasing through GB Instructional, and she was commissioning cartoons for Saturday morning screening at Odeon and Gaumont-British childrens’ clubs. She had approached Anson Dyer who jumped at the chance to make Robbie Finds a Gun (B/W), Who Robbed The Robins and a three part serial Squirrel War. GBA were just as keen to make a song-cartoon Heave Ho, My Johnnies!. Mary was a very accomplished director whose experience went back to the Twenties when she had an idea which resulted in the highly respected single-frame live action series Secrets of Nature.
If there were attendant birth pangs, and periods of frustration and tedium they were suddenly eclipsed in 1947 when the floods came and turned Moor Hall into an island. It was safer to travel by boat from the Causeway, the road traversing the common land in front of the Hall. From the entrance gate up to the front door it was just possible to walk wearing fisherman’s waders. They were very lucky the waters did not damage the studio.
Every morning on his arrival Henry would dip his steel ruler into the water to measure the depth, but the barrack room wings had been built on concrete pillars and were never in any real danger. Occasionally a paper boat could be seen floating past the window with folded-paper sails blazing furiously.
Cookham resident Stanley Spencer, the celebrated artist, often visited the Hall showing great interest in the film medium. The film people soon grew accustomed to seeing the old gentleman going off into the countryside trundling an old pram in which he carried his paints, brushes and easel. He turned up as a guest one evening when one of String’s girls threw a party onboard her houseboat. She was Chief Scout Baden-Powell’s niece and had a real boy-scout approach to life. The regimented atmosphere at the Hall was not to her liking and so she chose to live on the river. Her boat became the venue for many a party.
In September 1948 the film critics were invited to attend a private preview of the first entertainment cartoons The Lion starring Nimba and his friend Boko the parrot, and The House Cat, both of which were criticized for their reliance on a narrator. Two Musical Paintbox shorts had their debut The Thames and Wales. Thames took the spectator on a musical trip from Oxford to Runnymede, to Hammersmith to feature the boat race, ending the journey of exploration at Southend. David Lewin in the Daily Express was impressed. “The ‘Musical Paintbox’ group has a new idea,” he wrote, “which is worth a great deal of development… The effect is new: apart from the camera, hardly anything moves.”
The Animaland series followed the earlier entertainment exercises, introducing Ginger Nutt the Squirrel, Loopy Hare, Dusty Mole, Corny Crow and Harry Hawk. Near the end, Ginger Nutt was given a girl friend Hazel, and the characters were still better than the plots. David Lewin in his early write up said of House Cat and Lion that, “Hand’s artists may draw like Disney but had not yet captured his sense of fun.” The last reels to come out of the studio showed that the tide was about to turn. The very next production might have proved the point – but it wasn’t given the opportunity.
By now, Rank faced grave financial difficulties. His accountants began to close uneconomic enterprises and GBA was a philanthropic luxury, well intentioned but certainly not a money spinner.
Many regretted the collapse, others were saddened to see the stock being sold off, while older members felt the rug had been pulled out from under their feet. String sighed, “When Cookham closed down, I had reached the worst possible age for a commercial artist, because no-one would give me a job. That’s when I became a freelance. Ken Hardy went back to GB Instructional until that too closed down. Then he went freelance, before joining forces with a friend to form Stewart-Hardy Films for whom I freelanced afterwards. I made a diagrammatic film for them about the human eye which won a British Medical Association Gold Medal.”
The venture had not been a total failure, many of the original intake graduated with honours. Hand predicted that only a handful of his sizeable group would become top men and women – a close prediction; but there were many more who became skilled as a result of their long-term training.
GB Animation has been adversely criticized for imprinting a Disney-like style on its staff and their films. No matter! Techniques can be Anglicized, time has proved this to be the case, and the skills have surely been passed on to the present generation, a point worth remembering when acknowledging the high standard of British animation today. GBA marked the beginning of a brave attempt to acquire part of the expertise pioneered by Walt Disney and his team. David Hand was the first of Disney’s ‘Old Men’ to pass on this knowledge to his UK cousins.
Printed in Animator Issue 19 (Summer 1987)