A number of films which might have been made by Disney or Fleischer in the early days are now being made by people like Stephen Spielberg. Live-action films dominated by special effects are edging further and further into areas once the sole preserve of the animation studios. On the other hand, subjects that should be shot live-action are being animated – a move I consider to be absolutely disastrous.
Dream Doll was to be a warm-up film for Jumbo. Unhappily, Matko of Zagreb died while we were in production. Prior to his death I would say: “Look Matko, you are on a different peg system to us, you’re working all those hundreds of miles away, we’re going to have terrible problems.” – and he’d reply: “No problems, no problems!” – and there never were any. But after his death… that’s when we had problems.
In a strange way though, we had set the ball in motion, and it did not stop until we had finished. That is why Dream Doll is quite unlike anything else I have ever done – there is a large slice of Yugoslavia in it, and a fair old bit of Zlatko Grgic. Zlatko was a very good friend of mine; I admired him tremendously as an animator even though he did not do much animation for me, the storyboard is his – his style – which gives the film its continuity. I have to thank John Halas too, for his financial assistance; between us we managed to pull it off. It was a rare thing, a co-production financed from here, there and everywhere, which actually worked and won a Hollywood nomination.
K.C.: You mentioned problems, a moment ago, following Matko’s death.
B.G.: Yes – usually I fight shy of co-productions. You have to contend with differing national traits and idiosyncrasies. On this picture we had a cameraman who didn’t use a pressure plate (everyone was terrified of him), and then there was the need to stagger backwards and forwards to Zagreb with huge suitcases filled with cels. Nether the less, through it all – a certain professionalism asserted itself and the film got made. I was working with Ted Rockley and Alister Mcllwain – there is a lot of Ted and Alistair’s work in the film, very good animation, indeed. And we found the right ingredients again, when we came to make Rio Woman. Dream Doll may not have paid for itself, but as a film it worked!
K.C.: Now, I know you have always enjoyed a close relationship with the Boulting brothers, in fact your films were released through their company British Lion, but how did they become involved with Great?
B.G.: We came to make Great round about the closure of British Lion. It was very sad; they had been very good to me and here they were about to sell the company. Earlier, I had read a book about Brunel and I said to Ron Inkpen, a producer I was working with: “This fellow lived an action-packed life, he was a marvellous little chap, he did all these things, it would make a knock-out film.” And that’s where I might have left the matter. But not Ron, he stuck a couple of engravings on a sheet of toilet paper and took them into British Lion. He came back with £20,000 up-front. Now I had the money but I hadn’t a script. Nevertheless, we went to work on it, and it was terribly slow getting started, eventually taking us four years to complete.
Most of the writers I have worked with are sprinters, not milers. They can go for five minutes, they might push up to ten, but fifteen-and-over their work tends to be episodic. In fact, most of the directors who grew up on commercials are episodic because they never had to cope with distance. A lot of my work is like that – just bits stuck together.
Anyway, we started on the film, acquiring six musical numbers which cost us £2000. Cohn Pearson, who was writing the lyrics – and very good lyrics they were, too – as well as writing the story, took exception to Jonathan Hodge who was doing the music. They were not able to resolve their differences and Cohn left the movie halfway through the scripting. I had to continue with the writing, calling on all my crew for assistance, and adding gags right up to the last minute. I would never recommend this method as a way of making films.
Thank heavens, I had many talented people around me, no less than twenty people in my studio, the most I ever had. They included some of my ex-students from Guildford. Teaching once a week put me in touch with a lot of young talent. I have always taken on the ‘cream’ of the Art Schools. There are bits of Great I had little or nothing to do with. When we came to ‘The Big Top Hat’ sequence, I said to Geoff Goldener: ‘I can’t get a visual on this one, I just can’t ‘see’ it at all.’ He took it away and brought it back to me with a simply marvellous concept. All I had to do was take his line tests and ‘tart’ them up a bit -something Mark Shepherd and were adept at.
Great was a compilation of all the things I had ever done or wanted to do. During its making, I managed to get all my fixations out of my system – well, almost all of them. It’s a funny thing.
I find with film-making that if there is a lack of distance between productions, the last one you make has the same look about it as the previous one. The greater the distance, the better the chance of creating something different. We were able to avoid that problem because we had Great and the Roobarb series going through the house at the same time. Two completely different styles. We called Great ‘The Good Taste Dept’ and Roobarb ‘The Magic Marker Brigade’.
The Roobarb idea had been hawked all round the studios before it came to me. I liked it. It was very well written and intended to be made using magic markers – something which had my wholehearted support. Even so, it took me a whole year to sell it to the B.B.C., and I’m sure I only succeeded then because Monica Sims had a ‘thing’ about dogs.
K.C.: Is it always difficult to introduce a new series?
B.G.: Once you have gained entrance to the BEEB it becomes less of a problem. We had far less trouble with Henry’s Cat.
K.C.: Did the two series pay?
B.G.: Roobarb was not a moneyspinner – it took us ten years to climb out of the red. Although we made each episode very quickly, it was over-animated by children’s television standards. But, having burned my fingers and been taught a lesson, I was ready when we turned to Henry’s Cat. First and foremost we wanted good merchandising.
K.C.: That’s very important, isn’t it?
B.G.: Terribly important! It makes all the difference. I said when we came to make Henry’s Cat I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes we made with Roobarb. With Roobarb we put too many episodes out to other animators; with the result we lost continuity.
And we handled the Roobarb scripts in a sacrosanct way which left us little room for manoeuvre or criticism. So with Henry’s Cat, we worked on the scripts to a much greater degree. Mind you, the best of Roobarb is very, very good, and I don’t think Henry’s Cat has quite equalled that. But then… Henry’s Cat has never descended to the depths occasionally reached by Roobarb. (Here, Bob roared with laughter at his own disloyalty) Through it all we’ve managed to maintain an acceptable level.
We have not done too well in the foreign market places because they are both very English in style.