The Magic Roundabout was a great success on British television and the BBC were looking for other series in a similar style. In 1966 Monica Simms, who was then the head of BBC Childrens’ Television, invited us to discuss a new venture. She introduced Michael Bond, who had become successful with a character called ‘Peppot’. He had an idea for a series to be called The Herbs featuring characters based on garden herbs such as Parsley the Lion.
The pilot was shot in Ivor Wood’s living room in the suburbs of Paris. His wife put a notice on the door, which I joke about to this day, it said, ‘Please keep out of my kitchen,’ – or the equivalent in French. From that simple beginning this side of our business started.
Paris at that time was the centre for cinema and television commercials. Many famous British commercials were made there. I had adopted the chauvinist attitude of the French, where we didn’t really study what was going on outside.
We began to hear rumours of a pop group called the Beatles, who were indicating the British were extremely talented. I could no longer attract the art directors from British agencies to come over to Paris and meet my live action crew and animators. Everybody seemed to be talking with a Liverpool accent, wearing long hair, and Britain was the place to be, so in 1967 I moved to England.
At Film Fair London, one of our early jobs was a live action/cartoon series for McCann Erikson, ‘Save the Tiger’. It typified the type of business we had in those days, Ronnie Kirkwood was the creative director and I sold the services of Gus Jekel as a live action/cartoon director. It was shot in London and animated in America.
We built up a very big business, so that 12 years ago we were one of the top British production companies. Then a creative whizz kid called Terry Flanders came to me with an idea he had been trying to sell in Wardour Street. An animated film series based on a book by Elizabeth Beresford called The Wombles. That changed our lives in that Ivor Wood and I worked on the series for a long time. The BBC took it and, in today’s real terms, it was the biggest merchandising bonanza this country has known.
It made a lot of money for us, which we reinvested in studios. For a time we concentrated on the children’s market and gradually reduced our commercial activities.
Ivor Wood, who is still a great friend, broke away from us a few years ago and went straight into Postman Pat. He is a genius and of course I am sorry he left the company, but glad he is making a great success of it.
When The Wombles was first shown on TV it had a cult following among people of all ages because it came on just before the evening news. It was seen by an estimated five to six million people. With that many viewers the sale of merchandising could not fail. But the BBC stopped that slot some years ago. The BBC tell me if it was a new series today they would not risk it in that time-shot. They would put it on as a preschool programme.
That is the way the industry has moved. There is a great deal of competition from fast moving, harder hitting American styles. The children today become grown-up sooner. They pretend to be disinterested in what I call ‘nanny syndrome’ stories once they start school, and by the age of twelve they are no longer children. The BBC cannot take the risk of putting on something as delightful as The Wombles for older children when they are competing on the same time-slot as The Transformers.
An animated series might cost anything from £1,500 a minute up to £8,000 a minute to produce. Let us suppose there are 130 minutes in an average series – they require 26 x 5-minutes or 14 x 11-minutes – at £2,000 a minute you are talking about £200,000 up to £1,000,000.
The early Wombles cost £24,000 for the series compared with today’s cost of £200,000 upwards, so how do you get your money back? You cannot get that sort of money back by overseas sales. Over seven or eight years you might get half that money back but not in the short term, despite cable and despite video, not on children’s films.
Even in America, the price they pay is ludicrously incompatible with the cost of production. You depend on merchandising to make it profitable. That is why when animators come to us with ideas they list all the merchandising possibilities.
The average cost of a series might be £400,000 so you need £20 million worth of merchandising goods on the market to pay the cost of production, before you start to make a profit.
When you read in the consumer press that Mr. X is now a multi-millionaire because there is £30 million worth of produce on the market, you have got to realise only a fraction of that eventually comes to the producer. You have to take off the difference between the wholesale and the retail, you get 5 to 10 per cent of the wholesale, then you ye got to pay your merchandising agent 40%. It comes down to 2%.
There is only so much air-time available for children’s animation. It has to compete in a very overcrowded market in terms of character merchandising. You not only have 20 to 30 characters from different series on the shelves, but you then have all the American mega-buck characters, in the My Little Pony categories. These toy manufacturers are spending over £2 million a year on advertising and do not rely on the television programmes.
The children’s toy trade is no longer impressed just because the character happens to be on television. They will ask what other support it has.
FilmFair get around six propositions a month. Some are fully prepared story-boards, occasionally pilot films, sometimes just sketches. The animators and publishers agents are convinced they have a super idea. I will tell them that for every Postman Pat or Wombles there are nine failures. They may get merchandising off the ground but will it move from the shelves?
Making a series is OK if you can find somebody else to finance it with venture capital. They stand a chance of getting a great deal of profit, just as much as they could in any other form of venture capital. But for the animator himself to put his house on the line, to put in any of his own money, or friends’ money, is an absolute no-no, because it is too big a risk. On top of that we have competition from the Americans and Japanese.
We have found over the years, when people come to us for advice, they say, “Presumably if we go for cartoon animation the series will sell more merchandise.” In fact, it could be said the opposite is true. If you enumerate the successful animated children’s programmes in terms of successful spin-offs, you will find model animation leads the way: Magic Roundabout, Parsley the Lion, The Wombles, Paddington Bear, Trumpton.
Children, particularly pre-school children, who are a very important age- group for television-orientated merchandising, can reach out to the tangible dimensional quality of model animation. It has less fantasy, it is based on what I call the ‘nanny syndrome’. The children are sitting down and the nanny, who is the mother, sister, or nanny, says: “Once upon a time, at the bottom of the garden, a little head poked out from under a leaf.” And if a little head pokes out and it’s in model animation, children are captivated. It’s not wild fantasy, it’s very near to them because in their little minds they can live with those puppets. They laugh at cartoon characters but they don’t necessarily live with them. We base our case on that.
Graham Clutterbuck died peacefully on the 30th April 1988, after a long struggle against cancer.
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Printed in Animator Issue 23 (Summer 1988)