Ken Clark chats with John Coates

George Dunning was a charismatic figure and his strong personality, humour and gentle manner were contributory factors in making him a figurehead. George Dunning was TVC! Then, quite suddenly, he was no longer there. In death he left a void and the inevitable question: Is this the end of TVC?

The Apple by George Dunning.

Fortunately, John Coates had grown in stature in the shadow of George’s prominence. In the beginning he may not have had knowledge of this branch of filmmaking but, by heavens! at the time of George’s demise he had mastered the many practical business issues which made the enterprise tick. In his moment of truth he was not prepared to see all their hard work together go to waste and to his credit he continues to enhance TVC’s well earned reputation.

On the eve of the release of their latest feature When the Wind Blows I was curious to hear his own version of events.

John Coates.

John Coates: TVC was formed in 1957. During our first three or four years we were inundated with commercials and we became the ‘in’ commercial studio of the day. Then we made our own documentaries and little entertainment films, which prompted us to think seriously about making films for television.

We spent a period of three years making a cartoon series of The Beatles films for the ABC Network in America. They were a phenomenal success in that country but never allowed to be shown here in England. They were children’s caricatures of the Famous Four and we had great fun making them. When the series came to an end we thought we ought to be able to make something of the sort for British TV, so we made a little pilot film called Charley, which won the Children’s Gold Award at the old Venice Film Festival. On the strength of that we went to see the Beeb and the commercial TV companies, we even had tea with Lew Grade, but everywhere we went they wanted to own the whole thing creatively and financially and/or they hadn’t got the money to back the project. After Charley, we made other interesting little films, but we could not spare enough money to make a series of our own for the television market.

Ken Clark: The cinema manager’s contempt for the humble ‘fill-up’ film survives in the world of the televised image, doesn’t it? But with TVC’s successful emergence from the ashes of a once thriving local UPA studio -the parent unit having won international esteem – one might have thought you had earned the right to an enlightened hearing. Why! at that time George Dunning was a creative force with few equals.

J.C.: This studio really was George Dunning’s. He was a Canadian, ex-National Film Board, a great friend of Norman McLaren, then employed by UPA in New York. When commercial TV began here, he was sent to set up a UPA studio in the City. One of his first recruits was his old friend Richard Williams. They enjoyed about ten months overwhelming popularity, the agencies rushed to them, and they were responsible for many memorable campaigns, Aurora Kia-Ora, etc. But then the parent Unit ran into financial trouble and decided to close the UK studio. It all happened in less than a year.

Well, George decided he wanted to stay. Leo Salkin had been in charge of the studio with an American business manager, before they returned to the States George persuaded them to keep the studio open. After they left, he scoured London for financial support and for a Producer-body to join him. That’s where I came in, doubling up as business administrator.
It happened after a chance meeting in a pub. I was working in Associated Rediffusion’s Television Programme Dept. where I had enjoyed all the uncertainties and excitements of the initial teething troubles. Our meeting coincided with a decline in the need to originate new material and I was beginning to get a little bored. I knew nothing about animation, nothing at all, but the idea of joining a new company and working for yourself intrigued me, and I accepted the job. My earlier experience stood me in good stead. I was one of the last people to benefit from the Army training scheme for civilian life in the film world. I spent six years with Rank, mostly overseas, the Far East and Spain.

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