Whatever happened to Signal Film Unit? – Page 2

Managing-Director Holdsworth relinquished his position as Time neared completion. Retaining a directorship on the board of Signal Films, Gerry left to take over the full-time running of live-action studio Wallace Productions. Robert G. Leffmgwell, an ex-Disney man, came in to take his place, with the inevitable result Gerry failed to get a mention on The Story of Time credit titles.

Sad Town – Happy Town for Jenson & Nicholson (India), and Sun Sweet Prune Juice were made for a U.S.A. sponsor, then popular music-hall comedian Stanley Holloway recorded the commentary for a C.W.S. (Co-operative Wholesale Society) commercial. He was driven to the recording session at Merton Park through a pea-soup fog by Bernard Gitter, an ex-accountant brought in to run the financial affairs of the studio.

Neptune’s Nightcap 1948. Made for Horlicks.

In July 1950, they announced they were seeking £100,000 financial backing for a seventy-minute fantasy entitled The Little Prince, expected to take two-and-a-half years in the making. However, difficulties over the purchase of the film rights could not be resolved, and two short commercials later the studio ceased production.

An advert for the C.W.S. 1950.

Although it had achieved modest success, the unit had not made the impact necessary to stay alive. Bearing in mind that it then cost a provincial cinema just 12/6d (62½p) a week to book a short, and not all of them chose to do so, it was estimated to take about seven years to recoup a film’s outlay in Britain. In the United States of America the situation was very different. Their TV companies thirsted for material. For six hours every Saturday, 6am – 12am, a continuous programme of cartoon shorts were shown. Our producers were told it was possible to break-even if a film could be sold to thirty stations. Syndication of a good film thereafter assured a reasonable profit, enabling our American cousins to undercut
our own home products with their exported productions.

Mary Had a Little Lamb by Signal Films 1947.

It must be said that Signal Films practice of running on a shoestring led to the gradual deterioration of its financial stability, and there was little Bernard Gitter could do to reverse the situation. There were many who held the considered opinion Signal Films came into being ‘before its time’, and, without doubt, if it had been born during the great British TV boom it might well have stood a better chance.

Airborne Lager, Signal Films 1949.

Frank Hendrix and the other Dutchmen wanted to retain the studio title, but Lord Samuels would not part with it and Signal Films continued to function in the field of live-action long after the animation group disbanded.

Coolen and Schadee returned to loop Geesink’s Dollywood. Gerry Holdsworth became Managing Director of Rank Screen Services and, in 1956/7, added a small model unit, co-opting the services of Frank Hendrix and Vic Hodgekiss. Eventually Vic joined Halas & Batchelor, animating and filming part of the paper-sculpture series Snip & Snap; while Frank and his new wife Sheila opened a studio of their own in Ladbroke Grove. Hendrix rarely ventured into the field of animation again, and died in 1973.

‘Signal Films was unique!’ said Commander Gerry Holdsworth ruefully. ‘Had it not been for the difficult times, I think it might well have made its mark internationally. The Story of Time did, in fact, win several international awards and, long after the studio folded, requests for copies continued to come from a number of countries possessing Film Archives. Shortly after we went into voluntary liquidation an American TV company became keenly interested in us – but it was too late!”

Little St. Annes, home of Signal Films.

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Printed in Animator Issue 18 (Spring 1987)