Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Channel 4 and Animation

How Britain's fourth channel became an animation powerhouse

Main image of Channel 4 and Animation

The term "golden age" is a controversial one, skewed as it often is by prejudice and rose-tinted nostalgia, but there is very little doubt that the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s saw British animation reach an unprecedented and possibly unrepeatable peak in terms of both quantity and quality. Channel 4 wasn't the only broadcaster commissioning animation in this period, but under the enlightened leadership of Paul Madden and Clare Kitson, it became renowned for its willingness both to champion the bold and experimental and to offer a truly national platform for work that had usually been marginalised in the past.

Interest in the potential of animation as a serious art form had been growing in Britain throughout the 1970s, and the revival of the Cambridge Animation Festival in 1981 provided a high-profile platform for the work of numerous experimental animators. The launch of Channel 4 was still a year away, but chief executive Jeremy Isaacs attended the festival, liked what he saw, and encouraged Paul Madden, one of his commissioning editors, to seek out work for the new channel.

Madden had been particularly struck by a couple of films by David Sproxton and Peter Lord, who had formed Aardman Animations a few years earlier on the back of the success of Morph, the plasticine character that popped up in the BBC's Take Hart (1977-83). But they had also contributed to a series of Animated Conversations (BBC, 1979), in which documentary sound recordings were used as the basis for animated films - for instance, Down and Out (tx. 13/3/1979) was sourced from a tape made in a Salvation Army hostel. Madden commissioned Aardman to make five more films in a similar vein, intending to screen them on Channel 4's opening week. In the event, the deadline proved too ambitious, but the final series, Conversation Pieces, was ultimately given a prominent slot opposite the BBC's Nine O'Clock News exactly a year later.

At the same time, Madden was approached by John Coates of TV Cartoons (TVC), who had optioned the rights to Raymond Briggs' children's book The Snowman and thought it would make a perfect short animated film. Madden agreed to put up £100,000, a quarter of the final budget, and the film (directed by Dianne Jackson) was completed in time for Channel 4's first Christmas. Screened on Boxing Day 1982, it was hailed as an instant classic, and a mainstay of the channel's subsequent Christmas scheduling.

At this time, Channel 4 lacked a dedicated animation department, something Madden spent the bulk of the 1980s lobbying for. Accordingly, the Quay Brothers' films about Leos Janácek, Igor Stravinsky (both 1983) and Jan Svankmajer (1984) were funded as documentaries, Lesley Keen's homage to the artist Paul Klee, Taking a Line for a Walk (1983) was considered educational, Street of Crocodiles (Quay Brothers, 1986) and Skywhales (Phil Austin/Derek Hayes, 1983) were regarded as drama, while Candy Guard's Fatty Issues and Alternative Fringe (both 1988) were incorporated into a current affairs documentary about women's issues.

In 1989, Channel 4 finally appointed a full-time Commissioning Editor for Animation. By then, Madden had left, but his successor Clare Kitson quickly made her own mark by introducing the Four-Mations slot, a regular showcase for both British and international animation. At the same time, she set up the Animate! initiative between Channel 4 and the Arts Council of England to encourage the development of experimental animation for television. She also backed the animator-in-residence programme hosted by the BFI's Museum of the Moving Image. For the first time, there was a conscious focus on 'auteur' animation, short films made purely as a showcase for the artist's personal expression, and she also made a point of commissioning animation by women.

Channel 4 quickly gained a reputation as the most adventurous and innovative animation broadcaster, not just in Britain but internationally. Amongst many prestigious awards, Channel 4-sponsored shorts dominated the Oscar nominations for Best Animated Short Film in the 1990s, winning for Creature Comforts (d. Nick Park, 1989) and Bob's Birthday (d. Alison Snowden/David Fine, 1993). In addition to throwing British animators a lifeline (the number of new shorts commissioned ultimately ran into triple figures), Kitson also commissioned new work from major foreign talent, including Paul Driessen, Priit Pärn, Raoul Servais and Jan Svankmajer. There were also numerous individual documentaries and series about animation, such as Secret Passions (1992-95) and Dope Sheet (1997-99), with its computer-animated presenter Eric Dope.

In 1994, Channel 4's animation budget was increased, enabling Kitson to consider commissioning series for the first time. In the wake of the success of US import The Simpsons (1991-), which Channel 4 had initially turned down, there was a great deal of interest in trying to create a homegrown equivalent. Although Crapston Villas (d. Sarah-Ann Kennedy, 1995-98) gained a cult following, neither Bob and Margaret (d. Alison Snowden/David Fine, 1998-9) nor Pond Life (d. Candy Guard, 1996-2000) managed to catch the public imagination to anything like the same extent, though erratic scheduling was at least partly to blame - Pond Life in particular suffered from being screened in an afternoon slot, forcing cuts to some of the riper language. However, Bob and Margaret achieved one of its aims, being a bona fide hit in the US and Canada, and was so successful in the latter market that the action shifted wholesale to Toronto after the third and fourth series ended up being produced in David Fine's native Canada.

Kitson left Channel 4 in 1999, after ten years in the job, and her post was not renewed - instead, animation came under the remit of the Commissioning Editor for Arts and Music. In the post-2000 Big Brother-driven era, animation has sadly reverted to being a marginal concern, with many of the outstanding Channel 4 talents either working in children's television (Mark Baker), live action features (the Quay Brothers) or in different media altogether (Candy Guard). However, Channel 4 continues to sponsor the production and broadcast of a small number of new animated films via initiatives such as Animate! and Mesh, the latter a national scheme designed to encourage the creative development of digital animation.

Further Reading
'Animaniacs' by Belinda Hanks, Televisual, August 1999
'The History of Channel 4 and the Future of Animation' by Irene Kotlarz, Animation World Magazine, September 1999

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of A is for Autism (1992)A is for Autism (1992)

Part-animated film exploring the perceptions of autistic people

Thumbnail image of Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, The (1984)

A tribute to the great Czech animator

Thumbnail image of Cowboys (1991)Cowboys (1991)

Phil Mulloy's notorious animated shorts that redefine the American West

Thumbnail image of Creature Comforts (1989)Creature Comforts (1989)

Much-loved Nick Park animation in which zoo animals talk about their lives

Thumbnail image of Feet of Song (1988)Feet of Song (1988)

Animation by Erica Russell based on African dance rhythms

Thumbnail image of I'm Not a Feminist, But... (1986)I'm Not a Feminist, But... (1986)

Series of animated sketches highlighting a woman's lot

Thumbnail image of Mill, The (1992)Mill, The (1992)

Beautiful animated journey of a young girl through a dreamlike landscape

Thumbnail image of Next (1989)Next (1989)

Shakespeare performs all his plays in a single audition piece

Thumbnail image of Ra: The Path of the Sun God (1990)Ra: The Path of the Sun God (1990)

Ambitious, multi-layered animation bringing Egyptian legends to life

Thumbnail image of Snowman, The (1982)Snowman, The (1982)

Perennial Christmas classic, based on the book by Raymond Briggs

Thumbnail image of Soho Square (1992)Soho Square (1992)

Animated evocation of a summer's day in a central London square

Thumbnail image of Stain, The (1991)Stain, The (1991)

Dark animation about family relationships

Thumbnail image of Street of Crocodiles (1986)Street of Crocodiles (1986)

A nightmarish netherworld populated by strange and sinister puppets

Thumbnail image of Village, The (1993)Village, The (1993)

Acclaimed animation by Mark Baker about a deceptively tranquil village

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of AnimationAnimation

Funny ha ha and funny peculiar

Thumbnail image of Channel 4 at 25Channel 4 at 25

The first quarter-century of Britain's provocative fourth channel

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Baker, Mark (1959-)Baker, Mark (1959-)

Director, Animator

Thumbnail image of Guard, Candy (1961-)Guard, Candy (1961-)

Director, Writer, Animator

Thumbnail image of Quay, Brothers (1947-)Quay, Brothers (1947-)

Directors, Writers, Designers, Animators

Thumbnail image of Quinn, Joanna (1962-)Quinn, Joanna (1962-)

Director, Writer, Animator

Thumbnail image of Russell, Erica (1951-)Russell, Erica (1951-)

Director, Animator

Thumbnail image of Snowden, Alison (1958-) and Fine, David (1960-)Snowden, Alison (1958-) and Fine, David (1960-)

Director, Writer, Animator

Thumbnail image of Aardman AnimationsAardman Animations

Production Company