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Funny ha ha and funny peculiar

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The first 'animated' picture in Britain was not strictly animated, but a film of lightning cartoonist, Tom Merry, drawing a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm, made by Birt Acres at the end of 1895. There were several such productions around the turn of the century, together with trick films such as Walter R. Booth's The Devil in the Studio (1901), but the first animated film that could properly claim this name was probably Dolly's Toys (1901), a mixture of live action and stop-motion puppet animation believed to be the work of Arthur Melbourne-Cooper who went on to make many similar films such as Dreams of Toyland (1908). Alongside these came the cut-out mixed with lightning sketch films made by Booth and, later, Anson Dyer, Dudley Buxton and others. Surviving examples date mainly from the Great War and include the John Bull's Animated Sketchbook series from 1915 and 1916, as well as Lancelot Speed's Bully Boy titles (1914). Though the cel system had been devised by John Randolph Bray in the mid-1910s, cut-out and three-dimensional models were still the norm for British animation - Speed even produced a 26-episode cut-out serial, The Wonderful Adventures of Pip, Squeak and Wilfred in 1921 - right up to 1924 and the advent of Bonzo, based on the character created by G.E. Studdy.

Anson Dyer's The Story of the Flag (1927) would have been Britain's first feature-length animated film, about an hour long, but producer Archibald Nettlefold lost confidence, and it was finally issued as six short films. The use of colour processes in British animation was constrained by the fact that Disney had a monopoly on the use of three-colour Technicolor until 1934. Thus, although systems such as Dunning Colour were employed in the early part of the decade, the first three-colour British animated film, Fox Hunt, by Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin, didn't appear until 1935.

Sponsorship has been a crucial factor in the continuing development of British animation. In the 1930s, it came in the form of the General Post Office, whose GPO Film Unit allowed filmmakers free reign to be innovative and experimental in the cause of promoting Post Office services. The Ministry of Information, which took over from the Post Office as the chief government sponsor when war broke out in 1939, enabled Halas and Batchelor, Larkins and several other smaller companies to continue their activities for the duration. Post-war financial support very often came from commercial companies, though the British Film Institute's Experimental Film Fund and Production Board put money into a number of titles, as did the Arts Council. The most important non-commercial sponsor, however, was Channel Four, where, during the 1980s and 1990s, animation had its own Commissioning Editor, on a par with other television subjects such as sport and drama.

In the 1930s, animation was dominated by figures like Len Lye and Norman McLaren. Lye's A Colour Box (1935) and Rainbow Dance (1936) remain classics of the animator's craft, while McLaren, having made Camera Makes Whoopee (1935) and Hell Unltd (with Helen Biggar, 1936) produced the wonderfully mad Love On The Wing (1938), intended as an advertisement for air mail services, but banned by the Post Office for its erotic imagery. John Halas made his first film in Britain, Music Man, in 1938, and set up Halas and Batchelor with his wife, Joy, in 1940. Halas and Batchelor were among the most prolific, and certainly the longest-lived of any British animation company by the time they closed in 1983. They successfully combined working for sponsors, notably British government departments and advertising companies, with more personal projects, a combination employed by animators throughout Britain's cinematic history.

After the Second World War, J. Arthur Rank attempted to create a British rival to Disney by bringing David Hand (director of Bambi) to England, in 1946, to run G-B Animation. The animators, many of them ex-servicemen, made advertising films as well as two popular series, Animaland (1948-50) and Musical Paintbox (1949-50), before the unit was closed in 1950 because, even with the revenue from its commercial activities, it proved uneconomical.

The 1950s and 1960s saw another creative spurt when the British Film Institute's Experimental Film Fund funded films like Peter King's 13 Cantos Of Hell (1955), Peter and Joan Foldes's A Short Vision (1956) and Animated Genesis (1960) and Mel Calman's The Arrow (1969). In the same period, animators such as Bob Godfrey left the older established groups to set up on their own (Do It Yourself Cartoon Kit (1959) was made for Godfrey's company, Biographic), and George Dunning and Richard Williams arrived from Canada. Dunning produced innovative work such as the feature length Yellow Submarine (1968) and Damon The Mower (1973), while Williams developed a very personal style, probably best remembered from the opening credits of Tony Richardson's The Charge Of The Light Brigade (1968).

The successor to the Experimental Film Fund, the BFI's Production Board, continued to fund animation, notably some of the work of the Quay Brothers, e.g., Street Of Crocodiles (1986), co-funded by Channel Four, and Vera Neubauer's Animation For Live Action (1978) and The Decision (1981). Channel Four also commissioned Diana Jackson's The Snowman (1982), Aardman's Conversation Pieces and Sweet Disaster series (both 1983), Animation City's radical The Victor (1985), the four-part Blind Justice series (1987) - including Murders Most Foul and Some Protection - as well as Phil Mulloy's grotesque shorts such as the Cowboys and The Ten Commandments series (both 1996).

The establishing of animation courses in film schools and art colleges in the 1970s and '80s was the foundation for a burst of creativity which coincided with a huge growth in the number of women animation directors. While women have worked in great numbers in animation studios in the more routine jobs such as paint and trace, few - with the notable exception of the all-woman co-operative, Leeds Animation Workshop - had had the opportunity to develop their own projects. Many of these were very personal, such as Karen Watson Daddy's Little Bit Of Dresden China (West Surrey College of Art and Design, now Surrey Institute of Art and Design, 1988), while others, like Joanna Quinn's Girls' Night Out (1987) and Candy Guard's Fatty Issues (1988) combined humour with social observation. More idiosyncratic was the work of Alison de Vere, who started with Halas and Batchelor in the 1950s, worked on films for a variety of organizations in the 1960s and 1970s, but really came into her own with productions like Café Bar (1975) and Black Dog (1987).

In the last twenty years, the variety of styles and formats developed, and the technical skill employed by British animators has become renowned worldwide. Aardman's Nick Park won the first of his three Oscars for Creature Comforts in the Lip Synch series (1989). The success of this and the three Wallace and Gromit films, A Grand Day Out (1990), The Wrong Trousers (1993), and A Close Shave (1995), encouraged DreamWorks to co-produce the feature-length Chicken Run (2000). Daniel Greaves was awarded his Oscar for Manipulation (1991), while Alison Snowden and David Fine won theirs for Bob's Birthday (1993), which was the basis for their later series, Bob and Margaret (1998).

Elaine Burrows

Related Films and TV programmes

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Part-animated film exploring the perceptions of autistic people

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Thumbnail image of Birds Bees and Storks (1965)Birds Bees and Storks (1965)

An embarrassed Peter Sellers attempts to explain the facts of life

Thumbnail image of Colour Box, A (1935)Colour Box, A (1935)

Abstract animation by Len Lye, made by painting directly onto film

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

Thumbnail image of Fantastic Person (1992)Fantastic Person (1992)

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

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Award-winning animation giving a witty commentary on the eco-system

Thumbnail image of Life in a Scotch Sitting Room (1986)Life in a Scotch Sitting Room (1986)

Animation of Ivor Cutler's drily witty 'autobiographical' tale

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Oscar-winning short about the powerlessness of animated characters

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Witty animation about a football-style architectural tournament

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Cut-out animated parody of Hamlet by pioneering British animator Anson Dyer

Thumbnail image of Rainbow Dance (1936)Rainbow Dance (1936)

Vivid and energetic Len Lye animation made to advertise the Post Office

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Propaganda cartoon promoting the Conservative Party

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

An impressively dark fairytale rendered in puppet animation

Thumbnail image of Snow White and Rose Red (1953)Snow White and Rose Red (1953)

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

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

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Abstract animation evoking traditional Scottish dance

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Silhouette film illustrating aspects of Dante's Inferno

Thumbnail image of Three Knights, The (1982)Three Knights, The (1982)

Charming animated fantasy by Mark Baker

Thumbnail image of To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)

Extraordinary educational animation

Thumbnail image of Watership Down (1978)Watership Down (1978)

Lively, grisly animated version of Richard Adams' children's classic

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