Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Children's Puppets and Animation

The adventures of Muffin and his successors

Main image of Children's Puppets and Animation

It was a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey's Gala Premiere, which was cut short when war was declared and BBC Television closed down on 1 September 1939 - the same film re-opened the service on 7 June 1946. Animation on British television was for many years almost always bought in from America; MGM's Tom and Jerry (first shown in US cinemas in the 1930s) propped up schedules for decades, as did Warner Bros' Looney Tunes, starring characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.

The time-consuming process of filming 25 successive drawings per second to produce the illusion of motion could not be afforded by British television in the '50s. Instead anthropomorphised animals appeared via the theatre tradition of puppetry, simply and cheaply reproduced in TV studios. String puppets Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy and Pinky and Perky and glove puppet Sooty were among early TV's biggest stars.

Gerry Anderson was filming traditional string puppets made from papier maché in The Adventures of Twizzle (ITV, 1958-59), but his productions became increasingly sophisticated and expensive. Explosive special effects in series like Thunderbirds (ITV, 1965-66) revolutionised TV puppetry in the 1960s.

Animators like John Ryan (creator of pirate Captain Pugwash, BBC, 1957-75) were still filming manually-operated cardboard assemblies in the early '60s, but the first moves into 'stop frame' animation - a complex technique somewhere between puppets and cartoon animation - were made by small independent filmmakers like Bob Bura and John Hardwick (who filmed Gordon Murray's Trumpton stories) and Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin (creators of Bagpuss, BBC, 1974). The BBC sourced animations from such contractors - only the simplest animations for news or schools programmes were made in-house by their graphics department.

Output from the US animation factory run by former Tom and Jerry animators William Hanna and Joseph Barbera plugged gaps in UK children's schedules. Huckleberry Hound (US, 1958-62) was their first cartoon success, shown in the UK by ITV from 1960. Hits like Yogi Bear, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? and Wacky Races followed. By the '70s, most Hanna-Barbera shows were made by Japanese animators. Parents have often complained about cultural erosion by 'cheap and trashy' American cartoons - as far back as 1969, BBC Head of Children's, Monica Sims, defended them as "first class entertainment... so expensive to make that we could never afford to make our own".

Perhaps spurred on by the arrival of colour TV, the '70s saw an upswing in activity by independent British animators. Ivor Wood at FilmFair had learned his trade working in France on The Magic Roundabout (BBC, 1965-77) and now produced The Wombles (BBC, 1973-75), Paddington (BBC, 1975-75) and Postman Pat (BBC, 1981-2). Cosgrove Hall, subsidised by ITV company Thames, had successes including Dangermouse (ITV, 1981-92). Bob Godfrey became famous for his energetic, 'wobbly' style, which came about because he could only afford to draw his cartoons on paper rather than clear plastic 'cels' - series included Roobarb and Custard (BBC, 1974-75) and Henry's Cat (BBC, 1983-87). The '80s saw attempts to kickstart an animation cluster in Wales, with Welsh-language channel S4C funding Superted (S4C/BBC 1983-87; 1990) and Fireman Sam (BBC/S4C, 1987-90; 1994) which became global hits when translated into English.

Most animation today is computer-based - ReBoot (ITV, 1995-7) was the first fully 3D computer-generated series, made in Canada by a team of four British animators, primarily for the US market. Two-dimensional cartoons are no longer created by tracing and painting but assembled on computer screens using software like Director and After Effects.

Longstanding puppet/animation 'properties' now do worldwide business, character rights owned by concerns like Entertainment Rights (Postman Pat and Basil Brush), Chorion (Noddy, Mr Men) and HIT (Bob the Builder). Broadcast revenues can constitute just 20 per cent of these series' total income - 80 per cent coming from associated merchandising. Such revenues have meant many remakes; even Muffin the Mule is due to be relaunched as a digital-age donkey.

Alistair McGown

Further reading

Home, Anna, Into the Box of Delights: a history of children's television, BBC, 1993. esp Chapter 2: 'Puppets and Pre-school Programmes'
Tibballs, Geoff, The Golden Age of Children's Television, Titan Books, 1991.

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Basil Brush Show, The (1968-80)

Basil Brush Show, The (1968-80)

Variety show featuring a subversive upper-class puppet fox

Thumbnail image of Dangermouse (1981-92)

Dangermouse (1981-92)

The world's greatest secret agent - a mouse with an eyepatch

Thumbnail image of Magic Roundabout, The (1965-77)

Magic Roundabout, The (1965-77)

Hugely popular children's animated series

Thumbnail image of Muffin the Mule (1946-55)

Muffin the Mule (1946-55)

The famous puppet mule presents songs and stories for young children

Thumbnail image of Pipkins/Inigo Pipkin (1973-81)

Pipkins/Inigo Pipkin (1973-81)

Imaginative puppet-based programme for pre-schoolers

Thumbnail image of Roobarb (1974-75)

Roobarb (1974-75)

The animated adventures of an excitable green dog

Thumbnail image of Thunderbirds (1965-66)

Thunderbirds (1965-66)

F.A.B. adventures of International Rescue

Thumbnail image of Wind in the Willows, The (1984-88)

Wind in the Willows, The (1984-88)

Definitive animated version of the Kenneth Grahame children's classic

Thumbnail image of Wombles, The (1973-75, 1998-99)

Wombles, The (1973-75, 1998-99)

Much-loved animated series about the tidy creatures of Wimbledon Common

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Children's Television

Children's Television

Broadcasting for children of all ages

Thumbnail image of Gerry Anderson - Supermarionator

Gerry Anderson - Supermarionator

Action drama... with strings attached

Thumbnail image of Smallfilms


The creators of Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and the Clangers

Thumbnail image of Watch With Mother

Watch With Mother

Pioneering programming for 1950s tots

Related People and Organisations