Women in British Animation: A Short Introduction

Erica Russell's Feet of Song

While the United Kingdom never had an animation industry on the same scale as those of the United States, Japan or Russia, the country has long played host to a vibrant subculture of experimental animation. Animation, like any other medium, started out as an experimental endeavour. In Britain, it was pioneered by turn-of-the-century filmmaker Arthur Melbourne-Cooper, who made short, stop-motion films using teddy bears and puppets made from matchsticks. But while American animation was quickly streamlined into a more professional assembly-line process by the likes of Van Beuren Studios and Bray Productions, British animation retained a distinct do-it-yourself ethos. This experimental attitude was encouraged by a succession of benefactors.

A Short Vision
A Short Vision (1956): Joan and Peter Foldes’ controversial animation about nuclear holocaust.

In the 1930s, the General Post Office became an unlikely patron for avant-garde animation thanks to the head of its film unit, John Grierson. Grierson hired the likes of Len Lye and Norman McLaren, who let their imaginations run riot when crafting promotional shorts for the GPO; these films remain a respected part of the animation canon.

In the 1950s, the British Film Institute’s Production Board began to fund daring animated films such as Peter King’s stark Thirteen Cantos of Hell and Joan and Peter Foldes’ depiction of nuclear annihilation, A Short Vision.

ITV, a commercial rival to the publicly-funded BBC, was established in 1955, and with it, television advertisements arrived in Britain. Some of the earliest were made by a small group of animators who called themselves Biographic Films; the Biographic crew went on to make gleefully anarchic cartoons for adult audiences, pushing boundaries in terms of sexual humour.

In 1967, Dick Arnall founded the Cambridge Animation Festival to celebrate animation in all its shapes and sizes, allowing smaller filmmakers to have their time in the sun alongside the heavy-hitting studios. In its second year, the festival screened the short Windy Day by the American independent animators John and Faith Hubley, which, in its usage of unscripted dialogue, was a direct ancestor to the classic British short Creature Comforts by Wallace and Gromit creator Nick Park.

Channel 4 was established in 1982 with the specific aim of giving airtime to offbeat, less mainstream productions, in contrast to both the paternalistic BBC and the commercialised ITV. A number of people involved with the channel’s early days decided that it should give new opportunities to animators. “Animation has been abominably abused by television,” said critic Derek Hill, who worked as a film buyer for Channel 4. “Let’s do it right.”

The Women of British Animation

Lotte Reiniger's The Tocher
The Tocher (1938): one of Lotte Reiniger’s promotional films for the GPO.

Looking through the rich history of British animation, it is impossible to miss the significant contributions made by women animators.

When the General Post Office was commissioning animated promotional films, one of the animators it hired was Lotte Reiniger. In her native Germany, Reiniger made The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which stands as the earliest surviving animated feature film; after fleeing the Nazis and finally moving to Britain after the war, she continued to make films using her spectacular silhouette designs.

Biographic Films, staunch advocates of do-it-yourself animation, started out as a three-man group (Bob Godfrey, Jeff Hale, and Keith Learner), but expanded to include two women: Nancy Hanna and Vera Linnecar.

Channel 4’s animated endeavours also had a strong female presence, including the channel’s Commissioning Editor for Animation Clare Kitson. One of the very first animated films aired by the channel was The Snowman, a 1982 Raymond Briggs adaptation directed by Dianne Jackson. Around a decade and a half later, when the channel branched out into adult comedy series in the vein of The Simpsons, it turned to female showrunners: Candy Guard created Pond Life while Sarah Ann Kennedy came up with Crapston Villas.

British animation even had its own First Lady: Joy Batchelor. With her husband John Halas, Batchelor was co-founder of the Halas & Batchelor studio, the closest thing to a “British Disney.” The couple directed the UK’s first commercially-released feature film, Animal Farm, and Batchelor went on to act as solo director for a later feature, Ruddigore.

Indeed, so significant is the role of women in British animation that Screenonline—the BFI’s invaluable reference guide to UK filmmaking—has an entry dedicated to women’s animation.

Animated Feminism

Wayward Girls and Wicked Women
The first volume of theWayward Girls & Wicked Women VHS series. The cover depicts a scene from Erica Russell’s Feet of Song (1988)

The period from the late seventies through to the mid-nineties saw a cycle of British animation with explicitly feminist themes.

In 1978, a group of women founded the Leeds Animation Workshop with the express intention of creating feminist animation. The workshop’s debut film was Who Needs Nurseries? – We Do!, which emphasised working mothers’ need for nurseries. Later shorts from the Leeds Animation Workshop cover topics such as discrimination in the workplace (No Offence) and gender inequality in everyday language (Out to Lunch).

Extant funding bodies encouraged this trend. Channel 4 backed such projects as Blind Justice, a series of shorts about discrimination against women in the legal system; the series was conceived by Gillian Lacey of the Leeds Animation Workshop. Other women who worked on Blind Justice included Marjut Rimminen and Christine Roche, the main talents behind the satirical comedy short I’m Not a Feminist, But…

Meanwhile, the BFI funded Vera Neubauer’s 1981 film The Decision, a raw and uncompromising deconstruction of gender roles. This was one of multiple shorts included in Wayward Girls & Wicked Women, a three-part VHS series released by the BFI’s Connoisseur Video label in 1992. Tying in with this series was Jayne Pilling’s (sadly scarce today) Women and Animation: A Compendium. Between them, both projects celebrated women’s animation from around the world, recognising British feminist animation as just one part of an international movement that also included animators such as Suzan Pitt from the United States and Nicole Van Goethem from Belgium.

In his 1998 book Understanding Animation, Paul Wells examined the films included in the Wayward Girls & Wicked Women videos and arrived at the following conclusion:

Though it is fair to suggest that men have been predominant in the creation of animated films, and the subject of many of them, it is ironically, women filmmakers who have recognised animation as a form in which they can work and achieve significant ends that are not available in any other film form. If men, in general, have used animation to echo and extend the premises and concerns of men in live-action film-making, then women have used animation to create a specific feminine aesthetic which resists the inherently masculine language of the live-action arena, and the most dominant codes of orthodox hyper-realist animation which also use its vocabulary.

Whatever Happened to British Feminist Animation?

My Dad
My Dad (2014): Marcus Armitage’s animated short about racism.

If the golden age of British feminist animation came to an end in the mid-nineties, then what exactly caused its decline?

The most obvious answer to this question is that funding dried up. The BFI Production Board shut up shop in 1999; Channel 4 continued its patronage of animation into the new millennium, but bit by bit, experimental short films were squeezed off the agenda in favour of more commercially viable comedy series. Animate Projects, an outgrowth of a Channel 4 funding scheme, retains something of the old ethos, but has itself faced cuts from the Arts Council.

In this day and age, of course, financial backing is not as essential as it once was. While Vera Neubauer’s The Decision required a BFI grant in 1981, the only necessary resources in 2016 would be an ordinary home computer, a cheap video camera and a few choice pieces of freeware. We live in an era in which affordable equipment and video sharing websites such as YouTube have opened more doors than Channel 4, the GPO or the BFI could have hoped to do—in theory, at least.

The likes of Channel 4 and the BFI did not merely provide money, however. They provided an atmosphere of creative development. They ensured that new talent had the encouragement needed to flourish, and, alongside art schools and festivals, they made a point out of placing the resulting work into the wider context of global animation. The same can scarcely be said of YouTube, where with a tiny proportion of exceptions, anything uploaded will quickly vanish into obscurity.

But we should not be quick to declare feminist British animation dead. In 2015, one of the BAFTA nominees for Best Short Animation was Marcus Armitage’s My Dad, a film about racism. It does not comment on gender or feminism, but between its deliberately do-it-yourself aesthetic and socially aware subject matter, the short is a clear successor to The Decision, Blind Justice and their kin.

The spirit lives on, it would seem.

To Be Continued…

In subsequent posts in this series I will be taking in-depth looks at the women of British animation, with a particular emphasis upon the period from the seventies through to the nineties.

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Doris V. Sutherland

Doris V. Sutherland

Horror historian, animation addict and tubular transdudette. Catch me on Twitter @dorvsutherland, or view my site at dorisvsutherland.com. If you like my writing enough to fling money my way, then please visit patreon.com/dorvsutherland or ko-fi.com/dorvsutherland.