Women in British Animation: Candy Guard

Pond Life

“I just want to make people laugh. Not by being silly – but by being truthful.”

—Candy Guard

Candy GuardIn her student days at Newcastle Polytechnic and St Martins School of Art, Candy Guard hoped to enter live-action filmmaking. But instead, she found herself being tugged towards the world of cartoons.

“I started to put ideas down in strip cartoon form,” she said in an interview for Jayne Pilling’s 1992 book Women & Animation: A Compendium. “It was a quick way of dealing with dialogue visually, without having to write it as a script. Someone suggested animation which seemed to marry my different interests.” Lacking the confidence to pull together a full film crew, Guard found animation to be a more suitable medium for her work – and, after she graduated, her cartoons attracted more interest than her eventual work with live action.

Guard’s big break came in 1988, when the Channel 4 series Women in View aired a set of shorts by her as vignettes. Amongst these was A Little Something, a piece with a sense of cartoonish absurdism that is less prominent her later work. Yet, at the same time, the short explores what would become some of her favourite themes.

Candy Guard's A Little Something
A Little Something.

Two characters, one male and the other female, laugh and chat together until the male character tells his companion that “you’ve just got a little something on your nose.” This sends the woman into a fit of self-consciousness: “How long has it been there? I hope it wasn’t there when I was talking to Brenda… oh, God, and I told that joke!” She continues to rub at the end of her nose, even after the increasingly frustrated man tells her that the “little something” is gone, and eventually hides her head beneath a paper bag.

The young woman’s insistence on wearing a bag over her head causes a dinner-table argument between her parents (“good girls don’t wear paper bags on their heads!”) and she responds by running away from home. Failing to find a job, she turns to alcohol. The story then cuts forward twenty-seven years, and the bag-headed woman is now reduced to shambling around a bus-stop, hauling carrier bags full of food while repeating snatches from past conversations. The viewer has already seen her in this state during the in medias res prologue, suggesting that the entire short is a pun on the stereotype of the “bag lady.”

Candy Guard's Fatty Issues.
Fatty Issues.

Anxieties about appearance play a part in each of Guard’s Women in View shorts. In Fatty Issues, a woman asks her boyfriend if she is fat; when he replies “not really,” she decides to go on a diet. She makes excuse after excuse to indulge in snacking, has an emotional breakdown and finally gives in altogether: “you’re not exactly sylph-like yourself” she says to her boyfriend, as she helps herself to one of his chips. The theme turns up again in Alternative Fringe, where  a woman decides  that a trip to the hairdresser will cheer her up – only to end up in the hands of an incompetent apprentice and her  condescending superior (“Tsk tsk tsk! We’ve been cutting this ourselves, haven’t we, madam?”). Wishful Thinking, about two women going to a party, starts off with yet more gags deriving from fashion and appearance (“I look like Dick Emery in these shoes”) but ends up drawing most of its humour from social class: the two protagonists, who are working class, find themselves being ignored by the snooty hostess and her friends.

Each cartoon shows a dry, observational sense of humour. Guard’s dialogue seems plucked from everyday conversations: much of the comedy derives from a fast-paced delivery of utterly mundane material, with one true-to-life exchanges being rattled off after the other. A recurring gag involves certain lines being repeated (such as “looks nice, though” when the Wishful Thinking women choose party outfits) and lending a rhythm to the dialogue, like a sample-laden garage track.

The shorts’ drawing style is loose and pared-down, as befits the “everywoman” characters, but still idiosyncratic – it is impossible to mistake Guard’s beak-nosed characters for the work of any other cartoonist. In terms of writing, Guard has stated that she was influenced by the writer-director Mike Leigh, for portraying “life as it really is, slightly exaggerated for drama.”

“Women like French & Saunders didn’t so much influence me as egg me on,” she adds. “I think they, and Victoria Wood are doing a kind of observational comedy that deals with very personal, day to day things which seem petty bit in fact take up most of your mental time.” Another humourist admired by Guard is the French cartoonist Claire Bretécher, whose work shows a rather more Gallic approach to the day-to-day lives of women.

Candy Guard's Ladies.

Guard followed her Women in View vignettes with a set of short cartoons for the Welsh channel S4C. These shorts use the same dry humour to tackle themes such as job interviews (The Wrong Type, 1990), lovers’ spats (Moanalogue, 1990), more insecurities about appearance (What About Me?, 1990) and household to-do lists (Fantastic Person, 1991). Her work also caught the eye of MTV, which ran Wishful Thinking – along with the new shorts Ladies and Getting to Know You – as part of its Liquid Television strand in 1992.

By this time Channel 4’s commissioning editor for animation, Clare Kitson, had seen the pilot for The Simpsons. Realising the potential for an adult animated series – as opposed to shorts, which had been the bread-and-butter of Channel 4 animation – Kitson set about looking for a homegrown Matt Groening. Her efforts resulted in Sarah Ann Kennedy’s Crapston Villas and Candy Guard’s Pond Life, which premiered in 1995 and 1996 respectively.

Pond Life
Dolly Pond and her boring social life.

Pond Life, which Guard had first pitched in 1992, follows the exploits of Dolly Pond, a woman of around 30 who has spent her entire life in the same cul-de-sac. Keeping a tiresome job at Mrs. Alright’s run-down corner shop, Dolly’s social life extends little further than her nagging parents, her pleasant but dull friend Belle Stickleback, and the lingering presence of her slobbish ex-lover Nobby Newt.

The side characters are voiced largely by established sitcom performers, but for the main role of Dolly Pond, Guard turned to her former classmate Sarah Ann Kennedy – who, in addition to creating Crapston Villas, had lent her voice to Guard’s earlier short films. One reason for this was that Kennedy did a good impression of Candy Guard’s own voice: “She knows how I speak,” said Guard; “people often think it’s me, because she gets the intonation.”

The interchangeable everywoman protagonists in Guard’s shorts were not substantial enough to sustain a sitcom, and so she needed to add an extra layer of characterisation in creating Dolly. For inspiration, she turned to one of her earliest influences: the world of British children’s comics such as The Beano and The Topper. In Guard’s view, these stories of juvenile pranksters offered a vision of gender equality, as boys and girls were allowed to (mis)behave in the same way.

Guard has expressed a particular fondness for Beryl the Peril, a Topper character created by David Law. In a 2006 Guardian interview, Guard described Beryl as “feisty, naughty, easily bored, moody and charming… the original ladette”.

Pond Life
A typical adventure for Dolly Pond.

“I wondered what Beryl would be like if she’d had a chance to grow up,” continued Guard. And so, Dolly Pond was born. While the heroines of Guard’s short films were hapless victims of circumstance, Dolly possesses a rebellious streak and is unafraid to strike back against her tedious existence – and, in the process, shows little regard for the comfort or wellbeing of anybody around her. The influence of The Beano and its pantheon of mischief-makers is most evident in the episode “Birthday Suit,” where Dolly tells an elaborate series of lies in an attempt to bag her dream outfit, even getting her own mother falsely arrested for shoplifting.

Clare Kitson hoped that Pond Life would air in a 9:45 PM slot, after the documentary series Dispatches. But advertisers, placing more of their trust in male audiences, were sceptical of a series with such a strong female focus. Channel 4 responded by instead airing the series at 5:45 PM, after the housewife-targeted talk show Ricki Lake. This was disastrous for three reasons, as Kitson outlines in her book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor.

First, it meant that the series was aired at a time when many audience members in Dolly’s demographic – that is, young women with jobs – were still at work. Second, it led to Pond Life’s more adult content being censored: the swearing had to be edited, while the episodes “Driving Test” (in which Dolly overdoses on pharmaceuticals) and “Glastonbury” (in which Dolly drops acid and goes streaking) were shown in a late-night slot separate from the rest of the series. Third, it meant that Pond Life ran opposite the popular Australian soap opera Neighbours on BBC1, and poor Dolly simply did not stand a chance against the Antipodean juggernaut. Reviewers generally praised Pond Life but expressed bewilderment at its scheduling.

Pond Life Televisual Cartoon
In this 1997 cartoon for Televisual Magazine, Candy Guard vents her frustrations about Pond Life’s scheduling.

Despite its troubled beginning, Pond Life lived on in multiple forms. A second series was broadcast in 2000, and allowed a more appropriate slot in the schedule; the series had fewer episodes than the first, but – with one exception – the length of each episode was doubled from 11 minutes to 22. Come 2009, a dedicated Pond Life channel appeared on YouTube; in an apparent attempt to mimic short-form webcartoons such as Homestar Runner and Weebl and Bob, the channel features clips from the series rather than full episodes. Finally, between 2014 aand 2015, Guard made the entirety of Pond Life available on her personal YouTube channel, alongside most of her earlier shorts.

Candy Guard's Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top BusAnimation is not the only medium in which Candy Guard has worked professionally. She collaborated on the script for 1990 Penny Woodcock’s live action made-for-TV movie Women in Tropical Places, about an Argentinian woman moving to Newcastle. Later in the decade, she drew a comic strip for The Observer’s colour supplement. Then, in the twenty-first century, she found a new home for her work: books.

Guard made her debut as a novelist in 2006 with Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus. The book’s main character is Edie Dudman, an unmistakable reincarnation of Dolly Pond who exists in the same milieu of dull friends, dead-end retail jobs, and unsatisfactory boyfriends; Guard also works in elements from Wishful Thinking and Alternative Fringe. The novel takes place in the early 1980s, an era described by Edie as “a tough world of shoulder pads and giant hair [where] you couldn’t afford to be sentimental;” Thatcherism appears to have created a nation of individuals who – like Edie – have little idea what to do with their newfound individuality. Guard’s wry observations about day-to-day life come thick and fast, but this time around she has time to touch upon heavier themes (one plot thread deals with abortion) and hits a poignant note as Edie finally comes to accept that, yes, she will eventually turn into her mum.

Candy Guard's Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus
The cast of characters from Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus.

Guard’s entry into prose fiction certainly did not mean abandoning cartoons. Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus is illustrated throughout with her distinctive drawings, which suggest doodles in a diary and do much to establish Edie as a character.

Candy Guard's Turning to JellyAfter this came Turning to Jelly, a children’s book published in 2014. Here, Guard introduced a new protagonist in Roberta “Jelly” Rowntree, a preteen girl who has just started secondary school and must face the attendant peer pressure. The book is even more heavily-illustrated than Just a Little Disco, to the point where it could fairly be described as equal parts prose novel and cartoon strip; the ebook edition takes this a step further by adding animation.

In depicting her new set of juvenile characters, Guard’s artwork takes on a manic, wide-eyed energy, suggesting a return to her early influences of The Beano and The Topper. Another influence on the book was Guard herself becoming a parent: in her acknowledgments, she thanks “my wonderful stepdaughters Rosie, Heather and Robin Shaw for being all-round marvellous and reminding me about being 12.” The book was followed by Jelly has a Wobble in 2015 and Jelly breaks the Mould in 2016, and it looks as though Jelly Rowntree’s exploits will be an annual event.

Candy Guard's Turning to Jelly
A typical page from Turning to Jelly.

Candy Guard first came to prominence in the British animation scene at the same time as overtly feminist animators such as Joanna Quinn, Vera Neubauer and Marjut Rimminen were making themselves known, and was often categorised amongst them by commentators.

But there has been some dispute as to whether her work can be described as feminist. After all, in Guard’s cartoons, female protagonists are self-absorbed, irrational and unproductive. Women in positions of success or power, such as the patronising interviewer in The Wrong Type, tend to be overpriviliged bimbos. In her early shorts – Moanalogue being the clearest example – boyfriends are long-suffering and level-headed foils, like gender-swapped Wilma Flintstones. Just a Little Disco on an Open-Top Bus contains a playful dig at the feminist animation movement: when Edie tries to present herself as an artist, she manages to pass off a friend’s wedding album as “reference for a Postmodernist, Postfeminist, abstract animated film about the shape and form of marriage.”

Room, by Candy Guard
Still from Room, a very early short from before Guard settled on drawn animation.

Sandra Law, in her contribution to Jayne Pilling’s 1997 book A Reader in Animation Studies, gave a positive feminist reading of Guard’s cartoons, arguing that they are about women’s doomed quest to achieve an unattainable ideal of femininity. To Law, Guard’s shorts “act as a kind of cultural critique of the ways women choose to operate in a society that frequently judges them on grounds that are completely unrelated to their personal abilities or aptitudes.” The female protagonists are distinguished by “their enslavement (voluntary or not) to society’s cultural mores and expectations” and “are tortuously caught by their attempts to conform to societal standards of what is deemed attractive.” This is a valid interpretation – but one that relies upon a cultural context that is never directly acknowledged within the cartoons themselves.

Clare Kitson, on the other hand, has stated that Guard’s early shorts “were obviously not driven by the politics of the women’s movement”. Meanwhile, in an episode of BBC4’s Animation Nation documentary series, Gillian Lacey of the Leeds Animation Workshop argued that Guard’s work is, at least, the result of feminism: “It was building on what the generation before, my generation, had had to fight for… we fought for a space, and Candy’s generation walked into that space.”

Guard herself sees animation as a good medium for women creators. “There are a lot of successful women animators because of this issue of control, you can do it secretly, away from prying eyes, it feels more private,” she said in Women & Animation: A Compendium. “You don’t have to deal with other people so much. A lot of women can’t bear to be thought of as horrible, forceful, appear bossy, while men don’t give a shit.”

She went into more detail about how her work relates to gender in State of the Art, a 1990 Channel 4 documentary series about contemporary British animation. Here, Guard stated that her humorous scenarios are autobiographical in origin, but to some extent universal – regardless of the viewer’s gender.

Speaking of Alternative Fringe, Guard acknowledged that the choice of setting – a hairdresser’s – is traditionally feminine. “But it’s not just about going to the hairdresser’s,” she continued. “It’s about a situation where they feel insecure, where they’re being intimidated by someone who they’re paying to do something… it’s about being intimidated.”

“I just want to be thought of as an animator. I know I am a woman, but it’d be nice not to have that in front of it – like the women’s page in The Guardian.”

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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.