Bob Godfrey dead, age 91

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Bob Godfrey

Bob God­frey

Britain’s best-loved ani­ma­tor Bob God­frey, cre­ator of Roo­barb & Cus­tard and Henry’s Cat, died on Thurs­day 20h Feb­ru­ary aged 91.

Born in New South Wales, Aus­tralia, in Jan­u­ary 27 1921 of British par­ents, he was brought home to Eng­land at the age of 6 months.

He grew up in Ilford, Essex (north-east Lon­don), and after leav­ing school attended Ley­ton Art School. In the 30s he worked as a Graphic Designer for Lever Broth­ers (now Unilever) before secur­ing a job at the adver­tis­ing agency Lintas.

Dur­ing WW2 he served in the Royal Marines, and took part in the D-Day landings.

After the War he returned to Lin­tas, spent a year pro­duc­ing mer­chan­dis­ing art­work based on the Ani­ma­land car­toons being made by David Hand for the Rank Orga­ni­za­tion (which he despised for being too “Dis­ney”) then joined the ani­ma­tion stu­dio of WM Larkin, who pro­duced infor­ma­tion and indus­trial films. Speak­ing later of his inter­view with designer Peter Sachs, Bob said:

When I went for a job, he asked me what I knew about film-making. “Absolutely noth­ing,” I answered with unchar­ac­ter­is­tic mod­esty. “Good, you can start on Mon­day,” he replied.

Bored with the work they were pro­duc­ing dur­ing the day, God­frey and fel­low work­ers Keith Lerner and Jeff Hale (NB: no rela­tion!) got together in the evenings and pro­duced their own car­toon films, The Big Parade in 1952 and Watch the Birdie in 1954.

In 1955, the year com­mer­cial TV came to Britain, God­frey, Learner and Hale set up their own ani­ma­tion stu­dio, Bio­graphic Car­toons Ltd. Their quirky humour set the tone for ani­mated TV com­mer­cials in the UK.

Because of the speed with which they could pro­duce lim­ited but very funny ani­ma­tion, they also pro­duced ani­mated inserts for TV pro­grammes, notably the Dick Lester/Spike Mil­li­gan series Son of Fred and Michael Bentine’s It’s a Square World, where lit­tle car­toon char­ac­ters would be super­im­posed over the live-action, inter­act­ing with Bentine.

In 1957 Vera Lin­necar and Nancy Hanna, also from Larkins, joined Bio­graph­ics, which moved to larger premises in Dean St. In 1962 my friend David and I, keen would-be ani­ma­tors aged 14, got to visit Bob God­frey at his stu­dio. I remem­ber he was very kind in inter­rupt­ing his busy day to indulge two tongue-tied school­boys, and told us how his first ros­trum was built of two kitchen tables stacked one on top of the other – which they still used for line-testing (but which he couldn’t show us as it was in use at the time). I remem­ber him warn­ing us that our watercolour-painted car­toon ani­ma­tion would ‘boil’ when filmed – ironic since he would later exploit that tech­nique in his Roo­barb TV series!

In the 50s & 60s Bob God­frey used his income from com­mer­cials to make a con­stant stream of wacky enter­tain­ment shorts: Polyg­a­mous Polo­nius (58), Do-It-Yourself Car­toon Kit (59), Alf, Bill and Fred and The Rise and Fall of Emily Sprod (both 64), to name but a few.

With influ­ences rang­ing from the saucy sea­side post­cards of Don­ald McGill via Music Hall and the Beano comic to radio’s The Goon Show, God­frey epit­o­mized the British sense of humour, con­ven­tion and sex­ual repres­sion being his main tar­gets. He found a kin­dred spirit in scriptwriter Stan Hey­wood, whose first step into com­edy writ­ing had been sell­ing a gag to Spike Mil­li­gan for the Goon Show.

In 1965 Bob God­frey left Bio­graphic to set up under his own name. This coin­cided with a decline in advertising’s inter­est in ani­ma­tion, but God­frey con­tin­ued his out­put of shorts.

In the 70s he pushed bound­aries fur­ther. Henry 9 to 5 (70) won a BAFTA award; Karma Sutra Rides Again (71) was ini­tially banned, but later received an Oscar nomination.

After read­ing a book on Isam­bard King­dom Brunel, God­frey asked dis­trib­u­tor British Lion, who had backed Karma Sutra, to give him some money to make a half-hour spe­cial about the Vic­to­rian engi­neer. “Yes, they said, here’s £20,000. They’d have given me money to ani­mate a toi­let if I’d asked them,” he told the Guardian news­pa­per in 2001.

The resul­tant film Great! (75) went on to win a BAFTA and an Oscar. But the shorts never made much money, so he seized the chance to ani­mate the Roo­barb series for BBC TV. The sim­ple boil­ing marker pen draw­ings had a charm that was matched by the nar­ra­tion from the late, great Richard Briers, who had also voiced Brunel in Great!

He made fur­ther TV series, cul­mi­nat­ing in Henry’s Cat (scripted by Stan Hay­ward, 2000), con­tin­ued to release shorts, and hosted a TV series about ani­ma­tion tech­niques (The Do-It Your­self Film Ani­ma­tion Show on BBC1, 74).

He also taught ani­ma­tion at West Sur­rey School of Art and Design. He told the Guardian:

I teach the basics of ani­ma­tion, then it’s up to the indi­vid­ual.
“Great illus­tra­tors don’t always make great ani­ma­tors. I’ve known peo­ple who couldn’t draw at all who were great ani­ma­tors. You can always spot the ones with real tal­ent. They don’t lis­ten to you.”

He was co-chairman of the Edu­ca­tion Com­mis­sion and a direc­tor of the exec­u­tive board of the Inter­na­tional Ani­mated Film Association.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Beryl, and two daugh­ters. Two more daugh­ters pre­de­ceased him.

(Spe­cial Thanks to Peter Hale, who gra­ciously wrote this obit­u­ary for us.)

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About Dave Koch

Editor and publisher of the Big Cartoon DataBase, Dave has been involved in cartoons since opening the Cartoon Factory animation art gallery in 1993. You may contact Dave here.

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