Bob Godfrey dead, age 91

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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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