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The Story Behind the Show

 

 

Cosgrove Hall Productions

Cosgrove Hall Productions was founded in 1976 by university friends Mark Hall and Brian Cosgrove. They had previously worked together as graphic designers for Granada Television and later in Mark Hall's Stop Frame Animations, which helped develop the technique later used in The Wind in the Willows

Cosgrove Hall Productions was a wholly owned subsidiary of Thames Television, so Thames supplied John Hambley as the executive producer. Beginning with a crew of six in an old tobacco warehouse, success came quickly the to small company. Chorlton and the Wheelies and Jamie and the Magic Torch each ran on television for three years, Chorlton being model animation and Jamie being traditional drawn animation.

The 1980s were the golden age of Cosgrove Hall. The model-animated Cockleshell Bay ran for an incredible 104 episodes from 1980-86. But the real triumph would begin in 1981 with the premier of Dangermouse. Voiced by none other than popular comedic actor David Jason, Dangermouse was 'the greatest secret agent in the world'. Most of the 163 episodes were written by Brian Trueman, who also provided the voice of the Stiletto, the villain's henchman (this was a trend that would continue).

The Wind in the Willows began as a commission from Thames Television. Other film versions had already been made, but Cosgrove Hall wanted their version of Kenneth Grahame's 1908 novel to be the definitive adaptation. However, because they worked in two different types of animation, a problem arose, as Mark Hall explains:
"It could have been done either way - but the commission was to do it in the classic way, and to be very faithful to the book and so on which we also wanted it to be. We felt that the four main characters would be Edwardian gentlemen and everyone loved the illustrations from the books; whether it was the Ransome ones of the Shepherd ones but they loved them, so we felt that if we translated them into 3-D then there would be a better acceptance by everybody to the characters."

One of the greatest differences between Cosgrove Hall's adaptation and all the rest is the character's voices. All the voices are perfect for the animal and his personality; although most of the cast were already respected screen actors, they adapted themselves to their roles. (Find out more about the voice actors on the Cast & Crew page). David Jason was initially asked to be the voice of Ratty, but asked to have a go at Toad.

"David Jason was the voice of Toad and when the animator got the soundtrack back he couldn't understand some of the pauses, so David came up one Sunday afternoon and we sat around a table in my office with the animator and as soon as David starting reading the script the animator said 'I've got it!'; because what David was doing as Toad, and he has big toad-like eyes naturally, was that he would see something, and then look back at camera, so that you knew that he was going to do something stupid! That interpretation of course goes into the animation, and as soon as we got that we were up and running, and that went on to 65 episodes and two major long versions..." - Mark Hall


Model making on the similar show Brambly Hedge

The model characters used were an expensive but detailed troupe of actors. About 10 to 12 inches tall, each model reportedly cost ?5000 to make. Inside each model was an individualized metal skeleton, or more properly, a ball-and-joint armature. The skin and fur was just painted foam latex, cast from designs sculpted by Brian Cosgrove and Bridget Appleby. The latex needed to be replaced every two weeks due to disintegration. In each character's face was a system of wires and hinges that allowed mouths to move and eyes to blink. On the soles of their feet, magnets were screwed on. These kept the characters standing by themselves. In the case of long-footed creatures, such as Toad or the weasels, the magnetic sole was split in two to allow the foot to bend. When the soles of a character's feet were shown, they usually had paper stuck over the magnets to hide the screws.

The character models were constantly being worn out, so new and slightly different models were produced throughout the movie and the series. Such was the cost of the models that characters were sometimes disguised as minor players. Take, for example, Toad, who donated his body to be used as Auberon's chauffeur; and of course, Isambard was just one of the spare Toads. While a special Auberon model was produced for the early episodes, when he made a reappearance in Happy New Year, it was just Mole in stylish clothes (and, I suspect, Mole's disguised voice). Consider the prison warden that appears briefly in the movie - not only does he double as a policeman in the courtroom, he becomes a gipsy for the first episode of the series, and much later, he is seen at the horse races. And what about the train driver? He became a sideshow operator in May Day

There were 3-4 models of each main character so that different scenes could be animated simultaneously. There were also miniature characters, but these were only really used in the movie, primarily in the boating scenes. The water for the river was made from water mixed with a special gel, so that you could animate (Ratty's boat) across it. However, the tank had to be replaced every so often, due to the very unpleasant smell from the gel!

    

The process of actually animating the models can require extreme patience and concentration, because unlike drawn animation, each character has to be animated concurrently - you can't go back and change or insert anything. The animator would make a small adjustment to the models, and another shot would be taken by the camera. Keep in mind that British television runs through 25 frames per second. Because there were multiple characters, two episodes were shot at a time. Toad was initially animated chiefly by Barry Purves. After three years he went on to directing the show, leaving the late Paul Berry as Toad's manipulator. Scenes with a lot of things moving at the same time took much skill.

Extract from Studio Magazine, Autumn 1983:

Shooting one frame at a time with stop-frame animation is a slow process at the best of times, but on the musical numbers (performed by members of the Halle Orchestra, and written by Keith Hopwood and Malcolm Rowe, who not only set Grahame's lyrics to music but wrote also the background themes so wonderfully redolent of Vaughan Williams and Delius), it became even more painstaking work. One particular scene, 'The Open Road', where the three characters are riding on the caravan drawn by Alfred the horse, lasts just three minutes but took three to four weeks to shoot. When you realise that Alfred had to be made to walk, the characters move and sing, the caravan to sway and the pots and pans hanging on the side to swing together - all in time to the music, you can see why!

   

And imagine animating the long-shots of the battle for Toad Hall! Two years in the making, The Wind in the Willows movie was premiered at Shaftesbury Avenue in the presence of HRH Princess Margaret. It was screened on television on the 27th of December, 1983.

A quarter of a century later the Cosgrove Hall productions are still a tribute to the genius and dedication of their creators, and to Kenneth Grahame who gave us the original world of The Wind in the Willows.


The Kenneth Grahame Society

[This page was reproduced with the kind permission of its original author Nicholas Houghton (Australia)]