Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Walking through Soho with a Portfolio

Newly qualified as an Animator and with Britain coming out of its double dip recession, I started to look for work in my chosen field.

In the late seventies, most of the animation studios were based in and around Wardour Street in London’s West End, so weeks of lugging a heavy portfolio of designs, sketchbooks and life drawings began. Most studios did not have access to a projector for my diploma films, so often they would hire a viewing theatre to see my work.

Some studios may have had a letter or phone call from me first, others I decided to cold call. The story was always the same. “We’ll keep your details on fire, but there’s nothing happening at the moment.” A line I’ve had to repeat to many other young hopefuls over the years.

The seedy mews where Long Valley Films was based housed a mixture of film companies and dubious massage parlours. I was to meet Bill Sewell, who had worked on the award winning National Coal Board animated films and The Beatles: Yellow Submarine. He animated the beautiful “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” sequence. I opened my portfolio on the floor of the bohemian studio, while Bill smoked his unfiltered cigarette and his parrot looked on.

He looked at me and told me that animation wasn’t what it used to be. It was impossible to get funding for it and that however good you are at it, you eventually fail at it.

I walked back through the mews, watching the ground, wondering what to do next.

The following week I was at another studio, meeting the award winning animation director, Alison de Vere. She asked me which studios I had managed to see on my search for that elusive first break. I listed them. When I mentioned Long Valley, she went very quiet.

Then she asked if I had seen Bill Sewell.

She had been to his funeral the day before. He had died soon after our meeting.

For the second time in just over a week, I left an animation company feeling low, but I didn’t take Bill’s advice, and carried on looking for work. Soon I was picking up freelance work, and starting my own animation company. But I’ve always remembered his words, and I’ve found myself almost repeating them to recent graduates, during the current double dip recession. 

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Further along the Bookshelf: Reading at School

Reading aloud in English lessons, sharing a text with thirty other boys. Books read in class have stayed with me all my life. Cider with Rosie, Lord of the Flies even The Invisible Man.  

We also read The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. We were told to skip the chapter that dealt with Sherlock Holmes' cocaine problem. Of course, we all read the chapter outside the lesson, and it remains the most memorable part of the story to me.

Then there were the books outside the curriculum. Lots of TV tie-ins, Edgar Rice Bourough's Martian Chronicles featuring John Carter, and the other Carter, the horribly sexist and violent Nick Carter books. It's probably just as well my parents knew nothing of the contents of these nasty, James Bond inspired, tales.

I first discovered Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh while studying for O level English Literature. Officers and Gentlemen was one of my set books and I decided to read the complete Sword of Honour trilogy. The subsequent television adaptation of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited led me to read most of his novels over the years.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Books are value for money

I have just returned from The London Book Fair clutching my signed copy of Howard Jacobson’s book ‘What Ever it is, I Don’t Like it’. At £18.99 I had to think twice before handing my money over to the tiny Foyles bookshop at the rear of Earls Court’s ocean of publisher’s trade stands. £18.99 is a typical full price for a hard back, but these days you would expect to buy three books for the price of two or a discount of a few of Howard Jacobson’s smackers.

I could have bought it at Amazon for £12.34 free delivery, but the chance to have a few words with the self styled ‘Jewish Jane Austin’ got the better of me. He was just about to leave; a few copies still remained on display. My credit card was produced and I bought one. Folyes would not even honour the 5% discount to London Book Fair delegates available at their main stores. In one minute thirty seconds, Mr. Jacobson not only provided me with his inscription, but also gave me permission to be Jewish, even though I am only on my paternal side. As a Welsh born, Irish, English, Maltese, Latvian, Jewish Gentile, I’ll probably stick to calling myself European.

The last time I attended the fair was in 1990, when I also returned with a signed book. That time it was  John Mortimer's latest novel. I paid £13.99, the ‘going rate’ for a new hardback at the time.

According to the website,, £13.99 in 1990 is the equivalent of £27.42 now.

Suddenly I feel I’ve robbed Howard and Foyles of nine valuable smackers.

We can ignore the half price offers at Tescos, and need not wait a year for a 75% discount at The Works. A full price book is value for money.

References accessed 18th April 2012.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Further along the bookshelf: Thunderbirds & Dr. Who

I've always collected series of books. As a child, I bought the books by John Theydon, based on Gerry Anderson's TV series Stingray, Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet. The first Doctor Who book was published by the same company and sat on my bookshelf next to the Gerry Anderson titles.  I  had discovered Doctor Who a year or so before the book was published, on the morning my seven year old self had heard about the death, the previous day, of JFK. I was listening to Uncle Mac’s Children’s Favourites when the news bulletin announced his death, my younger brother had asked me who Kennedy was.

“Oh,” I had said, “It must be the president’s brother,” thinking that it was impossible for the President of America to have died, and brothers were fair game. How could I have realised that the equally violent death of Kennedy’s brother Robert, was yet to come.

That was the morning of 23rd of November 1963. The day several million people in Britain first met Doctor Who.

I was very aware of this new series, mainly because of the picture in the Radio Times of what looked like an old man with a spinning wheel. The image had reminded me of a cross between The Old Curiosity Shop, which had been on TV fairly recently, and a wicked witch, waiting for a Princess to prick her finger and fall asleep.

I now know this well used photograph is of the Doctor in his junkyard, with a bicycle wheel in the foreground.

Later that day, I remember talking to my friend Graham; apparently he had watched Doctor Who before; or Mr Who as he kept calling it. He told me how brilliant it was. I was as excited as he was about the way he was selling me this new series, though it sounded more slapstick than the picture in the Radio Times suggested. Graham had seen it at the cinema and told me it was funny, because Mr Who couldn’t see without his glasses. 

I would have seen the first episode that evening if it were not for one tiny problem.

The telly had gone.

My father had hired a television on two occasions, which had coincided with his long summer holidays from the University in Aberystwyth, and the cricket season. He would spend the summer listening to John Arlot on the radio, simultaneously watching the television broadcast with the sound off. I had summers of Watch with Mother, Noggin The Nog, and the Sunday classic serial. But as the evenings drew in and the rest of the country started watching more television, my father went back to work and the telly returned to the shop. I would have to wait several weeks before I would join the Doctor, mid way through his first visit to Skaro.

I did ask Graham if the first episode of Doctor Who was as good as he had hoped it was going to be.. “It was rubbish! It wasn’t the thing I saw in the cinema at all. I got it mixed up with another programme”,   

 . . not Dr Who, not even Mr Who, but . …   “Mr Magoo!!” 

 Please feel free to leave comments about your earliest memories of Doctor Who. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

The First Swallow of 2012

Summer isn't far away at our Mid Devon home. The early spring bulbs are over, the trees have greened up over the last two weeks and cherry blossom is blowing into the rapidly growing lawn. It's nearly always the second week of April when the first swallows make it home, though one intrepid bird arrived in late March one year and was alone for more than two weeks before any others returned.

Today, I spotted the first swallow of 2012. At the moment it's a lone swallow who has spent most of the day sitting on the telephone line, singing it's mixture of song and clicks. An amplified version of that familiar noise was last heard here in September. There was great excitement on that same telephone line, as forty or fifty birds lined up for their migration to South Africa. It's a shame that so few make it back each year. We had at least eight breeding pairs under our eves, in the garage, sheds and stables last year. A big improvement from the year before, when only two pairs and a lone swallow made it back to us.

We converted a barn for use as our studio a few years back. As there were a few nests in the barn, the mandatory wildlife survey obligated us to put up six swallow nesting-boxes in another shed. There have been plenty of new nests built by the returning swallows, but no take up for the nest-boxes. They have so far remained empty for five years.

Maybe this is going to be the year of the nesting boxes. A bumper year for swallows. It will all depend on how many pairs succeed in their return journey to Devon.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Grizzly Corner of my Bookshelf

There's a corner of my bookshelf for the books that have formed fragments of my professional life. Some I've illustrated, some are based on TV programmes I've been involved with, and others are the source material for animated shows I've produced.

Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids by Jamie Rix has been part of my life for almost two decades. Not only did my wife and I design the cover illustrations for the TV tie-in editions of the first four books, we also co-directed eight series of these award winning cautionary tales for ITV and Nickelodeon.

When our company, Honeycomb Animation, was moving from London to a converted barn in Devon, we took on a consultant to help us with our new project, Wolves Witches & Giants . One of the first meetings Jill had was at the new ITV company, Carlton, which had just replaced Thames.

“I’ve just met the man I want to marry,” she had said after her meeting with Michael Forte.  

On meeting Michael ourselves, Jill’s pin up turned out to be a bit of a comic, mimicking rival children’s commissioners and recounting amusing stories about his days in Saturday morning telly.

He didn’t go for our show, though he was later to inherit it once Carlton had taken over Central, who had subsequently backed us. As we were leaving he said, “look, I like what you guys do. Have a look at this book. Get in touch with the author, and see if you can come up with something.” The book was Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Kids.

After four series of Wolves Witches & Giants, we entered into a development deal with Carlton to find its successor, and seven years after our first encounter of Jamie Rix’s creations, the first series of Grizzly Tales aired on ITV. Now, a subsequent twelve years has passed, and we've completed the eighth, new improved series, this time for Nickelodeon UK, but for me, the Grizzly journey started in Michael Forte’s office in 1993, and the reading of the hardback edition of the first Grizzly collection, which still sits on my bookshelf.

Further Grizzly Tales information can be found at

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Cats: A Personal History

Coco, pictured above, is the latest in a long line of cats in the Bor household. She lives with Minnou, Harry and Josie.

Josie is the last surviving cat from our previous home. She moved with us, fifteen years ago, with her late brother Ginger and Mitzi. They joined Molly, an inherited pregnant cat, who lived in one of our barns. Molly lived into her twenties, and her off-spring still live with our next door neighbours from our previous address.

Mitzi had hated the move across Devon, and used to disappear for days or weeks on end when we moved to our present house. Maybe she found somewhere else to be fed, for one day, she walked off for the last time, never to return.

Mitzi had been inherited by us at our previous home in the Blackdown Hills. We had arrived there with just one ailing cat, Bimbo.

Bimbo had been with us since my wife and I had bought our first home in Hertfordshire, soon joined by Jasper, a large ginger cat. Bimbo and Jasper survived a move to a larger Hertfordshire home and then to our first farmhouse in Devon. Jasper died at that first Devon home, but Bimbo made one more move.

My wife was working in Camden Town, in the early 1980s, when she passed a house with a sign proclaiming "Kittens for Free". She brought Bimbo back on the train to Hertfordshire and our tiny two bedroom terrace house. We would take him to my parents house in Cambridge where he would play with my, twenty-something, childhood cat, Pussy.

Originally named Tinker, Pussy was also advertised as a free kitten. In the mid sixties, my father had seen the badly scrawled notice at the university he worked at. "Tabby cats, one with white underpants". He phoned the number on the advert and was disappointed to learn that the cat only had white under-parts. Never the less, Pussy was soon living with us at my childhood home in Wales.

How many cans of cat-food have they consumed between them? 

Out of my head

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