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35 Years of Willows - Part 1

December 27, 2018

Today, 35 years ago, at 5:30PM on Tuesday 27th December 1983, the original feature of Thames TV's/Cosgrove Hall's The Wind in the Willows premiered on ITV in the UK. I was too young to remember it or perhaps even watch it (I had only just turned 3 at the time) but a short while afterwards I discovered it on video and was completely spellbound. Little did I know that it, and the subsequent TV series, would shape my career and, ultimately, a way of life! I worked at Cosgrove Hall as a Stop Motion Animator between 2003 and 2008, completed my MA in Animation (using the series as inspirational subject matter) between 2015 and 2018, and have been a collector of anything connected with it for a number of years now.

I have a number of prized pieces, which I will post on here intermittently, but I am also planning to review each and every episode, and provide a wealth of behind the scenes material - beginning with this marvelous feature that started it all. In this first post I'll just cover a bit of history, but there will be more to come as we head towards the end of 2018.

 

This film was made at a time when Cosgrove Hall Productions (by then widely known for series such as Chorlton and the WheeliesJamie and the Magic Torch and the immensely popular Dangermouse) were branching into more sophisticated film-making, and certainly in the area of puppet creation and, most notably, lip sync. The charming series Cockleshell Bay had been in production since 1980, but with its simple storylines and limited puppet expressions it was very much aimed at a pre-school audience. Master puppet makers Peter Saunders and Ian Mackinnon, who went on to found the renowned Mackinnon and Saunders puppet making company when Thames TV lost their franchise in 1993, developed extremely complex armatures and mechanical heads for the characters in Kenneth Grahame's beloved 1908 story (incidentally, the story itself was 110 years old in October). The characters of Mole, Ratty, Badger and the flamboyant Toad of Toad Hall were to be magically brought to life in quite a pioneering way.

 

 

But how was the decision made to make it in the first place. Well, to begin with - the story was about to come out of copyright, so the timing was perfect in that sense. And it was a story that Mark Hall held dear to his heart. He loved the idea of adapting 'classics' and while Brian Cosgrove did a splendid job of creating the next 'wacky' character, most notably on the 2D side (DangermouseCount DuckulaVictor and Hugo et al), Mark was much more atttuned to the gentler way of storytelling, primarily on the Stop Motion side. Between them they agreed that Stop Motion was the perfect medium for this adaptation, not only because it provided a platform for testing their newly developed techniques, but also because it has been drawn so many times before! So many people know and love the story of The Wind in the Willows and, of course, all have their favourite illustrator, whether it be Arthur Rackham, E. H. Shepard, or one of countless others (it is the most illustrated book in history). Therefore, to avoid criticism and not try to tick so many boxes, Stop Motion as a medium becomes more acceptable because it is seen as 'real', and Cosgrove Hall wanted to be as faithful to the Edwardian period as possible. The decision was also made quickly, echoing a period in TV history long gone (it would never happen so fast now). Cosgrove Hall had just completed an adaptation of Cinderella, and as they stepped out of a screening room Bryan Cowgill (the then Managing Director of Thames TV) asked them, "Well lads, what do you want to do next?" And Mark replied, "Oh we'd like to do The Wind in the Willows" - and so Bryan gave them his blessing to go ahead and start! The rest, as they say, is history, but look out for Part 2 - which I'll post on Saturday - which will delve into how the script, written by the late Rosemary Anne Sisson, was developed and how it compared to Grahame's original text.

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