By Bob EgbyIf one stands on the Cookham Moor, and quietly observes the 200 year old Regency grange house named "Moor Hall" you may still hear echoes from a distant past - names like Ginger Nutt, Dusty Mole, Loopy Hare. You may sense images of bearded artists discussing stories, antics and jokes as they head to a long-gone Copper Kettle Restaurant for lunch. You may sense the lanky teenager, carrying cans of film as he runs to catch the bus. Film? Yes, black and white rushes to go to Denham Laboratories or colour stock to go to Technicolor at Harmondsworth. Echoes of the past.
It was 1948. The place: Berkshire, England.I was embarking on a life that would forever be haunted by my two years at Moor Hall - the home of Gaumont British Animation. Even my introduction to Moor Hall was peculiar.
It was early December 1947 and we were raising money carol singing among the splendid mansions flanking Stubbings Church on the old Henley Road. Two of us crooning "Old King Wenceslas." Ten bars in, the door swung open and a tall figure loomed. "Don't stop! Sing!" Surprised and embarrassed we continued. A crowd emerged in the hallway and applauded.
The next few minutes etched a vivid memory that has stayed with me for almost sixty years. "You're Michael Rennie!" I told him we had been studying film production from books and it was my ambition to be a cameraman. The lanky film actor smiled easily. "You must meet my friend - David Hand. He's making great films at Cookham." A man with a grin, large forehead and a distinctive American accent shook my hand. "Come see me Monday at one - tell Sylvia you've come to see D.H."
That was how I met D.H -- David Dodd Hand, -- pictured left -- an open, energetic broad-faced intensely positive man who spent 14 years with the famous Disney studios directing and / or supervising more than 20 successful films such as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," "Bambi," "Pinnochio," "Dumbo," and "Fantastia," to name a few.
"Best thing you can do is start on the bottom rung of the ladder," D.H. advised when I turned up at Moor Hall on Monday. "Learn from everyone you can. There's a spectrum of talent here. It's like going to University. Be a sponge. Soak it all up." He grinned. "Production needs a messenger. Thirty-five shillings a week."
The studio's Production Manager was a tall, well presented Bob Skinner who looked and sounded as if he had been reared in the Household Cavalry. He started me in production stores with colleagues Cab Smith who lived and talked music, and Robin Tuck whose ambition was to join the Royal Marines Commando. We provided art paper, inks, and cels - the plastic sheets upon which animated characters were painted. We also shifted scenes from department to department, and took films for processing to Denham Laboratories and Technicolor, which in 1948 stood opposite a bunch of Nissan huts that was to evolve into Heath Row Airport.
The Cookham studios were divided into two camps - the Animaland fully animated cartoon unit under director Bert Felstead and the Musical Paintbox unit under Henry Stringer. The Animaland cartoons included such titles as Ginger Nutt's "Forest Dragon" "Christmas Circus" "Bee Bother, and "It's a Lovely Day," all with such characters as Corny Crow, Dusty Mole, Hazel Nutt, and others. Animaland also included titles "The Ostrich" and "The House Cat." "The Platypus," "The Lion" and "The Cuckoo." The Musical Paintbox series - semi-animated and very artistic which dwelt on British culture and history, spotlighted different parts of Britain - "The Thames," "Wales," "Somerset," "A Fantasy on Ireland," "A Yorkshire Ditty," "Sketches of Scotland," "Canterbury Road," "Devon Whey" and "A Fantasy on London Life."
David Hand, (seated right) attends a Story Conference at Cookham
Studios held regularly to keep production teams advised on various projects.
The Cookham studios resembled a modern Bohemia. It formed a balance between the technology of the day and a couple of hundred artists and technicians devoted to producing animated films. Stories were written by such people as Reg Parlett, Pete Griffiths, Nobby Clark. Sets were designed by Pete Banks, Jeff Martin, Perc Poynter and backgrounds by George Hawtorn, Betty Hansford, Kay Pearce and Eric Rickus.
Animators, the artists who make characters move, included Stan Pearsall, Bill Hopper, George Jackson, Frank Moysey, John Wilson, Ted Percival, Jack Stokes and Arthur Humberstone. It was Arthur who went on to become a senior animator for the classic film "Watership Down." Another talented animator was Chick Henderson, also known as A.W. Henderson. While at Cookham, Chick wrote a tense half-hour play for radio that was broadcast by the BBC. Just about everyone at Moor Hall had their ears tuned to the radio that night.
David Hand with his cartoon directors. Left to right: Ralph Ayres,
David Hand, Pat Griffin, Brian O'Hanlon, Henry Stringer and Bert Felstead.
The Musical Paintbox team under Henry Stringer included such memorable personalities as John Woodward, John Worseley, Pat Griffin who later created his own animation film unit in Maidenhead, Pete Griffiths, Nicholas (Nick) Spargo, Deryck Foster, Peter Jay, Brian O'Hanlon, Waclaw (Wacky) Machan, Andre Amstutz, Ralph Wright and others. Wright, incidentally was an American import, having worked with D.H. on such Disney films as "Bambi." He later returned to Disney and worked on "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh," "Sleeping Beauty" and other major productions.
One of the Musical Paintbox writers was Michael Bentine, a deep thinker who only vaguely reflected the comic antics of his more famous brother, Tony Benton. Andre Amstutz is now a prominent illustrator for many children's books. Nick Spargo went on to work on Halas & Batchelor's groundbreaking version of 'Animal Farm'.and eventually started his own animation company and produced the "Willo the Wisp" series for the BBC.
The Music Director for all the Moor Hall productions was Henry Reed rarely seen away from the grand piano he had in his spacious office. I often wondered how he could write the scores for so many productions simultaneously taking place, but he did.
D.H. was an energetic task master. He always gave the impression that we were on a limited budget and time was of the essence - as it turned out, we were. Thus on many a night, lights would be seen burning in the rows of studio-offices in the gardens of Moor Hall as artists, writers and production workers strove to keep up with tight deadlines.
The initial creation of each of the "stars" -- the cartoon characters, called for "Model Sheets." Each sheet contained drawings of the characters from every angle, with a multitude of expressions, and comparing the size of the character against other characters in the film. The Model Sheets were critically important for the animation team to follow. One such Model Sheet is at left.
I soon discovered artists are a crazy bunch. In their spare moments they would draw cartoons of other colleagues. Bespectacled Nick Spargo sported a sizable bushy beard that was rarely trimmed let alone combed or brushed. Someone did a picture of him with bees, birds and moths humming around his face. A bird had a nest in the bottom of his beard. The caption said: "I'm migrating early this year."
When an artist closed his door it was the symbol of "Do Not Disturb!" Colleagues down the block would often quietly pile chairs, cupboards and cushions against the door, so that when the poor, overworked soul stepped out - all hell broke loose. The groans and laughter echoed through the corridors.
Social life at Moor Hall was important for releasing pent up stress. Dances, shows and lectures were frequent in the dining hall. Artists enjoyed fancy dress masquerades and created all sorts of impressive costumes and garbs. Young and totally innocent, I went as the Invisible Man. Chick Henderson tied bandages around my face, stuck a pair of heavy sunglasses on me, so that I could hardly see and almost suffocated. One of the Ink-and-Paint team dressed as the Brazilian bombshell-singer Carmen Miranda insisted on singing and using me as a partner.
Being a messenger reaped enormous benefits for me. Many of the animators and technicians explained their work and projects. I had a yearning to draw and several artists took time out to teach me the basics, a gift I still use today in painting. The still-photographer at Moor Hall was a fellow named Doug Imray who had an enviable darkoom, and took me through the basics of cameras, lenses and darkroom techniques, knowledge that I used later as a news photographer in Cyprus and the Middle East. I was awarded an Honourable Mention in the British Press Photos of the Year 1956 (News Category.)
Moor Hall possessed a creative enthusiasm that enveloped almost everyone who worked there. I was always fascinated with the line cameras that initially tested the smoothness of the animation in black and white before commiting to color production. The big rostrum camera that filmed the finished artwork in Technicolor -- negatives on nitrate, three-color separation stock. The name John Neale comes to mind. John still lives in Maidenhead and worked on the epic Beatles feature "Yellow Submarine."
I wanted to learn the trade, but bureaucracy in the shape of the Union got in my way. A union rep explained it. " You have to be a member of the union to get into the crew, even as an apprentice. If you haven't got a job, you can't join the union." It was a Catch-22 situation. As some kind soul said: "It's a closed shop." Interesting. Ten years later in 1958 when I was freelance filming a ski patrol of Royal Marine Commandos on Mount Olympus in Cyprus with a 35mm Newman Sinclair for Movietone News, no one asked for membership of anything.
There were characters at Moor Hall never mentioned in the film credits. One was John Milton Gurr - film editor extraordinaire. Surrounded by a fleet of Movieolas, the Cadillacs of film editing, John manipulated and synchronized the visual film with the various voice, sound effects and music tracks. There was a large contingent of very talented women who worked in Trace and Paint. Those were the people who traced the animator's drawings onto "cels" - clear celluloid sheets. Ricca McGibbon and Shirley Clemens were among the large force of special artists. The cels were then sent to the tri-color rostrum camera team, and the name Charlie Pithers comes to mind.
Another Moor Hall personality was dear Miss Freda Salberg who knew everything that ticked in Moor Hall. Her withering gaze from behind horned-rimed glasses and ceaseless attempts to bring a bunch of crazy artists into line, earned her the title of "sergeant-major."When Moor Hall live-ins had too much to drink at The King's Arms, the Bel and Dragon and watering places in Cookham, Freda would hightail it to the scene and bring them safely back to base. Next day the offending people would get harsh reprimands. But many knew her as a very kind and dedicated spirit.
Moor Hall bathed in an inventive aura. One day, Arthur Humberstone, a cool philosophical fellow, came into the stores where we kept mountainous supplies of cels and cartridge paper, and said he had a problem. They were working on "The Platypus," and needed a cell that would give the underwater impression, a simple distortion without looking obvious. "Get a cell and paint it with several coatings of film cement until it distorts," I suggested. "Then do an overlay." They did and that was my contribution to "The Platypus." The effect was also used in "It's a Lovely Day." I didn't tell them that in my own private film experiments I had done the same thing to create a ghostly, eerie effect.
It was in early 1949 that I wanted to try my own hand at film-making. Armed with a Pathe 9.5mm camera, I got some friends together and started making amateur films. The first one, a silent comedy entitled "Eerie Acres" attracted media attention and when we held the "premiere" September 14th at the hall behind the Stag and Hounds in Pinkney's Green, David Hand and a crew from Moor Hall turned up and applauded. Next day D.H. looked me up at work, said he was "impressed" and added the words: "Young man, you'll go far." It was a casual prophecy with deep meaning. When I packed my bags and departed Maidenhead, the amateur film group continued with various productions and earned a humorous title: "The Movie Moguls of Maidenhead." I like to think it was the motivational spirit I received at Moor Hall.
The personality at Moor Hall who did all the sound work was Stuart Crombie, who looked very American but was British to the core. He joined David Hand after working on the sound for the Laurence Olivier film "Henry V" and providing band music for the BBC Television Test Signal in the post-war period. If you have ever seen "Henry V" you may recall the sky becoming black with arrows at the height of the battle of Agincourt. "We had to find special sounds for all those arrows," said Stu. "After many searches we recorded the swishing sounds of long whips, and did multi-layering." He had well equipped recording studios at Moor Hall and taught me the various techniques of using a microphone. When we were finalizing our silent amateur film "Eerie Acres," Stu Crombie recorded my introduction heard at the beginning. He made it on a soft acetate disk - and I still have it to this day. Years later, while working for British Forces Broadcasting Service in Egypt, Cyprus, Aden and Germany, and later in commercial radio in British Columbia, Canada, I would often revert to a memory of Stu Crombie telling me to "talk across the mike." Moor Hall left indelible impressions. Another of the great sound engineers at Moor Hall was Pete Keeley.
There were many visitors to Moor Hall during the Gaumont British days. Cookham resident artist Stanley Spencer came in one day, as did actor Ronald Howard, son of Leslie Howard, Anthony Hinds of Exclusive Films, Richard Todd from Pinkney's Green, and Humphrey Lestocq. Then one day, a man named John Davis came in the front door. Bob Skinner whispered: "He's J. Arthur Rank's hatchet man."
A short while later, in October 1949, we heard that Gaumont British Animation would be closing as soon as current productions were finished. I was laid off in November 1949 and the entire place was closed down in early 1950. All the equipment was sold or auctioned off.
Many years later I heard that Bob Monkhouse who had worked at Moor Hall criticized David Hand for being "Disney." To be fair, one has to look at the big picture of which Gaumont British formed a small part. J. Arthur Rank or Lord Rank as he became, started to establish his movie empire in the mid-1930s with ambitious plans not only to produce films, but to get into the distribution and exhibition markets.
The war years brought severe handicaps to the struggling British film industry, in fact by war's end, over 80 per cent of films being shown in the UK were made in Hollywood. Rank sought to change that. He desperately wanted to get into the American market but realized that if the British film industry were to compete with Hollywood, it would have to be run along the same professional lines.
Among his ambitions was the idea of a British cartoon production unit to rival Hollywood. Many reports suggest Rank headhunted at the Disney Studios and attracted David Hand.
"Not true!" says David Hale Hand, D.H.'s son. "In Dadís story of the beginning of his association with J. Arthur, Dad communicated with Rank first. This was a major 'bone of contention' between Dad and Walt Disney. Walt insisted that he left the Studio to join Rank, Dad insisted that he did not communicate with Rank until he had given his resignation to Walt."
David Hand's son explained that the team of Disney and Hand formed a dynamic duo. "Dad only answered to Walt in his position as Production Supervisor of the Studio. One of his associates once told me that 'Walt was the creative genius of the Studio; Dave Hand was the pragmatic creative genius.'"
Things were not as they had been at Disney when the Studio became unionized and David Hand became "disenchanted" during 1944. David Hale Hand said: "Dad gave Walt his notice as he felt that there was a great opportunity in Great Britain. Rank liked the idea of creating an animation studio much in the likeness of Disney Studios. He had Dad come to England,where Rank put him up at the Savoy Hotel in London for six months to make up a Business Plan with which he could sell the idea to his Board of Directors."
The Business Plan worked. Gaumont British Animation was established at Moor Hall in 1946 and over the weeks and months that followed close to 250 talented writers, artists, animators, painters, editors, camera technicians were assembled at Cookham and the first films were ready for release by early 1948.
The late comedian, Bob Monkhouse reportedly accused Moor Hall of being "all Disney," was employed at Cookham as a "gag writer" but veterans say he only stayed a short while. I don't recall his presence although he did provide voices for several Animaland films. "Yes, we did think the early productions were modelled on Disney at first, but David Hand had been one of the key directors at Disney. It was a tried and true technique. We always hoped to develop a British style," Chick Henderson told me some months after the studios closed. DH never had a chance to break through with a distinctive British product. That will be left to others who will come along."
Another Animaland animator Jack Stokes, 85 and living in Maidenhead, told me recently: "We only had a couple of years in full production. A lot of time was lost on planning the first film - the Cuckoo. Once that was settled, we really moved ahead."
The ultimate demise of the Cookham studios is conveniently blamed on mounting debt, but Cookham played only a small part of that debt. To be fair to David Hand and the team at Gaumont British Animation, one has to look further afield and review the planning and investment programs of J. Arthur Rank. Rank's main credit is that he built a great British film industry by buying and creating great studios and fostering the talents of independents like Hitchcock, Carol Reed, David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. His ambition was to establish Britain as a rival to Hollywood in all fields, including animation.
As Gaumont British Animation was being formed in 1946 British cinema annual admissions reached an all-time peak of 1,635 million. A steady decline set in the following year and admissions have never again reached that post-war level. Coincidentally, BBC Television resumed transmissions in 1946 and the following year brought the Royal Wedding into many homes. Observers note that Rank failed to invest in television when the medium was becoming increasingly popular.
While David Hand and his team at Cookham were perfecting the initial films, Rank over-extended investments and operations in the United States at a time when MGM and other American studios were producing spectacular musicals and dramas. Eventually Rank was forced to cut back, retrench. The 1949 financial crisis forced Rank to sell its studios in Islington and Shepherd's Bush. An additional casualty was David Hand's animation studio at Cookham.
Faced with severe losses across the Organization, Rank brought in former accountant John Davis. Rank stepped down as CEO in 1952, and under the Davis management plan moved its total film production to Pinewood. Cookham Studios formed a small part of the massive financial crisis within Rank Empire. Had the Cookham Studios survived, it would have gone on to earn a proud place in British animated films - instead many of Dave Hand's employees went on to help build British animation history.
David Hand always wanted to produce Britain's first animated feature. His dream was short lived. That honor went to John Halas and Joy Batchelor in 1954 for George Orwell's "Animal Farm." Nick Spargo, Arthur Humberstone and others from Cookham were among the animation crew for that production. Humberstone, Ralph Ayres and George Jackson went on to work on Martin Rosen's impressive "Watership Down" (1978) and "Plague Dogs"1982. A lot of the Moor Hall crew were involved in these productions, and also "Yellow Submarine." What happened to the others?
Pat Griffin set up his own animation production unit at the top of Castle Hill in Maidenhead and had various Moor Hall folk working for him. Ted Percival said: "We did some fine commercial work there with Pat. I recall that whenever he wanted to see us, he would roll a cannon ball down the stairs - thumpety, thumpety, thump." Griffin eventually went off to New Zealand. Nick Spargo set up his own animation studio and ultimately produced Willo the Wisp series for the BBC; Jack Stokes also set up his own company, produced a series of Beatles films for the United States, but also served as co-animation director on the animated feature, "Yellow Submarine."
Andre Amstutz has become one of Britain's leading illustrators of childrens books with such publishers as Puffin / Penguin. He now lives in Tonbridge, Kent. Incidentally, Andre married Pat Cochrane, Bert Clarke's secretary in 1949-and Doug Imray did the wedding photography at Moor Hall. Ted Percival married Paintbox background artist Bettina Hansford round about the same time.
Ted and Bettina are living at Pinkney's Green, Maidenhead. He notes that marriages started at Moor Hall seem to last a long time. Andre notes that Jack Hargreaves married "Penny" at Moor Hall. Jack became a newspaper cartoonist. Both passed away recently.
What happened to David Hand?
Shortly after Gaumont British Animation was closed, the Cookham films were honored in the Festival of Britain, and David Hand was presented to the then Queen of England, who later became the Queen Mother. Since that time the films have been declared to be Historical Documents. For his work in directing or supervising over 21 films for Disney, several of them Academy Award winners, David Hand was awarded in 1984 the Winsor McCay ANNIE (The Academy Award of the Animation Industry). In 1994, The Walt Disney Company bestowed their highest award on him by proclaiming him to be a "Legend of Disney." The award was posthumous. On Sunday, October 25th 1986 I spotted an Associated Press story out of San Luis Obispo, California. The headline read: "Bambi director dies at 86." It quoted Frank Thomas, one of the "Nine Old Men" of Disney as remembering David Hand for his "energy, drive and determination." Right on!
What has happened to the 19 films produced at Moor Hall?
There were nine Animaland and ten Musical Paintbox films made in the 1948-1950 period..Earlier this year, the Maidenhead Heritage Society held a 50th Anniversary event attended by veterans of Moor Hall. The Animaland films were shown.
I checked with David Hand's son - David Hale Hand -- in the United States. His company owns the nineteen films produced by his father at the Cookham studios. Films are in worldwide distribution and contracted for release on The Disney Channel and The Family Channel in Canada. But they are a long way from being restored to theatre presentation standards.. He says of the Animaland films: "We found a good copy of the actual film and we were able to digitize it. The negatives are still in the BFI (British Film Industries) Laboratories. In order to get them into real restoration, we need to find the funds."
Regarding the Musical Paintbox films, which many believe are more "British" and reflect British history, folk tales and culture, Mr. Hand says the films have never been restored. "We have been trying to find funding to restore them, but have not been able to accomplish this."
How much would the restoration project cost? Hand says the last information he received from BFI "is they wanted about $3,000 (£1,600) for the negative copy of each of the ten films. Then Technicolor wants a similar amount to do the color restoration. Sound restoration will cost a little more. My estimate to restore all the films now is about $130,000 (£70,000)." He adds: "Though Animaland is restored digitally, that does not put them on film which would be necessary to properly restore them for theatre. It would be wonderful to get that done."
Jack Stokes says it's a pity that the efforts of David Hand and the crew at Gaumont British are not given more recognition for the work they did in animation in those early days. Perhaps one day, all 19 Animaland and Musical Paintbox films will be restored to modern-day standards and remain as a tribute, a living monument to the 250 gifted artists and technicians who cut their teeth, dreamed and created a cinematograph art form that deserves a proud place in Cookham and British history. For me, I have memories that are priceless.
David Hand Productions Today
Nick Spargo: Photo and Biography
Author / Artist Andre Amstutz
Big Cartoon Forum: David Hand discussion
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Bob Egby credits his teenage employment at Moor Hall, the Cookham Studios of Gaumont British Animation as the springboard for a fascinating life as a journalist,accredited war correspondent (Suez 1956), award winning broadcaster (RTNDA Canada 3 times), award winning news photographer (British Press Pictures -- 1956). After leaving Moor Hall, he lived in the Middle East, Germany, western Canada and now lives in New Jersey in America where he works as a hypnotherapist, sound healer, writer, and an ordained minister. He enjoys oil painting - one of his talents he learned at Moor Hall. He says D.H. was right - it was like going to a university. "The profs were terrific!"
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Note: The above feature was originally written for submission to the Maidenhead Advertiser newspaper but as the memories came, it took on a size of its own -- some 4,000 words -- too big for the newspaper. It is therefore published on the internet. If any other veterans of Moor Hall have memories (or photographs) and would like them published, send them to me.If we get enough I will set up a website devoted entirely to the Moor Hall Studios.
It's August 2006 and we have just created the start of a Crew List -- an attempt to record the names of the men and women who worked at Moor Hall. You can view it at The Crew List at Moor Hall.
MEMORIES OF MOOR HALL:
A PICTURE GALLERY
Moor Hall as it stands today. Still a great creativity centre
-- for many years the Chartered Institute of Marketing. Photo: Robert Egby
The very first of the Ginger Nutt films produced at Moor Hall was
"It's a Lovely Day" and this is a photograph of David Hand
with the team leading the production. Behind him in Bill Hopper who animated Ginger Nutt in
the full-figure scenes. Personality close-ups were done by Stan Pearsall.
(All graphics, unless otherwise noted, are provided by and used by permission of David Hand Productions. We greatly appreciate assistance in the production of this article.)
Incidentally, DVDs are available of the Animaland cartoons in 21 countries throughout the world. There's a picture of the DVD cover on the Crew List page.
You can obtain the DVD of the Animaland classics and also a biography of David Hand, in Britain: The Animaland DVD is also available through www.amazon.com in the United States, and www.amazon.co.uk in the United Kingdom.
TOONHOUND: The folks over at Toonhound.com have an
excellent wrap-around on the Musical Paintbox productions.Drop by.
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