The Christmas animation: A brief history

It’s a festive tradition, Gromit!

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A curious thing was posted on the official BBC One twitter account at the beginning of the month: a TV schedule. This may not immediately seem strange, given that it’s a TV channel; but given our TV-watching habits are now so disparate and off schedule, so on-demand, to see a channel excitedly claim, “This is what we’re putting on, and this is when we’re doing it!” felt quite antiquated.

And yet, it being Christmas, it made sense. We still get excited about Christmas TV. And what actually defines that TV? Inarguably, the answer is animation.

One-off animated specials are integral to the Christmas schedule. This year, BBC One have a new version of Watership Down on 22 December, as well as the latest Julia Donaldson adaptation, Zog, on Christmas Day. Zog follows in the tradition The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child, and Room on the Broom, the three other Julia Donaldson adaptations, all produced by Magic Light Pictures, which had Christmas Day screenings in 2009, 2011, 2012 respectively.

Follow the BBC’s thread further backwards and you’ll recall Robbie the Reindeer, the Richard Curtis animation that had three specials in 1999, 2002, and 2007, and of course, Wallace and Gromit, who became fixtures of Christmas in 1993 with The Wrong Trousers, before following up with A Close Shave (1995), A Matter of Loaf and Death (2008), and, in 2015, spin-off Shaun The Sheep The Farmer’s Llamas. (The first one, 1989’s A Grand Day Out was broadcast at the end of November.)

It’s not just a BBC thing, either. In fact, the first big Christmas animation came with the arrival of Channel 4 in 1982, with their adaptation of Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman. Through a partnership with Lupus Films, similar to the one the BBC have with Magic Light, they have more recently put out a Snowman sequel, The Snowman and The Snowdog in 2012, as well as Michael Rosen adaptation We’re Going On A Bear Hunt in 2016. Earlier this year Lupus announced they were currently working on an adaptation of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea; a broadcast date hasn’t been announced, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if it was announced as one of Channel 4’s flagship offerings next Christmas.

So where does this association of animation and Christmas come from? After all, the gap between transmission dates of The Snowman and The Wrong Trousers is eleven years, and it’s only after the latter that we begin to see this trend pick up speed.

Justin Johnson, lead programmer at the BFI, which has been celebrating animation all year with its Animation 18 season, suggests that it might be the result of the cumulative, nostalgic effect of Christmas TV: “The good thing about Christmas fare is, if it’s good and it works, you can keep bringing it out year after year, and people want to see it: they want to have that festive nostalgic moment. There’s an event moment where when the new one is unveiled, and you can go back and look at the other ones.” This is true across other art forms too, where a tangential association with Christmas is enough to build those links in our mind: by way of example, see the case of East 17 adding sleigh bells to Stay Another Day to try and game the Christmas music charts.

What’s interesting about Aardman Animations, responsible for the likes of Wallace and Gromit and Chicken Run, is how its particular style of animation links in with a pre-existing notion of what British animation is, or looks like, perhaps even directly referencing shows that audiences would already be familiar with. Dr Christopher Holliday at King’s College London explains: “Aardman's work is perhaps closest to the work of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin's Smallfilms, who produced children's television programmes from the 1960s to the 1980s. Shows such as The Clangers, Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss were all created using the stop-motion style, and as such all exhibit that prized jerkiness of such animation being moved by hand shot-by-shot: precisely the kind of contact that many purists see as being lost in the digital era.”

Even given the fact that the Julia Donaldson adaptations are CGI, some of the hallmarks and qualities of Aardman and Smallfilms are present in the films: the Britishness of the casts, the non-verbal communication, even the look of the films has a tactile, hand-made quality to it.

The ratings war between the channels has always escalated at Christmas. With the BBC in particular, much of its annual budget is ring-fenced specifically for the Christmas schedule. Given that animations are so expensive and time-consuming to make, it’s also one of the rare occasions where children’s programming is funded by the main channel.

At the same time, they’ve proven over three decades now to be a safe bet. With stop-motion animation in particular, there’s a kind of recognisable, DIY aesthetic to it that chimes in with exactly what happens on Christmas Day in houses all over the world: putting stuff together, trying things out, breaking things, fixing them. It’s the magic of film, but it doesn’t hide from you how the trick’s being done. Even as the technology has advanced, the stories being told remain very close to home, either through those stories being already known and loved, or if they’re new, through them representing a kind of Britishness that feels very recognisable. In the case of a character like Wallace, you’ve got someone who is a genius inventor, but whose inventions have that mechanical, Mouse Trap kind of quality to them. In fact, it’s not a stretch to see comparison between Wallace and Oliver Postgate himself, both brilliantly creative, affable British eccentrics who epitomise a kind of DIY, bottom-of-the-shed approach to making things: the only difference is that one is most associated with a dog, and the other a cat.

The British film industry is represented by a series of archetypes – James Bond, the 90s rom-com, social realism – and all of them in their own right can lay a claim to define what this country produces on screen. However, animation is just as, if not more important. “British animation is, in many ways, the history of animation,” says Holliday. “Many of the earliest animators, cartoonists, caricaturists and performers working at the turn of the nineteenth century at the birth of the medium, and throughout the silent era, were British.” It’s also true that much of this animation has had its home outside of the theatres, in public information or educational films, commercials – such as the General Post Office adverts of the 1930s, made by New Zealand born animator Len Lye, who moved to the UK in the 1920s – and of course, TV.

So it’s fitting that this tradition of animation has found a permanent home every December, at a time when we are still beholden to the TV schedule. Nothing lasts forever; but for the time being, it doesn’t seem to be moving anywhere.