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How Contemporary British TV Animation Went Off the Rails


Book Review:
British Television Animation 1997-2010: Drawing Comic Tradition
By Van Norris
(Palgrave Macmillan, 244 pages, $90)
Order: $85.50 on Amazon

Over the past quarter-century, countless broadcasters have hoped to find “the next Simpsons.” In America this drive led to such well-received series as South Park and Family Guy, but things were different in Britain. Past attempts to create a British Simpsons (or later, a British South Park) include Crapston Villas, Pond Life, Bob and Margaret, Stressed Eric, Aaagh! It’s the Mister Hell Show, 2D-TV, Monkey Dust, I Am Not an Animal, Modern Toss, Popetown and Bromwell High, but none of these achieved the popular success of their best-known American brethren. What went wrong?

Van Norris’ new book British Television Animation 1997-2010: Drawing Comic Tradition is dedicated to UK adult comedy cartoons of the post-Simpsons era, and attempts to answer exactly that question.

Norris posits that the years from 1997 to 2010 constitute a third wave of British TV animation. The first wave began with the arrival of commercial UK television in 1955, while the second started in 1979 following the Seventies experimental animation boom. According to Norris’ framework the third wave started in 1997, around the time that Channel 4 and the BBC moved away from experimental animation and towards more commercially viable works influenced by American series.

These eras also correspond to changes in Britain’s political landscape: the second wave spanned the Conservative governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, while the third encompassed the Labour regimes of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This is no coincidence, as one of the main themes of the book is how comedy reacts to current affairs.

Norris charts how everything from music hall traditions to the cartoons of Bob Clampett fed into millennial UK animation, but his main concern is how series such as Monkey Dust fit into the wider British satirical landscape. Throughout the book Norris alternates between fascination with the workings of specific series, which he analyzes (and occasionally overanalyzes) at length, and frustration with the shortcomings of the third wave as a whole.

The author contrasts millennial animation with the “alternative comedy” of Eighties Britain, which developed in opposition to Thatcherite conservatism. Anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-classist, it acted as antidote to the stereotype-laden comedy typified by Benny Hill and Bernard Manning.

Millennial British comedy, as described in the book, is more fragmented in its social commentary. A key reason for this is the notion of political correctness, which Norris portrays as a vague but nonetheless influential concept. He describes third wave British animation as being post-politically correct (rather than politically incorrect) and notes the often muddled results of this: opposition to political correctness has created the curious scenario whereby comedians can portray the ridicule of minority groups as an anti-establishment act.

A major problem with twenty-first century British comedy, argues Norris, is an obsession with courting the lowest common denominator through nostalgia. He portrays live-action sitcoms such as My Family as regressing to a state of 1970s blandness, and chides animated series such as Monkey Dust for dredging up hoary old stereotypes under the guise of ironic commentary. While approving of individual series, Norris condemns the third wave of British TV animation as being ultimately too backward-looking to say anything worthwhile about the world.
The book concludes by predicting an era of ongoing fragmentation: a fourth wave in which animation leaves the mainstream and scatters across the recesses of the Internet.

British Television Animation 1997-2010 makes a good companion volume to Prime Time Animation: Television Animation and American Culture edited by Carol Stabile and Mark Harrison. While Stabile detailed the success stories behind the likes of The Simpsons and South Park, Norris demonstrates how things all went a bit wrong elsewhere.

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