How Contemporary British TV Animation Went Off the Rails

britishtvanimation-vannorris

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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  • animatorunite

    There’s only one problem I have with this article and that’s the title, could you change it to “adult animation” as British CHILDREN’S animation is incredible! Between Aardman, Blue Zoo, Astley Baker Davies, Cosgrove Hall, Nexus Productions and Studio AKA, children aimed animation couldn’t be stronger! !!!!

    • confusion

      ‘Incredible’ is a bit of an overstatement. Granted, some of those studios have a number of projects that have some really great aesthetics, but they’re mainly for adverts and commercial stuff. The rest is mostly junky preschool shows like Peppa Pig.

      As far as being incredible goes, the only British TV animation I can think of at the moment that reaches that height is Gumball, and even then that feels more American than British.

      • Punzai

        I take issue with Peppa Pig being described as junky. It’s smart, witty and sweet.

    • Larry Ruppel

      I’d have to add Karrot Entertainment’s “Sarah and Duck” to your list of incredible contemporary children’s animation! This charming show seems to be popular in many countries, with a growing adult audience as well.

  • Chris

    There have been some animated Doctor Who projects, but they were mainly just two short David Tennant specials. Although there are a lot of well-done fan animations.

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    Arguably America was never as open-minded to this sort of thing as we wanted, though cable TV had it’s chance in the 80′s and 90′s to get it right.

    The Doctor Who series probably would’ve been something along the lines of what they did to Tintin, at least if they got the adaptation right.

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    We’ll never know, though I suppose they keep that show fresh and relevant with whatever’s going on topically in the world.

  • Cyrus Vba

    Monkey Dust was entirely a product of its time and place

  • Joe

    Dont ‘except’ us we have recently reopened and have just launched a new show called ‘PIP AHOY’…. otherwise where have I been working for the past year :p

  • http://www.tumblr.com/oheveninthedark Sh00tingstarNZ

    i have some great memories of Pond Life. I remember the episode where she gets emotional and people ask if shes on her period and she is so mad about it, then she goes home, gets creative, tries to sew a skirt out of curtains, gets all wound up that it isnt working, cries about her exes, drinks wine, and just crashes in a spectactular way. the next morning wakes up with her period, LOL> i saw it as a 13 year old and thought, what on earth? as an adult now, i can totally relate, and when i find myself looking at those curtains thinking, they would make a great fabric for a skirt, i stop to check my calendar!

  • http://sobieniak.blogspot.com/ Chris Sobieniak

    In some way, I sorta wish it had happened much sooner. We wouldn’t have had the sort of closet cases as we’ve seen in anime fandom of starting out pretty much in the sci-fi conventions and basements of America as it had been if more of it seen equal coverage on TV than to be often allocated to off-hours and on certain channels that not everyone could receive.

    And going off-topic, here’s one early recorded account of a daisy-chain tape trading party I’ve even seen! These guys were the pioneers!
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TvjajmY3yb4

  • Ben

    Aussie here, fucking LOVED the Mr Hell Show, so did a lot of my mates in highschool. I think it was on at some ridiculous hour of the night and we’d stay up way too late and be fucked for school the next day so we could watch it. So rest assured, even if the book didn’t like your show, you had plenty of fans that fucking dug the hell out of it in Aus.

    • Serge the seal of death

      Ben, thank you so much. I am very very proud that we fucked you up for school!

  • Chris

    Oh yeah, forgot about the animated missing episodes-The Troughton ones were pretty good, although the Hartnell ones have been a little ‘too’ animated, sometimes putting stuff in the original episodes that wasn’t really there or having somewhat exagerrated character designs.

  • doconnor

    The Canadian censorship probably would have been a lot less if it was on Teletoon instead of the Comedy Network in Canada. Teletoon showed Bromwell High with all the language and violence intact.

  • Beamish Kinowerks

    On network television in recent years-Community, Don’t Trust the Bitch in Apartment 23, Parks & Recreation and 30 Rock all come to mind. There’s only one great primetime animated show that doesn’t air on cable (until next year, anyway)-American Dad.

  • Lucky

    “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.” – So the US got it right, but the UK blew it? Er… what about all the US flops? ‘Father Of The…

  • Punzai

    A lot of these programmes missed the emotion, the heart, in The Simpsons. Being British myself, I found a lot of these programmes were going for “edgy” all the time and failing to realise that the reason we all came back to a The Simpsons was we liked, and cared about, Homer, Bart, Marge and Lisa…

    Plus, it was the funniest thing out there. :)

  • ksquared

    Stressed Eric did much, much worse in the “States” than in did in its own country.
    the majority reason for this is because there were shows like it, Duck-Man, The Critic, Ahh Real monsters!
    all of these shows were amazing but they go head to head with each other, and south park and Simpsons.
    there is only so much air time on television.

  • http://nachosconcarne.cartoonsdammit.com Kitschensyngk

    I found Mr. Hell on one of the Showtime channels here in the US some years ago. I friggin’ LOVED it.

    I also remember watching and liking Bromwell High and Modern Toss.

  • http://www.hdtvtest.co.uk/ David Mackenzie

    Something like that, it was produced by Nicktoons TV. I seem to remember the family that got to ‘star’ in the show was the winner of a contest.

    You could tell from the outset it would fail.

  • mick

    Ben and Holly is wonderfully British and always makes me laugh.