Not all heroes wear capes, some are more likely to put on the wrong trousers and ask their dog if he wants ‘more cheese’. Harry Pearson meets Wallace and Gromit, two of our best-loved Plasticine characters.
The late, great humourist Miles Kington had a list of things in Britain no one ever says a bad word about — steam engines, Morecambe and Wise, the Settle-Carlisle Railway among them. Were he around today, Kington would surely have added the names Wallace and Gromit to his list. The hapless Plasticine heroes are so universal it surprised nobody when The Queen told schoolchildren that the cheese-fixated duo are her husband’s ‘favourite people in the world’.
‘Wallace and Gromit have been around all my life, they give everyone a lovely warm, nostalgic feeling,’ enthuses Emma Stirling-Middleton, the curator of an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum, London W1, devoted to the dynamic duo’s second screen outing, The Wrong Trousers. Regarded by critics as one of the pinnacles of British cinema, the film is celebrating its 30th birthday. A huge slice of Wensleydale is surely in order.
‘We have original sketches, scripts, the equipment used to make the film, sets, equipment, props, the whole spectrum,’ Ms Stirling-Middleton adds. ‘We even have the Oscar the film won in 1994.’
And, of course, there are the stars of the show: Wallace, Gromit and their would-be nemesis, Feathers McGraw, a sinister penguin jewel-thief, who disguises himself as a hen by wearing a rubber glove as a hat. ‘I love penguins,’ creator Nick Park explains, ‘but I wanted to cast one against type. A penguin is a very unlikely villain.’
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That Feathers McGraw is widely acknowledged to be one of the most evil baddies in cinematic history is largely down to the work of Steve Box, the only animator apart from Mr Park who worked on the 30-minute epic. Drawing on influences such as Mrs Danvers from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 screen adaptation of Rebecca, Mr Box created a figure that’s menacing, silent and achieves a lot despite doing very little.
‘One of the many amazing things about The Wrong Trousers, is that, of the three characters in the film, only one of them speaks,’ points out Ms Stirling-Middleton. Well, verbally, anyway. Both Mr Park and Mr Box are fans of silent comedy. Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton were big influences — as, of course, were Laurel and Hardy. ‘Oliver Hardy can convey volumes with a single look,’ attests Mr Park. Likewise, the viewer feels that Gromit — who, in early experiments had a mouth and a growly voice — could do the soliloquy from Hamlet with only his ears and eyebrows.
Such fluent communication did not come easily or quickly for the 12 film-makers involved in making The Wrong Trousers at Aardman Studio. In childhood, Mr Park began making stop-motion animated films with Plasticine models using a cine camera that belonged to his father — a Lancastrian architectural photographer with a side line in DIY inventions (sound familiar?). As in that early work, all Mr Park’s characters are posed and reposed frame-by-frame. The protagonists in The Wrong Trousers are made from a mix of old-fashioned British Plasticine, shinier, brighter American modelling clay and beeswax, with dental wax added for sheen and hardness.
They are sculpted around metal armatures — their skeletons — which facilitate movement and prevent Wallace’s middle-aged body from sagging too much after a day under the hot studio lights. And he and his fellow actors do spend a lot of time on set. Stop-motion is time-consuming, precise and painstaking. Every syllable Wallace speaks is individually animated. Every Gromit eye roll to camera (his eyes are made from beads with a hole drilled in them so they can be moved using a paper clip) involves hours of precise delicate work. Using stop-motion, a full-day’s labour on set often amounts to 1–2 seconds of film.
Mr Park believes all the extra effort involved with stop-motion is worth it. ‘Unlike standard cartoon animation, with stop-motion you are actually making a real film in miniature — with sets, painted backdrops, lighting and different camera angles,’ he explains. ‘I wanted The Wrong Trousers to look like a mini feature film, a heist B-Movie with nods to Hitchcock.’
Mr Park succeeded admirably, aided by a superbly atmospheric score from Julian Nott, who drew on the work of Hitchcock’s favourite composer, Bernard Herrmann, to create a soundtrack that is full of lurking danger. The music plays it straight to magnify the comedy. There is plenty of that, of course, in a story (co-written by Bob Baker, the man who created robot dog K9 for Doctor Who) that begins with Wallace giving Gromit a pair of techno-trousers — a homage to another of Mr Park’s inspirations, they are based on the spacesuits worn by Tintin and Co in Herge’s Explorers on the Moon — and climaxes with a thrilling and hilarious chase sequence on a model train set that concludes with the outlaw penguin trapped in a milk-bottle.
It’s filled with brilliantly comic set pieces and visual gags, all complemented by the laconic, understated delivery of Peter Sallis. The late star of Last of the Summer Wine had agreed to voice Wallace (the name, incidentally, was appropriated from a black labrador Mr Park encountered on a bus near his childhood home in Preston) in Mr Park’s first feature A Grand Day Out — begun when he was a student — in return for a £50 donation to his chosen charity.
According to Ms Stirling-Middleton, it is Mr Park and the Aardman team’s attention to the details that gives the film its longevity. ‘Every time you watch it, you see something new in the background that makes you chuckle,’ she observes. ‘Whether it’s Gromit’s bone-patterned wallpaper, a newspaper called The Daily Beagle with the headline “Sheep Found Guilty” or Gromit’s little library of books.’
Shot at Aardman Studios in Bristol with a tiny crew and an even smaller budget, The Wrong Trousers was completed in a year. It is a film powered not by money, but by ideas and enthusiasm, which is surely a big part of its appeal. It has a homespun and very British sensibility. Gromit isn’t the only underdog in this picture.
The Wrong Trousers premiered on the BBC on Boxing Day 1993 and it’s been shown almost every Christmas since. Along the way, it has become as much a part of the festive fun in Britain as crackers, turkey and a toy you find you don’t have the right size batteries for.
Mr Park is as pleased as he is amazed by its enduring popularity and success. ‘It’s incredible. Because, most of the time, I still feel like a student with this silly idea.’
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