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Godfrey, Roland Frederick [Bob]free

(1921–2013)
  • Paul Wells

Roland Frederick Godfrey (1921–2013)

by Jack Lowe, c.2004

© Jack Lowe / The Bob Godfrey Collection

Godfrey, Roland Frederick [Bob] (1921–2013), animator, director, and film-maker, was born on 27 May 1921 in Horse Shoe Bend, West Maitland, New South Wales, Australia, the son of Roland Charles Godfrey, a Banbury operator employed in the making of chemical blends for motor vehicle tyres. Known throughout his life as Bob, he came to England as a baby and was later schooled in Ilford, Essex, before going on to Leyton Art School. He first worked for the Unilever company, at the Lintas advertising agency's studio, as a pot washer and sketch-filer, progressing to being a still-life artist. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Marines and took part in the D-day landings, when he was injured by a Teller mine. On demobilization he returned to Lintas as a paste-up artist, but, frustrated in his professional ambitions, left to join the Rank Organisation's Gaumont British (GB) Animation, led by the former Walt Disney supervising director David Hand. Godfrey did not work with the main animation department at Cookham, however, but with the ancillaries unit in Marble Arch, London, where he helped to dress shoe boxes and other promotional items with images from GB Animation's Animaland series (1947–9), featuring Ginger Nutt, the squirrel. On 13 December 1947 he married Beryl Sonia Chapman (b. 1927), daughter of Percy William Chapman, joiner, of Romford; they had four daughters.

With the closure of GB Animation in 1949, Godfrey responded to an advertisement in a trade magazine for a position at the W. M. Larkins studio in Charles Street, Mayfair, and was mentored by the émigré director and animator Peter Sachs. Sachs insisted that his artists should be versed in fine art practice and worked on the industrial films financed by the excess profit tax, a contribution major companies such as Shell and the Steel Corporation diverted into film-making rather than in direct payment to the government. Godfrey contributed to River of Steel (1952). Though Godfrey had no animation skills he was employed as a background artist, and learned the production process by observing artists in the other departments.

At the Larkins studio Godfrey met a young technician, Keith Learner, who would later become a partner at Godfrey's Biographic Cartoons Ltd, and he made simple cut-out animations, The Big Parade (1952) and Watch the Birdie (1954). He continued his apprenticeship in animation by purchasing a Moy and Bastie wooden ciné camera on the Edgware Road, London, practising exercises learned from Preston Blair's Animation (1948), originally featuring Blair's work at both the Walt Disney Studio and MGM. Godfrey was encouraged by the experimental reels he made, and decided to become a commercial artist. Initially he made his living creating demonstration ‘talkie-strips’: essentially educational training slides for industry and schools.

Buoyed by the rise of commercial television, Godfrey and Learner joined up with the producer Geoff Hale, and the animators Nancy Hanna and Vera Linnecar, both of whom had worked at the advertising agency Pearl and Dean, to form ‘Biographic’, named after the oldest cinema in London, and meaning ‘living graphics’. Influenced by John Halas from the Halas and Batchelor studio, and the prevailing preoccupations of the global animation community represented by the International Animated Film Association (ASIFA), Godfrey committed to an ethos of making animation that allied modern art with the comic strip. In his case this was to take on a particular inflection in also embracing music hall and John Grierson-style social observation, as well as his early influences, Popeye, Laurel and Hardy, and the films of Alexander Korda.

The company's success in commercials from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s enabled Godfrey to make his own films. These included The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit (1959), Polygamus Polonius (1960), and The Rise and Fall of Emily Sprod (1961). These films came to define Godfrey's low-rent, anarchic style, using cut-outs, collage, and simple line drawings in a surrealist way, and making jokes about sex and sexual identity, class, and contemporary consumer culture, as well as self-reflexively commenting on the practice of art and animation itself.

These themes were next explored in shorts such as The Plain Man's Guide to Advertising (1963), Alf, Bill and Fred (1964), and L'Art Pour L'Art (1966), further evolving Godfrey's interests in finding humour in modern art and aesthetics, satirizing culture, and evolving the character of the ‘everyman’, the ordinary, everyday man oppressed by the absurdity and repression of British politics and society. This was particularly embodied in Henry 9 'til 5 (1970) and Kama Sutra Rides Again (1971), the latter a mock ‘sexploitation’ film, released with Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which a suburban couple demonstrate sexual positions in a deadpan unerotic style, reflecting a joyless, often embarrassing, dull existence, leavened only by good humour and private pleasures. Godfrey was to address the peculiarly British attitudes to sexual mores in later films—Dear Marjory Boobs (1976); Dream Doll (1979), made with the Croatian animator Zlatko Grgić; Instant Sex (1980); Bio-Woman (1980); and Wicked Willie (1990)—each wittily enjoying a prurient, if unreconstructed, view of sex and sexual identity, constantly pointing up the British fascination with sex but its seemingly inherent capacity to disappoint or frustrate.

Having left Biographic to form Bob Godfrey Films in 1965, at the point when film school graduates such as Ridley Scott and Alan Parker began radicalizing the advertising industry by making highly cinematic commercials (reducing the number of animated assignments considerably), Godfrey diversified into children's television, and more authorial, longer-form animation. Using the new technology of ‘the magic marker’, and a wobbly ‘boiling’ style in the hand-drawn animation, he made more than thirty five-minute episodes of Roobarb and Custard (1974) in a year; later, Noah and Nelly in … SkylArk (1976); and, most famously, Henry's Cat (1980–91) for the BBC. The last also enjoyed success for Showtime in the USA, in a half-hour slot comprising two fifteen-minute episodes.

Crucially, though, it was Godfrey's Academy award-winning mock-documentary, GREAT (1975), about the Victorian industrialist and inventor Isambard Kingdom Brunel, which properly established him as a major animation film director. Combining music hall-style songs and jokes, vernacular representations of historic events, and playful character animation, the film celebrated Brunel as a heroic failure, a British ‘type’, characterized by eccentricity, vision, and a utopian outlook, but one prone to inevitable defeat and disillusion. This became a template both for Godfrey's long-form pieces and for his view of Britain itself, later exemplified in Millennium–The Musical (1999), summarizing a thousand years of British history; the five five-minute episodes of Margaret Thatcher: Where Am I Now? (1999); and Will's World (2000), a short animation speculating on the way Prince William would view life when he was eighteen years old.

These more politicized later works were made with the satirical cartoonist Steve Bell, with whom Godfrey had created Send in the Clowns (1989), mocking President Ronald Reagan. Bell was one of a number of key collaborators who also included the scriptwriters Colin Pearson and Stan Heywood; the producer John Halas, for whom he made the Gilbert and Sullivan-influenced Know Your Europeans (1994); and his fellow animators Terry Gilliam and Richard Williams, who guested on his Do-It-Yourself Film Animation Show (1974), a series which in many ways best demonstrated Godfrey's Goons-inflected comic outlook, his artistic yet pragmatic passion for animation, and his desire to teach and facilitate others in the field. Even in his later years he remained a progressive figure in the South Park-inflected The Many Deaths of Norman Spittal (1997).

Godfrey was one of the most significant figures in British animation, but also in world animation, as an energized promoter of the form's artistic and political potential and importance. Having lived latterly in Blackheath, London, he died on 21 February 2013 at University Hospital, Lewisham, of prostate cancer. He was survived by his wife, Beryl, and two of their four daughters.

Sources

  • Daily Telegraph (23 Feb 2013)
  • The Independent (23 Feb 2013)

Archives

Film

  • BFI NFTVA, performance, documentary, and interview footage

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1970, Rex Features, London
  • P. Borland, C-type colour print, 1999, NPG
  • J. Lowe, photograph, 2004, priv. coll.; repro. in www.bobgodfreyfilms.com, 20 Oct 2016 [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs
British Film Institute, London, National Archive