Since their first co-venture in 1938, the key to the creative genius of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera has been ingenuity. For the Flintstones the ingenuity is that which translates the labour-saving devices of the early 1960s to 5,000 years BC. A gramophone record spins beneath a bird's-beak needle; a stegosaurus becomes a golf buggy; a mammoth's trunk makes the perfect lawn sprinkler. For the duo's other best-loved characters though, Yogi Bear, Top Cat, Scooby Doo, the ingenuity is that which informs the creatures themselves. How will Yogi snaffle the picnickers' basket or Top Cat escape from jail?
It is typical of the humour of Hanna and Barbera that while their human characters should be confounded, their animals always succeed. We know that Yogi will get that cream cake, Scooby round up those crooks and Top Cat foil Officer Dibble. But to demonstrate such ingenuity requires a stooge and here is another Hanna / Barbera device. As Yogi has Boo Boo so Fred has Barney and Top Cat Benny. The small guys with the 'B' names do their stuff. 'Gosh Yogi', 'Gosh Fred', 'Golly TC' they gawp in admiration at their heroes' resourcefulness. The lesson for Boo Boo and Benny is simple: you need cunning and stealth tempered with compassion.
But if the animals offer advice, Fred provides a warning. As his attempts to deceive continue to backfire, each cartoon begins to resemble the sort of 18th-century moral narrative painting epitomised by Hogarth. And just as in Hogarth, the comic image conceals harsh everyday realities.
That the cartoons themselves are also a form of deception, is made clear by this exhibition. It takes 24 animation 'cels' (individual scenes) per second to convince our slow eyes that Fred and Yogi are in motion and the faultless ease with which they achieve this illusion is testimony to the consummate skill of the animators. Believing utterly in Yogi and Top Cat we accept their wordly wisdom. Likewise, in Fred's perpetual struggle with the everyday, we recognise our own encounters with Sod's law. As his cat dumps Fred on his doorstep for yet another night outside, we nod and smile in sympathy. Then, reassured, we go out, play the fool and face the music. 'Yabba-dabba-doo.'
The Art of Animation, organised by Catto animation: Brewery Arts Centre, Cirencester (0285 657181) to 9 Apr (not Suns)