“Thin at the chest and sloping at the shoulders... but nice bum,” Peter Lord tells me, not – mercifully – describing my physique, but in judgement of my Morph, the version of the children’s television character that I’ve just manufactured out of a slab of modelling clay.
While most TV personalities take an age to get camera-ready, it turns out that a professional can transform Morph from an inanimate 162g lump into a squeaky-voiced, slapstick star in just 20 minutes.
So, I asked – well, begged – to have a go myself. The six-year-old inside me couldn’t contain himself when a “yes” came back from Aardman Animations HQ in Bristol (also home to Wallace and Gromit, and Creature Comforts). And that was before I was told that I wouldn’t be competing against just any old animator – Peter Lord, company co-founder and co-creator of Morph, would be putting me through my plasticine paces.
The masterclass/duel takes place in the dedicated “Morph Memory Room”, surrounded by dozens of historic incarnations and tiny props. There’s even a hooded Morph with a spray can representing another Bristol legend who never speaks: Banksy. I’m here because Lord has decided to bring “the little guy” back. The resurrection was crowd-funded on the Kickstarter website, with £110,000 donated by fans to produce 15 one-minute films that will be broadcast on YouTube.
Morph was designed as an anarchic foil to artist Tony Hart’s straight man, first appearing on the BBC in 1977, but hanging around for decades – in time for me to get hooked in the early 1990s. But these are the first new films in almost 20 years, and Morph is as greedy, grumpy and vain as ever – and the production techniques are identical, with painstaking stop-motion animation still the order of the day. The only concessions to modernity are the addition of a smartphone alongside the cotton reels and paint pots (Morph tries to disrupt sidekick Chas’s selfie-taking), and a shift from 16mm film to digital stills cameras.
Morph is still spineless, with no armature to support his delicate frame. Lord uses his original scales – which have a little “M” marked on the dial – to measure out the raw material. And we start squeezing. All of Morph’s limbs are stretched from this single terracotta ball. A five-pointed star begins to emerge before the arms, legs and head pop out.
I confess to having pored over a diagram before my trip to Bristol and to watching several YouTube how-to videos, but it makes little difference. Lord has the hands of Houdini; Morph’s limbs seem to magically materialise with the mere swipe of an Aardman palm.
We then get to work on his thumbs (he was never furnished with other fingers, which made a recent episode of BBC 2’s programme for deaf people, See Hear – in which Morph was asked to use sign language – rather tricky).
“Out of a sense of fair play, I’m finding his nose in his feet,” Lord chips in. “It’s like serious reconstructive surgery.” The eyes are stuck on near the end and the crucial smile is carved with a wooden stick.
My Morph looks slightly squashed and confused but, apparently, I’ve done rather well. Lord tells me to take heart: a recent delegation of comedians – including Al Murray, Richard Herring, Dara Ó Briain and Graeme Garden – tried their hands at Morph-making, with “disastrous results... disastrous!”. Was Lord secretly pleased? “Yeah. Absolutely delighted.” Herring’s creation, he adds, “looked like a crack addict Morph that had caught fire”.
What’s more, mine looks so convincing that Morph’s PR (yes, he has his very own spokeswoman) interjects: “You’ve been practising with Blu-Tack, haven’t you?” (If only I’d thought of doing that). Indeed, my Morph is so darned good that he starts animating himself – falling flat on his face as he poses for the photographer, leaving him with a rather wonky nose to complement his substandard shoulders.
Later, on Aardman’s sun-drenched terrace, Merlin Crossingham, the director of the new episodes, explains Morph’s appeal. “He has a boyish charm, which makes you think, ‘Ah, isn’t he sweet’. But he’s up to something. He looks young and innocent – but not in a pre-school way. There’s a level of understanding and intelligence.”
One gets the sense that the creatives here are driven by a conviction that children deserve more than the saccharine schlock served up in US digital cartoons. After all, which other children’s show would you hear described with the words “slapstick” and “surrealist”? Which other character can count Prince Philip as an avowed fan?
So why hasn’t Morph captured hearts in the same way overseas? “Only because we haven’t tried. There’s no language involved, so hopefully it will cross boundaries quite easily,” adds Crossingham, who for the first time has also been given the job of voicing Morph’s high-pitched gibberish (he “scripts” it as he goes along).
“This time, we’ve got Kickstarter and YouTube and potentially some international broadcasters are going to pick him up as well. It’s a whole brave new world for us.”
Who’d have thought it? Thoroughly modern Morph – aged 37 and a half – is only just getting started.
The first of 15 films will be released on July 4 at 5.15pm on youtube.com/morphofficial