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It's not all Tom and Jerry

The men and women behind Britain's animation boom are a strange lot. Long live the weirdos, says Steven Poole
Listen to these people talk. "I think I was quite a miserable child." "I used to spend a lot of time alone." "I had a very isolated childhood." What do you think they all have in common? Are they, perhaps, serial killers? No, these men and women have devoted their lives to making animated films. They're let out of their cells and onto your screens in a new six-part series about animation called Secret Passions, under Channel 4's Four-mations UK banner.

The first film (Wed 10.55pm) profiles Alison Snowden and David Fine, who won this year's Oscar for Best Animated Short Film with the wonderful Bob's Birthday, a poignant and hilarious piece about a surprise 40th birthday party that goes horribly wrong. These hand-drawn characters have noses like gigantic boils but remain ineffably cute, in vivid contrast to the almost nihilistic portrait of married life in the story. This is quite worrying: Snowden and Fine are married themselves. But they're not letting us in on their private life, merely admitting demurely: "I suppose there is an undertone of bleakness in our films."

Indeed, what may be surprising to those unacquainted with modern animation is the genre's elasticity of theme: an animated film can be a light comedy, or a serious dissection of modern mores, or just a weird, abstract fairytale, like Petra Freeman's Jumping Joan, which would be impossible to do in any other medium. Paul Vester has even made a film about UFO abductees, crawling with animated aliens. So it's not all Tom and Jerry. Clare Kitson, C4's commissioning editor for animation, agrees: "There is an assumption, which I have to fight against all the time, that animation is just for kids and intellectuals."

The variety of techniques used is also confusing for those who would pigeon-hole animation as a genre ghetto. Cell animation, as in Disney films, is one thing, but then there is 3D stop-motion stuff. Think of the army of skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts, or the baroque weirdness of Tim Burton's The Nightmare before Christmas. Or Morph. And these days, those infernal computer things can also get in on the act. Secret Passions showcases Ange Palethorpe's brilliant Alter Ego, which mixes live-action film (of a real actress) with fluid pencilled cell animation, and a two- horned stop-motion devil, all put to the purpose of a lashing satire on the modelling industry. (Modelling, geddit?)

Yes, animation can be about issues, too. Tamsin Gilbert dramatised her own battle with bulimia in a harrowing film done with cut-out bits of paper and pictures from magazines. But generally, probably because it's such a broad church, animation does not lend itself to over-politicisation. For example, the second Secret Passions programme focuses exclusively on animators who are female, but they all balk at the suggestion that they might be making "women's films". Says Gilbert: "I would never like to make a film that excluded men."

Well, if we're not going to be sexist, we can at least be patriotic. British animation is booming, and so it should be, with places on art- school animation courses massively oversubscribed, with Channel 4's long- sighted encouragement, and with a climate dank enough to discourage healthier pursuits. Clare Kitson generously points out that there is some very interesting work being done in France - but then, they don't win half as many awards as we do. "I don't honestly think there is a British take on animation," she says, "but whatever they do, they do it wholeheartedly and you know what they're doing."

There remains the niggling suspicion that what they're doing is a deviant activity. Animators lock themselves away for years on end to come up with a few short minutes of film, and even the most well-adjusted will happily compare finishing a work to "childbirth without the marks". Still, you don't have to swallow Freud whole to realise that any kind of artistic activity is deviant, so long live the weirdos.

'Secret Passions', Wed 10.55pm C4