Nick Park: 'I'm like Wallace - a tinkerer'

Wallace & Gromit are a labour of love for their creator Nick Park. The much-loved Plasticine pair have almost become his children

If you wanted to explain a certain kind of Englishness to a Martian, you could do much worse than sit him down with a DVD box set of Wallace & Gromit. Note, you'd have to say, the bald, all-purpose Northerner in the knitted tank-top, with the toothy grin almost wider than his face and the love of cheese and crackers. Note the sidekick, a Dogstoyevsky-reading dog. Note the two-up two-down, the vegetable patch, the baker's van, the church tower, the endless pots of tea. And note, you'd have to add, that this extraordinary duo, Betjemanesque exiles from a lost England reminiscent of the 1950s, are made out of Plasticine. And that their fans include Prince Charles and the Queen. And that their most recent outing, on Christmas Day, attracted more than 14 million viewers.

The Martian might then be slightly less surprised to learn that adults (and children, but I suspect more adults) can now wander round Wallace & Gromit's sitting room, kitchen and bathroom. They can gaze at their wallpaper and twiddle the knobs on their machines. "It's quite worrying, really, to see it life-size," says my companion, "because it's like I'm a model on the set when I walk around, that I'm the size of Wallace."

Well, yes, that must be very strange indeed. For my companion is Nick Park. Twenty-seven years ago, while a student at the National Film and TV school, he created Wallace & Gromit. It must be quite a shock to see his student project taking over a large space in one of our national institutions. For this isn't a theme park à la New Forest Lapland; it's the Science Museum. And the life-size sets are part of a new exhibition, Wallace & Gromit present a World of Cracking Ideas, designed to "tell the story of innovation" and "inspire people's creativity".

The exhibition is a partnership between the Science Museum, Aardman Animation (the company for which Park works) and the Intellectual Property Office. Inevitably, it's called an "experience". Inevitably, the organisers keep telling me how "exciting" it is. The press officer is thrilled by the "ideas machine", a huge contraption into which you chuck an idea, scrawled on a piece of paper, see it carried along a network of wires called a "brain wave" and then collect, at the other end, a paper thinking-cap – which bears no relation to your original idea. The man from the Intellectual Property Office proudly points out a karaoke shower, a slide inspired by Wallace's tipping bath, posters about pirating (of the intellectual, not the swashbuckling kind) and a garden that is, of course, all about sustainable energy. I'm sure for children it's lovely. But what really is thrilling is to see some of the tiny original Wallace & Gromit sets – and what really is thrilling is to encounter the brain behind them.

"It's a great privilege for me," says Park, "because I used to come round here as a student because I would just love all the machines and all the inventions. I love the shapes of a lot of the objects, especially from the Fifties and before; you know, rockets and stuff. So to have my creations actually fronting an exhibition is incredible."

If Park isn't the size of Wallace – that is, tiny – he's not very big either. And if he doesn't look quite like Wallace, there are shades of him in the smiley face and (now, at 50) slightly balding head. In the commentary on the DVD of Wallace & Gromit's Christmas outing, A Matter of Loaf and Death, he talks about acting out the parts for the animators. The obvious word to use for his face – this, after all, is a man who loves puns – is, I'm afraid, animated. It switches, in a moment, from blinking shyness to boyish grin. And his arms, clutching both a coat and, obediently, my tape recorder, veer between nervy immobility and enthusiastic waves.

"My dad used to spend time in the shed building things," he says, "but I also used to love stories – HG Wells, The Time Machine, you know, those stories which were all about Victorian inventors who built rockets and things like that. I think I used to want to be an inventor as a child and I'm sort of living that out. I used to keep a box under my bed with broken toys and old electric motors." Park grew up in Preston, which became the setting (in a 1950s, Hovis, Bisto sort of way) for all the Wallace & Gromit adventures. Now, there's a college campus named after him and a street named after his most famous creations there .

Clearly, Park took his Blue Peter assignments a little more seriously than the rest of us. He even has a gold Blue Peter badge. "It must have been about '97," he says, "when I got my CBE. I remember on the news they said, 'What's it like?' and I said, "It's like a Blue Peter badge for grown-ups,' and the next thing I knew Blue Peter asked me on." So which is he more proud of? "The Blue Peter badge, obviously! That's the thing I'd worked for since I was young."

Luckily, the machines he made didn't actually have to work. When he was 13, his father gave him a camera and he started making films featuring the family's pet hen, Penny – and he discovered that "with animation, it just has to look as if it works". He went on to study communication arts at Sheffield Art School and then animation at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield. It was there he started working on his first Wallace & Gromit film, A Grand Day Out. In 1985, he joined Aardman, where he finally finished it. In 1990, it was nominated for an Academy Award (otherwise known as an Oscar), but it was another of Park's projects, Creature Comforts, which won. Park forgot to bring a bow tie for the ceremony, but made one out of cardboard. He wore a cardboard bow tie when Wallace & Gromit's next two outings, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, won Oscars, too.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Hollywood, in the form of Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks, beckoned. Chicken Run, the first film in the Aardman-Dreamworks partnership, took more than $250m. The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, the second (and the fourth Wallace & Gromit adventure) won yet another Oscar, but box-office takings were disappointing. After the third film, Flushed Away (not one of Park's), the collaboration faltered. "Creative differences" were cited. I don't, I have to say, like to think of Nick Park being bossed around by a bunch of guys like the ones in the Orange switch-off-your-mobile cinema ads. I don't like to think of Wallace & Gromit being subject to focus groups. It's all a bit far away from that English shed.

"Part of me still does want to be that tinkerer in the shed," says Park, "doing it myself, but that would take years." A Grand Day Out took, to be precise, seven years to make. Even now, with teams of animators working round the clock, it takes a day to produce about one second of footage. For The Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Park actually had to run three-week courses for the animators, introducing them to the myriad complexities of Wallace & Gromit's universe, the myriad complexities, in fact, of Nick Park's head. Even so, it sounds like one of the most torturous artistic processes in the history of mankind. Doesn't that frustrate him?

Park looks puzzled – almost cartoon-puzzled. "I don't find it takes that long," he says. "That's the funny thing. It's like painting or something. You don't actually look at it in terms of the cost. You're just thinking more about what you want to achieve. There might be a three-second shot that's going to take two days to do, and you're working with 30 animators, shooting at the same time on all these various sets. The joke, the timing, has to be just spot on and you've got to be very precise about what you want. So that's why we resort to acting it out on video."

And does he, after all that acting, ever actually feel like Wallace or Gromit? "I suppose so! Yes. I see family resemblances," he adds, "sometimes. On the first Creature Comforts, sometimes I would see a member of my family in the face. In the polar bears, actually. I remember seeing my niece." Lest anyone think that to see a niece in a polar bear is considerably more crackers, to use a Wallace word, than to see the world in a grain of sand, let them sit down, with a nice cup of tea, and muse on the miracle that is Creature Comforts: the Scouse cat, relaxing, after a hard day's stretching, by the radiator; the Scottish pandas bickering about the washing up; the zoo-bound, Brazilian-accented jaguar lamenting his captivity and dreaming of swimming in a tropical country. Above all else, these Plasticine animals, lip synched to real dialogue in a range of regional accents (and used in an advertisement for the Electricity Board) radiate humanity.

So, of course, do Wallace & Gromit. Park's father, who died of lung cancer in 2002, was often compared with Wallace and, says Park, "loved it". Park, on the other hand, has been compared with the omni-competent Gromit. A psychoanalyst might be tempted to see the two characters as warring parts of himself. Is there any of Wallace in Park? "I hope not!" he giggles. "He very much has an idea and does it, and doesn't think. He lacks sensitivity, I guess. But I suppose in terms of... well, just to make these films, you've got to be a tinkerer, like Wallace, you've got to be inventive and resourceful."

And what's it like to go from tinkering in a shed, or a basement, to lunch at Buckingham Palace – the Queen, apparently, insisted on sitting next to him – or dinner with Naomi Campbell at the Oscars? "I never thought playing with Plasticine would lead to such a glamorous lifestyle, to be honest. What's great is that I often meet Hollywood stars and they always end conversations by saying, 'If you ever need a voice...' It makes it quite easy to approach anybody, really. But," he adds, "it's not glamorous, really. You spend your time in the dark, in studios without sunlight, and you come out occasionally."

And the truth is that most of it isn't that glamorous, and Nick Park wouldn't want it be. This multi-millionaire lives on his own in a two-bedroom cottage outside Bristol. He spends holidays in his camper van. He likes watching the dragonflies and the frogs in his pond. On Sundays, he goes to church. He feels grateful, he says, as if he didn't dream them up, to "have met" Wallace & Gromit. "If you ask me what Wallace or Gromit would say," he says, "I don't know, because I'd have to almost ask them."

And do they, I ask, feel a bit like his children? Nick Park, great English eccentric, perfectionist celebrant of the English amateur spirit, creator of heartbreakingly humane gentle comedy, gives a shy smile. "I have thought that," he says. "Yes."

Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas opens tomorrow at the Science Museum, London SW7 (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk)

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

    'You need me, I don’t need you'

    Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
    How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

    How to Get Away with Murder

    Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
    A cup of tea is every worker's right

    Hard to swallow

    Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Which animals are nearly extinct?

    Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
    12 best children's shoes

    Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

    Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
    Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

    Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

    Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
    Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

    Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

    Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

    UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London