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Carrots and the schtick

A new orchestral tribute to Bugs Bunny has amused and impressed the man who brought the rascally rabbit to the silver screen.

BUGS BUNNY - the most cynical, world-weary cartoon character of them all. How fitting that the man who helped create him, Chuck Jones, should have a few doubts about life himself. Asked what he considers the most important mistake of the human race, the 85-year-old animator deadpans: "Getting born."

The reason I'm talking to Jones (by phone, sadly - he is not well at the moment) is a new show on the South Bank, Bugs Bunny On Broadway. Tonight and tomorrow, a selection of Warner Brother's shorts (fourteen in all, including What's Up Doc?, The Rabbit of Seville and One Froggy Evening) will be accompanied by the Royal Festival Orchestra.

Deliriously hyperactive, dizzyingly self-reflexive, what all these cartoons share is a view of humanity as obsessive, self- defeating and absurd. Where did all this manic gloom spring from? Jones grew up in Hollywood, the land of sunshine and schmoozing. His home life, however, was very different. All the family had to bring a book to the breakfast table because his father demanded silence.

"My father used to say, 'It's hard enough to wake up and face the day without people babbling at you'."

So, as well as doodling in every spare moment, Jones took to books. At the age of four, he discovered Uncle Vanya. What he wanted to find, he quickly tells me, was a follow-up to the kids' book Uncle Wiggly.

I tell him that anecdote sounds too good to be true, the perfect Jones- style collision of high and low culture, but he swears that's just how it happened. He wheezes with pleasure. "Well, I didn't get any place with Uncle Vanya. I was just insulted they wrote something I couldn't understand'.

The books he did manage to get some place with were those written by Dorothy Parker ("I've read everything by her") and Mark Twain. "I was raised on Twain," recalls Jones, suddenly earnest. His two favourites books of Twain are A Tramp Abroad and Roughing It. I say I've never heard of either book and Jones gasps in horror: "Oh, they've got them in Tottenham Court Road, I've seen them there!" (What a great image - one legend poring over another in a noisy corner of London).

But what is it he so likes about Twain? "He was funny, but he never let anything escape unscathed. Someone asked Twain about the Jews once - anti- semitism was rife at that time - and he said, 'They are members of the human race - worse than that I can say of no one'."

Jones cracks up chestily.

Not surprisingly, when Jones joined the Leon Schlesinger Studio (later sold to Warner Brothers) in 1936, Twain's magic wafted into the cinema. One of Jones' inventions - the Road Runner & Wile E Coyote partnership - was particularly indebted. "In the fourth chapter of Roughing It, says Jones reverentially, "which I read when I was seven years old, there's the character and the chase I used for Coyote."

Did the Warner Brothers' heads appreciate such la-di-da cross-fertilisation? "The bosses weren't paying attention," says Jones. "They didn't give a damn what we did because the major studios who wanted features had to take the shorts."

Things changed when the animation unit was closed down in 1953 (Jack Warner thought the craze for 3D would kill the cartoon star). Moving to Disney Studios, Jones was dismayed to discover that "Walt wanted total control". Jones couldn't bear it: "Walt couldn't even draw and some very bad pictures were put out." After only four months, he snuck back to Warners, which was just being re-opened.

These days, Jones is a sacred being. The establishment has him clasped tightly to its bosom (he has received two Academy Awards, including an honorary Oscar in 1996 and has a unique, 10-year contract with Warner, signed on his 82nd birthday). But he's aware his misanthropic tendencies, his instinctive distaste for authority, could have cost him such popularity.

When I ask about the grisly Chow Hound, for instance, (which has a bulldog destroyed by the cat and mouse he has cruelly oppressed) Jones chortles, "That's a black one, all right. If all my cartoons had been that dark I'd have wound up more like Robert Crumb or those Finnish boys I love, the Brothers Quay."

Indeed, far from playing the grand old man, there's something of the sweet, libidinous nerd about Jones. When I'm first put through to him, he cries gleefully: "A girl! I'm always fascinated by girls!"

Later, I mention Crumb's confession that he had a crush on Bugs Bunny, half expecting Jones to rush to Bug's chaste defence. Instead, he giggles. "Sure. Bugs is a sex object. He isn't just funny or cute. Why would you be attracted to something if sex wasn't involved?"

Jones was also delighted that there were "very few children" when he went to see the show in New York. He's always had his grown-up fans, of course, Peter Bogdanovich and Ray Bradbury among them, but now a wider cross-section will be able to re-appreciate his work.

Just as his hero, Twain, is now remembered primarily for Huckleberry Finn, Charles M Jones is best known for Bugs. Lazy minds associate both characters with the innocence of childhood.

But as Jones would be the first to say, That's not all Folks!

'Bugs Bunny on Broadway', Royal Festival Hall, tonight, tomorrow (0171 960 4242)