Wallace & Gromit: A World of Cracking Ideas
The inventions in Nick Park's films are as memorable as the characters. John Walsh sees science and Plasticine in perfect harmony
Wednesday 01 April 2009
Take the lift up two floors at the Science Museum, go through some doors and a feeling of déjà vu envelops you. You have (surely?) been here before. A metal arch says: WELCOME. An old-fashioned red telephone booth holds cards for the "Wash 'n' Go" emergency cleaners, and the "Anti-Pesto" rat-infestation service. Before you is a pleasant, terraced house of 1930s brickwork with an inoffensive, suburban feel to it, compounded by a goldfish pond (and a plaster gnome with fishing-rod) in the garden. You recall a moment in the past when you watched the goldfish pond rotate through 180 degrees to become a cinder track, across which a motor-bike-and-sidecar combination roared off in search of employment. Remember? The intrepid travellers in the bike-and-sidecar were a certain cheese-loving inventor in a knitted waistcoat, and his faithful, quizzical-browed dog...
The dwelling before you is Number 62 West Wallaby Street, the home of Wallace and Gromit. The Science Museum has constructed a £2m life-size replica of their hi-tech home to inspire a generation of young boffins. They launched the "interactive experience" (Wallace & Gromit Present a World of Cracking Ideas, due to run until November) at the museum last week, with speeches by David Lammy, Intellectual Property minister, and Nick Park, who created Wallace and Gromit in the 1980s and has so far won four Oscars for portraying their adventures in stop-motion animation. The plan is to interest children in coming up with new ideas, and to tell them how they can protect their valuable notions from being pinched.
Nick Park explains that he used to visit the Science Museum when he was a student at the National Film School in Beaconsfield. "I came to look at old rocket technology," he says. "I loved the Victorian technology, their steam engines, the heavy metal and rivets. I loved anything to do with rivets." He had all the instincts, if not the actual expertise, of an inventor from an early age.
People sometimes forget that Park's immortal creation Wallace is an inventor. His obsession with cheese, his frequent tea-breaks in his comfy chair, his steamy-but-hopeless courting of English roses such as Wendolene (in A Close Shave) and Lady Campanula Tottington (in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) can sometimes hide his ingenuity as an engineer-cum-designer-cum-technician.
A new book, Wallace and Gromit: Grand Adventures and Glorious Inventions, reminds us of some Wallace highlights. Like the bulbous moon rocket he builds in A Grand Day Out (from, you'll be interested to know, "Old shed doors, sheet metal, rope, rocket fuel, nuts, bolts, greenhouse glass and electric circuitry"); the BunVac 6000, a device for sucking bunnies out of their holes; the 525 Crackervac vacuum cleaner with the "nose" for dirt; the Techno Trousers, which can stomp up the side of buildings and across ceilings, but which are stolen by the evil penguin, Feathers McGraw, in The Wrong Trousers. The Get-U-Up trapdoor through which a slumbering Wallace slides in his pyjamas, to land, attired in knitwear and pants, at the breakfast table; the Knit-O-Matic in A Close Shave, which was turned into a mutton-mincer by the scary robo-dog Preston; not to mention the Bowl-o-matic cricket-ball flinger, the Hover-Boots for walking with confidence across pond or frozen lake, the Porridge Gun, the Anti-Pesto van with its own robot-hand crankshaft-turner...
The Science Museum has not attempted faithful reconstructions of the above (a shame – a real-life, working Techno Trousers complete with remote control, would send all small boys into a paroxysm of joy) but has devised interactive games and "experiences" inside the Wallace house to encourage visitors to try their hand at inventing something. Among the games is a drainpipe slide which whizzes you from the upstairs bath to the garden below; the Karaoke Disco Shower, in which you can sing, get clean and be admired doing both things by screen-watching pals; the "Tellyscope II" which asks young visitors to throw bean bags at a target: if they get three bulls'-eyes, a television set comes trundling out of the wall. I liked the Read-O-Matic, a kind of deconstructed electronic book: instead of reading from a flat-screen and pressing a button to turn a page, this device turns a handle which brings up six consecutive pages of the book you're reading – in the exhibition, it's a copy of the cheese-loving Wallace's timeless classic, Cheddar Island...
Children will love the splatter guns that are used to create an on-screen "smoothie", the Plasticine with which they can make their own animated characters, and the display of Half-Baked Ideas in the kitchen: they include a glass hammer (ie one actually made of glass); a chocolate teapot; a hot-water bottle made of ice; and a dog bowl made of dog biscuits. Also irresistible is a range of contraptions in the exhibition shop: like the Freeloader Extendable Fork, which can be used to spear food from a neighbouring table; or the Motorised Ice Cream Cone, which turns your ice-cream automatically while you lick, thus avoiding drips.
Amid all the fun, however, two serious points are made and rammed home again and again. One is the phenomenal successfulness of the British inventor, from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Barnes Wallis (after whom, says Park, his Wallace is not named) and beyond to Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the worldwide web: some of them were bluff pragmatic men in stove-pipe hats, some of them pipe-smoking eccentrics in garden sheds; others were rarified intellectuals in white coats. The Science Museum celebrates their works alongside Wallace's Hat-Switching Barometer. "Wallace's Top 20 Ideas" include the "Puffing Billy", the world's oldest surviving steam locomotive built by William Hedley in 1813; the Bell & Howell cine projector, precursor of a billion camcorders, made in England in the 1950s; and the Massey-Ferguson combine harvester thresher, built in Kilmarnock, which revolutionised agricultural practice worldwide in the 1950s and 1960s.
World-shaking innovations from the Science Museum's permanent collection are also on proud display: the 1868 Cleopatra chain-stitch sewing machine; the 1926 Ethodyne broadcast receiver, a dismayingly complicated early valve radio; the first perforated lavatory paper; the first Post-It note; the zip-fastener (originally known, in 1851, as "the Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure").
The second serious issue is copyright. Alongside Aardman Animations and SGA Productions, who designed the exhibition, the main sponsor is the Intellectual Property Office, a wing of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, which oversees the shadowy world of copyright, patents, designs, trademarks and the like. For a government cell operating with such abstractions, the IPO is a lively outfit who've been using the Wallace & Gromit image to launch a campaign to help innovators understand the importance of copyright.
The W&G exhibition is festooned with posters warning against patent piracy and the stealing of ideas. Perhaps worried that the language of their posters might go over the heads of young visitors ("Registering your trade mark means protecting your brand's value and reputation"), they employ other kid-friendly strategies to explain intellectual copyright. Posters on the walls of Gromit's kitchen remind visitors that the youngest-ever inventor was one Sam Houghton, 5, who watched his father sweeping up leaves and noticed that he used two brooms, one for the heavy leaves, one for the smaller bits left behind. The boy tied two brooms together with elastic bands – and the Improved Broom System was born. His father worked as a patents attorney and convinced the IPO that Sam's idea was "unique" and had "a clear purpose" – the two criteria for granting a patent. Now, while still in short trousers, Sam holds Patent No 2438091, giving him sole control over the Improved Broom for 20 years.
Had Nick Park ever suffered from patent infringement? "I sometimes see what looks like piracy – characters who are very like Shaun the Sheep – turning up. Personally, I feel flattered by the imitation. And when people say I should take action, I tend to say, 'It's hard to patent or copyright a sheep. Or a dog.' Has someone ripped off my robotic monster? Yes, but I probably got the idea from The Beano, or from HG Wells." He's been alerted many times to the apparent similarities between Wall-E, the lonely Earth robot that was a smash hit for Pixar studios last year, and the lonesome oven on the moon in A Grand Day Out. "People say, 'It's a robot! It collects things!' but I just think, 'That's the way things go'; we're probably copying other people in the past."
Despite his cavalier approach to patent protection, Park is happy to collaborate with the IPO, to pass on a vital fact about inventions. "We at Aardman and the IPO are trying to teach people that everything around you – this cup, that chair – has been thought up by someone. We're trying to teach people about ownership – the fact that somebody somewhere has created it."
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