Bob Godfrey was the first British animation artist to win an Oscar. It was for Great, his cartoon musical about Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1975.
The story of how he came to win it was itself worthy of a separate Bob Godfrey extravaganza. In the days before videos and DVDs, an American visitor to London asked him if he could buy a copy of an earlier cartoon of his, Kama Sutra Rides Again (1971). He wanted to give it to his son as a wedding present.
Godfrey had a rough old 16mm print, so he sold it to the American for £150. Some months later, he heard he had been nominated for an Oscar for Kama Sutra. So far as he knew, it had never been distributed in the States.
If he could get an Oscar nomination without even trying, why didn't he make a cartoon with that purpose in mind? He asked British Lion, who backed Kama Sutra, if he could have some money to make a half-hour cartoon about an heroic Victorian engineer. Yes, they said: here's twenty grand.
No doubt the top brass at British Lion trusted Godfrey to keep within his budget and bring in a film that marginalised engineering in favour of sex, politics and cheap laughs. He didn't disappoint them.
Bob Godfrey was actually born in Australia, but his parents returned to England in the mid-1920s. He started out as a graphic artist for Lever Brothers in the 1930s, advertising "soap and sausages", before joining a Rank subsidiary, Animaland, that was trying to copy the success of Walt Disney. He got his lucky break in 1950 when he was taken on by the innovative Larkin Studio in Mayfair, which was trying to combine the American comic strip with modern art. They were unconcerned by the fact that he knew nothing about animation. He was assigned to creating backgrounds, but soon tired of playing second fiddle to the more creative talents at Larkin.
He decided to have a go at making his own films instead. He bought a handle-turn camera for £2 in the Edgware Road, rigged it up on a stand, and positioned a few tin cans to light up the artwork. He would rush down to the developers with 27 feet of film, delighted when it came back in focus.
By the time commercial TV started in 1955, Godfrey had set up his own studio in Soho, Biographic, with two other artist-animators, and managed to produce a 15-second black & white animated ad for the very first night of ITV. The flow of work from commercial TV provided the financial security he needed to start experimenting with his own flights of fantasy, inspired by music hall and The Goon Show. "I didn't really know what I was doing," he said. "I just used to plunge in. Everything looked like a music hall turn."
In the late Fifties, shorts such as Polygamous Polonius (1958) and The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit (1959) came to the attention of influential film people like Richard Lester and Joe McGrath, as well as Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine, who were working in television by then. Godfrey's friendship with Lester and McGrath – he was a bit player in Help! and A Hard Day's Night, and an ideas man on Yellow Submarine – prompted Godfrey to suggest to John Lennon an animated version of his nonsense book, A Spaniard in the Works.
Lennon was keen to go ahead with it, but Brian Epstein, the Beatles manager, committed suicide before Godfrey had a chance to sort out a deal. Later, Lennon asked him to make a live action film for him and Yoko Ono called "Erection" – about a hotel being built – which he took around with him as a decoy to fool inquisitive customs officials.
It was his second adult short, Kama Sutra Rides Again, that changed everything in 1971. Godfrey and writer Stan Hayward both felt that there was comedy mileage in a cartoon Kama Sutra. He had 12 animators working on it, each one allocated a different sexual position. Among other places, coitus was achieved by Godfrey's enterprising couple, Stanley and Ethel, in a hammock, on an escalator (going up), sliding down a bannister, and on a trapeze (without a safety net).
As with all his "adult" cartoons, Godfrey simultaneously celebrated and ridiculed mankind's preoccupation with sex. After it was finished, he was astonished to get a call from Stanley Kubrick saying he wanted it to accompany the UK general release of A Clockwork Orange. "Everyone working in films knew Kubrick only ever phoned you to give you a bollocking, so when I realised he was calling to do me a favour, I nearly dropped the phone," he said in an interview.
During the 1970s and 80s, Godfrey's work moved along parallels lines – raunchy adult material on one track, quirky kids' stuff on the other. With the highly distinctive Henry's Cat, and Roobarb and Custard, whose cat-dog relationship was inspired by the great comedy double acts, he was one of the first animators to pioneer the idea of children's cartoons with an underlying appeal to adults. He said he was never conscious of making them sophisticated, though he regarded cartoons of the time such as Captain Pugwash and Camberwick Green as "really naff."
The studios Godfrey established successively in Wardour Street and Neal Street in the Sixties and Seventies became focal points for wannabe creatives, including the young Terry Gilliam, who was refused work on the grounds that he was too good. "They were full of funny, loud and desperate people who were always getting angry and walking out," recalls Gilliam. "Bob turned me down many years ago and I have respected him for it ever since."
The Guardian's Steve Bell, a sometime collaborator (The Journalist's Tale, Maggie Thatcher: Where Am I Now?), described Godfrey's work as "deceptively simple... one of the things you learnt working with Bob was how to avoid animation. He used a lot of cut-outs and newsreel footage, and he was always wanting to pare everything down. He was a minimalist."
In the early 1990s he animated Gray Jolliffe's bestselling Wicked Willie books, and in 2001 he produced Will's World for Channel 4, a scurrilous account of Prince William's love life, featuring Britney Spears. In the same year his life and work were celebrated in a short season at the National Film Theatre.
Claire Kitson, his commissioning editor at Channel 4, found his approach to work unconventional. "He made a great pretence of being chaotic. We'd have these shambolic meetings when it would appear that nothing I'd said previously had been understood. But in fact he always delivered on time..."
A renowned teacher of animation, Godfrey took his unorthodox approach into the classroom. Stick to the impossible, he told his students. Once you've learnt the rules, set about breaking them.
His biggest regret was not having produced a full-length cartoon feature. "I can't seem to stretch myself to feature length," he said. "When you look at my films, they appear to be a series of 30-second commercials cut together. I'm a short-distance man whether I like it or not."
Bob Godfrey MBE, animator: born New South Wales, Australia 27 January 1921; died 21 February 2013.