In the 1970s the gaps between BBC programmes were often filled not with trailers for forthcoming attractions but with actual short films, giving children a chance to see, among other things, dozens of delightful East European animations. For children around five years old, one of the most popular characters was Zdenek Miler's red-nosed, big-eyed Mole. He starred in around 60 charming films extolling gentle, old-fashioned friendliness, and respect for one's neighbours and the environment, and grew to be a worldwide phenomenon.
Miler was born in Kladno, an industrial town north-west of Prague. After graduating from Prague's Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design he went to work with the father of Czech animation, Jirí Trnka. Miler's first solo effort was "About the Millionaire Who Stole the Sun" (O milionari ktery ukradl slunce, 1948), based on Jirí Wolker's parable about a millionaire who is told that the only cure for his illness is sunshine, but who dies from greedy over-exposure.
Miler's most famous creation first emerged on to Czech cinema screens in "How the Mole Got His Pants" (Jak krtek ke kalhotkám prišel, 1957), which had the unlikely aim of teaching Czech children about the clothing industry. Miler hugely admired Disney, but was unable to think of any previously unused animals. He went for a walk and literally stumbled on the answer when he tripped over a molehill. In fact, the hero isn't very mole-like, with big eyes and hands instead of claws. The 15-minute film, in which Mole's animal friends help him make a pair of trousers, fulfilled tedious official demands while satisfying Miler's creative needs.
However, Miler left the character. In 1960 he made three films about a puppy discovering the world, and 1962 saw a rare outing into something more overtly political with "Red Stain" (Ruda Stopa), a film that was outwardly a plea for peace but which could be seen in more Aesopian terms, and whose imagery of tanks on the streets eerily predicted 1968.
Mole returned in 1963, but as Czech narration would hinder his international chances he uttered only exclamations and the simplest words – primarily "Hallo" – that would be understood throughout the world. Miler's daughters provided some of the voices (and the infectious laughter) and acted as a quality control department, checking that children would like the films.
Over the next few years, Mole got to grips with all kinds of technology. Epitomising his old-fashioned make-do-and-mend approach, in "The Mole and the Car" (Krtek a autícko, 1963) the velvety hero's desire for transport is fulfilled when he finds a spoilt little boy's discarded toy, while 1965's Krtek a raketa ("The Mole and the Rocket") finds him on a desert island where a friendly crab helps him to build a means of escape.
From 1968 Mole appeared with increasing regularity, and the five- or six-minute films were ideal for television. Naturally he was hugely popular across Eastern Europe, but beyond that he found his way to over 80 countries including China, India and Japan. He also became ubiquitous in books, games, clothes and even pillow-cases and, later, CDs and videos. However, Mole was unable to get much purchase in the US, despite the advocacy of Michael Medved.
The series finished in 1976 after a couple of dozen short films, and Miler developed a new series of seven films about a cricket. Like the Mole he encounters various problems – breaking his violin; being swallowed by a hen – and is helped by his animal neighbours. In "The Cricket and the Engine" (Cvrcek a stroj, 1978) he convinces the hedgehog to clean up his smoke-belching vehicle.
Mole returned with six half-hour films from 1982 to 1994. Beginning in 1995 Miler made another 20 Mole films, retiring the character in 2002. Mole had been a valuable source of hard currency to communist Czechoslovakia, but in recent years it also helped make Miler wealthy. But he refused to sell the rights, saying that to do so would be like killing himself: he saw Mole as an unattainably perfected version of himself.
But even then, it wasn't quite the end. In 2011 the astronaut Andrew Feustel manned the space shuttle Endeavour. Inspired by his Czech wife, he took a little Mole toy on the flight and Miler designed the accompanying logo.
Zdenk Miler, animator: born Klado, Czechoslovakia 21 February 1921; married Emilie (two daughters); died Prague 31 November 2011.