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The Story Of British Animation by Jez Stewart [Book Review]

Surprisingly, as author Jez Stewart notes in his introduction there has never been a book written on the history of British animation. Specific filmmakers, films or studios may have been the subject of publications but never on the UK animation industry as a whole. The Story Of British Animation is finally that book.

As the curator of animation at the British Film Institute, Stewart is uniquely qualified for the job. The book is part of BFI's British Screen Stories line, and is published by Bloomsbury.

The book is exactly as described by the title, a chronological recounting of the century-plus existence of British animation. The precise beginning of that history is a little fuzzy, as many of the earliest films have been lost. There have even been claims that the earliest animation anywhere came from the United Kingdom, although evidence to support that is lacking.  

The early days of the art form in the country are explored in more detail than we've seen before- especially the years prior to the World Wars. It highlights many artists and filmmakers who were part of the early industry who rarely (if ever) have had their contributions to the development of animation recognised.  Stewart's access to the BFI archives allows him to explore this largely overlooked era in impressive detail. In fact, more than half the book is dedicated to the first half of the twentieth century.

As the book goes on, it begins to get into what will be much more familiar territory- for a British audience at least. It's more likely to discuss titles that readers will at least have a passing familiarity with. From the sixties on, films and series such as Yellow Submarine, Bagpuss, The Clangers and Monthy Python are part of Britain's cultural fabric.

Still, Stewart uncovers many lesser-known works as well and offers expert insight into the more famous works and the stories behind them. It explores the arrival of television offered new opportunities for animators, while in the theatrical market they were being crowded out by American imports.

The UK industry has always lived in the shadow of the much larger US industry, and the book is honest about how local animators could not compete with the larger budgets and much greater resources. However, he also notes how the British animation industry was able to do some impressive things with much more modest means, and how it was such limitations that allowed stop-motion to flourish.

Stewart also recognises that the UK industry does not exist in a vacuum, and he explains how it has related to the industries in other countries. Most notably the fact that without Hollywood funding, many of the most iconic animated features from Animal Farm to Chicken Run could not have been made.

It also celebrates foreign-born animation artists that have been part of the industry in Britain, for at least some of their career. Groundbreaking figures such as Richard Williams, Lotte Reiniger and Len Lye all played their parts.

Books with such a lot of ground to cover are always going to have limitations. Covering the entire history of British animation in 192 pages is a big ask, so it was never going to be as detailed as a book focusing on a more specific area.

If your primary interest is in more contemporary animation then you may be disappointed- it's not until well past the 100-page mark that Aardman even gets a significant mention. Discussion of animation in the 21st century is even brisker. It might be surprising that big players like Aardman or Small Films or Cosgrove Hall don't get at least a chapter of their own, but that's not the kind of book that is.

For a complete historical overview though, this is an excellent read. The style is accessible to the casual reader with an interest in the topic, but is still sufficiently detailed and full of fascinating facts to be of interest to the animation expert or student.

The Story Of British Animation is recommended reading to those interested in the history of animation, whether you are based in the UK or not.