For any child raised between the mid-seventies and early nineties, the work of Brian Cosgrove, and his creative partner Mark Hall will be instantly familiar. From the adventures of a not particularly successful rodent secret agent, and the bizarre home life of a vegetarian vampire duck, to the stop-motion antics of Ratty, Badger, Mole and Toad, their creations dominated afternoon TV in a way that Rastamouse could only dream of.
In addition to his work on children’s TV series, Cosgrove produced and directed the 1989, animated adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel The BFG, which comes to Blu-Ray this week. Cosgrove recently took the time to talk to HeyUGuys about the film, as well as his other work, his views on Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and his frequent collaborations with the actor David Jason.
On watching the film again, 23 years after it was first released and thinking back to the production.
When you’re looking at something you’ve made like that, and it is back in the mists of time, in a strange way, everything that comes up, you remember it, and memories flood back of the people who worked on those scenes and the things that happened day by day, as you worked your way through it. That was a great pleasure really.
The opening of the film, one of the things we did was the lettering, “The BFG” it’s in a strange sort of star shape, and we made a model of that, about 60cm across, [with] quite deep, incised letters, in a sort of Celtic design, and we cast it in fibreglass. Then we hung it against black, and blew it up with an explosive charge. We had to go down to Pinewood to do it. We filmed it with fast rolling film, and then played it for the film, backwards. So what you get is all dust at first, you get little bits, bigger bits, all drifting in towards the centre to make the title letter.
When you see it, you take your mind right back to the time we did it. I think we had three casts. Although we’re in the business, that was quite an exciting day, to blow things up and get out the way. It brings all those memories back when you view something. You’re also reminded of things you wish you’d done a little bit better, things that you’d like to do again.
One of the differences from the general things we were doing, series work, 15 or 30 minute shows we were doing. To have a feature film that was an hour and a half is a whole new ball game, because you have a much bigger budget, you have much longer on it. You’re able to take each scene and save it. You can aim for more complicated figures. You can make things like, say the Giant’s waistcoat, you’ve got the time, as he turns around, to make the waistcoat lift in the air and flap a little bit. You couldn’t do that on series work, things have to be much simpler. So all those things, we were able to thoroughly enjoy.
On the differences between the animated version of the character, and Quentin Blake’s illustrations.
That was one of the worries I had, because – I’ve got a lot of time for the work Quentin Blake does. It’s completely different from what you’d need for a film, but he’s got the ability with a few thin, squiggly lines to put over so much. What I like, as an artist, is the way he balances all his shapes within the available space. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. So when we got the rights to make the film, although I liked them, it wouldn’t have been ‘animateable’, because they’re so personal and loose. And also because what I wanted, we were all agreed at this end, is that the Giant should be more real – the whole thing should be more real, because there is fear at the beginning. Nervous twitches here and there when the Giant comes in and you’re not sure what he is.
You wanted to heighten that somewhat, and the way I figured you’d do it is by making the Giant as real as possible. You get the reverse when you actually meet him, and the fun starts. It was a tough one. So to resolve it, I did a watercolour – I think they’ve actually put it in the new release, in a little booklet, the image that I sent to Roald Dhal, of the BFG and Sophie sitting on a table in his cave. And I got a nice note back from Roald Dahl saying it was exactly right, and to carry on, but it was a tricky one,
On Dahl’s response to the changes made by Cosgrove and his team.
It’s difficult to know what the author would like about particular little bits, here and there. All I do know is that I got the thumbs up from him at the beginning; he visited us at one stage, and we were all very surprised at the size of him. Ben Turner [an animator on the film] claims he was six foot six, but he was incredibly tall – like the BFG, I suppose. And then we didn’t see him again, because the stuff we were working on at the time, he was so pleased with. He said ‘this is wonderful, just carry on’, and then he disappeared.
When the film was finished, I had a screening for him, and some members of his family that he’d bought along in a small cinema in Wardour Street, and when the film was over, there was a pause, a silence. And then he stood up, and all the rest of the family stood up and started clapping. In any interpretation of a work, there must have been little bits here and there that he thought, ‘I hadn’t seen it like that’, but he never said that. He never said, ‘I didn’t like this’, or ‘I didn’t like that’. He looked at the overall thing and was obviously very, very pleased, which made a great impression on all of us. Having lived with the thing for about three years. We, myself and all the staff, you know the story inside out. You know the BFG, he’s like a friend by then, you know the characters so well, and to know he approved of it was a big fillip.
On Wes Anderson’s adaptation of Fantastic Mr Fox.
This is a difficult thing for me, because we went through, in the early days, with our model work, we went through the problem of using real fur. We remembered the very first King Kong film, where Willis O’Brien animated King Kong, and it had real fur on, and the fur lives. Every time you touched the fur, it moved. So you’ve got a character whose fur is crawling all the time. We didn’t like that. What we did, with the Wind in the Willows figures, we modelled them in plasticine, and we carefully modelled the fur on the characters and so on, then we cast them in foam rubber. That meant when we were handling them, and turning them and so on, there wasn’t that crawl. That was our approach.
On Fantastic Mr Fox, the director wanted it the other way. That’s his choice, but it didn’t sit well with me I’m afraid. The actors he got, George Clooney did the voice, the characters, the voices were fine. I think the story pattern too, the story board of it, the way the story rolled along, worked incredibly well. It’s just that one thing. We went down a different patch, and I don’t like crawling fur.
It’s a good story, I watched it, and I enjoyed it, but when you have gone down the road of the technical side, and you’ve been involved in those sort of things, it’s something that you can’t ignore. Well, I can’t ignore. So it’s something that disturbed my pleasure.
On working with David Jason.
When I first met David, I voice tested him for Danger Mouse. There was another actor with him. Actors come in different – personalities, really. This one was really quite loud and brash, and filling the room. David wasn’t like that, he was concentrating on the character that was on the page, and he was working hard to get inside the skin of that character, almost from the first time he read the script. I was impressed with that, and I could see that that was what he was doing. The other guy was just being himself. That’s what he did on Danger Mouse. It may be at the beginning some people said, ‘that’s David Jason’, but as time went on, in my view, he became the character, and all you remember is Danger Mouse. You don’t think, ‘oh that’s David Jason’s voice.
When we tested for Toad in Wind in the Willows… I voice tested David, I asked him to do Ratty. He did a wonderful Ratty. He got inside the skin of Ratty. And Mark [Hall] and I were very, very pleased about that, but we said, ‘we’ve still got this problem about Toad’. I was recording one of the Danger Mouse ones, and I asked Terry Scott, who was the voice of [Danger Mouse’s sidekick] Penfold to have a go at Toad, and he did. Then David came over to me afterwards, and he said, ‘I don’t want to interfere, it’s nothing to do with me, and I’ll do whatever you want, but do you mind if I had a go at Toad, just put it down on tape?’ And I said, ‘yeah, just give it a go’, and it was perfect.
What was different about it was, if you know the story of Wind in the Willows, Toad is such an annoying personality. He’s a damned nuisance really, and you wonder why those other characters in the story, Badger, Ratty and Mole, why they stay friends with him, because he’s such a nuisance. And what David did with the voice was something quite surprising for me, because what he put into it was like a naughty boy. He was just as annoying, but you felt that underneath, there was somebody that somehow, you needed to look after. And to me that sort of pinned the character down. That’s why the other three tend to oversee him, because they feel that they have to look after him, in a strange way. Now I’ve never heard any other interpretation, any other actor who’s had a go at Toad, search that out in the voice characterisation. They just do a silly, daft Toad.
How Jason became involved with the BFG.
When I did the BFG, I tested so many people, there was an old actor called Trevor Howard – I tested him. All I got was Trevor Howard. You couldn’t imagine the character he was reading for, it was just Trevor Howard. Whoever does voices for animated characters, they have to sink their own personality. They have to look for the personality that you’re trying to create, and give it a voice. A lot of actors don’t seem to be capable of doing that.
Somebody like Toad, or the BFG has to show a soft side, he has to show a gentleness, he has to show a bit of idiocy. Certainly Trevor Howard couldn’t do that, because he was cast in the hero mould in everything that he did. Stern, British, stiff upper lip type.
In each of the shows that David finished up on, I tried so many different people, because I suppose, innocently, I was looking for something that was different from the previous one, but time and again he just came up with – by the time I’d worked through all these other actors and realised there was something lacking, I kept falling back on David, and he kept delivering. On the first read through he would deliver, and it would be like – Count Duckula, for example… He’d play a completely different idiot on the screen there from Danger Mouse. Danger Mouse is very much a sort of secret agent, but Duckula’s just an idiot. David was capable of doing that, sinking his personality into what was required. He’s been a stalwart for us. I was pleased with everything he did for us.
On the prospect of seeing his creations turned into feature films.
I would love it if they did. I would love it if somebody decided to make a feature film of any of the shows we’ve done in the past. That would make me feel very good.
The BFG is available on Blu-Ray and DVD now.