Animated Wit: the work of Joy Batchelor

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By | From the Collections

To mark the centenary of the pioneering animator Joy Batchelor, Moving Image and Sound curator Angela Saward discusses one of her films – The Five – and relates daughter Vivien’s account of her mother’s life and work. 

One of the most popular films in the Wellcome Library is Halas & Batchelor’s animation, The Five, 1970. The rights to the film were acquired from the British Medical Association in 2006 along with their film archive.

Health education

It was originally commissioned by BLAT, the British Life Assurance Trust, which operated from 1966-1990 with the objective ‘by means of audio visual aids to promote the further education of the medical profession and public generally in the fields of preventative medicine and health’. A BLAT Centre for Health and Medical Education was set up at the British Medical Association’s offices in London with a representative from the BMA serving as a trustee.

Plans to make the film first surface in the BMA’s Audio-visual Committee Report 1968 minutes under the heading ‘innovation’. A story board was submitted “to persuade 12-14 year old secondary modern school girls that their feet deserve some consideration”. The film was to be funded by BLAT.  In addition, “It is hoped that additional funds will become available for a pictorial follow up as practiced by industry and commerce, e.g. a scarf carrying pictures of the main characters of the film and shop window stickers of the main characters, if a television company can be persuaded to show the film”. Later, in 1970, a note is made that 8mm cassette copies were being made to be shown in clinics, health centres and surgeries and that there was some interest by a film distributor (the Rank Organisation) to add the title to its educational catalogue.

Still from the film Five

Still from The Five

The life of an animator

Recently, the work of Halas & Batchelor, the award winning British animation studio has been back in the spotlight. John Halas and Joy Batchelor are no longer with us, but their daughter, Vivien has recently published a book that pays tribute to her mother’s art: A Moving Image, Joy Batchelor 1914-91.

A star pupil, Joy attended Watford School of Art and seemed destined to further her artistic studies. However, her family could not afford to support her through college and so she found a job. Through a series of happenstances, Joy found employment within an animation studio and later met her life-long collaborator and husband, John Halas, a Hungarian émigré,  with whom she formed ‘Halas & Batchelor’.

Vivien’s book re-evaluates her mother’s contribution in a new light by looking at the prevailing gender stereotyping in the animation business and providing thought-provoking evidence of her mother’s own views and motivations which had an impact on her career and the lack of professional and public recognition in her lifetime.

Working for the ministry

In terms of productivity, the wartime years in particular were a period of intense activity for the business, which was staffed by 15-20 people at its peak carrying out a range of tasks both artistic and technical. Seventy films were completed during this period as a result of the studio gaining approved status to work on Ministry of Information films (the government body that looked after propaganda during wartime). An example of a wartime commission is Six Little Jungle Boys , 1945. They received further commissions in the post-war period driven by the welfare changes made by the Labour Government.

The Wellcome Library has a number of examples of post-war films made for the MOI and the Central Office of Information, its post-war successor:

Vivien’s book gives some interesting context to the studio’s work by drawing on her mother’s letters, papers and memories of former colleagues. The studio undertook a number of commercial commissions (for Kellogs and Brooke Bond) and Joy is credited with being the person with both the artistic vision and narrative drive behind the work. Certainly, the studio has a very distinctive visual aesthetic which is apparent in Vivien’s book and is indicative of Joy’s fluency in drawing and ready wit. The Five has a very playful premise (dancing toes, constricted by poorly fitting shoes) and is considered to be one of her most entertaining and enduring works.

Digital Fusion Image Library TIFF File

Still from The Five

The BFI National Archive are now custodians of the Halas & Batchelor archive. Vivien is still in touch with a number of the studio’s employees and friends of Joy. The scarf tantalisingly referred to in the BMA minutes may exist as a sample (it may have morphed into a decorative linen table-covering for leaflets to accompany the film) and may yet surface as the archive is explored further.

On the 21st May 2014, The Five is going to feature on the Canary Wharf screen in London.

More information about the Halas & Batchelor Collection can be found on their website.

Angela Saward

Angela Saward is curator of the Moving Image and Sound Collection at the Wellcome Library.

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