In this extract from Curious Crouch End, we discover the animation studio that brought some of the all-time British TV children's characters to life.
The sturdy, anonymous villas of Womersley Road hold a secret — magic was once made here, animations which entranced and delighted, involving craft and innovation of high order.
For 15 years or so, two adjoining houses welded into one were home to one of the most prolific and successful partnerships in animation. Windy Miller, Captain Pugwash and Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew all came to life in Crouch End.
Bob Bura and his long-time collaborator John Hardwick started working together in the 1950s at the BBC's legendary Lime Grove studios in Shepherds Bush. They worked initially with 'live action' puppets.
When that became a little dated, they moved to 3D animation. Disney led the world in flat, 2D animation but the British (along with the Romanians) were the best at 3D, where puppets and models move infinitesimally frame-by-frame to create an action sequence.
In the mid-1960s, Bura and Hardwick took over adjoining Womersley Road properties — indeed between them they owned 35, 37, 39 and 39A. They knocked through a door-sized hole in the wall between 37 and 39 on the ground and first floors to give them the space required for the most ambitious of their animations. They developed something new in the animation world: stop-motion films. Stop Motion became the name of their company, where each frame represents a tiny movement of a puppet or object.
It sounds simple: of course, it isn't. And in perfecting stop-motion animation, Bura and Hardwick were also improvising and innovating.
Cameras had to be adapted so instead of running continuously, the shutters exposed one frame at a time, rather than 24 per second. The background would often be animated too using a specially-adapted surface consisting of millions of tiny beads which, a bit like cat's eyes in the road, reflected light back brightly at a very narrow angle. The front projection equipment had to be modified, in order that a single frame of film would not melt if held in the gate for a long time.
"An eight-second sequence could take four to six hours to film," says Peter Phillipson, who started working at the Womersley Road studios while still a teenager and is now a leading lighting designer. "You had to give it absolute concentration. For example: if, during a sequence animating the background, whilst making the dialogue of a story light up, adjusting the tracking of the camera and the movement of the puppets simultaneously, a slight lapse in concentration occurred, due to, say, a phone ringing, then you would have to start again from scratch."
Camberwick Green, featuring Windy Miller and his fellow villagers, went on air in 1966, about the time Bura and Hardwick moved into Womersley Road. That was followed by Trumpton (who can forget firemen Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb?) and Chigley. These are known collectively as the Trumptonshire trilogy, devised and produced by Gordon Murray and written by children's author Alison Prince.
While those are the programme names which lodged with both children and parents, many within the profession believe that Bura and Hardwick's best work was with the director and puppeteer Alan Platt. It's certainly what won them prestigious BAFTA awards. Words and Pictures, adapting popular books for early readers, and a series of ballet adaptations for BBC Schools, are regarded as animation masterpieces.
Not that Bura and Hardwick restricted themselves to a young audience — their work stretched from animation for The Sky at Night to government information films to visualising Bernard Cribbins' novelty hits. Some of the rooms at Womersley Road — all painted black to avoid reflections — were set up more-or-less permanently for one or other of their regular animations. Others would be perpetually transformed as new projects came on stream.
"During their peak years in the late Seventies and early Eighties, you would sometimes find three or four Bura and Hardwick credits in a single weekly edition of the Radio Times," recalls Peter Phillipson.
Both Bura and Hardwick lived as well as worked in the houses on Womersley Road. Phillipson remembers their lifestyle as distinctly 'bohemian'. Bob Bura had been part of a vaudeville act as a child, with fire-eating among his accomplishments, and was blessed with a voice like Mario Lanza, which would sometimes boom around the studio while an animation was being worked on.
As 3D animation became more ambitious, with the use of tracking shots requiring very heavy equipment, Womersley Road's joists became something of a liability. The weight of the camera dolly meant that the animators needed to find a really solid, sturdy studio location which wouldn't give.
That's one reason why Bob Bura and John Hardwick moved to what we now know as the Church Studios at the bottom of Crouch Hill. They turned what had been the church hall, with its rock-solid floor, into a big animation studio — eventually letting out other space to Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox (aka The Eurythmics) who later bought the building from the animators. By then Womersley Road had been sold.
CGI technology has in many ways superseded stop-motion filming, but it can't replicate the charm of 3D animation. And for those who want to wallow in nostalgia, the Trumptonshire trilogy was cleaned and digitally restored frame-by-frame a few years back and released on DVD.
Curious Crouch End by Andrew Whitehead, published by Five Leaves, RRP £9.95