Cosgrove Hall was the little animation studio that could.
Established in South Manchester in the mid-70s, it went on to create many of the most well-loved children’s shows of the day, from Jamie and the Magic Torch to The Wind in the Willows, peaking in popularity with Danger Mouse, a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic (not for nothing did one of America’s most successful record producers nick the show’s name for himself). Its achievement is now being marked by a new exhibition at Sale’s Waterside Arts Centre.
One of Cosgrove Hall’s brightest luminaries is Brian Trueman. As well as writing many, many episodes of the studio’s best-loved series, Trueman also performed in them as a voice actor. Among others, that’s him as villainous henchman Stiletto in Danger Mouse, a no-good weasel in The Wind in the Willows, and the delightfully loopy Nanny in Count Duckula.
That would be quite enough to earn Trueman his place in the pop culture history books but, as it happens, he was a familiar face in Granadaland well before his Cosgrove Hall days, mostly through his work as a broadcaster during the 60s and 70s on shows including Granada Reports, Cinema and It’s Trueman. It was around this time that he first encountered art college graduates Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall. Speaking exclusively to Northern Soul, Trueman says: “I knew Brian and Mark as graphic artists at Granada, where I’d started as a newscaster and become, over almost 20 years on one or two-year contracts, a presenter, documentary producer, voiceover artist and, if called upon and at Equity rates, an actor. I began my career as the last of these when I was 14 and haven’t ever ceased to be one.”
Together, Cosgrove and Hall made plans to leave Granada and set up their own independent animation company, with Hall leading the way and leaving first, and Cosgrove following a little while later. Trueman says: “Just before Brian quit Granada to join Mark at Greendow Productions, he’d made an animated film which he hoped might encourage Granada to make shows for kids. I did the voiceover. It wasn’t adopted and Brian scarpered. About a year later, he rang me to ask if I could have a go at writing a script for an animation film pilot. No-one knows why he thought I might be able to. The only writing I’d done at Granada were things like my scripts for Cinema and for the umpteen documentaries I made there. Brian has no idea why. Mark told him it was because I’d said that I’d always wanted to write. In fact, I’d never said any such thing. Anyway, I wrote it and he liked it, but it went nowhere.”
A year later, Trueman was about to follow suit and leave Granada to go freelance. By that time, thanks to a deal with Thames Television, Cosgrove Hall Films had been formed, and Cosgrove got back in touch with a proposal for Trueman.
“He rang again to say that he couldn’t find anyone to script his Chorlton and the Wheelies project, so could I…?”. This went on to be Cosgrove Hall’s first big hit show, the unforgettable tale of a magic dragon with a hat in Rastafarian colours and a thick Lancashire accent, plagued by a mean, green Welsh witch and assisted by the friendly citizens of Wheelie World. The dragon, and therefore the show, was named in honour of Cosgrove Hall’s new home, the south Manchester suburb of Chorlton-cum-Hardy. Trueman scripted all 40 episodes, before doing the same with Jamie and the Magic Torch and the long-running Cockleshell Bay, providing the vast majority of the voices for them to boot.
Trueman insists that this new career didn’t stem from being bored with broadcasting. “I wasn’t restless, and I had no intention of being a scriptwriter. It was pure chance. I guess I could do it because I’d spent a lot of my other life as a character actor, was used to being other, often comedic people. So, I improvised in my head whatever scene came next and wrote down what the characters said.”
By today’s standards, Trueman’s working methods at this point were wonderfully low-fi. “I hand-wrote the scripts, then rang Cosgrove Hall Productions in Chorlton-cum-Hardy about 12 miles away from where I lived, and they’d send a motor-bike courier to collect them. Typed up by the secretariat and with amendment requests thereon, a courier brought them back until, mostly at second draft stage, they were accepted. But I was often at the factory and/or the recording studios, so there was a lot of interface between myself, Brian, Mark, directors and animators. Small teams working on the basis of mutual trust – so totally unlike today’s set-ups, especially the BBC’s. Hierarchies there weren’t. And it showed.”
In September 1981, Cosgrove Hall launched the show with which the company will forever be associated: Danger Mouse. A mapcap cartoon riff on classic spy yarns such as James Bond and (obviously) Danger Man, it went on to run for ten years, achieving sky-scraping ratings along the way and becoming one of the first British cartoon shows to air across America. It’s often regarded as a precursor to the tone and feel of today’s animated Nickelodeon shows. Writer and musician Mike Harding played a significant part in developing the idea, but the vast majority of the episodes were written by Trueman.
Initially, though, there had been some reluctance among the high-ups to give such an unapologetically silly show the go-ahead. Trueman says: “The success of Danger Mouse took us all by surprise. We seem to have loosed an arrow into the air and somehow hit the bull. And when the show came in at number one in one week’s viewing figures, there was more giggling than there was the punching of air.”
There’s a distinctive sense of humour at work in Trueman’s Cosgrove Hall work and he’s quick to pay homage to his comedy influences. “To begin with, the Blessed Eric Thompson, whose Magic Roundabout episodes and books were as much a joy to me as to my kids to whom – before they got to read for themselves – I ‘performed’ them. His anarchic and uncompromising use of language was a joy and a lesson. Before them, the inspired lunacy of the Goons, Hancock and, indeed, the scripts I worked with as a radio actor, in shows like The Clitheroe Kid, Ray Alan and Lord Charles, comedy shows when I was 17 or 18 with Norman Evans [Over the Garden Wall], Les Dawson and Ken Dodd.”
To a degree, the colourful lunacy of Danger Mouse was Brian Cosgrove’s baby, whereas Mark Hall favoured exquisite stop-motion adaptations of classic stories such as The Wind in the Willows. Cosgrove Hall’s version of the latter started out as a feature-length Christmas television special, but its success lead to a full series, running in tandem with Danger Mouse. Trueman was again the regular writer on both, which came to take up his whole working week. He says: “Once I got up to speed, I was writing a 20-minute Danger Mouse script from early Monday morning to lunchtime on Wednesday, and a 20-minute The Wind in the Willows script from then to Friday night, with script revisions over the weekend.”
Other popular shows followed, such as Alias the Jester and Danger Mouse spin-off Count Duckula, for which Trueman continued to contribute many scripts and character voices. “Then, towards the end of my Cosgrove Hall writing life, there was the adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Truckers and a lot of the adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Big Friendly Giant – until it was suddenly found wanting whereupon it found a new and hitherto unrecognised writer in the shape of Cosgrove Hall’s executive producer. Well, who’d have thought it?” (indeed, for this 1987 prestigious project, the studio’s first full-length film, the credited writer was John Hambley, by day Cosgrove Hall’s executive liaison with Thames, who had no prior track record in script work).
Sadly, Trueman’s association with Cosgrove Hall came to an end not long after. Thames Television lost its licence in 1991, and with it the studio lost its funding. It was revived by Anglia TV and went on to make many admirable shows, including revivals of Andy Pandy, Bill & Ben and Postman Pat. Animation technology and times generally were changing, though, and Cosgrove Hall was closed in 2009. Mark Hall died two years later, and the site of the studios in Chorlton is now, rather tragically, a retirement home complex.
Sale Waterside has become the home of the official Cosgrove Hall archive and the centre’s new exhibition, now open, offers visitors the change to peruse some of its treasure trove of original puppets, props and artwork.
Today, Trueman says his filing cabinets remain full of ideas for shows which he feels are unlikely ever to be adopted, “if CBBC’s version of Danger Mouse is anything to go by – and going by it as quickly as possible would be a good idea”. The all-new Danger Mouse series, which launched in 2015, is produced by new rights owners FremantleMedia and has proved to be a big hit with young viewers. Trueman himself is less impressed, though.
“I was invited to write for it, saw some ‘approved’ scripts, went to the writers’ conference and turned the offer down. Now, I’m writing my autobiography, which Fremantle won’t let me call My Life with Danger Mouse…and other animals. Instead, it will be called Of Mouse (white; one-eyed) and Me… …and other animals. I’m enjoying it. Whether anyone else will is a moot point.”
Well, Northern Soul for one can’t wait. Trueman’s work, and the magical legacy of Cosgrove Hall’s classic shows, deserves to be celebrated loud and long.
Animation City presents The Cosgrove Hall Films Exhibition at the Waterside Arts Centre in Sale until February 17, 2018.
To read Northern Soul’s 2014 interview with New Order frontman and erstwhile Cosgrove Hall tracer Bernard Sumner, click here.
To read Northern Soul’s 2015 interview with Mackinnon and Saunders founder and Cosgrove Hall alumnus Peter Saunders, click here.