We need to talk about Harold

Harold Whitaker plays a huge part in the Halas & Batchelor story. He joined the company in 1952 in the build up to Animal Farm and is the only animator credited on that film who had not been through the David Hand trained studio at Gaumont-British Animation. And he was the only one of those animators who remained part of the company for any length of time after the film was finished - becoming an increasingly important pillar of the company until it wound down in the mid-1980s.

Young Harold - self portrait c1937 A portrait of the artist as a young man - Harold's self-portrait c1937

It was my great pleasure to meet Harold three times in his Stroud home. I found him a very welcome host, generous with his time and memories. He sat for an interview which I recorded, and am now transcribing for this site. Our discussion in this session was mostly about the first years of his career. Sadly we never really got to discussing his later years with my sporadic trips through the Cotswolds before his death at the end of December 2013.

I was very glad to be able to write his obituary for The Guardian, and even more happy to get an extended place to write a two part profile (part one and part two) for Skwigly.

This interview, which took place on the 8th November 2011, is presented pretty much unedited - my recording device was pretty poor at the time, as were my interview skills. But I think its clear from his voluble responses that Harold's reputation as shy and quiet is overplayed. I got the sense that he had much of his history ready as a prepared story ready to reel off on command. He sometimes edited the bits out that he thought no-one would be interested, and where I tried to prod in the more remote corners we lost the path sometimes. I have included some footnotes to help where I feel we drop chronology or more explanation is required - some things relate to things we had discussed previously off tape.

This is part one, there should be at least two other parts to follow.

Where were you born?

I was born in East Yorkshire, Cottingham.

When was the date?

1920 - June the 5th.

And what did your parents do?

My father was a schoolmaster. They were both born in Hull. They came from Yorkshire, they were Yorkshire. They were both teachers actually but she retired when they got married in 1920, 1919. And he carried on teaching until about 1955, I think. He was Mathematics, and he was very interested in music. We lived in Manchester; they moved schools in Manchester and he was teaching at... I went eventually to the school there, Stretford Grammar School, and it was in the suburbs of Manchester and every different suburb had its own symphony orchestra, or amateur operatic society, and he played in all these things, he could do the violin, the viola, French horn, he did conducting as well, so that was part of his life, he was very interested in... He conducted the school orchestra, and he was...

Did you play?

I played the piano, yes, from seven onwards I learnt the piano. Did an hour a day no matter what.

So when did you become interested in art and drawing?

I was always interested in art, in drawing. I don't know, I never thought I would get into that into... we used to play with early flicker book and so on, you know at school, you know tear off pads and it leaves a thing at the top with a bit in the corner you can flick, and I remember fiddling about with those very early. And I just always found drawing interesting. And it was quite a surprise when I was eventually allowed, well I was directed into the art business, you know? Somebody must have thought I had some talent or something...

I didn't know what I was going to do when I left school really. I did quite a lot of drawing and the art master was always impressed by it. A friend of mine and I always came top in art and so, you know, it was just one of those things that... And then suddenly, my father was going to put me in a bank, he got me to write out an application form to the local Midland Bank – I don't know if he ever posted it – but in the meantime, this art master must have said, he's got this aptitude or something, and it turned out that the woodwork master at the school, his brother-in-law ran James Haworth and Brother in Soho Square in London which was one of the biggest commercial art studios. It had about 24 artists, and so the word got round that he wanted somebody, or he had a vacancy anyway, so we went to see him, my father and I went to see him and eventually I got a job at seventeen and six a week to start, and then it went up to two pounds I think.

I used to commute from Chingford. So I spent three years there, and I also went while I was there I went to Bolt Court in Fleet Street, which is where the printers went – they had an art school on the top. It was a school of printing basically, but they used to do life classes and general illustration classes up on the top floor. So I went there for three years part time, and evenings, and that really brought it up to the war. But I still thought I was going to be a commercial artist, illustrator or something.

So what kind of things were you working on there?

It was all Huntley and Palmers biscuit labels, all their advertising. Peak Freans, Palmolive soap, and they did beautiful work, big jobs, Ever Ready batteries. You start off going through the daily papers and tearing out peoples press ads and filing them under different letters so that if somebody rang in for a job you could look up in the press ads book their general line of attack, so anyway that was the thing they did. The other thing they did was have a room with a whole lot of rejected sketches, drawings that had been thrown out over the years, and when something came along that was possible to rehash, it was one of my jobs to trim the edges when it was all dog eared and put a fresh white border round it and face it with a new piece of glass, glassine or whatever they call it – onion-skin paper we used to call it, and stick a new label on the back. You know that sort of job, office boy's job really.

I always used to get sent over to Windsor & Newton's in Rathbone Place, where they used to order all the brushes, which were all in quills in those days, and you could get paints and all sorts of things at trade prices – but anyway, that was another job that I used to get sent. So anyway it was just general dogsbody – washing out palettes to start with, but you know, as you got more experienced you got to do lettering, that was the thing. Because Letterset was not invented, so even small lettering was all done by hand. I did odd jobs for things like grate polish and packets of dried peas, very low jobs to start with, I never got very far. I always wanted to do strip cartoons, you see… they would be interesting to get into, but I didn't do that until after the war. I found an agent from the art school and he got me various jobs.

The studio, James Haworth and Brother disintegrated pretty much immediately after the war started, and just evaporated. So it was starting afresh after that, and that was when I […] my agent got me into... I won this blessed scholarship anyway, for Punch at Bolt Court. They did it for two years, open to all art schools for humorous art, you could send in anything you liked, and for two years they did it. One year, […] Ronald Searle, he got it one year, which he well deserved, I think, and I got it the other year. I think they were all in the army or something, nobody got... Anyway I got this thing, and that seemed to stand in good stead, anybody who finds that thing and , “Oh!”, you know? So the agent was interested and he started getting me jobs, one, two things. For ICI I did an illustration, various little jobs, nothing very much.

And then strips, I did a specimen strip,1 I think off the cuff, I did a picture of Mickey Mouse walking along with the other Disney characters following along behind. I think I just did it and sent it to him, just as a spec thing, anyway they bought it, they thought I was good, and fitted it in with a strip story that they got, and that came out on the front of Mickey Mouse Weekly. And after that I got Cinderella, Toad of Toad Hall, and Alice in Wonderland and one or two others. For three years and nine months, every week it had to be there on the dot, otherwise they got... [It was] printed in Watford and it took them six weeks to get the blocks going, it just had to be there. I don't know, I must have been mad I think. I used to work – during that time Animal Farm came along. So I was doing Animal Farm, at the same time... how did we get onto Animal Farm...?

Harold's Mickey Mouse Weekly layout notes Harold's Mickey Mouse Weekly scrapbook showing some layout sketches

Ah yes now, Anson Dyer! After the war we did these Mary Field things for the Children's Film Foundation, Saturday mornings. They were working on Squirrel War (series, 1947), and then they did Who Robbed the Robins (1947), and various other things. And then we did some commercials for Symington's Soup, and different things... we did Cherry Blossom Boot Polish. So we were going quite reasonably, I mean there wasn't a lot of work about, but we had a period when we were doing quite well.

Well then these French people, or was it the Italians... oh well there were two lots. There was this Italian film that they had made during the war, and they couldn't get it... they were shooting it in Milan, but they couldn't get it through the customs because you can't open the cans if the film is undeveloped. They were sending it to Technicolor you see, for which the only lab in Europe was in London. So they shipped all their stuff over in 38 crates, plus two cameramen to Stratford Abbey and we shot it there. So that went through for, I don't know, a year or 18 months.2

And that was followed by the French film, Sarrut and Anatole de Grunwald and one or two other people, and they also wanted to finish this feature, The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep (1953).3 And they had the same problem because they couldn't get their undeveloped film through the customs. So it also came over and was shot at Stratford Abbey. And that was when I did this Comète film, this cement film.4 And that was when they said... they were apparently impressed by that, and they wanted me to go and work in Paris. And this Mickey Mouse Weekly strip I was doing, so if I went over to Paris even for a day, I had to do two day's work to catch up the next day... it was impossible, I don't know how I did it. So that was going on, and I can't remember now, maybe I went on my holidays, maybe I got a week ahead in my strip and went there for a week. It was mad anyway (chuckles).

You see at the end of Animal Farm, the beginning of television was going to be the big thing in the future. Commercial television was on the horizon, and that was going to be the future of animation, so the French wanted to start a studio in Stroud. They realised I wasn't going to go over to Paris, so they were going to open a studio in Stroud. And at the same time, John Halas was... he couldn't have been doing Animal Farm, yes Animal Farm hadn't started because John Halas was just getting ready to go on Animal farm and he needed animators. Anson Dyer was a sort of going studio, ready to take over and fit into what he was already doing. So the French wanted us to go with them, and start doing commercials for TV, and at the same time John Halas wanted us to go over and work on Animal Farm. So for about two weeks it was really difficult to know which to do.

And who was making that decision?

Well I don't know, it sounds terrible, but I think it was me they wanted. I mean the French wanted me, they weren't really interested in the rest of the studio because they had got all their own stuff. But I don't know... they were both in need of the sort of stuff that we were... I've lost my thread now.

Sorry, I interrupted you. Well maybe we could go back before you started in the animation industry...

That's going right back.

End of part one...

1. The illustration talk got us a little lost in the chronology here. The comic strip work for Mickey Mouse Weekly was after WWII - probably 1946. I took the advantage to jump back to this period later, which will come in part 2.
2. La Rosa di Baghdad info...
3. There is little I can find about André Sarrut in English online - French readers look here. He was an animation producer in France who worked with the much better known Paul Grimault with whom he formed the production company Les Gémeaux. The film that Harold is describing was the break-up of this partnership, when Grimault was taken off the feature-length La Bergère et le Ramoneur and Sarrut cobbled together an unfinished version that was released in 1953. Grimault came back to the film in 1980, and finished a version of his original vision as Le Roi et l'Oiseau. If you haven't seen it - do!
4. Earlier in our discussion off tape Harold had asked me about this film - a commercial for cement that was made for French audiences by Sarrut's animation company La Cométe. He wanted to know if there was a copy in the BFI National Archive, but unfortunately there is not.


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