DATE June 19, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Nick Park and Peter Lord, co-directors of "Chicken Run,"
discuss making animated movies
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The new movie "Chicken Run" is a satire of prisoner of war movies like "The
Great Escape" and "Stalag 17" but the prisoners are chickens and the prison
camp is a barbed-wire British egg farm. My guests are the two animators who
co-created and co-directed the film. Nick Park is a three-time Academy Award
winner who is best known for his animated film shorts starring the characters
of Wallace & Gromit. Peter Lord is the co-founder and chairman of the Aardman
Studio in England, which specializes in clay animation. Park has worked with
Lord at Aardman since 1985.
When "Chicken Run" begins, the chickens are feeling defeated because their
attempts at escape have all been foiled. But the heroine hen of the movie,
Ginger, refuses to give up. She pins her hopes on the know-how of a
free-spirited American rooster who has accidently wound up at the farm. The
rooster, Rocky, is voiced by Mel Gibson. Escaping becomes a necessity when
the mean-spirited woman who owns the egg farm decides it would be more
lucrative if, instead of selling eggs, she made chicken pot pies. So she gets
a diabolical-looking pie machine and explains her plan to her nasty but
(Soundbite from "Chicken Run")
Unidentified Man: Oh, that's champion, that is. What is it?
Unidentified Woman: It's a pie machine, you idiot. Chickens go in, pies come
Unidentified Man: Oh, what kind of pies?
Unidentified Woman: Apple.
Unidentified Man: My favorite.
Unidentified Woman: Chicken pies, you great lummox. Imagine, in less than a
fortnight, every grocer in the county will be stocked with box upon box of
Mrs. Tweedy's homemade chicken pie.
Unidentified Man: Just Missus?
Unidentified Woman: A woman's touch. Makes the public feel more comfortable.
Unidentified Man: Oh, right. How does it work?
Unidentified Woman: Get me a chicken and I'll show you.
GROSS: Nick Park, when did you start making the connection between chicken
farms and World War II prisoner of war camp?
Mr. NICK PARK (Director/Producer): Well, the idea goes back to about 1996,
when Pete and I sat around drinking coffee. We were trying to think up a good
idea for a feature film and it just struck us one day and this drawing just
seemed to appear in my sketch book which was a chicken digging its way with a
spoon out of a chicken coop. And Pete and I just thought, what a great idea
for a movie. You know, it's "The Great Escape" with chickens. If you look at
a movie like "The Great Escape," which Pete and I were brought up on. You
know, it was on every holiday, you know, with "The Sound of Music" and "The
Wizard of Oz." And if you were so familiar with that world of cabins and
fences and barbed wire, and if you take the people out and put chickens in,
you've actually just got a chicken coop, a regular chicken coop.
GROSS: Peter, were there certain stock characters you knew you needed to have
once you decided to make this movie?
Mr. PETER LORD (Chairman, Co-founder, Aardman): Well, in a way there were.
Our first instinct was to think, so who would you have in prisoner of war
movies and copy that. To be honest, we went away from that very much. I
mean, we have now the two rats who are scroungers, a bit like James Garner
in "The Great Escape." They were sort of stock type. But the others I think
actually owe more to perhaps evening comedies, perhaps to English comedy
films, English sitcoms, if you'd like, in a general way rather than being
specifically prisoner of war stock types. I mean, we wanted--for our own
amusement and the delight of the audience, we wanted to refer to specifically
Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape," but we don't have a Steve McQueen
character. We actually have a number of characters playing parts of that
role, playing around with that role. So we certainly weren't rigidly sticking
Mr. LORD: In fact, as Nick was saying, that was our funny idea and when we
went to Hollywood, that was our funny pitch. You know, we would sit down with
the big executives and say, `Here's the pitch, gentlemen. It's going to be
"The Great Escape" but with chickens.' But ultimately that isn't what we've
done at all, actually. It's nothing like "The Great Escape."
GROSS: Did you visit chicken farms?
Mr. PARK: We did. We were going to spend, you know, three months living with
chickens, you know, to really do it right. But...
GROSS: This is the method approach to understanding chickens.
Mr. PARK: Yeah.
Mr. LORD: That's right.
Mr. PARK: And we actually ended up spending a day on a chicken farm and we
took a video camera with us and really got down on our knees with the
chickens, just to see what life is like from a chicken's point of view.
GROSS: What did you notice that surprised you when you got down to a chicken
Mr. PARK: Gosh, I mean...
Mr. LORD: I noticed they twitched a lot. The thing about chickens which we
hadn't reckoned on is that their heads twitched fiercely and convulsively the
whole time, you know. And because their eyes are on the side of their head,
they're constantly moving their head around to see things. And we very
rapidly reckoned this will make for a terrible movie because you couldn't have
a tender love scene because the two protagonists, instead of looking in each
other's eyes, would be twitching their heads the whole time, first to look out
one eye and then the other.
Mr. PARK: Yeah. In fact, we threw out, you know, what everybody knows of a
chicken design quite early on in the film. So we had the knees bending the
right way and, you know, we gave them hands instead of wings and, you know,
generally improved, you know, what we know as a chicken.
Mr. LORD: Yeah.
GROSS: Tell us what you did model the chickens on, the bodies, the head, the
Mr. PARK: Well, you know, our chickens are such a daft group of characters
that we wanted a lot of comedy out of them and, you know, like the Wallace &
Gromit films, we gave them big wide mouths with lots of teeth and eyes that
are touching in the middle. And it gives them a very funny kind of, you know,
goofy and often deadpan look, which we play off a lot in the movie. And their
bodies, we wanted to get a lot of mileage out of them being this group of very
unathletic, you know, unheroic group that have never really done anything or
questioned anything in their life and pulling off this enormous stunt.
GROSS: And how did you give each chicken a distinctive look so we can
recognize one character from another?
Mr. PARK: That was the difficulty actually, wasn't it?
Mr. LORD: Mm-hmm.
Mr. PARK: Because he went to a chicken farm and they all looked the same.
Mr. LORD: That's right.
Mr. PARK: They're either all brown or all white.
Mr. LORD: Yes. So we made ours multicolored, didn't we? I mean, we have a
rather nice color palate. You know, it's not too extreme. They're between
very, very pale and sort of chestnut brown and red in between. But they're
a very harmonious group. And then we--well, we had to muck around quite
substantially and those strange combs that chickens have on their heads became
like hairdos and we played around with those a lot. And then, as a practical
necessity of interest to people interested in the production, they had to have
something around their necks because their heads had to join their bodies and
the join was between one material and another. The heads were clay and the
bodies were silicon, so they all end wearing necklaces and scarves and other
strange things which, frankly, chickens don't normally wear, to be honest.
But the great joke is that none of the humans seem to notice this at all.
GROSS: Peter Lord, you co-founded Aardman Studios, the animation studio that
this film comes out of, and you're chairman of that company. Describe the
style of animation in your studio that's used in "Chicken Run."
Mr. LORD: Yeah, OK. Well, people call it clay animation. In the States they
certainly do. In Britain, we refer to plasticine, which is the trade name
of the clay that we use. And plasticine is a sort of modeling material that
kids use at a very young age, like in kindergarten; a clay that never hardens,
always stays flexible. And we discovered this material sort of 28 years ago,
I believe it was, with my partner, Dave Sproxton. We started experimenting
this form of animation. And what is--how can I describe it? With plasticine
animation, with puppet animation, you have a puppet on a stage in front of a
camera, like a regular film studio, but instead of the camera running at real
speed, it just takes one frame at a time and each frame it takes is
effectively 1/24th of a second of finished film. So the puppet sits there.
You bend it, you take a frame. You bend it, you get out of the way, you take
a frame; You come back, you bend it, you get out of the way, you take a frame.
And in this agonizing manner, you slowly build up movement and that's how the
puppet moves and that's the mechanics of what we do and that's actually quite
boring. You know, that's the mechanics. The interesting part and the
exciting part is how you take that puppet and make it, not just move, but
appear to live. You know, the whole thing, animation, that's what the word
means. It means, you know, having life, giving life, and that's what we're
always, always trying to do.
And over the years, we've gradually specialized in character and in comedy, I
suppose--those two things that we like to do. And I know lots of people--most
animation, you might say, is about comedy but for us, it's very important that
the comedy that we do use and we do play with is derived from believable
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Nick Park and Peter Lord,
co-directors of the new animated film "Chicken Run," which is about chickens
trapped in an egg farm kind of like it was a World War II prisoner of war
movie. And Peter Lord founded the animation studio that made the movie and
Nick Park is very famous for his Wallace & Gromit animated films.
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk so more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are Peter Lord and Nick Park. They're co-directors of the
new animated film "Chicken Run," which is a comedy about chickens trapped in
an egg farm surrounded by barbed wire and it's played as if it were a World
War II prisoner of war movie. And Nick Park also made the Wallace & Gromit
animated short films, which have won several Academy Awards.
Let's talk about facial expressions because I think that's the most
communicative part of a body and it probably a very difficult thing to put
across in the kind of animation that you do, but you both do it so well.
Maybe you could describe a little bit how you would express an emotion in clay
animation, like confusion. You know, take one of the chickens that had to be
confused at some point.
Mr. LORD: If you would see the whole head of Rocky, it's only two inches
high and the space above his eyeball--and that space is, I don't know what,
you know, a couple of millimeters--and it's with that tiny space that we play
and you can obviously make the brow frown by bringing it down in the middle.
You can make a quizzical look by raising one side and lowering the other and
you can then make the eyes suddenly, as it were, pop out of the
head--suddenly get very wide. So you're playing with this brow, which acts
like eyebrows, the eyeballs and the eyelids, and you can use lids to blink in
different ways and indicate, you know, I don't know, complacency and make the
eyes smile. But you talk about a tiny little canvas and really, if you do as
we've often done, you watch actors. Watch a live actor in a movie and turn
down the sound and see how the face acts. And it's frightening, the
minimalist, you know, but it's those little signals that real people can give
off very easily because they're real. We're trying to give those same signals
in our puppets.
GROSS: So you do this a lot? You watch movies with the sound off and just
study the face?
Mr. LORD: Well, we--for this film, to try and get these expressions we've
talked about, in practice, we talked to the animators at huge length about
what we wanted and about the motivation for the scene and often, especially at
the start of the shoot, Nick or I would end up rehearsing a gesture 30 times,
just over and over again, to try and somehow communicate to the end maker.
And after a while we thought, `This is a mug's game, this is really slow,'
so we started to record ourselves on video. So that would be us with the
sound down. We'd look at our own faces and mute--and see, you know,
it--how--you talk about bewilderment. How does bewilderment show on the face?
What are the brows doing? How wide are the eyes? How are the eyeballs
shifting around, 'cause that's another great indicator. It's where the
--where the focus of the eyes is is really crucial. Are they focused right on
the person you're talking to? Are they drifting around the room looking at
other details, you know, all this kind of thing.
GROSS: You know, one of the things I really like about your animations is
that, because--well, let me just explain. You're working on this teeny, tiny
little set. You've got the clay figures that you're moving around in these
small increments and in the set with them you have a mix of like little
miniature objects you've designed, like little miniature, like, chairs and
houses and beds and things like that, but there's also a few real things.
Mr. LORD: Yeah.
GROSS: Like, for instance, there's a scene were a chicken is trying to tunnel
out of the chicken farm with a spoon and I suspect that the spoon is really
'cause it certainly looks real. And so you have this mix of something that is
absolutely real and something that's absolutely fantasy inhabiting the same
reality at the same time. And it makes for very interesting viewing.
Mr. LORD: Yeah.
Mr. PARK: Yeah. Yeah. That's what we always find interesting about it,
GROSS: That juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary?
Mr. PARK: Yeah.
GROSS: In the same reality.
Mr. PARK: Yeah. 'Cause we--that's right. I mean, we are what--the world
we've created is a strange sort of twilight world between kind of real, live
action movie making, 'cause you've got a 3-D set but in miniature. You can
light it to do camera work, just as in any live action picture. At the same
time the characters, because they're made of clay, they can change shape and
they can be very cartoony and, you know, so we're always just traveling
this very thin line between how real, how gritty and how smooth and how soft
is this world.
Mr. LORD: 'Cause there's a huge difference as well, really fundamentally,
between that room you've described. The bunk is made of wood and you can see
the texture of the wood. The bed has got straw in it and you can see the
texture of the straw. There's a piece of rusty old iron, you can see the
rust. But then the chickens, our heroes, are these, you know, very, frankly,
cartoony constructs that look like clay. And intellectually, you'd never
think that would work, I don't think. I think intellectually you'd say,
`That's crazy, that won't match,' you know. But somehow it works, you know,
supremely well and you really believe the plasticine chicken's in the real
world. Again, that's just experience has proved that.
GROSS: As you were describing, you work in these miniature sets for your
animations. What does it do for your sense of size and proportion to spend
your time in this teeny, tiny miniature world?
Mr. LORD: Well, our sense of proportion went right out of the window a long
time ago, otherwise we'd be in some sensible occupation, I'm sure. I don't
know. It's a funny--it's a very strange thing. For example, our chickens are
10 inches high, our model chickens, which is getting on the floor, perhaps
slightly more than half the size of a real chicken. So relatively speaking,
it's quite a big scale. We're working to a half scale thing. So imagine a
chicken 10 inches high. Imagine a human comes into shot. The human ought to
be, by that reckoning, three and a half feet high and you--it's virtually
impossible and certainly agonizingly horrible to work with an animated puppet
three and a half feet high because animation ought to be hands-on and light
and instinctive. And if the puppet's that high, you end up struggling with
this massive engineering beast that's really hard to bend, so we didn't do
that. We made humans that were only 12 to 14 inches high and miniature
chickens--extra small chickens to go with the humans, so we ended up on two
scales, which was one of the many things we stupidly didn't see coming when we
stupidly decided to make a film about chickens, which we regard as our first
GROSS: It's so funny that you're doing this very sophisticated kind of
animation with this kind of comparatively unsophisticated style of animation,
really literally moving around clay puppets. At the same time, the big
animation is the computer animation that everybody seems to be using now. Do
you feel like you're living in another world than the computer animator
people? Do you feel like you're in just another dimension altogether?
Mr. LORD: People often ask us about this, understandably, because, you know,
with "Dinosaurs" out right now, computer animation is very visible and, I
mean, our attitude is always, very simply, well, why can't the two co-exist?
You know, why on Earth should the new technology push out the old if the old
works? You know, why should a synthesized instrument replace an acoustic
instrument? Why should it? No, it--obviously, it shouldn't. The two in a
sensible, sane world, the two co-exist, so I hope that will always be the
case. Having said that, it is kind of ridiculous. I mean, our technology is
quite old-fashioned, you know, but heaven knows, it wo--and also, you know,
because it's hands-on, which it is, because it consists of animators in the
studios handling clay models, and because also, strangely enough, strangely to
your listeners, it's like a live performance. And that may sound crazy,
because I will always talk about--the words agonizing and painstaking are
always on our lips.
It is a slow process, but it's a live process because you've got your puppet
and your puppet is going to walk across the set from point A to point B. When
that puppet sets off in the morning, you have no real way of knowing where
it's going to go to. You know, you guess. Of course, you approximate, you
rehearse, but you don't know exactly. And when you're halfway across the set,
you still don't know precisely where you're going and you don't know--and you
certainly can't go back, just as in real life. You know, you're a performer
on the stage. You start the performance. You don't know exactly where you're
going and you sure as hell can't change what you've already done and, in that
sense, what we do is live, whereas computer animation and conventional cell
animation isn't like that because you can do the last drawing at the same time
as the first drawing and then fill in the spaces in between. Or, if it's not
going well, you can easily revise it. We can't easily revise what we do. The
only thing we can do is shoot it again.
GROSS: Yeah. Peter Lord and Nick Park co-directed the new animated film
"Chicken Run." They'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry
Gross and this is FRESH AIR. Here's the theme from "The Great Escape."
(Soundbite of theme of "The Great Escape")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Nick Park and Peter
Lord. They co-created and co-directed the new animated film "Chicken Run."
Park also created the Wallace & Gromit animated films.
"Chicken Run" is a satire of prisoner-of-war movies in which chickens try to
escape a barbed wire egg farm that is being converted into a chicken pot pie
factory. Now I have a confession to make. After seeing your movie and
empathizing with these poor chickens, I ate a chicken dinner. Did I do the
Mr. PARK: Well, what kind of movie is this? Absolutely had no effect at
GROSS: Did you find yourself shying away from eating chicken while you were
Mr. LORD: No. Actually, no. Rather the opposite. Our appetites were
increased and healthier.
Mr. PARK: We were vegetarians before.
Mr. LORD: Yeah. No, it is odd. No, I mean, Nick and I don't--personally,
don't--we were on the plane yesterday. We both ordered the chicken. You
know, we don't eat it at all I have to say. But I thought maybe we were
desensitized whereas you, as a fresh viewer, might have business to hold off
for a day at least.
GROSS: I guess not. I guess the movie just wasn't powerful enough.
Mr. LORD: Yeah.
GROSS: Or I'm just too insensitive. Well, Nick Park, I have a question for
you. Now the new movie, "Chicken Run"--"Chicken Run" has a chicken pot pie
machine, this insidious machine, that the two mean-spirited humans have to
bake these chickens into pot pies. And it's a bizarre contraption designed to
take a whole chicken and mix it in with the chopped-up peas and carrots and
dough and spit them out the other end as a pot pie. And our hero and heroine
have to escape their pot pie fates and get out of one of these machines. Now,
Nick Park, most of your animations have bizarre contraptions of one sort or
another in them. And, in fact, before I ask you the actual question, why
don't you describe a couple of contraptions from your Wallace & Gromit
Mr. PARK: Right. Well, what--from--you mean "A Close Shave" with the...
Mr. PARK: Yeah. There's "The Wrong Trousers," which--ex-NASA, in fact.
That are actually bought from an ex-NASA store and--in Wallace's neighborhood.
And, you know, Wallace uses them--though, you know, they're covered in rivets.
They're very round and robust and have a sort of 1940s feel. And like I was
saying to you is the Knit-O-Matic machine in "A Close Shave." That's all
covered in copper sheeting and rivets and that kind of thing and lots of arms
and a lot of Jules Verne, you know, H.G. Wells and Victorian technology, I
like to describe it as.
GROSS: Yeah. And like the Knit-O-Matic you put a whole sheep in one end of
the machine and out comes yarn and by the end of the machine I think a little
sweater's coming out--these bizarre contraptions. Now your father was an
inventor. Did he make contraptions?
Mr. PARK: Well, he wasn't--no, he probably--I don't think I would disclaim
him as an inventor, but he did make a lot of things. And he spent his time in
the shed making things.
GROSS: What kind of things?
Mr. PARK: Oh, boy. Well, a lot of household things. You know, just shelves.
That kind of thing.
Mr. LORD: He made that caravan. Didn't he make a caravan?
Mr. PARK: Oh, that's right. Yes. That's what made--after making the first
Wallace & Gromit film, "A Grand Day Out," I suddenly realized one day he's
so much like Wallace because--I recalled this childhood experience where my
father built a trailer, you know, from scratch. You know, and it was just
like a room on wheels. Like a living room on wheels and with beds inside and
made everything and wallpapered it with--and he had furniture and chairs and
all that kind of thing. And the whole family, seven of us, went on holiday in
GROSS: Were you taken to any unusual factories when you were a kid?
Mr. PARK: Oh, yeah. Boy, I had this terrible experience of going to a
chicken slaughterhouse when I was a kid. Well, I was actually a student at
the time. I was doing a summer job. And I was working at a chicken packing
factory putting--folding up plucked chickens and putting them onto trays and
feeding them into this great big machine that wraps them for the supermarket.
And, actually, one day I was sent down to the slaughterhouse because they were
short of labor there. And saw some pretty horrific things there. And some of
those ideas from both those experiences have actually come through and been
used in "Chicken Run."
GROSS: Your characters of Wallace & Gromit, which are so popular now--tell
us if you kind of patterned them on anyone you knew either in real life or in
the movies. And I should say Wallace is a British man who's very stuffy and
proper sounding but in reality he's really not very bright. Gromit is his dog
and the dog is the smart one who read books like the Republic, by Pluto. So
who's behind these characters?
Mr. PARK: Boy, I mean, I don't think I ever really consciously based them on
anybody particularly. Wallace, perhaps--you know, when I think about it, you
know, for reasons I've given, he is very close to my dad. If you--you know,
it was very--he was like an inventor and made things. But I think it's his
attitude, actually, the way he'll just get ideas and go about doing them
without thinking. And he'll be--my dad isn't insensitive but Wallace is very
insensitive and he--another influence actually. He's very much like an old
music hall character that's very much known in Britain in--comes from the
north of England, who plays a banjo, a ukelele and--called George Formby and
he was very popular I think before the war--before the Second World War. And
he's got a very similar accent and very similar attitude to Wallace. But
again, it wasn't very conscious either to base--he isn't based on him but I
think these influences have found themselves in Wallace.
GROSS: Did you have pets as a kid? Did you have a dog?
Mr. PARK: No, I never ever had a dog. Funny you should say that, though. WE
had a pet chicken.
GROSS: Did you really?
Mr. PARK: Yeah. I mean, he was our family dog.
GROSS: Why did you have a pet chicken?
Mr. PARK: It was my sister's actually. It was called Penny, this great big
Rhode Island Red. And we just had it for the eggs really. But it used to
come in the porch and we just used to throw sticks for him, things like that.
Never went and fetched them but it was very much a pet. And we saw, my sister
and I, such character in that chicken. And some--we used to write short
stories about this chicken and one or two ideas have actually found themselves
in "Chicken Run." Like Rocky being known as the Lone Free Ranger(ph). That
was a joke we had as a kid.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. PARK: Yeah.
GROSS: That's funny.
Mr. PARK: Yeah. But we never had a dog.
GROSS: Did you always want to make cartoons when you were young? Did you see
those old cartoons and thought, `I want to do that, too'?
Mr. PARK: Yeah. Yeah. I just watched everything and took it all in. I had
no idea how they were made and so they always had an intrigue and a mystery to
me. And I remember actually seeing a documentary about Walt Disney and how
the whole thing started with just this little drawing of a mouse. And I used
to doodle characters in my books at school and stuff and I used to secretly
dream that one day my characters would be known on the screen. And, in fact,
I remember the first time I met Pete was at a film festival and Peter's
actually created this character called Morph, who's very big in Britain. He's
like the British equivalent of Gumby. And he metamorphosizes into things.
And when I first met Pete, he had a badge on his lapel with Morph on it and I
just thought, `How cool is that,' having a badge that you can buy in the shops
of your own character. Wow.
GROSS: Well, it's like something in your mind becoming a reality. This
totally imaginary thing becoming a reality for so many people.
Mr. PARK: Yeah.
GROSS: At the end of Wallace & Gromit films, at least at the end of a
couple of them, Wallace always yearns for some cheese. So why don't we end
our interview with finding out about cheese. Why does Wallace want cheese?
Mr. PARK: Yeah. Well, yeah. How do ideas come about? I think that the
single reason that cheese--because it all starts when Wallace & Gromit go to
the moon to find cheese. And I was trying to think of a reason why they would
go to the moon. And then, you know, we record the voices first and I recorded
with Peter Sallis, the actor who plays Wallace. It's just the way he said,
`Cheese, Gromit.' And that made such a nice mouth shape for Wallace. It was
such a nice thing to have him getting his chops around. But cheese stuck and
it appeared in all the other movies. In fact, there's a very short little
story. There was a factory in the north of England that makes a type of
cheese called Wensleydale Cheese. And we made Wallace say Wensleydale
once--in the third film, in "A Close Shave." And just by doing that, it
actually put--the cheese factory was on its last legs and about to go into
liquidation, and it put the cheese factory back into business.
GROSS: You're kidding. Funny.
Mr. PARK: And--yeah. The Wensleydale Cheese Factory.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much.
Mr. LORD: Thank you.
Mr. PARK: Thank you, Terry.
Mr. LORD: Thank you.
GROSS: Nick Park and Peter Lord co-directed the new animated film "Chicken
Run." Nick Park also created the Wallace & Gromit animated shorts. Here's
the scene Park mentioned that saved the cheese factory. It's from the latest
Wallace & Gromit film, "A Close Shave." Wallace is talking to his lady
friend Wendolene Ramsbottom.
(Soundbite of "A Close Shave")
WENDOLENE RAMSBOTTOM: You're very kind.
WALLACE: Oh, why don't you come in? We're just about to have some cheese.
RAMSBOTTOM: Oh, no. Not cheese. Sorry, it brings me out in a rash. Can't
stand the stuff.
WALLACE: Not even Wensleydale?
RAMSBOTTOM: Got to be on our way. Come on, Preston(ph). Goodbye, Chuck(ph).
WALLACE: What's wrong with Wensleydale?
GROSS: Coming up, jazz performances from classic films. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: Jazz's contribution to old movies
TERRY GROSS, host:
The first talking motion picture in 1927 was called "The Jazz Singer." There
was no jazz in it. Critic Kevin Whitehead says the relationship between jazz
and the movies hasn't improved much since, even with such directors as John
Cassavetes, Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen giving jazz a shot. But if
Hollywood rarely takes the music seriously there has been a bit of good jazz
in the movies, often made by musicians turning up briefly in non-jazz films.
Kevin reviews a new anthology of hot music from the movies.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) ...New York on Sunday, big city taking a nap.
Slow down, it's Sunday. Life's a ball, let it fall right in your lap. If
you've got troubles...
In John Gregory Dunne's book "The Studio," about life at 20th Century Fox in
the 1960s, there's a scene where a luckless director pitches a story to a
producer. The pitch went something like, `A temperamental Russian orchestra
leader comes to New York to conduct a benefit concert for crippled children.
But then the orchestra's quarantined and he wants to cancel. But wait,
there's this rag tag bunch of student musicians maybe he could try. The
conductor's against it but the kids win him over. Only there aren't enough of
them. So he goes out to weird nightclubs and rounds up some jazz musicians.
But then the quarantine is lifted and the conductor has to decide whether to
use the ragtag students and jazz musicians...'
Somehow that story says way too much about jazz in the movies. It's rarely
confronted head on. More often used to provide a little comic relief, urban
atmosphere or a late-night mood.
(Soundbite of "Blues in the Night")
WHITEHEAD: Jazz-loving moviegoers have favorite films on the top. Mine
include 1941's "Blues in the Night." You just heard Jimmy Lunceford in an
outtake from the film. As well as the amiable absurd "Jean Cruppa Story"(ph)
and Martin Scorsese's meditation on art vs. entertainment, "New York, New
York." When even your top jazz films include "Guilty Pleasures," you know
Hollywood's done something wrong.
That feeling is reinforced by a new two CD anthology of music dredged from Ted
Turner's vaults. It's called "Hollywood Swing & Jazz," hot numbers from
classic MGM, Warner Bros. and RKO films spanning the years 1934 to '66.
Still, there is a lot of good stuff here.
(Soundbite "Hurray for Love")
Unidentified Man #2: Did you hear what the lady say?
Unidentified Man #3: Not exactly. What'd she say?
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) She say, I've got a snap in my finger...
Unidentified Man #3: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...and a rhythm in my walk.
Unidentified Man #3: You don't tell me.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) As the elephant said, living in a great big
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, get away from here. That's too much.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I got a hand full of nothing.
Unidentified Man #3: What?
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) But I peep at it like a hawk.
Unidentified Man #3: Peep at nothing?
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I'm doing OK, living in a great big way.
Unidentified Man #3: Tell me more. Tell me more.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Listen here, sir. I'm the salt in the
Unidentified Man #3: Mmm.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...I'm the sun in the sky.
Unidentified Man #3: Mm-hmm.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I'm a Franklin D. Roosevelt...
Unidentified Man #3: Not the president.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...I'm a million dollars as long as I've got
snap in my finger...
Unidentified Man #3: Oh, stop.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) ...and a rhythm in my walk.
Unidentified Man #3: Get away from here.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) I've got the devil to pay. I'm living in a
great big way.
Unidentified Man #3: Well, let me tell you something.
Unidentified Man #2: Go ahead.
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) Got a snap in my finger.
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah, yeah.
WHITEHEAD: Bill "Bo Jangles" Robinson and Thomas "Fats" Waller from 1935's
"Hurray for Love(ph)." The mini-box, "Hollywood Swing and Jazz," includes
music from full-length features and from a few shorts. Notably the classic
performance film "Jam and the Blues"(ph) from 1944. Elsewhere, Duke Ellington
and Count Basie turn up. The latter with a stripped-down octet from the
soundtrack to "Made in Paris."
(Soundbite from "Made in Paris")
WHITEHEAD: A passel of good singers appear, from The Mills Brothers and Louis
Armstrong to Hoagy Carmichael and Lena Horne to Carmen McGray(ph) and Mel
Torme. Those singers include the cat who brought more relaxed jazz feeling to
the movies than any other screen star, Bing Crosby. This standout is from
1956's "High Society."
(Soundbite from "High Society")
Mr. BING CROSBY: (Singing) Dear gentle folk of Newport(ph). Or maybe I
should say hats and cats. I want you to lend an ear because of--well, I want
you to hear some really shimmering sharps and flats. For these cozy virtuosi
is just about the greatest in the trade are fixin' to show you now precisely
how, or approximately, jazz music is made.
Well, you take some skins, jazz begins. And you take a bass, man, now we're
getting someplace. Take a box, one that rocks. Take a blue horn, New Orleans
bar. You take a stick, with a lick. Take a bone, ho, ho, hold the phone.
Take a spot, cool and hot. Now you have jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz, jazz. Le
WHITEHEAD: As much good, and sometimes rare, material the set contains, it
could have been better. The booklet notes are long encapsule biographies of
jazz players and a little short on production anecdotes or discussion of how
the music is used in specific films. The selections come off a bit arbitrary
as well. We get two said pieces from "Cabin in the Sky," but not Ethel Waters
singing "Happiness is a Thing Called Joe," which was written for the film. We
get one good Pearl Bailey number from "All the Fine Young Cannibals." But not
Robert Wagner's(ph) classic bit where he demonstrates how he emotes on his
trumpet. We get nine pieces from Andre Previn's score to "The
Subterraneans,"(ph) far more than from any other film. But actually, that's
OK. It features some of the West Coast jazz musicians who invaded studio
orchestras in the '50s and '60s resulting in more and better used jazz in
Hollywood, if only temporarily. Well, with a set like this, you take your
pleasures where you can and block out the rest, which is pretty much what jazz
fans do at jazz movies already.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man #4: Say, hey pops, you want to grab a little of what's left
Unidentified Man #5: Yeah, daddy. Yeah.
Unidentified Man #4: Here we go. If you sail...
Unidentified Man #5: A sailing, sailing.
Unidentified Man #4: ...over the sea.
Unidentified Man #5: Oh, will you wait for me?
Unidentified Man #4: Take my tip, they're all bold of hip in Italy.
Unidentified Man #5: Well, arrivederci. As for France?
Unidentified Man #4: Oh, I know you'll fare big there.
Unidentified Man #5: Yes, believe it or not...
Unidentified Man #4: I do believe. I do, indeed.
Unidentified Man #5: The Frenchmens all prefer what they call lay jazz, ha.
Unidentified Man #4: ...(Unintelligible). Oh, take a place.
Unidentified Man #5: Oh, baba-do za.
Unidentified Man #4: Go to Siam.
Unidentified Man #5: Baba-do da.
Unidentified Man #4: In Bangkok to Bayonne to ...(unintelligible) where they
all like the jazz.
Unidentified Man #5: Baba-do da zia.
Unidentified Man #4: ...(Unintelligible)...
Unidentified Man #5: Baba do lip.
Unidentified Man #4: ...the Amazon...
Unidentified Man #5: Bado-dat.
Unidentified Man #4: ...(Unintelligible) and all of the ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #5: Oh, well, gone man, gone.
Unidentified Man #4: I'm from the equator, up to the point, everybody
winging, everybody singing that rock, rock, rock, rock, rock 'n' roll. From
the east to the west, from the coast to the coast, jazz is king. Because jazz
is the thing that folks dig more. Bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, ba-dum, dum, dum,
ba-dum dum dum. And that's jazz.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "New Dutch Swing." He reviewed
"Hollywood Swing & Jazz" on Rhino Records.
Coming up, David Bianculli on British TV shows that have come to America.
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Profile: British TV, opera and music that have been Americanized
TERRY GROSS, host:
In popular music, the most influential and popular British import was, of
course, The Beatles, who hit America in the mid-'60s. On Broadway, the
British influence hit hard in the '80s with "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera,"
and continues to this day. And in television, as our TV critic David
Bianculli points out, the influence of England has never been stronger than it
This isn't the first time American television has borrowed heavily and
successfully from the country we fought a revolution to escape. In the '60s,
we imported Diana Rigg and "The Avengers," Roger Moore in "The Saint," and
Patrick McGoohan in "Secret Agent" and "The Prisoner." In the '70s, public
television brought over "Upstairs, Downstairs," which helped popularize and
define the TV miniseries. Also in the '70s, Norman Lear adapted a British
comedy about a bigot, "Till Death Do Us Part," into one of the biggest and
most influential American sitcoms of all time, "All in the Family."
Even with all that history, though, when it comes to British influence on
American television, this is the true golden age. Start with "Who Wants to be
a Millionaire," an Americanized version of the British quiz show. That's
changed the face of US television--at least for a while--and has encouraged
the networks to takes chances and trying new forms.
Then there's another popular ABC series, the improv comedy showcase "Whose
Line Is It Anyway?," also based on a British show. But look what's happening
elsewhere. On cable, Comedy Central premieres an outlandish comedy series
tonight called "The League of Gentlemen," in which three very funny performers
portray all the residents, some 60 of them, of a small, rural English town.
The series already has been shown in this country by BBC America. But since
I'm the only person I know who gets that wonderful cable and satellite
network, Comedy Central will get credit for giving most people their first
taste of the best ensemble sketch series since Monty Python's "Flying Circus"
and "SCTV." Don't miss it.
Tomorrow night, Comedy Central presents new episodes of the still-running
original British version of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" And where would PBS be
without all the British imports on "Masterpiece Theatre" and "Mystery!," not
to mention the somewhat inferior Americanized versions of "Antiques Roadshow"
The best British import of all these days, though, is "The 1900 House."(ph)
It's a four-hour documentary airing one hour a week on PBS and it's absolutely
fascinating. It's about a modern family living for three months in the manner
and environment of a century ago. And the family moves into that home
tonight. So tonight is the perfect time to tune in. Here's how the narrator
sets up the premise at the start of tonight's show.
(Soundbite of "The 1900 House")
Unidentified Man: In an ordinary London suburb, an extraordinary experiment
is about to begin. The mission: to discover how much domestic life has
changed in the last 100 years. An average family has volunteered to give up
the technology of today and live as Victorians. A time machine has been
created. The address: 50 Elliscomb Road(ph), Greenwich, England.
BIANCULLI: It sounds romantic and wonderful. But by the end of the third
day, the poor wife has a mini nervous breakdown, the youngest kid is on a
hunger strike and the husband has ripped his face to shreds trying to use a
straight razor. "The 1900 House" is loaded with history and social
observations to make it worthy of PBS, but it's also addictively entertaining.
And you can't help but identify with it and wonder how or if you'd cope under
the same circumstances. From start to finish, it's the most striking and
memorable British TV import since Emma Peel. And believe me, I can't give
higher praise than that.
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for The New York Daily News. "The 1900
House" airs on PBS stations tonight.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller(ph). I'm Terry Gross.
I want to give you some advance notice that Mondays, beginning in July, we're
going to rebroadcast our American Popular Song series in which we profiled
such songwriters as Hoagy Carmichael, Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields and Eubie
Blake. The series begins Monday, July 3rd, with the music of Harry Warren,
one of the most prolific Hollywood songwriters. His song "Jeepers Creepers"
is featured on the "Hollywood Swing & Jazz" collection that Kevin Whitehead
reviewed earlier. Here's Louis Armstrong from the 1938 film "Going Places."
(Soundbite of "Jeepers Creepers")
Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG: I don't care what the weatherman says. When the
weatherman says it's raining, you'll never hear me complaining. I'm certain
if sunshine. I don't care how the weather vane points when the weatherman
points to gloomy. It's got to be sunny to me, when your eyes look into mine.
Oh, jeepers creepers, where'd you get those peepers? Jeepers creepers,
where'd you get those eyes? Oh, gosh, all get out, how'd they get so lit up?
Gosh, all get out, how'd they get that size? Oh, golly gee. When you turn
the heaters on, warms me. Got to put my cheaters on. Jeepers creepers,
where'd you get those peepers? Oh, those weepers, how they hypnotize, yeah?
Where'd you get those eyes, baby. Where'd you get those eyes, yes. Where'd
you get those eyes? Ba ba da deedle doo do doodle dadden diya. Oh, those
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.