As the TV clay character hits his midlife crisis, Etan Smallman meets the creators of the terracotta terror
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He is surely the greatest British slapstick star since Charlie Chaplin: the terracotta terror on whose tiny shoulders a global animation giant has been built. He may now be celebrating his 40th birthday, but I can’t spot a single wrinkle (just the odd fingerprint).
In reality, Morph is a 5½oz (156g) lump of Plasticine, but for anyone who grew up (or raised a child) in the Seventies, just the sound of his squeaky gibberish and the sight of his little feet of clay are enough to unleash a heady dose of nostalgia.
It was 1977 when Morph first leapt out of Tony Hart’s pencil box on BBC1’s Take Hart. He was commissioned by the show’s producers as a foil to the avuncular and strait-laced artist, designed to generate mayhem on his desk. In his first appearance, he knocks over pots of ink and paint, wrecking Hart’s artwork, as he mutates from one form to another.
Today, he is on his best behaviour, standing in between my water glass and tape recorder, waving as I interview his creators, Peter Lord and David Sproxton, the founders of multi-Oscar-winning Aardman Animations. A 12-year-old Sproxton was sitting in his class 51 years ago at Woking Grammar School for Boys, at the only desk with an empty chair, when Lord arrived six weeks into term. The stars aligned in more ways than one. Lord is left-handed and Sproxton right, so the two enjoyed optimal use of their desk space. More than that, they moulded a kinship that has seen them through half a century.
“We were just quite a natural double act,” explains Lord, who impressed his schoolmate with his sketchbooks. “David was practical in a way that I never was. And I was artistic.”
This summer, the makers of Wallace and Gromit, Shaun the Sheep, Creature Comforts and Chicken Run are focusing their creative energies on a range- of events to celebrate Morph – who was on the BBC until 1997 and then resurrected in 15 YouTube episodes in 2014 thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. He has been on Sky Kids since last year.
They are not doing it to turn a profit. In fact, the character has, Lord suspects, lost them money: “If we actually added it all up, he’s probably never really paid his way.”
The painstaking stop-motion process that Bristol-based Aardman has made its own is notoriously expensive (producing a maximum of eight seconds of footage a day). And they never quite managed to nail the merchandise that often proves to be the real money-spinner – Hart once revealed that children were disappointed by a bendable toy version when it didn’t “do anything”.
They insist they are simply seeking to honour the vast place Morph holds in the hearts of Aardman’s 250 or so staff. He was created four years after Lord and Sproxton registered their company – the pair were given the commission off the back of short animations they had made for Vision On, a BBC show aimed at deaf children co-presented by Hart.
Despite most of their subsequent creations being far more lucrative and famous (Chicken Run generated more than £170 million, becoming the highest grossing stop-motion animation film of all time), ask the company’s founders which one is their favourite and there is no contest. “Yeah, this guy – totally,” says Lord, looking down with a beaming smile of fatherly pride at the rascal. “Yes,” Sproxton concurs. “It’s really why we brought him back. We love him to bits.” There is no great science behind Morph’s form. “We came up with this figure because we hadn’t got the technology to make complex armatured skeletons or latex characters,” Sproxton admits. He is all one colour and without clothes so there was “nothing to blur or smudge”, and he is 5in (12.7cm) tall because if he were any bigger he would fall over.
Even so, Sproxton says Morph is “a pain in the arse to animate”. Because he is so simple, any deviation from his default design is immediately obvious. “You have to be a sculptor as well as an animator,” says Lord, who used to prop up Morph with mugs whenever he nipped to the loo between takes. “With Wallace or Shaun the Sheep, they have a skeleton and you screw them down to the floor. But he just attaches to the floor by virtue of having quite sticky feet.”
Morph, whose working title was Plasman, was the duo’s first hit and the small payments they got from the BBC allowed the “seriously poor” twentysomethings to keep their heads above water until more lucrative commercial work came along – including videos for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer (the most-played in the history of MTV) and a reissue of Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me (she loathed it), as well as adverts for Lurpak. Crucially, without the “little guy”, they would never have obtained their hottest property, Wallace and Gromit.
Its creator, Nick Park, enjoyed Morph as a student. Given the chance to invite a guest speaker to his film school, he chose Lord and Sproxton – who offered to help him produce his graduation movie, A Grand Day Out. Morph’s birthday celebrations will include an exhibition called Morph: Still Naughty at 40, running from July 14 to Sept 5 at The Mall at Cribbs Causeway in Bristol, featuring sculptures, sets and animation workshops. A 3m tall “Mega Morph” will be touring the city to raise funds for The Grand Appeal, the Bristol Children’s Hospital Charity. The character is also starring in an exhibition at the Australian Centre for Moving Image in Melbourne, and will be immortalised in graffiti at Upfest, Europe’s biggest Urban Paint festival.
Despite reaching middle age, Morph has not yet married or sprouted a family – he seems content to share his table top with his cream-coloured sidekick, Chas. However, he is a social media star. There is a range of Morph emoji stickers, and his 150,000 Facebook and Twitter followers will be able to check in on his mid-life crisis. In a set of carefully crafted pictures – seen here for the first time – Morph gets a tattoo and buys a shiny red sports car. “None of which I’ve done at all, I’m sorry to say,” declares Lord.
The landscape of children’s entertainment has undoubtedly changed since Morph’s heyday, when he clocked up 13.5 million viewers. Would his creators, I wonder, have as much success if they were two budding animators pitching up at the BBC today? “Probably not,” muses Lord. “YouTube has changed it.” Sproxton adds: “They want diversity – they want girls to be lead characters. We’ve always regarded Morph and Chas as both boys, though you never know!”
Lord and Sproxton are mulling over doing another full series for mainstream TV and assessing ways to “sell him around the world”, especially in China and Japan, where children and adults go wild for Wallace, Gromit and Shaun. But don’t expect him to be any less vain, greedy or surrealist than he has been for generations of British viewers.
“He’s a bit like Chaplin, or Buster Keaton,” says Sproxton. “The heart of the character doesn’t change.”