How a woman on a Preston Bus inspired Wallace and Gromit

Oscar winning animator and proud son of Preston Nick Park
Oscar winning animator and proud son of Preston Nick Park
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Oscar winning animator Nick Park is heading home to Lancashire for a special show. Here he tells Tony Dewhurst how the Red Rose county inspired his success.

There’s a joyous moment in A Grand Day Out, featuring Wallace, the eccentric Wensleydale cheese loving inventor and his loyal dog Gromit, as they rocket towards the moon on their Cheese Holidays.

As their DIY spaceship begins a rapid descent towards a lunar surface made of cheese, Wallace takes a giant slurp of tea and carries on reading the Evening Post as if he is trundling down Garstang Road at 10mph on a vintage Ribble double decker bus.

Suddenly, he orders Gromit, who is in charge of flight control, ‘Hold tight lad and think of Lancashire hotpot’ and then patiently folds his newspaper up.

“Do you know, that headline on the front of Wallace’s Evening Post – Chicken Saved by Bantam - is a true story,” jokes Nick. “My sister Janet lives at Longton and one day her pet chicken fell in a pond and couldn’t get out of the water. And it was only when one of the noisy bantams started making a commotion, that she heard it and plucked the chicken to safety. That’s how I got the idea for the front of the Evening Post in A Grand Day Out.”

While celebrities employ more agents than MI5 and are dutifully protected by a battalion of PR spooks, Nick could not be more modest and disarming as we spoke for half an hour on the telephone.

Wallace and Gromit

Wallace and Gromit

There’s a warmness in his voice as he talks politely about a stellar career that has whisked him from the outskirts of Hutton to Hollywood faster than Wallace’s skyrocket to outer space.

And maybe that’s the measure of the man as he looks forward to visiting the county next month for an appearance at Clitheroe’s Grand Theatre on Tuesday, October 9.

Nick has four Academy Awards to show for his genius, yet he still seems surprised at the extent of his success. The Duchess of Cornwall once told a class of schoolchildren that Wallace and Gromit are Prince Charles’ ‘favourite people in the world’ and that Steven Spielberg is a big fan of his work.

“Sometimes it does get a bit surreal, but it is so special when somebody stops you and tells you that they enjoy the films and how’s Gromit? I was always aware of audiences but to be honest from the beginning I have just wanted to make films that I would personally find entertaining. Every day is just such great fun.”

Dug and Hognob from Early Man by Aardman Animations

Dug and Hognob from Early Man by Aardman Animations

Of all the magical characters he has sculpted with his own hands he says Wallace and Gromit are probably his personal favourites for so many reasons. He says: “I never thought they’d become household names. Now, if a motorbike and a pillion passenger appear on TV, or a rocket, then Wallace and Gromit often get a mention.

“I heard somebody say on the train the other day, ‘It is not exactly Wallace and Gromit Eh?’ In my work I tend to refer to my childhood things I remember from my home or my granny’s house, like the tea strainer and lampshade in Grand Day Out.”

When he was creating Wallace and Gromit, Nick says he spent many weeks thinking about the right name for the inventor.

“I’d come up with all sorts, but they just didn’t fit the character,” he recalls. “One day, though, I caught the Walmer Bridge to Preston bus and an old lady got on at Penwortham. She had a big, black Labrador, who was just sat in the aisle, wagging his tail and looking at all the passengers.

Nick Park with Shaun the Sheep

Nick Park with Shaun the Sheep

“The lady said: ‘Go on Wallace. Be a good boy. We are going on a little journey to town.’ It just tickled me, you know, and that’s how I got the name for Wallace.”

Wallace is said to be based on Nick’s Dad, but he only discovered that in retrospect.

“I didn’t consciously do it, it was after A Grand Day Out that I remembered how my parents had made a caravan from scratch one year, like Wallace did with the rocket with wood and stuff.

My Dad bought the base for £10 and we all went on holiday together - my mum did the interior, with a cooker, a sink and wallpaper. So, it was only after I made Grand Day Out I thought.

‘Wow I’ve made a film about my Dad!

He adds: “Dad was quite proud of the comparison. He had a laugh about it and he was very Lancashire with a similar attitude to Wallace.”

Wallace and Gromit

Wallace and Gromit

Nick, though, admits he is more of a Gromit. “I’m fairly shy, quiet and always think too much about everything. But it is incredible that they’re still shown every Christmas. I often turn the TV on and there they are. It’s nice to be associated with holidays and good times.”

Nick, who attended St Cuthbert Mayne High School in Fulwood, (now Our Lady’s) admits he never stops dreaming up new sketches.

“I never switch off. I often get the train home to Preston from Bristol, where I live, and I’ve always got a sketchbook handy, doodling and creating ideas. My Mum said that as a kid I was the quiet one, always observing, and I would love to go off drawing on my own, they were my happiest moments.”

Nick was making films as a teenager, mostly short comedy sketches: Walter The Rat and A Friendly Worm, or Murphy and Bongo, a caveman and a dinosaur.

“There was a teacher at St Cuthbert Mayne, Mike Kelly, who took a great interest in what I was doing with my animation. Mike was really good to me, allowing me to show the films in the school hall to the other students.

“Very sadly, Mike died recently but he was a real inspiration to me and you do remember kind people like that. Art was the only thing I was good at really and I could draw. However, my Dad was an architectural photographer at Building Design Partnership in Preston and he told me some of the basic principles of how animation works, encouraging me to see it as a career. What I do remember, though, is how Dad picked up on the humour of the characters.

“That’s what gave me a lot of confidence in the storytelling, that I could make people feel sad or make them laugh. I always thought this would be a hobby really, because coming from Preston I had never heard of anyone going into the film business or TV so it wasn’t on my radar as something I could do.”

Nick was a teenager at Preston’s Tuson College (now Preston College) when he sowed the seeds for Wallace and Gromit. It took seven years to finish A Grand Day Out and working with plasticine is a notoriously painstaking process. The production teams would make two minutes of film every week, even when using 25 animators all working simultaneously.

“The slowness is all part of it but it’s also about being a bit of a perfectionist and finding it hard to let things go. I like to be involved in every frame, even down to what colour of socks every character should wear.

“It can be very hard work but I’m not a person who naturally cracks the whip and refuses to come out of my trailer, though some of the plasticine models do. I do like making people laugh with what I do, but I also want to move them as well. Comedy is always a great tonic in life isn’t it?”

After the Wallace and Gromit films, Chicken Run and the Shaun The Sheep movie, Nick’s latest feature film Early Man is his first historical film.

It’s a prehistoric adventure about a caveman called Dug who rouses his tribe to defend their land against a bunch of Bronze Age baddies led by Lord Nooth on the football pitch.

“It’s the first underdog prehistoric sports movie,” laughs Nick.

“I’m not really a football fan, but the whole primal nature of football began to ring true in a context of a prehistoric story and the ideas began to develop from there. I grew up with the culture of football in Preston, the tribalism and the rivalry with other clubs, and I understood that.

“I bought a Preston North End sports bag on the market to carry my school books in. Although I didn’t go to watch PNE I supported them because that was my home town club.”

He adds: “Football is a religion in England, and I love the World Cup, but we can never win it can we?”

Now there’s a strong Deepdale football connection coursing through Nick’s family following his marriage to accountant Mags Connolly in 2016.

Margaret is the sister of the former Preston North End footballer Ian Rothwell.

Nick adds: “Also, the captain of Preston North End, Tom Clarke, his brother is one of my story board artists at Aardvark in Bristol.

“It’s funny, when I come out of the woodwork with another film like Early Man, it really astounds me just how recognisable our work is, and how much it sits in people’s consciousness.

“People have grown up with the characters and that’s lovely.”

* An evening with Nick Park, Clitheroe Grand Theatre, October 9. 01200 421599. www.thegrandvenue.co.uk