Early Bird: Listening to the Past

When it comes to talking about the latest happenings in the world of animation, I’m not really the guy you’d visit for the hot scoops. I live a somewhat ostrich-like existence, and often end up checking out stuff that’s more than a decade or two old – long after most of the interesting opinions have been discussed, died and been cremated to put into the food at the funeral reception. It’s not intentional; new stuff’s always as interesting as the old stuff; but I tend to look into older works out of habit.

I bring this up because a criticism I often hear about older media (although it can just as easily come up for anything recent) is that it’s “dated”. Whether it’s an aspect of the production, an incidental detail or reference, or the entire basis behind the work’s identity, there’s something that inextricably ties the work to the era it was made in – and that’s supposedly a flaw that makes it lesser than works that are “timeless”.

However, I severely disagree with the idea that being tied to its time is a bad thing. Yes, there are some works that try to coast off a zeitgeist that might not exist five minutes afterward, but I think it’s fine if something clearly reflects its original context. It adds to the texture of the work; not just in the aesthetic sense like film grain or vinyl noise, but in the countless details that culminate in making the work what it is. It makes the work more interesting by reflecting ideas and experiences that aren’t possible to express in the same way as the world changes. It tells us things about the time the work was made in, both big and small, and helps us to better understand the world around us.

I believe being “dated”, to use a more concise if reductive term, is a trait that should be examined and celebrated with all the interest and joy that any other aspect of a work receives. So, to that end, I’m going to talk about one of my favourite animated shorts from that perspective: the 1983 Aardman short Early Bird, animated and directed by Peter Lord and David Sproxton.

From the late 1970s to the late 80s, Aardman Animations were known for producing shorts that took pre-recorded audio (such as interviews, conversations, and the odd public recording) and created stop motion animation around them. These were made across three series: “Animated Conversations“, “Conversation Pieces“, and “Lip Synch“, the latter of which is the most famous as one of its shorts was the Oscar-winning Creature Comforts by Nick Park.

Through this specific method of creating animation from recorded conversations and the like, Aardman’s “Vox Pop” shorts are very much tied to the time they were made. Confessions of a Foyer Girl features a discussion of a post-mortem report for a girl who was recently murdered at the time of the recording. War Story is based on an interview with Bill Perry and his life during the Blitz in World War II, a context very specific to those who were alive in the UK circa 1940-1941. Late Edition is perhaps the most obvious example of this, as its premise is of a newspaper staff putting together the next issue, with mentions of the brief Falklands War placing the short between April and June of 1982.

Early Bird is another example of this, with its audio being taken from an early morning broadcast of Radio West (set in Bristol where Aardman is established), with famous radio host Roger Day sitting in for John Hayes. The date of Thursday, August the 25th is mentioned as Day is having his breakfast, which places the recording of the broadcast at August 25th, 1983 (seeing as the station had only been established in October of 1981).

This is further confirmed by the news report delivered earlier on while Day gets himself dressed. The report discusses the closure of coal pits in Scotland and South Wales and the possibility of a potential major confrontation by Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union on Mineworkers (or NUM). Months later, the coal pit closures and similar industrial disputes resulted in the NUM leading the infamous 1984/85 miners’ strike, which backfired horribly and led to a dramatic decrease in coal mining and the power held by trade unions.

On a smaller cultural note, a random commercial for the Radio West Summer Roadshow features its narrator mentioning his “digital watch” (pronounced “DIG-it-el” for no apparent reason, but it makes me laugh). Digital watches were starting to become more commonplace and cheaper in the early 80s; a kitsch novelty that was relentlessly mocked in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy around that time.

Moving away from the recorded elements for a moment, the animation features a few moment in Roger Day’s morning routine that make it clear that this was made in the early 80s. He starts the day by having a bowl of cereal, with a very obvious parody of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes on the cover (written as “Aard’s Corn Y Gags”) – complete with the distinct chicken. It isn’t copying a specific cover, though it’s stylistically a mix of the 1958-1960 box layout and the 1968-1970 logo design.

Later on, Roger is shown using a coal scuttle – a tool that easily scoops up coal and drops it into a nearby stove or oven – to heat up the place while he’s away. In addition to the use of coal during an era where that was a leading source of energy (one reason why the coal pit closures were so controversial), it’s also a reminder of how older houses would only be kept warm by heating up the fireplace, stove and such. The house that I live in was built in the mid 1970s, and we have to put on a fire or turn on the immersion heater if we want to heat up the place.

Another part of the short that reflects its era is the use of music from the KPM production music library during and in between commercials, though only a pair of jingles have as yet been identified. The brief jingle played as Day’s boiling the kettle is “New Look (A)”, composed by Graham Preskett and comes from the 1982 album “The Middle of the Road”. The relaxed reggae tune playing in the background while Day reads the daily horoscope is “In The Crowd” by William Farley and Dennis Bovell for the 1981 album “Kpm 1000 Series: The Reggae Album”.

There’s an extra piece of music that has been identified, but it doesn’t come from a production music library. During the aforementioned Radio West Summer Roadshow commercial, a western styled electronic track can be heard in the background. Despite its brief presence, it was identified as the track “Country Rock Polka”, which came from the 1970 album “Moog Indigo” and was composed by the legendary electronic music producer Jean-Jacques Perrey.

As Roger Day’s show ends and he prepares to head off, he says “I’d like to say if you enjoyed it, [it was] Roger Day. But you didn’t, it was Reginald Bosanquet.” Reginald Bosanquet was a journalist and reporter best known for being a lead anchor for Independent Television New (or ITN)’s “News at Ten” from 1967 to 1979 (in addition to being something of an occasional alcoholic with a notable difficulty pronouncing non-English names). After Day leaves, the little parrot by the door and takes over with the voice of the late great radio host Trevor Fry, and we hear a little bit of him as the credits roll before the audio fades out.

Perhaps this article’s a bit more dry than what I’d usually write by talking about these references, news reports and other details without further critical examination. However, I think the fact that I wanted to research into those details and discuss them says a lot about how much I enjoyed this short. I’ve watched it many times over the years (and have even been listening to it casually while writing parts of this article), and yet I’m still finding new things to admire. I even looked up the source to a charmingly bad pun made by Day, just to know what he was talking about!

Even if it’s only interesting to me and one other person in the universe, I hope this can show how it’s fine for a work to be obviously tied to its original time. It’s never a bad thing to look to the past, or in this case, listen to the past.

In memory of Trevor Fry (1946-2014)






Special thanks to YouTube users Lone Wolf Rider, SynaMax and FellaFromEdinbugh, who were responsible for identifying the music tracks “New Look (A)”, “In The Crowd”, and “Country Rock Polka”, respectively. Special thanks also go to Matty Prower, who inadvertently got me thinking about this idea when he mentioned being surprised at seeing the Corn Flakes box in it at one point. Yes, it’s an abstract connection, but credit where credit’s due.

FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.

Leave a Comment