Dick Spanner, P.I. is one of the more successful of the series that I'll be looking at in this post. Created by Terry Adlam and produced by Gerry Anderson, the series aired as a six-minute segment on Network 7, a late eighties Channel 4 series targeting teenagers. Dick Spanner spoofed both film noir and sci-fi serials, and much of its humour was derived from how Dick's deadpan narration was illustrated with visual puns straight out of MAD Magazine.
Another series that originated as a segment of a longer programme was House of Rock, a sitcom about deceased musicians such as John Lennon, Freddy Mercury and Kurt Cobain hanging out together in the afterlife. The series first appeared in 2000, when it took the form of clips shown as part of 4music.
Dick Spanner and House of Rock were lucky: they have their fans and have both been released on DVD. The rest of this post, I fear, is something of a graveyard of forgotten pilots and one-off miniseries.
In September 2000 Channel 4 held an Animation Week, during which Tim Searle's Dominion aired in a 7:55 slot after the news. This short series of four-minute cartoons about an everyday man who ends up living in a city of aliens had the bad luck to premiere during the same week as Futurama, a higher-profile and more sophisticated treatment of much the same subject matter; still, animation enthusiasts should have appreciated the in-jokes (the main characters were named Avery, Freleng, Fleischer, Quimby and Svankmajer) and the presence of Hugh Laurie didn't hurt.
Johnny Casanova the Unstoppable Sex Machine, round about the strongest of the Animation Week pilots, can be viewed online here.
Also airing during Animation Week was a set of four sitcom pilots: Three Brothers Diamond, written by Ricky Grover and Frankie Park and directed by Park and Jamie Rix; Captain Sarcastic, written and directed by Peter Peake; Chat the Celebrity Cat, directed by Grant Gilchrist; and Johnny Casanova the Unstoppable Sex Machine, created by Jamie Rix and co-directed by Andy Wyatt. None were picked up as series and, truth be told, they're a pretty hit-or-miss lot. Although the writing and voice acting generally work, the mostly rather basic animation lets things down; indeed, most of the cartoons in this post give the impression that the crews were still experimenting with what they could pull off on a TV budget and timescale, with mixed results.
Rolf's Animal Hairdressers, a pilot by Tim Searle, can be seen here.
The same year Tim Searle made Rolf's Animal Hairdressers as part of Comedy Lab, a series designed to produce pilots for potential series. According to Clare Kitson's British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor there were four animated episodes in Comedy Lab's first series; as far as I can tell the other three were House of Rock Awards, Absolutely's Meat and Fireside's Pop Cultomania. Again, none of these became series - except, of course, House of Rock, which already was a series - although Searle went on to use the stripped-down animation process that he developed for Rolf's to create 2DTV, which needed to be animated quickly because of its topical nature.
The Cloth, a six-part spoof of seventies cop shows starring two hardboiled clergymen, was serialised as part of Channel 4's Hot Reels Animation Grand Prix 2001. It was written by Rupert Russell and David Armand and animated by Celyn Brazier and Tom Perrett and has now been almost completely forgotten. The end credits identify it as "a Hahabonk production" and attribute its copyright to a company called Emptyspace, whoever they were...
All of these cartoons were brought to us by Channel 4, but now we come to the BBC, which aired the two-part pub-based sitcom Bosom Pals in 2004. As usual there was a celebrity voice actor - Dawn French, who was also on the writing team - but more unexpected was the involvement of a celebrity artist, Beryl Cook. Directed by Ginger Gibbons and animated by the Hungarian studio Varga, the series worked hard to capture Cook's painting style and pulled it off commendably, even bagging the Annecy award for best TV special.
Bosom Pals harked back to a slightly earlier period in the history of adult cartoon series: back when The Simpsons was the dominant model any show hoping to emulate it had no formula to follow beyond good writing. After South Park arrived on the scene, however, far too many creators got the impression that rude jokes and bare-bones animation were all you needed for a successful series. Of course, this ignores the social commentary that South Park has under all of its swearing, and that the crude animation - giving the impression that the series was made by a demented child - is not just mere cost-cutting but also adds to its off-the-wall feel.
One last thing that needs to be mentioned is the range of animation that has been included in sketch comedies over the years, from Terry Gilliam's contributions to Monty Python's Flying Circus to more recent sequences for likes of The Lenny Henry Show and Frankie Boyle's Tramadol Nights. This is an area that needs to have more written about it, and I hope to cover it in more depth in the future.