Celebrating the life and career
of animator Joy Batchelor
by Jez Stewart
This year has seen a variety of events to mark the birth centenary of British animator Joy Batchelor (1914-1991), and in my role of Curator of Animation at the BFI National Archive I have been fortunate to be involved in a number of them. The first goal has simply been to bring attention to her work, and with a CV like hers, reeling off accomplishments is relatively straightforward:
- Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films, the company that Joy and her Hungarian-born husband John Halas set up together in 1940, was the first British animation studio to cement artistic ambition and commercial success together to build a sustainable business that was an active beacon for the industry for over 40 years
- Joy was the co-writer, director and producer of Britain’s first animated feature film Animal Farm (1954)
- She wrote and directed, as well as co-produced, what is arguably Britain’s second animated feature film, Ruddigore (1967), which was produced for American television but got a limited theatrical release in the UK
- Between 1935 and 1979 she worked on over a 100 different productions, ranging from wartime public information cartoons like Dustbin Parade (1942) to live-action Children’s Film Foundation feature, The Monster of Highgate Ponds (1961), story by Joy, and satirical Oscar-nominated independent short, Automania 2000 (1963)
The second goal has been to unpick her reputation from the ‘and Batchelor’ tag. John Halas is another unprecedented figure in animation, becoming increasingly the more prominent voice and figurehead of not just Halas & Batchelor, but also the British animation industry as a whole. He has a global status, amongst those in the know, through his leading role in ASIFA – the international association of animators – and his many publications. His prominence casts perhaps not a shadow over Joy, but provides a dazzling distraction from her achievements. Yet they were a true partnership, and neither would have found the same success without finding their foil in the other. They met when John hired Joy, and many others, as an animator on Music Man (1938), but their relationship from employee/employer to 50:50 business partners happened very quickly – first in a small graphic design outfit, and then the animation studio.
That their romantic relationship flourished in the same period marks some of the roots of the overshadowing of Joy as an independent figure. In fact their decision to marry was something of a pragmatic one, or at the very least the decision was hastened by the need to protect John from internment on the Isle of Man. His problematic status as an “enemy alien” at the outbreak of WWII was defused through marriage to Joy, and not without a temporary cost to her citizenship. More important is that examination of the remaining evidence quickly reveals that Joy’s efforts and influence on the company in this period were immense. The handwriting on remaining scripts and notes is invariably hers; the character design, and some would even say the ‘house style’ of the early films, is recognisable from her independent illustration work. You could almost cheekily argue that John was quite lucky that “Batchelor & Halas” seems to trip-up on the tongue.
Having separated Joy as an individual, the third goal of the year has been to better understand and represent her as person, and not just a credit on the screen or a name in the history books. The efforts of John and Joy’s daughter, Vivien Halas, have been invaluable in this. Vivien has been the driving force behind a book of essays on her mother’s work – A Moving Image (2014), a short film tribute, and a number of public screenings. Through her moving biographical essay on her mother, and thanks to Joy’s own private memoir notes that Vivien shared with some of the other contributors, the book offers the most insight. Whilst we may not yet have a fully-rounded portrait of a complex life that only a fully-researched and resourced biography could achieve, we have a number of detailed snapshots of Joy in various stages of her life. That these images of Joy are often contrasting – glamorous and driven; shy and aloof; warm and witty; bitter and exhausted – make her only more human.
The fourth aspect of celebrating Joy this year has been in marking her achievements as a leading female figure in a male-dominated industry. Vivien believes that her mother did not consider gender an issue, but of course her life and opportunities did not take place in isolation to the world around her. It is certainly apparent that the couple’s decision to have children had a far greater impact on Joy’s career than John’s.
Hopefully this focus on women in British animation will be one of the most rewarding legacies of the year’s focus, precisely because it is so incomplete. It requires looking beyond the life of an “exceptional” individual – in both senses of the term – to the wider industry (and beyond). Personally, it has lead me to research into many of Joy’s contemporary female animators, forgotten names like Rosalie “Wally” Crook, Kathleen “Spud” Houston, Vera Linnecar, Nancy Hanna and Beryl Stevens. That four of those five women worked for Joy at Halas & Batchelor, reiterates that she is just one part of a rich seam of history waiting to be explored.
Jez Stewart is the Curator of Animation at the BFI National Archive, responsible for the growth, care and interpretation of Britain’s largest collection of animated films. He has written about animation for the Journal of Film Preservation, contributed to the book Joy Batchelor: A Moving Image 1914-1991, and has given talks about British animation in Beijing and New York. He writes about his work for the BFI website.