Last month, the old Cosgrove Hall building in Chorlton was finally knocked down after standing empty since 2008; as demolition began in November, Mark Hall, one of the company’s founders, sadly passed away.
Here are my jaded recollections of the company which was once Chorlton’s proudest boast:
In 1976, I passed Cosgrove Hall’s Brantingham Road premises almost every day and never guessed that an animation company had taken up residence inside. We noticed at school that there was a new TV programme for younger children called Chorlton And The Wheelies but no-one suspected that the name signalled a direct link with our sleepy suburb! We thought it was just a co-incidence.
Then Dangermouse captured our imaginations during 1981, when the show was broadcast weekdays on ITV around 5 o’clock. My friends raved about its anarchic sense of humour; some people even audio-taped it on cassette and learned the lines! I remember buying Dangermouse stickers from Kingspot (50p shop opposite the bus station) to decorate my ‘O’ level revision files and yet still I was unaware of the local connection with the programme. (All its references were to London; the main characters lived there and the progamme always started with the Thames TV logo.)
The Truth Is Out There
The penny finally dropped when a massive modern extension was added to the Brantingham Road premises, and the company invested in signage proclaiming its identity; Cosgrove Hall Films’ existence in our midst became common knowledge, and we soon forgot that for years we’d not known it was there.
I wanted to be a professional artist and dreamed of working at Cosgrove Hall one day, but somehow the dream was always bitter-sweet… you know, when you just want something too much… and you can’t visualise it actually happening. You learn to live with the disappointment in advance…
During 1985, one of my art tutors at Manchester Polytechnic encouraged me to attend a public open day at Cosgrove Hall, where his wife worked as a producer. The company was show-casing its Wind In The Willows’ sets and models after winning BAFTA and EMMY awards for the film. I’ll never forget the look of undisguised hatred on my tutor’s wife’s face when we were introduced… apparently she considered her husband’s female students to be the worst possible company. My tutor’s hints that his wife might be able to organise some work experience were blown out of the water in an instant.
So instead, I wrote to Cosgrove Hall management at least twice a year from then on, begging to work there, for nothing if necessary. If I’d had an ounce of common sense, I would have got a local bar job and ingratiated myself with members of the workforce, but this devious strategy never occurred to me and so the Cosgrove Hall building remained an impregnable fortress. (Also Chorlton pubs were very different then… mainly old men’s pubs… )
Then in December 1992, disaster struck… Cosgrove Hall’s main client, Thames Television, disappeared overnight. Everyone blamed Margaret Thatcher because apparently the government could have intervened to save Thames but chose not to. Cosgrove Hall lost most of its business and had to radically re-structure in order to survive. Most of the workforce was laid off but then some individuals formed smaller companies, which continued to operate from the same premises as sub-contractors – companies like puppet makers McKinnon & Saunders.
I Want To Believe
Then out of the blue, in 1995, after a decade of fruitless one-way correspondence, I received a letter from Brian Cosgrove and Mark Hall requesting I come in to see them!
They didn’t want me to make little models, or draw, or paint, or do stop motion animation… all the things I had imagined doing at their company; they wanted me to use a computer (which I now did for a living) – and not just any computer but their Silicon Graphics Indigo Workstation with SoftImage software installed – which they had invested a huge amount of money in and which nobody at the company could operate.
I candidly explained that I had never used SoftImage software or an Indigo Workstation, and that all my 3D modelling experience was linked with furniture and interiors, not modelling for animation. They were undaunted and employed me immediately for a pittance. I was over the moon for about a week… but during my first day on the premises, hopes of a rosey future at my dream company began to unravel.
The Cosgrove Hall “super-computer” was contained within a tiny windowless office, which was actually a server room. This became my workspace. I was given several tutorial and fact-filled tomes and told to work through them and report back to management when I’d figured out what the computer could do! In the meantime, my nominal boss was Mr Bean, the company’s computer guru, who appeared to be unenthusiastic about my arrival.
Mr Bean oversaw the company computer network, but as few film making tasks were computerised at Cosgrove Hall in 1995, this mostly comprised word-processing and desk-top-publishing machines. The notable exception was the Animo Suite, situated in the room next to my cupboard. This consisted of about ten computers, all operated by women, who scanned in line-drawings (Spanish imports) and coloured the images by numbers, using a point-and-click fill tool. The work was mind-blowingly boring, as was their conversation, which revolved around the gorgeousness of David Duchovny and other X-Files trivia. A couple of the more interesting women never spoke…
Later, I learned that Mr Bean had wanted to do my job but couldn’t fit it round his other responsibilities, so perhaps this explained his unfriendly manner. Other members of staff were also peculiarly distant. I began to suspect that I was perceived as The Enemy: I was physical evidence of the management’s wish to pursue a new-fangled, computerised approach. For the technophobes, I was an unwanted harbinger of change. Meanwhile any technophiles (a silent minority?) would have rightly noted that my appointment barely qualified as a token gesture. Cosgrove Hall might have splashed out on an Indigo Workstation but it wasn’t going to operate itself… and they needed an expert to get the best out of it, not a self-confessed novice like me.
Thank goodness for Amanda Hussain, who was a student on a work placement. Amanda was the only person who seemed unperturbed by my political pariah status because unlike everyone else, she wasn’t staying; she didn’t care if Cosgrove Hall adopted new technology or how they went about it. Amanda was able to tell me who was who… the hard-to-spot relatives of directors whom I shouldn’t cross, the couples, ex-couples and bizarre love triangles; the company was an unexpected hotbed of intrigue and nepotism but I was oblivious to the daily soap opera, cooped up in my cupboard.
Slowly, I worked through the SoftImage tutorials and struggled to produce some demos to show what the software could do… but I realised that I needed to talk to someone with industry experience if I was going to progress beyond the basics. SoftImage was an enormous programme and only some of its functionality was useful to a company like Cosgrove Hall… I was quite unsure about which areas to concentrate on and which to ignore.
I asked around and discovered that a couple of SoftImage specialists did earn a living in Manchester. A freelance artist at the company told me about ‘Howard’, who freelanced for Granada and the BBC. After a brief chat with Howard on the phone, I went to the management, and asked if they could employ Howard for a few hours each week to teach me to use their Indigo Workstation more effectively. The management responded by offering my job to Howard while I was re-assigned to the Animo team, where I learned more than I ever wanted to know about The X-Files.
Trust No One
So Cosgrove Hall crushed my spirit and destroyed my faith in humanity, but they did also pay me to learn a prestigious 3D modelling package for a few months, which probably got me throught the door of a computer games company the following year. Every cloud has a silver lining…
Meanwhile, Cosgrove Hall’s struggle to combine new technology with their conventional film-making expertise rumbled on into the next millenium. After numerous creative triumphs and technical challenges, the company was finally wound down by owners ITV PLC in 2009, by which time only four staff, based at Granada Studios, were on the payroll. Cosgrove Hall always struggled to compete financially with state-subsidised European and North American animation companies, many of which also benefit from close ties with software-development companies.
Brian Cosgrove is now Executive Producer at Cosgrove Hall Fitzpatrick.