The Trap Door: celebrating a much-loved 80s animated series

We celebrate Terry Brain and Charlie Mills' 1980s children’s stop-motion animated TV series, The Trap Door...

Somewhere in the dark and nasty regions where nobody goes stands an ancient castle. Deep within this dank and uninviting place lives Berk, overworked servant of The Thing Upstairs. But that’s nothing compared to the horrors that lurk beneath the trap door. For there is always something down there, in the dark, waiting to come out…

What was under the trap door? In 1986, a three inch stack of film reel cans forming a makeshift plinth for whatever Plasticine monster was due to spill out of it in that episode. Over the course of forty mini-episodes in the mid-eighties, a legion of skittering demons and tentacled beasts slithered off those reel cans and into the psychedelic polka-dotted castle dungeons where they caused havoc for servant Berk and his disembodied skull companion Boni.

Creatively improvising solutions like that plinth seems typical of CMTB Animation’s vibrant, hands-on approach to their work. Modelling materials were mixed up in an old Nescafé jar, character eyeballs were appropriated from an animator’s mum’s marble collection… A comfortingly DIY aesthetic shone through the tiny studio’s work, all the way to the visible felt-tip pen strokes in The Trap Door logo.

The Bristol-based animation studio prized flexibility and performance over neatness and perfection. The result gave their creations a terrifically unpredictable energy. Instead of laboriously planning each frame of an animated sequence ahead, studio founders Charlie Mills and Terry Brain animated ‘blind’. That freedom privileged performance above all else. The three main characters—Berk, Boni and spider Drutt—each had a different way of behaving, but rather than analyse it, the animators acted it.

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“The only way you can animate blind is by acting it in your head,” explained former CMTB animator Steve Box to the Animation World Network in 2002. “Slickness isn’t important,” said Box. “The Trap Door is full of lumps and bumps, but what got better and better as we did it was the performance.”

Slither, Wriggle And Writhe

Not being precious about  how ‘slick’ The Trap Door’s final animation appeared allowed for an unusual amount of spontaneity in an animated series. Take the voice recording. Instead of the more usual process of recording a voice track and then matching the lip-sync to the existing sound, CMTB filmed six or seven replaceable paper mouth shapes in rough approximation of their scripts and then recorded Willie Rushton’s voice performances afterwards.

“It meant that Willie has the opportunity, when he saw the pictures for the first time, of sort of spontaneous reaction,” Mills told this 1988 BBC Two documentary. “It’s done very roughly, and Willie, using his amazing skills, manages to say his lines to fit the sync of the mouths. There were quite a lot of script changes made, that were dubbed in because of something funny Willie’s said. We were in fits most of the time.”

You can see why. Mills and Brain’s dialogue for lead character Berk is full of delightful silliness. Given a west-country drawl by Rushton, Berk is the BFG trapped in the body of a blue egg. “Oh, glommits” he exclaims as the latest in a series of misfortunes emerges from the trap door, “great, glum fattocks!”. “Yes, your wobble bubbliness, oh, soft and spongey one,” he answers the unseen master whose continuously spooling shopping list of orders form the basis of each four-minute story.

The Trap Door’s horror-inspired world of scunge and ‘bugpipes’ was irresistible to children. Berk’s disgusting recipes for sliced worms, bug burgers and eyeball jam were horrible fun (we eighties kids had strong stomachs, hardened as they were by a daily school diet of Spam fritters and mint custard).

Boni, The Trap Door’s corporeally challenged talking skull also voiced by Rushton, offers yet more joy. A lisping thesp given to complaining, Boni is Victor Meldrew’s Plasticine ancestor, the Jack Lemmon of this particular odd couple.

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Slightly Weird

Variety and experimentation were key to The Trap Door. Its titular plot device was included precisely for that reason. As Terry Brain told BBC Two in 1988, “By having the trap door in it, we could introduce a new character in each episode that moved in a different way.”

What kind of characters? “Monsters and creepy things and strange things and things getting squashed and pulled apart,” according to Charlie Mills. “It’s generally pretty messy stuff,” he explained in 1988, which is all down to the choice of material.

“The essence of animating with Plasticine, really, is the flexibility,” concluded Mills. That lack of rigidity carried with it a sense of fun and unpredictability rarely seen in the minutely controlled world of stop-motion.

Brain described one chaotic animation technique of Berk walking through the middle of a writhing floor of insect interlopers from the trap door. “All we did was pour a load of Plasticine over the set and take a few frames, wiggle it about, move Berk and have two or three actually animated bugs going across the top. The illusion is that they’re all quite well-animated, I hope!”

CMTB made two series of The Trap Door for Channel 4, and collaborated with celebrated games programmer Don Priestley on two licenced video game spin-offs for the Spectrum ZX. For their time, the games, particularly the first, are terrific in terms of both look and play.

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Go And Play

Mills and Brain extended that same avoidance of rigidity to CMTB’s next television series, Stoppit And Tidyup, a 2D animated series filmed using cut-outs with replaceable limbs chosen because they don’t require as much planning as pose-to-pose cel animation.

Thirteen five-minute episodes of Stoppit And Tidyup were made for the BBC and broadcast in 1988. As Willie Rushton had done for The Trap Door, Sir Terry Wogan provided characteristic warmth and humour as the series narrator.

With characters who embodied parental clichés (with names including: Go And Play, Calm Down, I Said No, Clean Your Teeth, Don’t Do That and Not Now), Stoppit And Tidyup’s colourful cast owes something to Heinz Edelmen’s Yellow Submarine uncanny character designs.

Though in a different style to The Trap Door, both series combined the comforting and humorous with an edge of unnerving strangeness that make them cult favourites today.

A wondrous legacy

Charlie Mills and Terry Brain first animated together at the age of ten when both attended Speedwell Junior School in the mid-sixties. In an interview at the time, Mills recalled a sample title of their early work as Night Of The Blollop (who wouldn’t want to watch that?), made via the high-tech approach of Sellotaping a camera to a table top.

That early fizz of passion and DIY attitude to problem-solving stayed effervescent throughout their later work with Steve Box, and remains in evidence there today, long after the studio that made it closed its doors.

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In their story of friends having fun and spreading untold joy and silliness to kids in the process, there’s something of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin’s Smallfilms about Mills, Box and Brain’s collaborations. Just as the creators of Ivor The Engine and Noggin The Nog were for children of the fifties and sixties, so they were for my generation. No doubt, their dynamic, accessible approach to their art inspired many young animators in turn.

Earlier this year, at the age of sixty, Terry Brain died after two years suffering from cancer. According to his son David, he spent his last years making a new animated series in his spare room. “He was four seconds of animation away from finishing a twelve-part series he’d been doing, and we’re going to try and get someone to finish it off for him. So there’s still more to come.”

What else would you expect from a devoted animator whose work, from its earliest days on Tony Hart’s children’s TV programmes to his final years at Aardman Studios, gleamed with fun? “He wouldn’t have wanted people to know he was in pain,” said Brain’s son, “just enjoy his stuff.”

That we can do. He made it our pleasure.