We talk Tim Burton, Guillermo Del Toro and Cosgrove Hall with puppeteer Peter Saunders

Somewhere in the outskirts of Altrincham lies a studio filled with talented craftspeople of all kinds – sculptors and painters and puppet-makers hard at work to produce stories for world-famous artists.  

While this isn’t the plot of the BBC's latest festive offering, there is something appropriately fairytale about the story of MacKinnon and Saunders, heirs to the Cosgrove Hall crown as the North’s favourite animators - even if we don’t know it. The studio is responsible for creating the puppets and stop-motion animation in children's classic such as Bob the Builder, PinguJames and the Giant Peach, as well as more adult fare such as Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

Often, a film will be made and at the end of it, there's a huge bonfire and all sets and props get burned

While children’s animation has been at the forefront, the company has also worked on darker stuff. Tim Burton is a fan and in January, House, a series of adult animation films, will premiere on Netflix featuring puppetry designed and built in Altrincham.

The studio has no sign indicating the magic that happens behind its doors, and Altrincham is hardly Greendale, the fictional Cumbrian village that is home to Postman Pat and repository of a gentle fantasy of English childhoods. 

Netflixs House By Mackinnon And Saunders
Adult animation series House feature puppets by Mackinnon and Saunders Image: Netflix

Postman Pat comes to Sale Waterside

Postman Pat is the reason I’m at Sale Waterside on a crisp November morning, chatting to animator Peter Saunders as the exhibition prepares to launch.

It’s an exhibition for people who loved dolls' houses and any kind of miniature when they were growing up, fans of classic British television and anyone interested in the art of animation. Each set is a gorgeous patchwork of detail, from the tins of beans and bottles of pop that line Mrs Goggins’ shop to tiny roses climbing the walls of Pat’s cottage. Elements from real life - flowered curtains drawn at the windows and postbags stamped with miniature Royal Mail crowns - sit happily alongside slightly surreal spherical trees that nod to the psychedelic tradition of British children’s animation.   

Though the sets hit grown-ups hard with a fizzy cocktail of nostalgic bliss, some of the more modern elements are here too. Yes, there’s Pat’s classic red van, but what about the steam train The Greendale Rocket, which links Pat’s village to the thriving town of Pencaster? Or the helicopter he uses to make daring deliveries under instruction from his warehouse co-worker Ben, with shades of a kinder, smilier Amazon boss?

Jess Postman Pats Cat In A Helicopter
Jess the black and white cat braves a helicopter ride in Sale Image: Jonathan Garvey

The exhibition is fascinating but compact – it is worth combing with a trip to the Waterside’s current festive play The Not So Ugly Sisters, or a family dinner at nearby Mano a Bocca. Peter Saunders agrees that adults will love it just as much, if not more, than kids:

“This is an exhibition that people with children can come and the parents will get as much from the exhibition as the children will. It’s charming and it's magical - Sale Waterside has done a fantastic job of putting it together in such an interesting way. It's not a huge exhibition, but there's lots to see. Lots of detail and it's the detail that's fun, isn't it? You look into a school and they're having a disco and the person doing the DJing has got pumpkin headphones. There's lots of stuff like that."

Peter Saunders Interview In His Studio At Cosgrove Hall Credit Cosgrove Hall Film Archive 1
Peter Saunders is interviewed at Cosgrove Hall Image: Cosgrove Hall Film Archive

Postman Pat didn’t originate with Mackinnon and Saunders but the studio was more than happy to take up the baton. Classic Media, already part of DreamWorks, owned the rights, and the American company was not the right fit for quintessentially English Pat:

“My business partner and I set up a company nearly 30 years ago and then we moved to Altrincham in 1995. Originally we were just making specialist puppets for stop-motion projects, films, short films, TV series. And then in 2012, we were asked if we would do a series of Postman Pat because the original team of people had retired. And of course, we said we would love to do it. 

“Classic Media shipped all the original sets and we installed them in our studio. Then we made our first series in 2012. I think it took two years. The whole thing went into storage 2016/17 and that's when we lost track of it until this year when the person who was the custodian of the sets said he'd been told that they were going to be destroyed because the company who owned them didn't want to pay storage fees anymore.”

Assistants At Sale Water Adjust The Psotman Pat Sets
Assistants at Sale Waterside adjust the Postman Pat sets Image: Jonathan Garvey

Postman Pat: saved from the bonfire

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon scenario across all types of media. TV historians wail and gnash teeth at the many classic programmes - notably Dr Who – that were taped over in a bid to reuse film before archivists put their collective feet down. Peter was determined not to let the same fate befall the Pat sets.

“Often, a film will be made and at the end of it, there's a huge bonfire and all sets and props get burned. But with Postman Pat, it's been going on for 40 years. It’s an icon of British children's TV. It’s part of British culture, every bit as much as Winnie the Pooh, or Wallace and Gromit or Wind in the Willows. You know, it's very much about British life. When I heard that the sets were going to be destroyed, I immediately got in touch with Richard Evans at Sale Waterside, who, are custodians of a whole group of puppets that were made by Cosgrove Hall productions.

“Richard said, ‘I'm not sure we've got any space, but we'll find some,’ and by some miracle, he's begged, stolen, borrowed space to rescue a lot of the sets that would otherwise have gone either onto bonfire or into landfill. The last time I went to this store in Stalybridge, the sets were literally being broken up and loaded into skips. So a last-minute reprieve, so you know, so it's thanks down to Sale Waterside and to Trafford Council for stepping in and they preserved a huge amount of it. I reckon they've been able to preserve 80% of The Postman Pat history. And there is a charm and magic to it.

“We would have loved to have stored some of the sets at our studios in Altrincham but we don't have the available space. I think Richard and Rosie from the gallery here have made really clever choices. They've got some of the really iconic original sets, as well as some of grander scale, more recent sets. So it's a lovely balance. And I can't imagine anybody coming to this exhibition being disappointed.”

The Veg Plot At Postman Pats Cottage Sale Waterside
The vegetable plot at Postman Pat's cottage Image: Jonathan Garvey

Mackinnon and Saunders' do Hollywood

Just as interesting is the story of Mackinnon and Saunders. The pair met at Cosgrove Hall – the legendary Chorlton-based animation studio that produced Danger Mouse among others – and when that company shut down decided to continue their work, focusing on puppetry and stop-motion animation.

“Ian Mackinnon and myself set up a company in 1992 because we were being laid off by Cosgrove Hall. We were both puppet makers - that's our first love and we love to be down in the workshop making things but we've ended up running this business. During the last 29 years, we've been incredibly fortunate. We’ve stuck resolutely to being Manchester-based and we've worked on TV series, short films, feature films. 

“We never, ever envisaged or anticipated working on projects like Mars Attacks or Fantastic Mr Fox or Corpse Bride. Fortunately, people have heard about the work we were doing and we've been requested on several occasions, it's a privilege and an honour to be able to do that. We've worked with Tim Burton, obviously, and Wes Anderson, and most recently, we've been making the puppets for Guillermo del Toro who is now doing a film based on Pinocchio, and it's his very unique Del Toro version of it as well. It's going to be pretty dark."

The director, famous for Pan's Labyrinth and Oscar-winning The Shape of Water, insisted on stop-motion animation for his vision of the Italian fairytale. Designs were based on the work of illustrator Gris Grimly, and are in a very different tone to the Disney version.

Pinocchio Guillermo Del Toro Puppets By Mackinnon And Saunders
Guillermo Del Toro's Pinocchio puppets created by Mackinnon and Saunders Image: Netflix

While there are threads connecting the work of directors such as Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro, a love of fantasy and darkness for one, they nevertheless each have a distinctive and unflinching aesthetic that Mackinnon and Saunders has managed to channel.

“I think it's one of the unique things about our company, that we don't have a house style. So if you think of, and this is not meant to be detrimental about Aardman, but if you think about Aardman Animation, it's very much the style of Nick Park and he does that brilliantly. I think we're a little bit more chameleon-like. We have brilliant sculptors and painters and craftspeople so that when anybody comes, it doesn't matter whether it’s A-list Hollywood directors or whether they're young people starting out making short films, our responsibility is to try and realise their vision. 

“So, if they feel that we haven't brought the characters that they're holding in their creative minds to life, then we have failed. Not to blow our own trumpet, but we've got very good at that and, and we may have subjugated our own kind of creative impulses, but there's a real thrill if somebody comes to you and they've got a project that is dear to their heart, and you can turn that from a 2D drawing into something 3D and practical that they can make their film with. We've done our job.

“We've met him [Guillermo del Toro] several times during the course of doing the Pinocchio film. I think the idea surfaced about 11 years ago and we eventually met up with him for the first time in 2012. This has been his own personal project that he's heavily invested in emotionally and financially. 

“He did a whole day's briefing of what the film was going to be like and what he expected of the puppets. He's been very much involved with the evolution of the puppets, but remotely as he's still been working on projects over in the States."   

Mars Attacks Tim Burton Credit Mackinnon Saunders Altrincham
A Mars Attacks puppet from the Tim Burton film gets adjusted in the studio Image: Mackinnon and Saunders

Handcrafted puppetry in a modern world

While the team at Mackinnon and Saunders work in painstaking fashion, Peter is at pains to point out they are no technophobes:

“That's a great thing with modern technology. We're working in a very anachronistic genre of filmmaking with stop motion, in an era of CG and fantastic visual effects we're doing this handcrafted puppetry. But there are devotees out there. Tim's a big fan, Wes Anderson's a big fan. Guillermo del Toro - this is his first feature using it but he is so excited by it and we're of course excited to be working with him. So we've resolutely stayed in Altrincham, but modern technology has enabled us to work anywhere in the world." 

While the team has done amazing things, I wonder how Peter feels to be at the service of the creative vision of others. If he was given $30m to make his own film – where would he start?

“I would love to work with a French illustrator called Jean-Baptist Monge, who does these most amazing fantasy figures based on traditional folklore, he's a great guy, and it would be lovely to do a film based on his designs. I've also been privileged to have been invited over to Beijing in 2015. Some of the ancient mythology there and some of the craftsmanship and the Chinese culture and style, I think would be fantastic. I'd love to do a story based in China say 300 years ago before it became this modern 21st-century place."

If a mysterious benefactor would love that too, then all he or she has to do is find an unmarked studio tucked away somewhere in the outskirts of Altrincham.

Postman Pat: Welcome to Greendale runs at the Waterside Arts Centre until 8 January 2022.

Follow Lucy Tomlinson on Twitter @hotcupoftea

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