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“Max Beeza and the City in the Sky” – an amazingly original British animation

A long time ago, in a lifetime far, far away, I saw an amazingly original British animation and decided to chat to its two young directors. The animation was made in 1977. Below is the resultant article, exactly as it appeared in the March 1979 edition of Starburst magazine. Yup: 41 years ago…


For two years a film made by two National Film School students has been surfacing in some of the most unlikely places. Starburst has tracked down the creators of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, two young film-makers called Philip Austin and Derek Hayes, and now presents an exclusive look at this rare animated movie.


The film’s hero is a spiv, a con-man/comedian/magician…

Starburst: How much did it cost to make the movie? 

Philip Austin: About £4,000. We put our budgets together and came up with that amount. 

Derek Hayes: The point is that at film school you’re not paying for a lot of things. 

Starburst: I liked the credit at the end. Head Grip: Albert de Salvo. 

Philip Austin: That’s good. Not many people get these things. Few people even notice.


Few people have had the chance to notice the Boston Strangler’s name at the end of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky. National Film School graduates Philip Austin and Derek Hayes have made one of the most original and inventive animated films since the heyday of Tex Avery and Chuck Jones. Technically, it looks flawless. But almost no-one has seen their movie. It has been shown only at the 1977 London Film Festival; during lunchtimes at London’s Essential Cinema in early 1978; and at the 1978 Edinburgh Film Festival and Ottawa Animation Festival. 

“The entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city”

It is a future world. Poison gas has spread across the planet and the entire population of Britain now lives in a tower city twelve miles high ringed by clouds. Mrs Ron Weetabix is making her way home along a narrow ledge — until she falls off. A clergyman is preaching a hellfire sermon on sin — until he gradually lapses into the title song of Champion The Wonder Horse. Max Beeza is entertaining a laughing audience — until The Airship attacks. 

The original idea for the 24-minute film came partly from a dream of Philip Austin’s and partly from the “strange tower cities” which fan Derek Hayes used to draw at school. Austin and Hayes met at Sheffield Art College, where they made Custard, a cartoon satire on the obsessions people have in a northern industrial town.

You can see Custard on the BFI website

This won them places in the National Film School at Beaconsfield. Because that was “such a dull place to be”, they decided they would have to resort to pure imagination for their next project. It took 18,000 drawings and 20 months to complete. 

The film’s hero, Max Beeza, is an Arthur English-type spiv, a con-man/ comedian/magician, whose stage act is a cross between Bruce Forsyth (constantly insulting his audience), a slightly demented Max Bygraves and (according to Austin) Elmer Gantry — the sort of person whose only talent is getting on well with an audience. Billed as Max, The Merry Missionary, Beeza’s latest show is in aid of ‘Bison for the Deaf’. 

“Are you thinking?” he asks his audience: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking.” In his hands, a brick becomes a chocolate biscuit. In fact, it is a chocolate biscuit. Just as a top hat could be, can be and is a flower-pot, a frog-catcher, a bucket, a catapult for custard pies, a frisbee and … a top hat. “Are you thinking?” he yells: “Don’t! You can’t see if you’re thinking. After all, you thought it was a brick — didn’t you!” Suddenly shells whistle through the air, blood spurts, people panic, grenades and bodies explode. 

The tower city is under attack by an airship. In the chaos, a game of cricket has an explosive ending, a suicidal man has problems killing himself and a drunk can’t drink until his head is blown off. The newspaper headlines scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.” 

Scream: “War Declared. Win 365 pairs of naughty knickers.”

But who is sending the Airship? No-one knows. They can’t see because they’re thinking. Members of the Soccer Hooligans’ Union meet city leader Victor Troutskillet for emergency talks, the war rages on, devastation is everywhere, the bright colours become dulled, Victor Troutskillet forms a Secret Police to stop subversion, Max is excused military service and starts a new show in aid of shell-shocked gulls. 

Part of the enjoyment of Max Beeza and the City in the Sky is the detail. Small bits of graffiti barely-glimpsed in the background; the baroque architecture; in-jokes and obscure references. Directors Austin and Hayes, in fact, think there are too many details in some places. “The script as we originally conceived it would have made a longer film,” says Hayes…

“We had to cut a lot of the story,” says Austin. 

Both are interested in the idea of an animated documentary. “You can make a documentary on a thing that doesn’t exist, like that city,” Hayes claims: “That’s what science fiction does best. It takes people and people’s emotions and it says Right, what IF this happened? How would people react? And some of the best science fiction comes out of that. What we wanted to do with all the characters was to try to make the city look like a real place. Shove everything in and repeat things. Repeat characters — have them pass by in the background — people you’ve seen before — so that it seems to expand outside the confines of the frame and you think there’s something more going on.”

Beware of the innocent-looking but actually armed chair…!

Some of the details can only be seen on a second or third viewing. “That’s where thinking it through quite well is helpful,” continues Hayes: “Even if you don’t get everything right up-front, it’s there in the background and it gives that rich feeling of depth to it.”

The two directors are also aware that, in the future, people are likely to buy films on videocassettes. An animated feature for that market will have to be able to stand up to repeated viewings:, “You just put it on in the evening and just see what you can see in it this time. If it’s very, very dense, it will actually stand up to repeated viewings.” Meanwhile, back in the sky . . . 

As Mr Ron Weetabix sits at home listening to a radio speech by Victor Troutskillet, he mutters: “Rubbish.” Arms rise out of his armchair. He is swallowed by the chair, which walks off-screen with him. His son yells out. The settee hits him on the head with a mallet. Gradually, as the film progresses, this surrealism increases. Max discovers who is sending The Airship, but our hero is under the surveillance of four neo-Nazi pieces of furniture, all members of the Secret Police … A chest-of-drawers, a cooker, an armchair and their leader The Deadly Lightshade (a standard lamp). They decide to kill Max. 

Lights burst out! – Sitting on its motor bike is… the cooker…

One dark, snowy night, as Max is trudging home, lights burst out of the blackness. Engines rev up. There, sitting on their motor bikes, are the chest-of-drawers, the cooker and the armchair. They drive their bikes at him, but he escapes by climbing  up a scratch on the film, which leads him to a caption: The next scene contains 20  startling revelations — count them all. 

“A lot of the film is to do with Tex Avery, I think,” says Philip Austin: “Going up the scratch is a Tex Avery gag. He never actually used that gag, but he must have come close to it. He did hairs in the gate and running up the side of the film — stuff like that. Those sort of free-wheeling gags. Disney knocked them out of cartoons. We saw a lot of Tex Avery films at college and we were really knocked out by how zany the gags were and amazed that nobody was doing that sort of stuff any more. So we’re very strongly influenced by Tex Avery. Loony non-sequitur gags . . . chuck them all in.” 

And so to the film’s climax — the confrontation between Max and Victor Troutskillet, the city’s ‘Big Brother’ — a Billy Bunter figure with traces of Frankie Howerd in his voice. The original design for Troutskillet was much thinner: both in name and in style he was originally conceived as a Mervyn Peake-type character. But when his voice was pre-recorded (as it had to be for synchronised mouth movements), the thin character did not work — “So we tubbied him up and turned him into a Bunter-like thing.” 

But Troutskillet is not the ultimate villain of the film, as we discover in the final 20 startling revelations. In the climactic confrontation. Max faces The Deadly Lightshade, The Wicked Stepladder (from Snow White), an array of gun-toting armchairs and The Airship itself, which turns out to be none other than . . . No, I won’t tell you. But look out for the hare — a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny, who turns up without warning and without explanation throughout the film.

“Look out for…a rather mangy-looking relative of Bugs Bunny”

Max Beeza is well-worth seeing — if it’s shown. Part of its success is due to the fact that both Austin and Hayes have also worked on live-action films. They try to shoot and cut animated films as if they were live-action ones. “What we’re trying to do is incorporate two things,” says Hayes:

“One is the live-action way of doing things with its emphasis on cutting — because in a live-action film, as opposed to a cartoon, usually you have a lot more cuts and the action is shown through the cuts whereas, in a cartoon, you have things develop within the shot. Also, we wanted to be able to keep on the cartoon things: the kind of graphic shot that leads you into things and gives you fluidity.” 

For some time now, Philip Austin has been working at the Richard Williams animation studio in Soho. Early in 1978, Derek Hayes worked on BBC Bristol’s Animated Conversations: a series of six programmes which combined real conversations with animated visuals. And, in Autumn 1978, the two worked together for two months on an animated sequence featuring Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols’ film The Great Rock and Roll Swindle (directed by Julian Temple, another National Film School graduate). Austin and Hayes’ next project together will (hopefully) be about a man who keeps an alien in his bedroom. Hayes is also threatening a story entirely, people with animated furniture. 

As for Max Beeza and the City in the Sky, they are still trying to get British distributors to accept it as a supporting feature, if the mechanics of the British distribution system will allow that — there are problems because it was made by students as a student film. It took four years for the brilliantly inventive US movie Dark Star to be publicly shown in this country. I hope Max Beeza doesn’t take that long. It’s British, highly inventive, highly entertaining and well worth seeing.


You can now (in 2020) can see Max Beeza and the City in the Sky for free (it runs 24 minutes) on the British Film Institute website:

… CONTINUED HERE
… after a gap of 41 years …
… in A NEW INTERVIEW with DEREK HAYES …

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Mr Methane causes a right Royal stink with his “God Save The Queen” ringtone

Mr Methane blows his own trumpet for Queen Elizabeth II

My chum Mr Methane from Macclesfield knows how to cause a stink. He is, after all, the world’s only professional performing farter.

But he is also a true patriot and says he wants to capture the British nation’s nostalgic mood in this glorious Diamond Jubilee year with his unique rendition of God Save the Queen on what he calls his bottom bugle. His press release starts:

I’ve spent most of my life looking back, so I think I know a thing or two about nostalgia. Over the last sixty years of Her Majesty’s reign, the wind of change has blown through Britain and all its pink bits on the map. My latest release celebrates this. 

When Her Majesty first sat on the throne, it coincided with Edmund Hillary conquering the heights of Mount Everest. I cannot compete with that, but I hope my Royal Fanfare will reach new heights of memorability.

It may well do. The ringtone was released yesterday morning, but he has already received 19 e-mails complaining about it. He is unrepentant.

“Perhaps it sounds like me blowing my own trumpet,” Mr Methane told me in the early hours of this morning, “but I think my long experience means I’m uniquely placed to put the ring into ringtone.”

“You are a smooth-tongued wordsmith,” I told him. “But how did you come up with the idea?”

“Well,” he told me, “Originally, I decided to release an iTunes album of various national anthems. But then I realised it’s the Big One this year for Her Majesty. I remembered the Silver Jubilee of 1977 and what fun it was. And then I saw TV news reports of Gary Barlow doing his bit fixing up a concert for this year’s Diamond Jubilee and thought, I’ll release my own very special gift to Her Majesty – a Diamond Jubilee ringtone – with the emphasis on the ring. One that’s slightly more anarchic and in the spirit of 1977 and the Sex PistolsGod Save The Queen than all this current corporate X-Factor-type, pass-me-the-sick bucket, arse-kissing stuff. 

“And yet,” he continued, “it’s actually totally harmless and all in good fun. It’s a very British thing. It’s something we all do. Even Prince Philip… though I suspect he blames it on the Corgis. My ringtone illustrates in just a few short seconds the unique relationship between the British monarch and her people – I mean, John, you really wouldn’t get away with this sort of thing in North Korea.

“I realise some folks,” Mr Methane admitted, “may just see me as one of the many children of Margaret Thatcher and her Thatcherite revolution… just using my dubious talents by jumping on every opportunity to  make a few quid. But no, no… How could anyone really think that of me, John? People are so cynical nowadays. I am a patriot.”

“Indeed,” I agreed. “Anything else coming up?”

“I have just been approached to appear on France Has Got Talent (La France a un incroyable talent) possibly because, as you know, last year I got through to the semi-finals of Germany’s Got Talent (Der Supertalent). Then, later this year, I’ll be following up the release of my God Save The Queen ringtone with a full album of various fully-farted national anthems… Australia, America, Italy, Germany, France, Sweden and others.”

“Are the British more or less appreciative of the art of flatulism than other places?” I asked.

“I think farting divides the British nation,” Mr Methane replied, “but not in the way you might think. The key to the UK is that, as a whole, we are a tolerant, polite and slightly oppressed nation with a class system that’s still intact and flatulism really takes off in that sort of an environment. The upper class gentry actually like a good fart performance more than the working classes but the middle classes, as a rule, hate it.”

“Will you be sending a complimentary copy of the ringtone to Her Majesty?” I asked.

“If she requested one, of course, I would send her the full blown-version as well as the shortened ringtone version. But, somehow, I suspect any request from the Palace is more likely to come from Prince Philip than from Her Majesty herself.”

“Why a ringtone and not a single?” I asked.

“A whim. But the downside is you have to find it yourself on iTunes. It has no direct link. I  can’t link to it from my website and you can only access it from a mobile phone, not from a computer – You just go to iTunes and search for ‘mr methane ringtone’. It’s only 99p.”

“I smell commercial success,” I told Mr Methane.

“It’s good to be British,” he said. “I look on it as a very British thing.”

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The fickle finger of fate, fame and mortality, featuring comedy, cancer, Libyans and a nuclear explosion

Yesterday I had tea in London with David Kirk Traylor. widely known for his character Mr Zed

Born in the US, he has lived in Rome for many years. He has starred in eight television series, seen in 35 countries worldwide. He has done command performances for the Pope and the President of the United States and had a top 40 hit record in Europe. He has dubbed and voiced literally hundreds of films, cartoons, CD ROMs and computer & arcade games including an Indiana Jones game for Lucas Arts. His success became such an international phenomenon that he was the subject of a special report on CNN. I booked him on Jack Dee’s Saturday Night on peaktime ITV in 1996, yet he remains ‘unknown’ in the UK.

So it goes.

He told me two of his friends died of cancer around 25 years ago. Their cancer was caused by the radiation cloud from the 1986 nuclear explosion at Chernobyl. The radiation cloud was blown over Rome and they died about a year later. The Italian government lied about the cloud and no-one knew the danger. Several hundred people are thought to have died.

So it goes.

I remember reading about a man who was mending his bicycle in his living room just before Christmas 1988. He lived in a small, quiet Scottish town I knew slightly when I was growing up because, when I was a child, my parents had friends who lived there. The man who was mending his bike died in his living room and neither he nor his house were seen again. Nor the bicycle. They disintegrated. Nothing was left of them. A jumbo jet fell on them. They lived in Lockerbie.

So it goes.

The then-apartheid South African foreign minister Pik Botha was supposed to be on the jumbo jet, but got an earlier flight.

The Four Tops singing group had been due to fly on the jumbo jet, but had been late getting out of a recording session and overslept.

Johnny Rotten, formerly of the Sex Pistols, had been due to fly on the jumbo jet, but missed the flight.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, convicted in 2001 of bombing the jumbo jet in 1988, was released from his Scots prison in 2009 because he had terminal cancer and had about three months to live. He returned to Libya to die. He is still alive now, in 2011.

BBC TV News has just reported that Human Rights Watch claim, in the last week in Libya, at least 233 people have died in the ongoing demonstrations.

So it goes.

A friend of mine, whom I have known for 36 years, now has cancer.

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