Obituary: Bob Bura, animator and puppeteer behind Camberwick Green, Trumpton and Chigley

Bob Bura
Bob Bura
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Bob Bura, animator and puppeteer. Born: 25 September 1924 in London. Died: 7 April 2018 inSomerset, aged 93.

Bob Bura was one of the most innovative and forward-thinking animators of his generation who, with long-term collaborator Alan Hardwick, brought the worlds of the iconic ‘Camberwick Green’, ‘Trumpton’ and ‘Chigley’ to life for millions of children. He later collaborated on ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’, ‘Captain Pugwash’ and ‘The Adventures of Sir Prancelot’.

The Trumptonshire trilogy of tales were broadcast between 1966 and 1968 on BBC Television’s Watch with Mother slot and captured the imagination of the children who watched thanks to their simple but effective storylines and their colourfully animated characters. They were also the most technically advanced stop-motion films being made anywhere at the time, facilitating an enjoyable smooth, judder-free viewing experience.

Set in a tranquil, traditional rural English village, Camberwick Green, originally Candlewick Green until a typing error at the BBC changed its name, was devoid of any of today’s social problems with no crime or vandalism and the characters were always happy, friendly and cooperative in a bid to teach children kindness and friendship. The inspiration for Camberwick Green was believed to have originated from the East Sussex village of Wivelsfield Green, supported by the nearby villages of Plumpton (Trumpton) and Chailey (Chigley).

Trumpton, perhaps the best-loved animation of its era, followed in 1967, with the action taking place in a neighbouring village. With a much longer cast of characters, any domestic problems were cheerfully resolved by the end of the episode, leaving the last segment for the fire brigade to become the town band and play the episode out.

The final set of characters, including Mr Cresswell, owner of Cresswell’s Biscuit factory, the aristocratic Lord Belborough of Winkstead Hall and his butler Brackett, who also drove Bessie the steam engine, inhabited Chigley (1968). Again, any problems are resolved by the end of each episode.

Born in Fitzrovia, central London, Barnett Bura, known as Bob, was one of eleven children born to a Romanian émigré, Moise Bura, who had escaped the pogroms and later changed his name to Morris, and his wife Lucy (née Blinkhorn), a vaudeville singer. Bob attended Netley Primary School but struggled with undiagnosed dyslexia.

Growing up, he was the main breadwinner during the 1930s, working in the West End as a vaudeville artiste, conjurer, ventriloquist, juggler and even fire-eater.

It was while performing Punch and Judy shows on Southsea beach, Portsmouth, which proved very popular, that Bura found himself short-staffed as his female assistant left to marry. However, she suggested that her younger brother might replace her, and so began Bura’s long and fruitful association with John Hardwick.

After working on a number of animated films for cinema adverts, the pair later made animated inserts for Blue Peter, Pops & Lenny, and Hey Presto! It’s Rolf [Harris]. Soon they were hired by the BBC Puppet Theatre in the 1950s, and collaborated with producer Gordon Murray on ‘A Rubovian Legend’ (1955-61), a marionette show set in a fictitious European kingdom ruled by the benevolent King Rufus XIV.

They also helped Jan and Vlasta Dalibor manipulate the puppets on Pinky and Perky, while Bura was commissioned to make animated illustrations for BBC schools’ science programmes and The Sky At Night.

With stringed puppets becoming out-dated, Bura and Hardwick began working on their pioneering stop-motion work, where each frame represents a movement of an object, and frame-by-frame forms a continuous sequence; they founded Stop Motion Productions in the process. Bura was constantly modifying equipment, even cameras so that the shutter speed was altered to one frame at a time instead of 24 frames per second.

With the Trumptonshire Trilogy storylines, puppets and sets all conceived, Murray handed them to Bura and Hardwick, who then did everything else, including the set-ups, lighting, filming and animation. Each series consisted of 13 episodes, all narrated by Brian Cant, with settings by Margaret and Andrew Brownfoot.

The production was an unprecedented undertaking as they painstakingly shot every 15-minute episode using “stop-motion” animation, where the characters were moved by hand between each frame of film, resulting in the puppets’ movements being smooth and not jerky.

To make the puppets easier to manoeuvre, they rebuilt Murray’s original puppets, and came up with the idea of pinning the characters to a soft base rather than the traditional time-consuming method of screwing them in place. As a result, Bura, Hardwick and their team were able to shoot two-and-a-half minutes of footage a week, often animating a whole 100ft reel of film in sequence with no mistakes, which was an editor’s delight. Each series took a year to film.

In addition, although commissioned to film in black and white to save money, they filmed with a second camera in colour, a decision that paid off in the 1970s, when colour television sales rose sharply; this also helped for repeats over the years. Much of the filming was done at their studio, a converted house and, later, a former church of the Agapemonite in Crouch End, north London.

The pair subsequently worked with the artist and animator John Ryan on the BBC children’s series ‘Mary, Mungo and Midge’ (1969), ‘The Adventures of Sir Prancelot’ (1971-72) and ‘Captain Pugwash (1974-75).

Ryan produced hand-
operated images with, for example, cut-out eyes that could move relative to a character’s face; these were captured by Bura, who lit them, and Hardwick, who filmed them. They also made an acclaimed puppet film of Stravinsky and Benois’s ballet ‘Pétrouchka’ (1968).

For many years, they animated from two large converted adjoining houses in Crouch End, with each room spacious enough to be a studio in its own right. One room might be used for ‘You and Me’, a programme for pre-school children that was anchored by a hamster called Alice and a crow; another might be the set-up for ‘Music Time’, a show that involved lots of trickery, with ‘Words and Pictures’ filmed along the corridor.

Owing to their Bohemian lifestyle, they encountered all sorts of people including Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart from The Eurythmics, who ended up sharing the studio and completing the recording of their debut album Sweet Dreams (1982) upstairs; they later bought the studio when Bura and Hardwick relocated to Somerset. Later Bob Dylan, U2 and Adele recorded there too.

With the death of Hardwick, who died while out cycling in 2004, Bura felt a huge loss and became increasingly frail. Yet despite this, with his long, unkempt hair and bushy grey beard and eccentric, playful character, he continued to entertain and perform magic shows to young audiences into his late 80s, while also making a number of appearances as Father Christmas at Hamleys toyshop in central London.

Bura never married and is survived by 19 nieces and nephews.

Martin Childs