Keith Learner obituary: unsung wizard of British animation

Learner’s career spanned collaborations with Spike Milligan to working on 1980s children’s shows including Jimbo and the Jet Set.

4 July 2023

By Jez Stewart

Keith Learner with Vera Linnecar and Nancy Hanna on their last day at Biographic Cartoon Films

There are very few household names in British animation. Keith Learner, who has died aged 86, was one of those vital pieces of the industry whose contribution is little known and all too easily overlooked. 

Born in the borough of Croydon in 1937, Learner’s interest in animation started early and quickly went beyond a passive appreciation to active curiosity and engagement. A Pathescope home projector enabled him to make a closer analysis of Walt Disney cartoons, and when his father, a design engineer, rejigged the machine to show longer reels the technical improvisation left an abiding impression on Learner’s enquiring mind.

He left school with a fledgling art portfolio that earned him a job offer at the Ministry of Supply producing technical illustrations. But the offer was deferred when it was discovered he was still only 15, and he was pointed in the direction of Croydon Art School to wait for a year. He quickly became bored, as the ‘pure art’ ethos of the institution was a poor fit for his more practical interests and thirst for knowledge. 

As far as Learner knew growing up, cartoons were something made in America. But in 1952 he found his way to one of the very few British animation studios, and perhaps the most intriguing one. The Larkins Studio was part of the Film Producer’s Guild, a network of production companies which coordinated great swathes of sponsored filmmaking in the UK across its different partners. Larkins produced everything from illustrated diagrams to cinema commercials, but its most prestigious department produced a series of astonishing short films for companies like ICI and BP under the guidance of the mercurial Peter Sachs. 

The German-born Sachs built his team around aptitude and open minds over experience, and together they pushed at the boundaries of graphic animation. Each commission was a blank canvas and a new opportunity to experiment. Sachs whipped Learner around almost every production area in a whistle-stop apprenticeship for his future career. The one area he failed to crack, despite his interest, was the camera department, but his extracurricular activities helped fill that gap. 

Watch the Birdie (1954)

Among Learner’s colleagues at Larkins was Bob Godfrey, who would later create the Oscar-winning Great (1975) and cult TV classics Henry’s Cat (1983 to 1993) and Roobarb (1974). A shared ambition to continue experimenting in their own time led to Watch the Birdie (1954) produced on 16mm film with Vera Linnecar and Richard Taylor. Despite all being professionally employed in an animation studio they submitted the film to an amateur film competition and won first prize when they made clear they had worked on it in their own time.

Uncertainties at Larkins, and the potential of making commercials for the new ITV channel launching in September 1955 led to Godfrey leaving to set up the independent Biographic Cartoon Films, with Learner and Jeff Hale, another Larkins graduate, on board. Despite being 15 years older, Godfrey needed Learner as a practical foil to his creative spark, describing him as a “technical wizard”, “a genius” and, in a typical Godfrey stretch, “an infant prodigy”. 

Learner’s father helped build an improvised rostrum for their only camera, Godfrey’s 1909 Moy & Bastie hand-cranked camera. Their makeshift, primitive ‘studio’ above a jeweller’s shop in Noel Street, Soho, was enough to get them a commission from Crompton bulbs to make an advert which aired on the opening night of ITV. They quickly became one of the hottest animation companies in town, moving to relatively palatial premises at 90 Dean Street, and bringing in Vera Linnecar and another former Larkins colleague, Nancy Hanna, after Jeff Hale left for Canada. 

Biographic didn’t limit themselves to animation. They produced a number of live-action commercials, including a series for Courage Beer which had fun with the tropes of silent melodrama and made the most of their old-fashioned equipment. Comedy was at the heart of Biographic, so it was perhaps unsurprising that their work came to the attention of The Goon Show members Spike Milligan and Michael Bentine. Biographic produced animation sequences for the series Son of Fred (1956) and It’s a Square World (1960 to 1964), among many others. The need for quick thinking, practical solutions, improvisation and a sense of humour made the work perfect for Learner, who was thriving as part of an irreverent, experimental and groundbreaking movement in television comedy.

Goldwhiskers (1964)
BFI National Archive

Biographic also produced independent short films such as Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit (1959). These films never made much money, but they kept the creative juices flowing. While Godfrey was the prime mover, each partner eventually made their own short, and Learner wrote, directed and animated the Bond parody Goldwhiskers (1964). He was deliberately reaching for ideas that would have commercial appeal, but while the film got the attention and approval of Bond producer Harry Saltzman the film never had the distribution Learner had hoped for. 

His reputation as a practical and technical ‘wizard’ went beyond the animation sector and saw him involved in a range of projects, both animated and live action. When Bob Monkhouse pitched the idea of a Kit-Kat commercial animated directly on film with a hand drawn soundtrack, Learner came up with the practical steps to make both aspects work. The resulting advert won Biographic an award but was deemed too abstract to screen on television and so was very little seen. 

In 1965 Godfrey decided to head out on his own, leaving Learner, Hanna and Linnecar to run Biographic without its figurehead. It was certainly not the end of the company, which continued for another two decades, but it is fair to say that things were never quite the same again. They continued to produce a range of high quality work in advertising, sponsored filmmaking and title sequences for film and television. 

Showreels held in the BFI National Archive show that alongside the continued humour and visual experimentation they were more than capable of pulling off complex technical pieces of animation. One commercial for Pif Paf insect repellent created a one-minute “space war”, demonstrating the light years that Learner had travelled from the days above a jeweller’s shop with an antique camera propped up on a table.

Jimbo and the Jet Set (1986)

In 1985 a 28-year lease on their Dean Street home finally expired, and Hanna and Linnecar were ready to retire – Linnecar had begun her career in 1940 when Learner would have been only four years old. One of their last gigs at Biographic was producing episodes of Peter Maddocks’ The Family-Ness (1984 to 1985) series, for which the work was spread across a range of studios. Learner made a good connection with the cartoonist and together they worked on 25 episodes of Jimbo and the Jet Set (1986 to 1987) for the BBC. Although these were successful, Learner felt that the broadcaster’s approach to funding and marketing such productions scuppered the series’ true potential and follow-up plans. 

And so for Learner “that was it”, as he put it. He had over 30 years of experience in British animation, but as he started so young it must have felt over rather too soon. He spent his retirement in Eastbourne with his wife Simone and daughter Hannah, and was always pleased to share anecdotes about his mad, happy days at Biographic and beyond.

  • Keith Learner, 25 December 1936 to 13 June 2023
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