‘Steven Spielberg flew us out to LA in a private jet and met us in a famous chicken restaurant’
Nick Park, co-director/producer
My sister kept pet chickens when we were kids and we’d make up these skits and cartoons where they’d always be the heroes of the story. Aged 17, on a foundation art course, I did a couple of stints at a chicken-packing factory. One day they sent me to the slaughterhouse and I saw all the live chickens hanging on a conveyor belt, held upside down by their legs – it was horrifying. In a way, chickens have always been in the back of my mind.
When [Aardman Animations co-founder] Peter Lord and I began discussing the concept of The Great Escape with chickens, the whole thing just fitted together. It was when we were at the Sundance film festival showing A Close Shave that we got a call from DreamWorks. Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg sent a private jet to fly us to Los Angeles for a night – they wanted to know if we had any feature film ideas. By coincidence they arranged for the meeting to take place in a famous chicken restaurant. At that point all we had were a few thoughts scribbled on a scrap of paper, but the idea of chickens plotting their grand escape went down really well. I remember Steven saying that The Great Escape was his favourite film, and he had 300 chickens on his farm.
So that was pretty much the green light for Aardman – a fairly unknown British outfit – to get things going. For a while we toyed with various ideas and storylines, but then [American screenwriter] Karey Kirkpatrick came on board and suggested introducing a romance between Ginger and the maverick cockerel, Rocky [voiced by Mel Gibson]. Karey brought a Hollywood angle to the team, which was excellent for bringing Rocky to life.
Sometimes our American colleagues would be confused by British slang. Because the film is set in Yorkshire we used some very specific phrases. We’d then get notes asking: “What is a wassock?” Sometimes we got away with saying things because they simply didn’t know what we meant.
The animators generally got through around two or three seconds a day. We’d crack open the champagne if we managed to get a minute in a week. The pie machine sequence, my favourite scene, took around three months.
There was an atmosphere of excitement on set as it was our first proper foray into feature films. There was a nervousness, too – we were determined to prove that we hadn’t sold out, despite signing with a Hollywood studio. When the film came out, the reviews were mostly good – certainly good enough to feel like we’d hit the mark, although some accused Aardman of getting in bed with Hollywood and losing its national-treasure status. It’s incredible to me that 20 years have passed since we made that film and it’s still thought of as a classic.
Jane Horrocks, Voice of “Babs”
I can’t actually remember whether I was simply offered the role of Babs or if I auditioned for it. But what I do remember is the whole cast getting together for a read-through, which was unusual for an animation. I’d worked with Julia Sawalha on Ab Faband knew Timothy Spall really well. It felt like being with old friends. Benjamin Whitrow, who played the RAF rooster Fowler, had a really loud voice and nearly blasted our ears off. He was absolutely perfect for the role! You could sense when we were all together that the film was going to be something special.
Nick as a director was specific about what he wanted and I really enjoyed working with him. Both he and Pete Lord had a strong overall vision, not only for the animation but for what the characters sounded like. I’d received drawings of Babs and knew she was a larger lady – or should I say larger chicken? We had one recording with the whole cast together, then I had about four or five sessions on my own.
It’s such a beautifully written and clever film without being overly sentimental and cheesy. You’re really rooting for the characters: you want them to win. My agent and I used to laugh about it marking the start of my “fowl period” as I went on to play a number of chickens in other animations.
I wasn’t able to go to the premiere but I was in New York when it came out, so I went to see it in the cinema. The audience didn’t seem to get the irony and there wasn’t much laughter. Back in the UK, I went to see it in the cinema again. Of course, that was a different cup of tea altogether. The audience responded exactly as I hoped they would and roared with laughter.
Babs is very similar to Bubble in Ab Fab. I think I do the dumb blonde role quite well – it comes naturally! It’s only been after years of people quoting Babs’s lines back at me that I’ve realised how good they are. I think my favourite is: “I don’t want to be a pie, I don’t like gravy!” When people hear my voice they “recognise” me. Some time ago, I went into my local dry cleaner’s and the woman working there said: “Can I ask you whether you happen to be the voice of a plasticine chicken?”
Source: Nick Park and Jane Horrocks: how we made Chicken Run