by Peter Doncaster
In worldwide public affection, Miss Piggy, the outrageously glamorous television porker who vamped her way through "The Muppet Show" series, is being surpassed by a mournful 15 cm-high inventor called Wallace and his long-suffering and much more intelligent dog, Gromit - both made of Plasticine modelling clay.
(left) Wallace and his prospective girlfriend, Wendolene, get closer in a scene from the Oscar-winning "A Close Shave".
The appealing protagonists of three quintessentially British animated cartoons, the duo's humorous adventures have already won international appeal. They are the creation of 36-year-old Nick Park, who studied art at Sheffield Polytechnic before graduating from the National Film and Television School (NFTS).
The rubbery-limbed characters' latest adventure is "A Close Shave", an action-packed cartoon thriller sponsored by the BBC at a cost of £1.3 million. It involves the couple running a window-cleaning firm. During one task, Wallace (voiced by Peter Sallis) falls in love with Wendolene Ramsbottom (spoken by Ann Reid) a wool shop owner.
For her, Wallace - big ideas, small brain invents an ingenious Knit-O-Matic machine. A sheep goes in at one end and comes out the other: shampooed, sheared and wearing a knitted pullover.
Gromit, with his usual bad luck, is the chief suspect in a sheep-rustling racket and is forced through the Knit-O-Matic with terrible results. Other delights are the scene-stealing Sean the
lamb; Preston, a malevolent pooch, and listic sequence when the always-optimistic Wallace, riding his motorcycle, loses ever-faithful Gromit in the side-car.
The world that the friends inhabit parodies the routine mundaneness of genteel British family life invaded by rebellious outsiders - a criminal penguin in disguise, a psychopathic dog
or modern technology that runs amok.
Although much of the fun comes from their absurd predicaments, the humour is frequently unspoken - the way Wallace and his canine companion roll their eyes conveys a world of
meaning. Their relationship with each other is one of understated devoted affection - the type, in the best of all possible worlds - that might exist between a Northern English father and his son.
Park's first two cartoons won Oscars. Starting in 1982 he made "A Grand Day Out" single-handed over six years as his graduation project for the NFTS. The plot took Wallace and Gromit to the moon in search of cheese.
Park completed the film at Aardman Animations in Bristol, western England, where he had begun work on television commercials. They included his much-lauded electricity advertisements, a most successful campaign. He is now a director of Aardman.
His second Oscar winner was "Creature Comforts" (1990) in which animated zoo animals respond to humans discussing their living conditions. Lounging about with world-weary resignation a big cat explains that in the zoo they have the luxury of double-glazing but no room, whereas in the Brazilian jungle there was endless space but no double-glazing.
For the second Wallace and Gromit film, "The Wrong Trousers", made in 1994, Nick Park got 600,000 of BBC backing. The 30-minute cartoon, which took 10 of Aardman's animators some
13 months to make, has already won 30 international awards.
Toys To T-Shirts
In the UK, 600,000 videos of Wallace and Gromit films have been sold as well as 40 associated products ranging from toys to T-shirts to fridge magnets. In the United States 100,000 videos were sold in six weeks; "The Wrong Trousers" tops the Australian video charts and is enjoying unprecedented popularity in France.
Wallace and Gromit have just made their weekly debut in a Daily Telegraph strip cartoon. "A Close Shave" won the distinction of being premiered by BBC2 on Christmas Eve while Park's other cartoons were screened by Channel Four over the holiday period.
Nick Park's talent for animation began at the age of 11 when he created Walter, a rat addicted to cider. By sketching him hundreds of times in slightly different positions in a flip-book.
Walter could be seen as staggering about drunkenly. Later Park experimented with his mother's cine camera at his home in Preston, northern England.
Wallace and Gromit were originally doodles in their creator's notebook. "I draw on past memories for references - early Ealing comedy movies, science fiction, a down-to-earth
Northernness for straight-faced talking, a touch of surrealism but no schmaltz or sentimentality," says Park.
"It is a very exacting process - it takes us [the Aardman team] one day to make two to three seconds of film. In retrospect, Wallace is based on my dad - they don't look alike but they do have a lot in common. When I was young he spent his time in the garden shed making things - he still does. He once built a caravan from just a pair of wheels.
"He filled it with make-shift furniture and we went camping to Wales. Gromit began as a cat who was changed to a dog because the shape is better. I think he has a little of my own dog and my friends say he has my expressions. His electronic wizardry enables him to rescue his master from all kinds of disasters."
He is already fighting off offers from Hollywood because he is determined to stay in charge of his creations. But he is quite surprised and unable to explain why his fiIms have such a
"I make the films I liked to see as a child and frequently my inspiration is sparked from those I remember the Flintstones, Thunderbirds, stories based on obscure Eastern fairy tales that have a wicked witch or malevolent dwarf, They frightened and delighted a generation of children in the late 1960s. Animation enables you to create a complete fantasy world which is what I enjoy," he says.
Nick Park has a deal with Allied Entertainment for a feature film but it is unlikely to star Wallace and Gromit. "I would like to do something completely different, to explore some new
characters. But I can't ever see myself letting them go. I love them. After all, they are my babies..."