HOW I JOINED THE CREW
I raced around to a strange admixture of magazines: teen, womens', comic publishers and animation houses, the latter located amongst the walk-up brothels of SOHO; which made me wonder if animation is the third oldest profession-palmistry being the second!
The search grew sloppier and chillier as the snow began to fall, commencing one of the worst winters Britain had experienced in 50 years. The only shelter I could find was a rat's nest bed-sitter on the top floor of a five storey walk-up. Bed-sitters are small, minimally 'furnished' rooms: a bed, a gas plate, a light bulb; the better ones might have a tiny desk, chair, sink and mirror. This was lower than the lowest end of the scale; a notch above a park bench, barely attached to the 'genteel' social level.
It was disguised out front as a squeaky clean, white-pillared facade. The inside hadn't seen a broom since the death of Charles Dickens. The landlord ominously resembled a giant cockroach.
Each day I alternately sweated and froze my way from publishers to film studios all over London, until one morning I dropped into Richard Williams Studio. One of his crew chatted briefly with me, (Richard was at lunch) and told me they were "...doing a Beatles thing" over on Dean Street. At first I thought it would be the material that had been done for TV and wasn't too excited.
Needing survival more than integrity, I slopped through the sooty slush of sleaziest Soho for an interview with TVC's John Coates. John told me they weren't hiring, pending budget decisions and that there was an embargo on numbers of americans who could work on the film.
As there was no embargo on canadians, I showed my canadian passport, ('Exempt from Immigration' status) so I stood a chance of being hired. He said to call back in ten days, after the Christmas season.
Too proud or too ignorant to seek welfare assistance, I decided to minimize energy expenditure and lie in bed for the next ten days, surviving on a loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter, bought with the last of my folding money.
Somewhere I'd read that Dick Williams had survived on peanut butter sandwiches while making the film "The Little Island". If fellow canadian, Dick could sacrifice for animation, so could I! (Later when I met him at an all night sandwich shop when I was burning the midnight oil on YS and he was doing the same at his adjacent studio working on the titles of Charge of The Light Brigade, he told me the author of that legend had exaggerated somewhat about his allegedly starving! Now they tell me! ).
Ten days stretched into three weeks. I was so weak, every time I stood up I nearly fainted. I couldn't have made it to the grocery store and back even if I'd had money for food.
The room was alive with every bug known to entomology: fleas, lice and bed-bugs predominating. The ceiling-high window had a ventilation hole in it about 5 inches in diameter, to prevent the build up of gas fumes from a one-burner hot plate (the sole source of heat in the room). The vent should have normally contained a breeze-activated fan to prevent cold wind, rain or snow from blowing in. This was missing. The blizzard outside to blew a steady stream of snow six feet across the room!
Fellini-esque and Dickensian, I huddled fully clad, wearing my C&A winter overcoat under a moth-eaten blanket, trying to capture the meager heat from the gas hot-plate. I set a small travel alarm clock to ring at hourly intervals in case I fell asleep too deeply to notice gas leaking from the hot plate (in the event that the flame went out) and thus expire prematurely. There was little real danger of that happening, as the thing would conk out every half hour and I'd have to put another shilling in the meter! Ditto for the single overhead light bulb, which I kept going all night by recycling large copper pennies through its meter, picking its lock with a paper clip; lesson number one for survival in London "bed-sitters".
With life in shreds and but to brood about it, my mind sought methods of distracting. Of course I had no radio, TV, books, newspapers or magazines, so I watched the bugs in the room as through they were a Busby Berkley routine, making up stories about them and assigning character roles.
Likely I was hallucinating from gas fumes and starvation. The Spectre of Fate slowly dissolved into view at the end of the bed, stretching forth its gnarled arm, pointing a bony finger at me, its hideous face leering from the twilight gloom, croaking,
"Cackle! This is the price of becoming an Animator! Shriek! I have here two cards", it continued.
Slowly it turned them over and tossed them onto the bed.
"One. . . you can drag yourself to the post office and send a telegram to Canada begging them to pay your return fare."
"To what," I wheezed, "Rocket Robin Hood at $35 per week?" (This was long before Clive Smith was fainting on Yonge Street to give birth to Nelvana.)
"Precisely," came the Spectre's hollow reply. It continued...
"Two... you can try to stay alive, which is doubtful, (cackle! shriek!), until TVC reconvenes after Christmas. But even if you survive, what has an uncultured clod from Canada got to offer this culturally rich Cosmopolis?"
With that last verbal stab and another cackling shriek, the apparition swirled out the window-vent midst a flurry of snow.
Somehow the alloted day arrived. I kept calling the studio all day but only a few people were around, most still recovering from Christmas feasts I could only imagine in my famine. Late afternoon passed. The evening gloom moved in again. Another day dying and with it all hope, and likely my very life.
The pay phone in the ratty building was located between landings in the stairwell. This posed a dilemma in itself. At that time of day (winter sunset in London seems around 2PM!) the cavernous stairwell was as dark as a Welsh mineshaft. The light switches were left over from ration-minded technology of WWII, spring-operated to save energy and to ensure automatic "black-out" in the days of the Blitz.
To the uninitiated, this means the light stays on until you almost reach the next landing, no matter how fast you run up the stairs, where you have to push another light switch button, which keeps the light going until you almost reach the next landing and so on.
To use pay phones in that pre-cellphone era, you had to dial the number first and wait for the party you're calling to answer. At that point, rapid beeps signal you to deposit enough coins for a three minute conversation. When the three minutes are up, beeps cut in again, interrupting your call until you deposit more coins, which then reopens the line so you can converse. The beeping also tips the person you're calling that you're too poor to afford your own phone. Not a great starting point for negotiations.
Oddly, there was no light switch on the top floor. I grasped a sixpence, my tiny address book, lit a match and made my way in pitch black, feet feeling the edges of steps down to the phone. The match went out.
I lit another, put the receiver to my ear, hunching it there with my shoulder, clutching the sixpence in one hand, the address book and lit match in the other, and dialed TVC's number The phone rang and rang and rang. The match was burning down faster. They answered just as the match burnt my fingers and went out. The phone was beeping! I fumbled trying to insert the coin into the coin slot in the total dark before the beeps cut out, dropping sixpence, address book and matches. The call disconnected!
Roaring with something between a curse and a wail, I crawled in convulsions up the murk-cloaked stairs on all fours to the bug-infested room, wrestling with a moldy bread knife and suicidal thoughts.
At long last, becalmed by staring (in disbelief at the wall, snow-pouring window vent and riotous bugs for an hour, I groped back down the stairs to find the matches, sixpence and address book. I tried the number again, this time holding several matches ready to light, hoping TVC staff hadn't left for the day.
I got through to John Coates (me standing in the obsidian stairwell, speaking into the inky void) who arranged the time for an interview the next day. I was to meet Bob Balser, one of the directors.
The next morning I ate the last of the stale bread and peanut butter scrapings and weakly shuffled to the Notting Hill underground station. I didn't have much in my portfolio, only a bit of art school work, drawings from Crawley's Return to Oz, and comic strip repro proofs from my "Giants" syndicated newspaper series.
In those days, the only way to learn animation was by apprenticing on other people's films. It was also unheard of to ask for a print of anything I'd done on film; it would've been like Oliver Twist asking for 'more'. So I from the few TV commercials I'd animated and Oz, I had no film to show. This was in the neanderthal era before consumer videotape and VCR's arrived. Home computers were beyond anyone's wildest dreams. Hard to believe there was such an age.
Realizing I had no animation samples, I jumped off the subway train at a station where I knew there was a Woolworth store on the street above. I bought a two penny pocket notepad and a tupenny tiny ballpoint pen the size of a toothpick.
Resuming the subway journey, I frantically doodled a cartoon character jumping up and down on its pages as a 'flip-book', managing to get about six or eight shaky, jostled doodles done by the time the train pulled into Tottenham Court station (about an eight minute trip).
The TVC interview: having looked at my portfolio, Bob Balser on the opposite side of the desk was politely making uncertain noises about my working on this mysterious, nameless, Beatles film.
As a last resort, I took out the notepad flip-book.
"Uh . . . as I explained, I was never able to get samples of my animation on film yet. . . but, I just doodled this on the subway coming over here . . ."
I handed him the notepad. The pause was like ten thousand years as he slowly flipped the pages again and again and again and again without comment. Then suddenly:
"GREAT! YOU CAN MOVE FORM! YOU'RE HIRED''.
I nearly fainted from shock and joy, instead of from starvation.
That's how I joined the crew of Yellow Submarine.
All that remained was to get deloused and move into a decent 'upscale' bed-sitter.
Which is a whole n'other chapter.
© Norman Drew, 2006
During the early '70's, Norm commuted between London and Toronto, directing and animating TV series, specials and educational films in the U.K. and Canada. He moved to Vancouver, to Canawest Studios as assistant director of 17 half hour episodes of Hanna Barbera's popular TV series Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (an early Simpsons type series). A year later he launched his own studio, producing cartoon entertainment in TV series, TV commercials, comic features for newspapers and books. His animation career spans 40+ years, including classical animated feature films: Heavy Metal-Taarna sequence, The Chipmunk Adventure; and supervising overseas production of top Hollywood TV series in the '80's and '90's such as: Smurfs, Foofur, Beatlejuice, Police Academy, Hello Kitty's Furry Tale Theater, Dennis the Menace, Smoggies, Timberwood Tales, The Mouse & The Monster and Diabolik.
He is an animation production consultant and offers classical animation training through his tutorial service The Academy of Classical Animation. Visit his website here. You'll be delighted to find an audio download page from a 2 hour live radio and an internet interview with fellow YS animator Tom Halley, with Yellow Submarine trivia (Hosted Dr Bob Hieronimous, who wrote the book "Inside the Yellow submarine".
Today Drew does a lot of consulting/teaching and adds that he was pleased to get into deeper philosophical levels on art, life, music, peace, love, war etc. It's a must see website!
PURCHASE THE BOOK Inside the Yellow Submarine: The Making of the Beatles' Animated Classic
© Norman Drew Animation Archives, 2006. All rights reserved. Yellow Submarine animator, Norm Drew, London, 1968.