Why did you want to get involved with this project?
It was a no-brainer. I love clowns anyway and Quentin's a classic, he's been illustrating the whole of my life. I was familiar with Clown (the book), it's such an enchanting piece but I hadn't read it for years, so it was nice to see him come to life. After all, that's what children do – they look at pictures and animate them. We've forgotten how to do that because we're adults, so the animators do it for us.
What did you make of the team behind Clown?
Walter, Massimo, they're just a bunch of eccentrics – clowns themselves, in a way, but immensely organised. I loved the idea they'd gathered so many different people from so many different parts of the world in Covid times. All these animators will never meet, but they've all come together to make this piece of magic. I'm sure they're barking mad as well, animators usually are. The first time I met Walter and Massimo to talk about the show, I found all our frames of reference were similar: Les Enfants du Paradis, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland… It was the pathos of the clown, rather than the sadistic big make-up, the gentleness of someone who's been thrown away and is painting over the sadness on the face. Quentin's story has been so honoured and done with such love and reverence.
From The Gruffalo to Corpse Bride, you've done a fair bit of voice work. What challenges did narrating Quentin Blake's Clown present?
It was just a lovely, warm day out. They seemed very pleased with what came out of my mouth, even on the first take, and I've never had that in my life in animation! It's a very gentle leading through the story. There's a wonderful balletic score too. It's classic in the sense that it's not particularly of now, it could have come from any time, a bit like The Snowman. It's about rejection and being thrown out, which we've all experienced in life at one time or other, and then being found again, which is what we all hope for.
Those themes of hope, compassion and kindness feel very timely.
Definitely. Clown is a homeless character, really, and it'll shine a light on an appalling thing, that people who are genuinely without homes and love must deal with every day, on a day of particular togetherness and isolation.
Did you have a favourite toy when you were growing up?
I had a Snoopy but that was late in my childhood, early teens. I was always a late developer – I think I've been doing my childhood while I'm an adult. I had a pig as an adult as well which I slept with a lot. And a Paddington. I had several in my affections.
When did you first encounter Quentin Blake's art?
He's always been around – I think it was mostly his work illustrating Roald Dahl's stories. We got to know Liccy Dahl [a producer and Roald's wife] when Tim [Burton] did Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but we knew Quentin's stuff long before that.
Why has Quentin's art endured?
He's so not generic and utterly himself. His people are so economical but so expressive. Those characters are always fun and you can recognise them, although they're not photographically accurate. The essence of people you know are there and he has a lot of humanity. He loves his characters: even if they're flawed, they're not necessarily the prettiest. It must be extraordinary to be in his head – it looks so free but it's probably taken him so long to do.
Are you much of an artist?
I'm very deficient in talent, but I do like making things: drawing and crafting, rubber stamps, that kind of thing. I'm making a scrapbook at the moment, where you have to be prepared to make an absolute mess and then leave it then come back. I've got a huge collection of stuff in bottles and boxes that have never been used, and loads of ideas in my head.
Could you have been a clown in another life?
I did clowning lessons, not terribly successfully, with somebody called Philippe Gaulier but I was too shy. Clowns can be very cruel, although he was a hilarious man with a real sense of pathos. I do feel I have a clown, but it comes out in different ways. I've dressed in a top hat many times, I spent most of my twenties in oversized trousers and I have many lace-ups that are too big for me. Doing the photoshoot for Clown was great fun, putting lots of music on, hair and make-up. I prefer dressing up anyway, so many clowns came out in that one.
What are your plans for Christmas this year?
We don't know how many people we'll be able to see obviously, but decorating's okay, isn't it? We haven't been told to isolate our Xmas baubles! I might put little masks on all my stuffed toys…