Wallace & Gromit: the acceptable face of innovation

Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention was quirky, but could have been much more inspiring about new technology.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

Nothing seems to sum up today’s conflicted attitude towards innovation than the enduring popularity of Wallace & Gromit. The plasticine duo, created by Nick Park, are not only two of Britain’s most successful film exports, but its best known inventors.

Whether it is flying to the moon to pick up some cheese or simply developing an elaborate contraption to put your clothes on and butter your toast in the morning, they are TV’s last Futurists: manically determined to dominate and shape the world through science and technology and liberate humanity on all levels from the demands of labour.

Yet they are simultaneously an encapsulation of that most dreaded word in innovation: quaint. They live in that mythical England once characterised by former prime minister John Major as made up of ‘long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers’. Their workshop is a toolshed; their tools what could only be described as bits’n’bobs. Wallace is even voiced by gentle Peter Sallis, otherwise known as the one star of the BBC’s somnambulant Sunday evening comfort blanket Last of the Summer Wine who didn’t die during its long run. Even the way Park creates them is the definition of painstaking, agonisingly free of the modern tricks of CGI or even robotics.

Depending on your viewpoint they are therefore either a curious or wonderfully apposite choice to front BBC1’s new prime-time engineering programme Wallace & Gromit’s World of Invention. As viewers of recent science shows know too well, TV has become much more comfortable of late in encouraging us to feel awe and wonder about scientific inquiry in uncovering The Wonders of the Solar System. In The Genius of Science, the great and good of the scientific community presented an insightful and populist programme about the history of science and the often exciting tales of great scientific discoveries. But while we can just about cope with boffins uncovering and discovering existing things through a microscope or telescope, we’re still not entirely keen on them using that knowledge to make things which may go bang (physically or metaphorically) in the here and now.

So, more than just being light-hearted and familiar faces for a family-viewing slot, Wallace & Gromit are the acceptable face of innovation and engineering today. They’re the future as we used to imagine it, rather than the scarier proposition of the future as we did not expect it. On the one hand they provide a rugged defence of the value of blue-skies thinking which has no apparent use or value, but on the other we can be content that Wallace – whose modest ambition in life stretches to a good cup of tea and a plate of cheese – wouldn’t sell his soul to evil corporations or weapons manufacturers (the brooding Gromit probably would if given the chance, but he’s a dog). They are no-limits thinkers who are pretty happy with their lot.

This rather reflected the tone of this jolly, if faintly inconsequential, programme. The plasticine pair are just the frontmen for a show which aims to give a snapshot of the weird and wonderful innovative thinking going on around the world. Each week has a different theme, and this week’s was… Nature. Ho hum. In fairness, it was actually looking at how the complex systems and structures of the natural world were acting as an inspiration to today’s engineers and informing their research. Some of it was actually pretty cool: we saw German engineers working on a radio-controlled manta ray-inspired airship and flying mechanical penguins. They had lamps powered by eating insects, which has a certain grim fascination.

They even looked at how termites’ air cooling system had been used to build a swish new shopping mall in Harare, although it was more interesting to discover that they build swish shopping malls in Harare (don’t hear that very often, do you?). The show also had an enjoyably sly sense of humour: one of the songs they had playing in the background sans vocals was ‘There Ain’t Half Been Some Clever Bastards’ by Ian Dury & The Blockheads, while the programme straight-facedly assured us that termites have been helping to build human habitation while showing us an image of the Houses of Parliament (it was Portcullis House’s air-conditioning system they were referring to).

But it was difficult to walk away feeling a tremendous amount of excitement. Much of these animal-inspired inventions seemed to largely involve people making mechanical animals, which has a certain charm to it, but one which is hardly easily explicable to the casual viewer. A little explanation of why it was impressive that science can now replicate some of the most complicated natural systems, evolved over millennia, and what they could hope to achieve with those developments in the future would have been useful. Instead we were urged to reflect on Mother Nature having beaten us to the best inventions long ago, which seemed like getting it the wrong way round a bit. Termites may have a wonderfully advanced air conditioning system, but I’d rather human beings didn’t have to live like termites, and it is engineers we have to thank for the fact that a vast number of us don’t.

Once again, you were forced to reflect that when it comes to dumbing down it’s a problem which goes far deeper than whether they use cartoon characters, sexy young professors or tank-top wearing boffins to get their message across. A family-orientated programme celebrating the wonders of innovation and the benefits of curiosity-driven research with no obvious immediate benefits seems like a great idea: it’s just a shame that the only people we entrust to tell us that are mad dogs and plastic men.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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Topics Culture


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