Lancashire’s Wallace & Gromit celebrate 30 years of The Wrong Trousers

Happy Birthday to The Wrong Trousers – As this classic short film turns thirty, Billy Hotchkiss explores why one Lancashire man and his dog remain so popular after so many years. 

What’s the oldest thing in your wardrobe – a ten-year-old top? A dress you never know when to wear or, God forbid, underwear you’ve owned since your teens? Clothes will rarely last you decades let alone thirty years, unless, in this case, they’re ‘techno’ and made of plasticine. 

This Christmas, Wallace & Gromit and The Wrong Trousers will celebrate its 30th anniversary. The film, first broadcast in 1993, has been a staple of the festive schedule most years since. Having been voted the eighteenth best British show of all time by the BFI, this tale of debt, dog walking and dastardly penguins has cemented itself within the nation’s psyche. But bar the constant replay-ability, how has this double act reached icon status?

A bronze statue of Wallace, Gromit and The Wrong Trousers can be found outside Preston’s iconic market (Credit: Billy Hotchkiss)

“The term Claymation didn’t exist when they made The Wrong Trousers…So it’s a landmark film, the first really of its kind – it was the longest [stop motion] animated feature at that point.” said Joe Sullivan, Director of The Cartoon Museum, the country’s only museum specifically dedicated to preserving the best of British cartoons and animation. 

The short, produced by Aardman, follows Wallace and Gromit, who unable to pay off their debts, must let out their spare bedroom to the shady Feathers McGraw. The story of its creation is currently on display within the museum. Included within the London exhibition are original storyboards, models and even the film’s Oscar. 

Mr Sullivan said: “We’ve got the model of Feather’s in the bottle from the end of the train chase when he is caught in a milk bottle…it was taken off set and kept in a Ferrero Roche box and found years later by someone.”

The iconic train chase from which the bottle features is regarded as one of the film’s most cinematic and memorable sequences. Speaking as part of a Q&A with The Cartoon Museum, one of the film’s directors of photography, Dave Alex Riddett said: “There wasn’t anything like motion control equipment in the early days…It’s not as smooth as it could be, but I think that’s part of the look. Nowadays when we shoot stuff and we have very sophisticated equipment, we actually try and simulate some of the randomness.’

The film’s antagonist Feathers McGraw (Credit: © Aardman/Wallace & Gromit Limited 1993)

Mr Sullivan added: “The puppets were made of a mix of clay and modelling plasticine so they’re both moveable and supple enough to be able to shape and strong enough to hold shape during animation.”

These impressive models and puppets weren’t designed to last three decades due to being constantly moulded, only surviving due to the love and protection of their creators. In fact, a 2005 warehouse fire now means that very few artifacts remain from the production. 

One of the most elaborate sets from the film is Wallace’s home – a set inspired by director Nick Park’s grandmother’s house in Preston. Much of The Wrong Trousers and the film series comes from Park’s upbringing in Lancashire. It could be argued it’s this northern magic which has made the film so popular.

“The other big thing is the inherent Britishness…the fact that they’re from Lancashire, it’s not that received pronunciation Englishness that gets exported – it’s the same reason that something like Game of Thrones is successful.” said Mr Sullivan

Nick Park’s biggest inspirations for the series were his Lancashire upbringing and his love of comic books (Credit: © Aardman/Wallace & Gromit Limited 1993)

A key reason the characters remain loved is due to their quintessential northern humour – on display in both the script and in the background. Jokes and puns can often be found hidden in the distinctive models – a difficult feat when the surface for writing is only centimetres large. 

“That’s what I like about Aardman – it’s those knowing reference points and that note of detail” said Stephen Dee, creative director, and owner of Barrow Creative, a modelmaking company based in Manchester. 

Mr Dee, who is also an animation lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, has a background in tiny prop design, having previously worked with other iconic British puppets – including Postman Pat. 

Speaking of the stop-motion process, he said: “I like the fact you can get something which really doesn’t do anything, but you bring it to life really quickly and although it’s very intensive in terms of time, there’s so much scope to do so many things with so many materials – its learning all the time.”

Aardman Animation films are produced in Bristol, where the studio is based (Credit: © Aardman/Wallace & Gromit Limited 1993)

The Lancashire city remains a constant inspiration throughout the films and despite the main characters canonically living in Wigan, Preston has adopted the man and dog as locals. A statue of The Wrong Trousers can be found outside the city’s market – proving the film’s popularity is set in stone, or rather bronze. Further down the road in Blackpool, Wallace and Gromit even have their own theme park ride. 

“The look and feel of Wallace & Gromit is very familiar to anyone that lives in the north of England and has pride in that.” said Andy Hygate, Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Director of Operations.

He added: “It always has a long queue and that proves that those characters are still relevant to people…It’s a potent legacy, clearly people still connect with these characters.” 

The ride is described as perfect for families, just like The Wrong Trousers. Mr Hygate said: “I remember it being on, it was a big event at Christmas and now a lot of people my age have grown up with a special connection to those characters…they grow up and have their own kids and want to introduce them to things they feel nostalgic about.” 

The Thrill-o-matic ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach recently celebrated its tenth birthday earlier this year (Credit: Blackpool Pleasure Beach)

Considering the technical skill, cinematic feats, and hilarious humour, it’s clear why The Wrong Trousers remains a favourite and why Wallace and Gromit have ascended to icons. Not just within cartoons or Lancashire, but across the country, even the world, as next year the clay duo return in a new adventure, premiering globally on Netflix. 

Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers turns 30! exhibition continues at The Cartoon Museum in London until April 16, 2024.