The Strange Story of the Thief In Soho Square
This is the story of dreams, creativity and thwarted ambition.
Once upon a time, back in the swinging sixties, on the north side of London’s Soho Square, there was a bright green townhouse that was the home of some of the city’s most wonderful eccentrics. It was an animation studio run by Richard Williams, whose psychedelic art style caught the era’s zeitgeist and became hugely popular. The kindly, affable and vaguely other-worldly Williams wandered about his studio directing his animators and painting key frames in vivid rainbow colours, creating an astonishing range of movie sequences and commercials. His title credits for the ‘Pink Panther’ films, ”What’s New Pussycat’ and ‘Casino Royale’ (the original) were wonderful (he won Oscars, notably for ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’) and I loved his sequences in ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, which explained the Crimean War in the form of a series of political cartoons.
One day I had to go there to brief some animators on the making of a commercial, and Mr Williams excitedly showed me around the studio. He was bringing over animators from Disney to pass on their teaching to his staff, and introduced me to the legendary Ub Iwerks, who hand-drew the first Mickey Mouse cartoons. He was very old (I believe he hand-drew the dancing mushrooms in ‘Fantasia’) and was effectively passing on his knowledge before he died.
Williams had a secret passion – he was working on a feature film of his own in his spare time. It underwent many titles, and was shot wide-screen, utilising every possible visual trick in the book. It eventually became known as ‘The Thief and the Cobbler’.
Back in the 1980s (and again in the 90s) I did some marketing work on this unfinished masterpiece. The problem was that the film – based on Persian miniatures and the writings of Sufi philosopher Mullah Nasruddin – was an insanely intensive labour of love that predated CGI, and was eventually overtaken by it. The version I worked on had Vincent Price, Kenneth Williams and Eartha Kitt among its voice talents. It followed the story of a cobbler who fell for a princess and became involved in a war that broke out after a thief stole three golden balls from the top of the palace tower.
The work was to be the climactic peak of animation – but Williams couldn’t bring himself to leave sequences alone. The project became ever-more elaborate and ornate. It became something he could never finish. And while the characters of the silent thief and the cobbler were charming, he lost sight of who the film was intended for – not children, certainly; it had become far too baroque for them. Meanwhile Williams continued to use commercials and film credits to try and finish the film. Various studios helped him, offering financial encouragement to complete the feature. Warners took it for a while, and were horrified to discover that, far from being almost finished, as Williams had told them, there was less than three quarters of an hour of footage.
But Warners are tough task-masters. When Williams went over deadline yet again the insurers moved in, took the film away from him and closed his unit down. They were worried that Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ would kill their market, although the films couldn’t have been more different and this was probably just an excuse.
The existing 43 minutes were expanded and eventually cobbled together in a terrible, embarrassing mash-up version from Miramax, who destroyed the remaining interest in it. Williams’s studio folded. In 2006, a filmmaker, animator and fan of Williams’ work named Garrett Gilchrist created an unofficial DVD titled The Thief and the Cobbler: The Recobbled Cut, featuring a restored version of the movie he edited himself based on Williams’ original workprint, mixing the original audio track, finished scenes from the released versions, pencil tests, rare footage and pieces of the storyboard. Williams has never officially commented on the restoration.
‘The Thief And The Cobbler’ is the greatest animated film never to see the light of day in its intended form. The little green house on Soho Square is still there, though.