It's now an uncommon thing for shows to overrun. All the more so when television now operates throughout the day and is no longer on the whim of strikes and walkouts, power blackouts, the possibility of nuclear war or the possibility that someone just forgot to turn the television station back on after the mid-afternoon break. It may be that one-click recording has caused us to become unfamiliar with the old trick of programming a video recorder, wherein five minutes prior to the start of a show and ten minutes after usually guaranteed that nothing was missed. So when A Matter of Loaf and Death began a few minutes late on Christmas Day, viewers found that while they were able to watch the end of EastEnders, they missed the exciting finale of the latest Wallace and Gromit mystery. The letters page of the Radio Time felt hot to the touch such was the outrage at this slip up in the schedules.
And it's little wonder that everyone was so upset. After all, this is Wallace and Gromit and they're as much a national treasure as Quality Street, tiffin and, yes, Wensleydale cheese. After their sojourn in Hollywood, which gave us the wonderful Chicken Run, Curse of the Were-Rabbit and Flushed Away, Aardman took Wallace and Gromit back to the BBC for the first time since 1995's A Close Shave. Of course, Aardman had never really been away. Over the last fourteen years, they've given us Shaun The Sheep, Creature Comforts and Timmy Time but the appearance of A Matter of Loaf and Death in the Christmas Day schedules was something worth celebrating. Albeit the kind of celebration that doesn't actually require very much movement, more the balancing of a tin of Roses on one's belly during the hearty laughs that come with the revealing of the murder-mystery within this short feature.
Bob is the twelfth baker to be brutally murdered. His corpse is left face down in the dough that he was kneading. But it so happens that having already put their hands and paws to so many other ventures, Wallace (Peter Sallis) and Gromit are now in the baking business, calling themselves Top Bun and delivering bread from, "Dough to Door!" It is on one of these runs that they meet a sturdily-built woman careening downhill on a bicycle. Clamping a pair of wholewheat rolls between his knees to use as brakes, Wallace saves her from a nasty end in the crocodile pit in the zoo. However, this meeting with Piella Bakewell (Sally Lindsay) proves fateful. Piella was once the pin-up girl for the Bake-o-Lite brand of bread and with loaves, rolls and baguettes keeping them together, Wallace and Piella are declaring their love for one another. Even Gromit has a new companion in the shape of Piella's dog Fluffles. But Gromit isn't so very sure of his friend's new relationship. Finding himself in Piella's house to return a purse, Gromit finds twelve shop dummies numbered one to twelve, all of them wearing baker's hats and aprons. A book reveals the true horror of this love affair. Twelve photographs of Piella with each of the murdered bakers and all of them crossed out with a large red X. The only photograph that is untouched is one of Piella and Wallace. Might Wallace be her baker's dozen? And Piella the Cereal Killer?
A Grand Day Out is looking increasingly lonely in the Wallace and Gromit canon. The only one of their films that is not a whodunit (or a whatdunnit in the case of the Curse of the Were-Rabbit), the gentle search for cheese of A Grand Day Out has been usurped by mysteries, murders and matters most foul and none more so than the serial killer of A Matter of Loaf and Death. The pun in the title is merely the first of many in the half hour of this short. Like previous Aardman animations, there is an early clutch of gags to set up the comedy in the short, be it the very Aardman means by which Gromit gets Wallace out of bed - a complicated collection of pulleys, sirens, cogs and a pair of trousers hanging between sacks of flour - or the slapstick of Wallace chucking a loaf of bread and accidentally striking an old woman. And much sooner than they've done so before, Aardman quickly make the leap between the bustling factory and action with what Nick Park calls an Indiana Jones moment when Gromit saves Wallace, Piella and Fluffles from falling into the jaws of an enormous crocodile.
Comedy isn't all, though. Just as Curse of the Were-Rabbit owed much to Hammer horror, so A Matter of Loaf and Death tips its hat in the direction of Hitchcock, not once but several times. The framing is often askew, lighting flashes and long shadows, particularly that of Death himself, fall over the set. It's also a much darker work than previous Wallace and Gromit shorts. While The Wrong Trousers had an evil penguin and A Close Shave a mechanical dog, A Matter of Loaf and Death has murder and violence. There may have been horror in Curse of the Were-Rabbit but at no point did the bodies pile up. Not only is there murder but Fluffles is slapped across the jaws, Wallace ends up with a bomb in his pants, Piella is bitten twice and even Gromit, who could do no wrong in earlier outings, is chained in the garden and even muzzled. Remembering it's a comedy, though, it quickly adds in visual references (or two) from Aliens and a memorable one from Ghost that look almost effortless.
Like earlier Wallace and Gromit shorts, it exists entirely in the particularly Lancashire town that our heroes have made their own. With little regard to their past efforts as space travellers, window cleaners or pest controllers, they're now bakers, complete with a windmill, a fork-lift truck fitted with giant oven mitts and a van in which the sunroof accommodates their tall chefs' hats. This is a northern town in which terraced houses are fronted by American post boxes - all the better to fit loaves of bread in, I assume - and where a large billboard warns of the presence of the Yorkshire border and for visitors to keep out. And when A Matter of Loaf and Death descends into farce and Gromit desperately needs to rid himself of a bomb (and a traditional comedy bomb at that, being big, black, round, with BOMB written on it and a fuse!), he finds himself faced with ducklings, kittens and nuns.
This is a marvelous short. Everyone will have their own favourite but if this falls just short of A Close Shave then it's not for want of trying. It's as packed with jokes, puns and little details as other Wallace and Gromit stories and survives repeated viewings with ease. It has romance, mystery and suspense and a dog who, without saying a word, can take the viewer on a superb little trip into a very British world of baking, murder and how best to use bread rolls should the brakes on your bike ever fail.
A Matter of Loaf and Death didn't look that bad when it was shown on television on Christmas Day but this DVD presentation really is a cut above how it's been seen to date. Those glimpses of fingerprints in the Plasticine, which are part and parcel of the Aardman experience, are perfectly clear on this DVD, which is detailed, bright and richly coloured. Granted, there's plenty of space on this DVD for the thirty minute main feature to use but it does so very well, looking as good as any recent release. The DD2.0 soundtrack is just as good. That brassy, cheery Wallace and Gromit theme sounds great, as does the rest of the show. The soundtrack is never very fussy and so all the little moments in the animation, such as the whish of sudden movement, the boing of elastic and the fizzing of the fuse are all perfectly clear. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Audio Commentary: Nick Park and editor David McCormick are together for this track and while one might have hoped that they would be as funny as the show they worked on, it doesn't quite work out like that. Park and McCormick are good at informing the viewer how several of the more difficult scenes were animated, such as Wallace's rescuing of Piella or Gromit's sneaking around amongst the shop dummies. They're also fairly interesting at describing what gags failed to make it into the film (and the background to those that did). But it's not that funny and listened to once, may not be returned to as often as the main feature.
How They Donut! (20m22s): And the puns don't end there! This is, as Nick Park says in the introduction to this making-of feature, a who-donut. And does this ever explain how to make an animated short using Plasticine. From how they achieve a blurring of the picture with go-motion to how they go about putting raindrops on Gromit's face and even how Nick Park acts out scenes before they are animated, this is good at informing budding animators on some, if not very many, of the tricks of the trade. It even ends nicely, with several of the contributors answering the question of why everyone loves Wallace and Gromit.
The remaining features are less interesting. As well as a Picture Gallery (1m59s), there is a short on the making of a promotional campaign for the opening of a Harvey Nichols store in Bristol starring Wallace and Gromit (5m02s). Finally, there is a demo for the Wallace and Gromit's Grand Adventures game for PC and Trailers for Shaun The Sheep and Timmy Time (2m21s and 38s).