Saturday 16 February 2013

The Mighty Avenger: An interview with Bryan Ansell

Bryan, back in the day, with his Chaos Army as published in Warhammer Armies. Marcus Ansell has told me they hope to bring as much of this famous force to the Oldhammer Day as they can find... So fingers crossed!

Few men achieve a legendary status within the pages of history, fewer still genuinely achieve that status when they still draw breath. In my opinion, the word is bandied about with alarming regularity, which has, much like the appallingly overused modern adjectives 'cool' and 'awesome', become rather meaningless. 

However, legendary is an extremely apt description for the subject of our latest interview, the one time owner of Citadel and Games Workshop and the man responsible for the 'Golden Age' of British fantasy gaming; Bryan Ansell.

Yes, we got him!

This interview and has come to us thanks to the hard work of Steve Casey over at the Citadel Collector. As some of you will know, he has set about photographing much of Bryan's astonishing collection for some time. When the idea of interviewing Bryan was first suggested, Steve offered to contact the great man himself and facilitate the process. After a few frantic emails between us, we managed to thrash out a fair few questions to get us going... 

It was supposed to be a joint project between our two sites. 

Then life happened...

And the idea was lost to the ether and cast out into the Realm of Chaos.

Then, quite unexpectedly, exactly to the day of the first birthday of this blog, Bryan emailed me with his response. And, well, here it is! 

Before we begin, Bryan has a few words to say to you all. 

BA: I feel obliged to issue a warning: the things that I'm about to ramble on about happened a very long time ago.

For 33 years, my life was a constant whirl of toy soldiers and everything associated with them. 
New things were happening all the time. Every working day saw more concept drawings, toy soldiers, illustrations, text and baffling eccentric behaviour. It was hard enough to try to keep up with everything back then: much harder to remember it all now. As I approach my dotage, I find that it's quite difficult to differentiate one long-gone, frantic year from another. My memories of much of the fine detail have either melted away entirely or become unreliable.

It's probably best not to believe anything that I write. I will most likely babble incoherently and not answer any of the questions properly.

Working with early Citadel/GW was a very pleasant way to make a living. The company remained a nice size that allowed us to get interesting things done without bogging down too much in bureaucracy or internal conflict. 

A benign Realm of Chaos even.

I had opportunity to be at the centre of things, witness those exciting periods of early growth close up and work with many stubbornly idiosyncratic, talented and goodhearted people. 

Slaaneshi Champion riding a Steed of Slaanesh. Look at the colour scheme. Beautiful. From the collection of Bryan Ansell. 
RoC80s/CC: Realm of Chaos: Slaves to Darkness is 25 years old this year. What inspired the original project and what do you feel was at the core of its success. 

BA: Chaos Warriors were deeply embedded in Warhammer from early in the history of Citadel. In 1977 Citadel opened up in a riverside warehouse among the scrapyards on Millgate in Newark. We had three staff. By 1981 we had ten or so staff, and we were in a bigger, pleasanter, warmer, Victorian building near the centre of Newark on Victoria Street. During those four years, we had been making fantasy models aimed at the Dungeons & Dragons market and historical models for historical gamers. There were a few sets of fantasy rules about: Rick Priestley and Richard Haliwell had published Reaper, I think that South London Warlords had a set of fantasy rules and I vaguely remember an American system called the Emerald Tablet: but there wasn't a significant amount of tabletop gaming going on with fantasy miniatures. Most our staff at Citadel were gamers, and as we were surrounded by those fantasy models every day, it was inevitable that we should all want to start fighting big fantasy table top battles.

We had reached a point where Citadel had become quite successful in the context of the (very much smaller then) toy soldier "industry". It seemed like the right time to bring in people who could get us moving forward with more interesting toy soldiers. The more interesting toy soldiers could then lead to us building our own fantasy gaming system, which could be a tabletop rival to Dungeons & Dragons. The only people that I knew who seemed at all likely to be up this task were Rick Priestley and Richard Halliwell (Lincoln), Tony Ackland (Stoke-on-Trent) and John Blanche (Nottingham). I had known them all during my time at Asgard. They all joined up. We were all amazed when John agreed to come along: what with him being a proper artist and everything.

We were supposed to be a sister company to Games Workshop (who were still publishing Dungeons & Dragons back then). But there was a degree of friction and discord between the two companies. I was told that the London end were jealous of the amount of money that our packers and casters were earning on piecework. Other than in the Hammersmith Games Workshop  shop (run by the big, amiable, pro-Citadel American Tim Olson) none of the Workshop shops sold our models in any quantity (I believe that Tim still has a full set of all those big, haphazard, incomplete, mono coloured flyers (illustrated by Tony and John) that we did to announce the arrival of new models back then).

Games Workshop shops kept our models unpackaged as loose castings, either on or behind their counter, in sets of tiny plastic drawers. This did not encourage purchase. The GW shops sold very few toy soldiers.We supplied independent shops with those wire racks that we used to have. They had hooks that carded bags containing our models dangled down from. Later we went over to blister packs. The same blister packs that Foundry use now. The independent shops cheerfully sold plenty of our toy soldiers.

In the end, a party of Citadel staff went into the Sheffield Games Workshop, took away the awful tiny plastic drawers and hung our racks of wire hooks and dangling toy soldiers up on their walls.
Sheffield started selling loads more Citadel: I think the sales went up by a factor of six or seven on the next Saturday. Then the other Games Workshop shops were supplied with racks and dangling toy soldiers too. This brought in useful amounts of cash to go towards our new projects. However, we upped our wage bill by about 50% when we employed our first team of creatives. Money was tight for a while and succeeding with the new models and the game had become a matter of sh*t or bust.

Rick, Hal, Tony and John put Warhammer together and established the early Citadel/Warhammer style of writing, illustrating and modelling that was to hold sway for a decade or so. We also introduced our Chaos Warriors and Beastmen to the world. We didn't bust.
Some time later Alan Merrett (who had been with us as a caster almost from the beginning) would join this group as an invaluable administrator and all round dependable person. He is still out there at GW administrating and being invaluable. Michael and Alan Perry sculpted almost all the models in the early Warhammer period. John Blanche provided them with splendid drawings of Chaos Warriors, Beastmen and suchlike. These weren't really concepts: they were actual illustrations of how the models were to look .I have always thought that those very early Beastmen/Broo were the best Beastmen we ever did.

From the beginning Chaos Warriors were established as a really important part of the Warhammer landscape. Those early models, drawn by John and sculpted by Michael and Alan, found a special place in the hearts of gamers and collectors. They always sold very well. We went on to make huge quantities of different Chaos models over the years. So, when much later we had the opportunity to produce big, lavishly over-illustrated, chart-packed hardback books, Chaos was the obvious first subject. It also gave us an opportunity to team John up with Ian Miller and to involve almost all the freelance artists we had accumulated. Realm of Chaos was the last major project that I was involved in to the end. I don't think I was around long enough after that to see all the Ork books finished.

Warhammer was nearly called Battleblade: 
also, Warhammer was typed by Rick Priestley's mum.

Not a lot of people know that.

The original fimir sculpt, by Jes Goodwin I believe. From the collection of Bryan Ansell. 

RoC80s/CC: The Realms of Chaos books had a very long gestational period over several years. Was the project a difficult one to complete?

BA: I don't remember the gestation period being inappropriately long. Big rule books, large numbers of toy soldiers and masses of art take a while. However, between the first and the second volume I had started working in a cycle of four weeks in Baltimore followed by six weeks in Nottinghamshire back and forth: I wouldn't have been so omnipresent at the studio and I might not have been sensitive to the time that passed.

RoC80s/CC: How much influence did you have over the initial design of the Chaos Powers? Tony Ackland has told us he recalls you giving him outlines of each of the four gods from which he build the concepts.

BA: During the opening stages of any new project that I was initiating, I would briefly have a great deal of influence on how the background and all the other detail was constructed. I would usually produce a (very) long document describing the content and the models that I imagined we would create. I would then talk about the project with the in house writers, the sculptors and with Alan, Rick, John and Tony. Then, with different people busy working on different areas, the details would naturally change and mutate as new ideas from everyone else were brought into the mix. 

The writers, the artists and the sculptors would inevitably have considerable influence on the final content and detail. I have vague memories of writing an initial chart of Chaos Attributes before we had really started on the book. I don't remember exactly to what extent it was altered before publication, but I'm quite sure it would have been changed, modified and extended all over the place by other hands 

I remember being very keen that rolling on the various charts to create Chaos Warbands should be a pleasant undertaking: engrossing in its own right.

I might speak to the writers about how we could use the text to create a particular background and atmosphere, but I would then leave them to get on with it. Having had the discussion, I would very rarely seek to then change any of the resulting text. I would chat with John  and Tony in a similar way. My schedule didn't allow me to have a great deal to do with the other artists, but I would try to spend time with the sculptors at least twice a week. The sculptors received concepts, and took part in discussions, more often with John and Alan than with me. Then they would then go off and do their own thing within the general context of the information they had been given. Jes Goodwin would often provide his own concepts. If Rick had a project, he would get on and write it: we just had to coordinate his writings with the toy soldiers we intended to create.
It was very important that all the creatives: writers of text and rules, illustrators and sculptors knew that they had control of and responsibility for the detail and character contained in their work. 
We were producing too much material to micromanage: and anyway, if we hadn't allowed all those individual personalities to shine,we would have ended up with clinical, souless games, books and toy soldiers.
I'm fairly certain that the very first piece of art that was done for Realm of Chaos was the group of illustrations of the four gods on page 14. I believe that I talked to John Blanche about the four gods, and that the artwork was completed quite some time before any other work was done on Realm of Chaos.  As I recall, it was on an A4 piece of board. It's a shame we didn't use it as a full page illustration. On the same day, I think that I also talked to John about illustrations of four Gods of Law. It's possible that sketches were done: if so, I have no memory of what they looked like. The Gods of Law were going to be even more ferocious than the Gods of Chaos.

I mostly only initiated toy soldier related products. I was involved in a few board and card games. I had almost nothing to do with the game content of roleplaying games. I may possibly have expressed an opinion on Warhammer Roleplay scenarios a couple of times. I had a dictaphone and two touch typists. I believe that my only Realm of Chaos intervention was removing a piece of text that seemed to imply that a Nurgle demon had molested children at a circus. As a general principle: no self-respecting sculptor, artist, game designer or writer (or mouldmaker or caster) can stand being told what to do by someone who can do none of those things. 

Quite rightly too!

Advanced Heroquest Warrior and Henchmen. Bryan oversaw the early, pioneering work that Citadel did, along with Bob Naismith, into the production of high quality plastic models. From the collection of Bryan Ansell. 
RoC80s/CC: The work of Michael Moorcock is evident in chaos as a whole, but what else did you draw on and what were your literary and artistic influences in general?

BA: Certainly, Michael Moorcock was an influence and inspiration. Michael Moorcock and Tolkien cast massive shadows over the whole fantasy industry: in my case Jack Vance and Clark Ashton Smith were equally important.
I don't think our vision of Chaos Warriors overlaps much with that of Michael Moorcock (although we did occasionally borrow his arrow symbol). 
For me, all the roots of the Chaos Warriors that Citadel made over the years lie with Frank Frazetta's "Death Dealer" paintings and sketches, the first few "Chaos Warriors" that Tony Ackland made at Asgard (also the one that Stan Pochron made) and John Blanche's sketches from the early 80s.

I think that the first fantasy stories I read were the "Faraway Tree" tales by Enid Blyton.

When I discovered fantasy, science and historical fiction in the 1960s Moorcock wasn't visible enough yet to make it into my local (Arnold) library. I was enthusiastic about Jack Vance, Clark Ashton Smith , Harry Harrison, Fritz Leiber, Keith Laumer, James Blish , Robert Sheckley,  Brian  Aldis , Edgar Rice Burroughs , Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein ,TH White, Cyril Judd, Fritz Leiber, Philip K Dick and others .  Also Russell Thorndike, Rafael Sabatini, Hubert Cole, Alfred Duggan, Mary Renault,  Henry Treece, Geoffrey Trease and Leslie Charteris. 

I have books by all those people in the room I am sitting in now.

I didn't discover Moorcock until the Hawkmoon books in the early 70s. Tandem was publishing James Branch Cabell and getting him to me via WH Smith at round about the same time that Moorcock appeared:  so I still associate them with each other. I don't think that Cabell has had any influence on my fantasy gaming, but I am quietly obsessed with him. I recommend "Figures of Earth", "The Silver Stallion" and "Jurgen" to anyone who might enjoy his poetic Edwardian prose and sly wit.

I suspect that only a small, eccentric minority of gamers are going to be interested in who my favourite artists might be. But: Frank C Pape is my favourite artist. Followed by (in no particular order) Winsor Mckay, John Duncan, NC Wyeth, Druillet, Mobius, Klimt, Albert Robida, Beardsley, Dore, Bruegel, Durer, Richard Dadd.

'80s Chaos in all its intricate detail. You don't see banners like this anymore, do you? A homage to this is going to be a must in my Khorne mortal army. From the collection of Bryan Ansell.
RoC80s/CC: Where did the names Khorne, Slaanesh, Tzeentch and Nurgle originate?

BA: Nurgle is an "actual" god (honest). Nergal is a Babylonian god who goes back to prehistoric times: he was still around to be worshipped by the Assyrians. I changed the spelling because I thought that "Nurgle" was more amusing. Also, it could be the sound of a death rattle, or air being expelled from a rotting, putrescent carcass. Nergal is god of death, disease and pestilence. Also god of war and ruler of the underworld (or sometimes his wife is). As he's been around for a very long time his attributes have changed back and forth over the years. I'm sure he's extremely pleased that we are still thinking of him. Perhaps with all this attention we might eventually conjure up a physical manifestation.

Khorne was derived from Conan's "Crom", who is an "actual" Celtic god who can also be spelt Krom or Khram. Good name for a war god.

Slaanesh was meant to be a sibilant, erotic, breathy, whispered/murmured sound. The models didn't turn out quite as erotically charged as I'd hoped.

Tzeentch was meant to be the sound of a spell blasting out. Like in a Dr Strange comic. It also has a sort of Aztec feel: which goes with the feathers and the bright pastel colours.

We did not plan any other powers during my time: other than perhaps the Gods of Law (and Malal-ed)

RoC80s/CC: In broader terms, can you recall examples of other cancelled projects that never saw the light of day during your time at Games Workshop?

BA: We talked about many things that we never actually got round to. Loads of things. I think that any manufacturer of anything must inevitably do that. At the point that I left Games Workshop, work had started on a fourth game for MB. It was a chariot racing game. It never came out. I gather that models were made: so there are probably bootleg castings out in the world somewhere. Much more interestingly:  before my departure John Blanche produced a truly amazing set of concepts for dark elves. They were the best concepts that I had ever seen. Jes Goodwin might also have been involved. I'm fairly sure that they were never made. 

I'd like to see them again.

RoC80s/CC: Was there a premeditated plan for how the RoC miniatures range should look, or did you just give sculptors free reign?

BA: The sculptors were given pretty much free reign with regard to sculpting style. I suppose that as each new sculptor joined they found that a general style already existed amongst the sculptors in the studio and they modified their own style to some degree so that it fitted in. 

The exception to this was Bob Olley, it was soon apparent that Bob had his own very particular way of doing things . So we gave him his own brand: "Iron Claw". 

I thought that they were great!

Chaos Dreadnaughts '80s Citadel style. Very chaotic and the anti-thesis of today's bland design.  Fantastic colour scheme to boot. From the collection of Bryan Ansell. 
RoC80s/CC: You really encouraged artists to produce vivid works: was a striking art resource something that just developed or was it planned early on?

BA: John Blanche organised all the artists: internal and external. He was very good at articulating what we needed from them. He was also very good at picking artists whose style was complimentary to the work of our existing team and at providing calm leadership. I think that over the years all of us steadily got better at what we were doing.

RoC80s/CC: You have a large collection of painted vintage figures, many of which can be seen in the RoC books. Do you have any plans to open up the collection to the viewing public?

BA: I do have a collection of early models: which Steve has been very kindly photographing and cataloging.

We live in a Hall near Newark. We have spent a substantial part of the last 10 years rebuilding and restoring it (only six rooms to go). We run the main rooms as a wedding centre ( a central hallway we have a great big cabinet filled with over 2000 toy soldiers. The rest of my toys are hidden away in many drawers. When we have a wedding the big cabinet of toy soldiers always draws at least a handful of ex Warhammer players. 

Probably just over half of the grooms that have passed through here are ex Warhammer!

We have a second building complex. This is a five sided courtyard completely surrounded by large buildings. No one has knocked it about since 1812. It used to be carriage houses, stables, brewery, laundry, belltower (we just fixed the bells), storage and accommodation for the single men.  It's about 10,000 ft.². The Foundry sculptors used to work in the courtyard. I store 5,000 master moulds there: many of them date from the seventies. The building is not in terrible condition: it just needs some roofing, plastering and new floors. In a couple of years we hope to sort it out. We have been talking about eventually putting in a model soldier museum. 

Best not hold your breath though!

Bryan Ansell.

Bryan today, with come of his collection of classic Citadel. Imagine the game you could play with that lot , eh? From the interview in Wargames Illustrated (and nicked off Coop!)
And so ends the interview. Did you know that the original name for Warhammer was Battlebalde? Could you have linked the writing of Enid Blyton to the influences behind Warhammer (joke)? I can honestly say that receiving the email from which this interview was built, and editing and preparing this interview has been one of the greatest pleasures of my wargaming life. And, dear readers... If you are planning to get married, why not suggest Stoke Hall to the missus, eh? Not only is it a truly outstanding location, but you can gaze at the collection of the mighty Ansell as the guests mingle!

A massive, massive thank you to the great man, Mr Ansell, himself, to his son, Marcus, and Steve over at the Citadel Collector for setting up the interview and provide invaluable advice with the development of the questions. 

Only one thing to ask!

Did we do better than Wargames Illustrated? 



  1. Excellent, insightful and inspiring. Thanks so much for this to all involved. Bring on the Oldhammer!

  2. Well there you go, you'll have to go some to top that. Hang up your keyboard now? I hope not.

  3. "appallingly overused modern adjectives 'cool' and 'awesome'"

    Your article is a very well-written and diligently researched piece of journalism. It is great to see talent applied to a subject so niche and yet so relevant to many of us. My only problem is thinking of a suitable superlative to use to describe it. Perhaps if English has been exhausted you will permit me...'WUNDERBAR'. ;)

  4. Great stuff. Excellent series of interviews.

  5. Man you've really outdone yourself this time! It doesn't get any better than an interview from the man himself :-) Massive thank you to you. If Mr Ansell is present in August I think he's going to be quite touched by our vintage homage. I thing he may get mobbed..

  6. Great interview. I never caught the Foundry interview, and I've always wanted to hear Bryan's thoughts on the early days.

  7. An absolute joy to read, insightful and inspirational... The wonder was apparently evident upon my face, the missus called over to me whilst reading:

    "What's with face? You look like a kid that's just walked into his first toy shop!"

    So, thank you very much for that.

  8. Great interview Orlygg! Personally, I never tire of reading Bryan's tales of the early days of wargaming and miniatures making. Sometimes I wish I could've been around in those days, things seemed so much more about the fun of the games, the characterful minis and our own imaginations, rather than today's mantra of "buy these rules, buy these computer designed models and play it this way only. Oh, and only play to win".

    And Bryan's miniatures collection? A priceless national treasure, surely?!

  9. Great read. I remember the first time I met Bryan was at the first (I think) Newark premises. I said to him that I thought I had all the figures they had produced....he looked up at me me and said there was no way I could have everything they had produced.....looking now at the unreleased and variants that never saw the Manchester shop where I had worked and shopped I realise I was being very naive......

  10. Yes, you did better than Wargames illustrated. Great work.

    1. I am very glad that you think so, thanks!

  11. Bryan is being very modest and exceptionally generous as always - his leadership inspired us all to greater things and his driving enthusiasm obliged us to develop what talents we had. I learned a lot of what I know about the business thanks to Bryan and I owe him a great deal indeed. He'll have to make do with my thanks though:) Thanks mate!

    A couple of points I would add to - though as Brian rightly says it was all a long time ago and no-doubt my memory isn't to be entirely trusted either - but here goes!

    Battleblade might well have been a name we toyed with for Warhammer - but the working title for Hal and myself was Runesword or Runeblade or something like that. I remember we ended up having to choose a different name because GW also sold RuneQuest and didn't want any confusion.

    I think if my mum had typed the Warhammer manuscript it would have been a much better job! The production artwork was typed - but I typed it - on our brand new Rank Xerox 860 Word Processor (clunk clunck whirrrrr... insert disc A). My mum may well have helped us out with some later projects as proofreader - she was a professional typist and secretary and quite good at that sort of thing. We had a typewriter at home - which is why I could type (most men of my generation couldn't before the advent of personal computers).

    1. Glad you all enjoyed Bryan's tales... And thanks once more to Mr Priestley for more of his recollections. I am sure that I speak for everyone when I say the sheer amount of quality games and miniatures Bryan, yourself and the rest of the team produced during those early years is simply astounding! From Advanced Heroquest, to Bloodbowl, to Warhammer, RT and all the others.

    2. Great post Orlygg, I have leanrt so much i didn't know.

  12. What a delightful inspiring interview! Absolutely enjoyable, thank you very much.

  13. Thank you so much for this! Wonderful.

  14. Awesomecool! May I add "über" as well? =)

  15. Great interview ... and very cool to be name-checked by the great man himself.

    1. Hello Tim

      How did you end up in Manchester then?



  16. A tremendously enjoyable interview, lots of nice nuggets of info in there. Something of an Oldhammer coup, as far as blog posts go.

  17. Incredibly, the comment thread on this article is almost as good as the actual item. As one of the American vanguard, who consumed this material as though it were an exotic foreign delicacy, and an aquired taste at that, images of these old books from my childhood and comments from the demi-gods of my past always bring me right back to a simpler time. As an almost completely solo endeavor, I lapped up any and everything I could get my hands on. I can't believe how much we must have paid in overseas post alone. To the greats, thanks for everything you've all done. To the torch-bearers of Oldhammer, thanks for everything you do to preserve it.

  18. Do you know where I can find the gallery with Bryan's models? Looks like the one in Citadel Collector site is broken :(


  19. Awesome. Do you have a model of the Great Mother? I'd like to try an Autumn red/orange color scheme with her. Also a model of the man crawling back to you lol when can I preorder???