Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Shows We Did Make

Hana’s Helpline.

No show is easy to finance, but Hana’s Helpline was one that immediately drew support from a range of broadcasters.  It was a preschool show about an Agony Aunt duck, Hana, who helps little animals out with their problems.  Hana has a couple of eccentric helpers, and a son who she is in danger of neglecting.  

This show is still being shown on Channel 5’s Milkshake block, sold extensively internationally, and won several major awards.  It generated a small amount of publishing and licensing merchandise but, sadly, this never took off.

There are several reasons why we were able to make this show.  I list these in no particular order:

·      It was a concept that was easily understood.  I have talked before about the notion of high concept and the importance of being able to explain it in a sentence or two.  The title of the show makes it clear what it is about.  A helpline, where little animals ring in for help.
A German couple had sent us a number of stories through the post, together with some rudimentary illustrations.  We liked the stories because they had a sense of humour and also an emotional warmth.  The story that struck me the most was about a bat that was having trouble hang-gliding.
We needed to find some sort of linking device for these stories.  We had learned from past mistakes that stories that had a different protagonist in every episode would not build up a following.  We needed to have some strong characters who appeared in every episode, who our young audience could become attached to.
My colleague, Andrew Offiler, came up with the idea of a Helpline, and we started to create some characters to form the backbone of the series.

·      It was clear who the target audience was, and that the idea was suitable for that audience.  This was a show for 4 to 6 year olds, and was about the sort of problems that children have when they first have to engage socially with other children, i.e. at nursery or school.  The stories revolved around having to fit in, being different, being left out, having body odour, etc.  Because we were using animals, we were able to give more serious issues like bullying, disability, etc. a soft, usually humorous spin.
These were stories that spoke directly to our target, who were either just starting to go to school, or in nursery.  We consulted Childline to find out what sort of things our Agony Aunt should say, and Barnado’s about suitable storylines.  We wanted to do one about a child with a father in prison, but this went too far for Channel Five.
The Agony Aunt herself, who was originally called Holly, but was later renamed Hana, worked in an office with two other characters, also clearly adults.  To ensure the audience had at least one regular character they could identify with, we gave Hana a son, whose role was often to get to the bottom of the problem and to bring out Hana’s emotional side.
The use of children to voice all the children’s parts gave the show an authenticity and an emotional directness that would not have been possible had we used versatile adults voices.

·      The design was warm, attractive and original.
We had at that time a head of production, Simon Quinn, who had a long track record in the business, and who has since gone on to work on some major feature films. Simon had started his career at Filmfair, who made the original series of Paddington Bear.  He suggested that we took a similar approach to that series and use a combination of 2D backgrounds and fabric puppets.
I was giving a talk to students in Wrexham at more or less the same time, and noticed that one of the students, Bekah D’Aborn was making a stop motion film and had designed some attractive and very individual fabric puppets. We asked her to design the characters for the series.
The combination worked well.  The 2D elements gave us the possibility of extending backgrounds with the use of compositing, and made prop-making very simple.  The fabric characters, with their very obvious stitching, gave a warmth to the characters.  The whole look of the show was attractive and original, and has been copied by others since.

·      We had the right sort of track record.  This is not essential, but it helps.  Hana’s Helpline followed two successful series, Hilltop Hospital and Fireman Sam. The first of these had won a BAFTA and was a top rating show, constantly outrating Bob The Builder.  It was very much an international show which was made in coproduction with a French company, Folimage, and the German public broadcaster, ZDF.
In the UK, Hilltop Hospital was for ITV, and is still shown on CITV.  Nevertheless, our shows seem to have a strong appeal to public broadcasters in Europe.  I believe this is because they are full of humour, yet deal with serious subject matter.  Fireman Sam was a fairly blatant attempt to explain simple health and safety matters to young children.  Hilltop Hospital was about reassuring children about illness and its treatment.  Long after the series went out we still got calls from parents seeking out episodes on everything from kidney transplants to wetting the bed.
Hana’s Helpline was about asking for help, and involved both trivial and serious subject matter.  The fact that we had already shown that we could treat serious subjects with warmth, humour and understanding reassured broadcasters.

·      We had a terrific trailer.  It does help, though it cost a fortune. 
The trailer did everything we had hoped it would do.  It put across the idea clearly.  It showed off the design and style of the animation.  It was emotional.  It was funny. It was a very good indication of what the series would be.

Of course, getting a show off the ground is not the same as making it a success.  We changed a few things.  Holly got changed to Hana because S4C, the Welsh language channel, which was an important partner in the series, wanted a name that would work in Welsh and English (and German).  We brought in different voices to those in the trailer, including Arabella Weir and the instinctively funny, Boyd Clack, not to mention a host of young children culled from schools and drama workshops.
Above all, we introduced several different potential areas for conflict.  There was the child with the problem that needed to be solved.  There was a team of bungling helpers in Hana’s office who, though always well meaning, got it her way and messed things up. There was Hana’s son who constantly reminded us and Hana that she had responsibilities as a mother, a role which often was in conflict with her work.

We used a variety of experienced and new writers, and had no trouble finding 52 stories.  We could have continued with many more, but because the merchandising did not take off, that was not going to happen. 

Monday, 22 October 2012

Shows We Never Made - 3

Of course, there are shows that don’t make it for reasons which have nothing to do with how good they might be.  We developed a show called Telemania with an Israeli television company, Noga Television.  They had created some animated characters for a rolling programme, and wanted to develop a series to bring them to a wider audience.

We loved the characters and the design, and came up with an idea for a comedy for 8 – 10 year olds. 

Atlanta, Sprout and Felix are the biggest stars in the world.  They live in a mansion that is a kid’s paradise, where even their parents wait on them. Wealth, fame, and the adoration of millions are theirs, and the effect on their lives is devastating.

Our heroes do all those things you expect from stars, only more so.  They host their own tv show, release chart-topping records, star in their own movies, win awards, open events, etc.  Everything they do, from walking the dog to brushing their teeth, is a photo-opportunity.   Not even the lavatory is safe from fans and paparazzi keen to witness every moment, however intimate.  They even have their own pet stalker, Kevin.

Much of the humour centred on the enormous ego of our main girl character, whose selfish obsessions drove the plots.

At the time, Fox Kids really liked this show, and gave us some development money.  We brought in some young comedy writers to help us, and came up with some seriously funny scripts.

By the time we delivered them, though, Fox Kids was in the process of rebranding itself as Jetix, a channel that was not very interested in comedy, especially if the lead character was a girl.  Jetix was a channel that wanted to provide action-packed adventure stories for boys.

Having developed the series to suit a particular channel, only to find it no longer existed, it was then hard to revise the series, and reposition it with other broadcasters.  Although we had coproduction interest from broadcasters and studios overseas, we were unable to find a UK broadcaster and failed to get it off the ground.

Another idea of ours, I suspect, was ahead of its time.  As a studio, we keep abreast of what is happening in the world of children’s literature.  Some years ago, soon after its publication, we read The Big Pets, a book by the brilliant American illustrator, Lane Smith.  We thought it extremely imaginative and ideally suited to children’s television.  We optioned it, and, with the help of the author developed it and made a short trailer.  In the process, the title was changed to “The Night Children”.

This was met with antipathy that bordered on the aggressive.  Broadcasters were quick to reject it, upset by the “experimental” nature of the design, which they thought would not appeal to young children.  This was the element that had attracted us in the first place.  The project faltered and stalled.

We felt slightly vindicated when, soon after, the same author, Lane Smith, became art director of the movie adaptation of James And The Giant Peach.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Shows We Never Made - 2


Are We There Yet?

Some years ago we developed a series about a girl in the back of a car who, like most children on long car journeys, was bored.  She was surrounded by the sort of toys you might find in a car: a nodding dog, a cute alien character stuck to the window with plastic suckers and a long fabric snake.  When the girl says the words Are We There Yet? she is suddenly propelled into a fantasy world inspired by the view outside the window, where she and her toys have an adventure.  If it’s raining, she might be plunged into a submarine adventure.  If she is passing large cooling towers she might be transported to a kitchen where a giant is cooking in some extremely large pots.  It it’s night time she might visit the moon.

We thought this was a good idea, mainly because it was a situation that everyone could recognise.  To make it interesting, and as a respectful nod to Disney’s Alice  series from the 1920s, we designed it as a combination of a live action girl with 2D characters and backgrounds in the fantasy sequences.

Here is an extract from the Bible:

You know the situation.  We’ve all been there.  You’re stuck in the back of a car on a journey to a place you may or may not want to go, and you’re bored.  You’ve tried the Gameboy, but it gives you a headache.  You’ve played “I spy”, you’ve counted telegraph poles, and that’s just made it worse.  These are two of the most boring games in the world and now you feel even more bored than ever! Added to which, you’re not the sort of girl who will tolerate being bored for very long.  It’s not that you’re hyperactive or anything, but you’re an imaginative kid and you have a will of iron.  There’s no reason why you should have to put up with a future that seems to hold nothing but the sight of the back of your parents’ heads and the world flashing by outside.

The nodding dog on the back ledge agrees.  Especially when you’re going over speed bumps.  But the alien stuck to the window just grins stupidly, and the felt caterpillar in the side looks so… well, floppy and useless. 

You know you have to do something, but what?  There’s something bubbling up inside you, and you’ve just got to let it out!  Then you hit on the question .  It’s not that it winds up your parents, though, perhaps that helps.  It’s that this question changes everything. It brings your toys to life, and propels you into a world fashioned entirely by your imagination.  So, with a glint in your eye, you ask:

Are We There Yet?

We wrote a couple of scripts, made a trailer, and took it to the Cartoon Forum, where the response was underwhelming.  We liked the project because it gave us unlimited scope for fantasy, because the combination of live action and 2D was attractive and, at the time, unusual, and because it was a classic situation that children all over the world could sympathise with.

Later, we realised that it was not really a concept for a series at all.  It was a concept for an introduction and ending to a story but there was nothing inherent in the idea that would generate conflict.  Fantasy stories about a girl and her toys who tangle with an octopus, or escape from a giant’s cooking pot do not need to start with a girl in the back of the car.  We found ourselves writing stories that had little or no connection with car journeys.

Children’s stories should start with a bang.  There is nothing duller than watching someone else looking bored and, however much we might empathise with the situation, this was not going to make riveting television.  Although the concept provided a catchy way of getting into the stories and we came up with characters for the toys that provided both humour and conflict, we had problems coming up with a device to get us back into the real world.  If something happened to bring the girl back to reality before the fantasy story could conclude dramatically, e.g. arriving at the destination, or a comment from a parent, then the viewers would feel cheated.  If the fantasy story was allowed to resolve satisfactorily, then there was no real point in returning to the dull reality of the interior of the car.

Even the technique, which we thought attractive and interesting, was a deterrent to overseas buyers.  As soon as you have a live action character, foreign buyers get nervous about dubbing costs and ask whether lip-sync can be achieved credibly.  Cultural differences come into play that do not apply when you are dealing with animation.  Children from different countries dress differently, whether the major clothing brands like it or not.

So we didn’t get anywhere with this project. Since then we have taken more care to ensure that the concept itself generates enough conflict to drive storylines.  I believe that the characters we came up for this project could generate the dramatic narrative we required, but this had little to do with a bored girl in the back of a car.