With so much talk of what TV can do, both positively and negatively, for children and the amount of work put into messages and making sure that TV content is good for children, you could be forgiven for thinking that I sometimes miss the most important ingredient – engaging children.
Nor should you.
There are a couple of reasons why I don’t talk about engaging children as much as it might seem I should:
a) I take it as a fundamental. If your show doesn’t engage children, you’ve failed. Entertainment, story and great characters are the foundations of any show for me so they’re not optional. They’re a given.
b) Most people in children’s TV are already really good at this. There are shows I love over others and some I’ll criticise but most are very good at engaging children. So, for me, a show may be engaging but that doesn’t make it special on its own ‘ there are a thousand other shows that are also doing that.
And yet engaging our audience is still of utmost importance.
There are many ways to engage children, many ways to draw them to your show and many ways to entertain. For me, some methods are fantastic, others feel a little cheap (the ‘OH MY GOD THERE’S DANGER!’ thing mostly, which works but…) and so it’s not just whether you engage or don’t engage children. The how, why and what they get from it is key.
For me, I love fun.
I like to make children smile. Make them laugh. With FLUFFY GARDENS, it was gentle, relaxed humour. One of my favourite moments comes from the Christmas Special. The penguins go missing. Paolo the Cat discusses this with Wee Reg the Puppy over a cup of tea at Paolo’s house. Very concerned, Paolo says that they should go searching for the penguins. Wee Reg turns to him, enthusiastic, and says, “I’ll look in my house and you look here!” Paolo, in his very matter of fact way, says, “I don’t think that will do it.”
Maybe you had to be there…
Generally, the show gets its fun from exploring the naivity of the little animal characters, along with some silly misunderstandings, pink lederhosen, sending shephard’s pie through the post and plenty of parties.
When we were starting ROOBARB, the very first thing I did was ask creator Grange Calveley what comedy he likes. So we began ROOBARB by watching plenty of Morcombe and Wise. Our laughter while making the show would, in turn, add to the fun of the show for the young audience.
And we did fill that show with fun.
With my new show, COSMO, I’m hoping it’s one they’ll sing along with, jump off the couch and dance around. This is a whole different show to FLUFFY GARDENS. In ways, I consider it my first cartoon.
Fun is something that comes naturally to children. We don’t have to teach it to them. Young children have a natural sense of play and they can use their imagination all by themselves. They could have fun anywhere, even in a tax office ‘ imagine that!
So, in a way, if we make our shows fun for children, we’re sort of giving back what they put out there. Like a flat screen hi-def mirror of smiles. That makes it sound all very fancy but I guess what I mean is my favourite fun for children is fun that engages children on their level. Whimsical, imaginative, but coming from the world around them. Fun they can recognise. Fun they can see in themselves. Fun that comes from the deeply buried children inside us (metaphorical, not a weird surgical oddity).
That’s the fun I love.
And just having fun is my favourite way to engage children.
I first became aware of the term ‘child empowerment’ after Bob the Builder hit. The show’s mantra of ‘Yes we can!’ was mentioned as one of the main reasons the show became so successful.
It empowered children.
Told them they can do it! What? Anything they want! Well, it didn’t really in Bob the Builder. It was just about building stuff but the idea was there.
Child empowerment is a big thing in children’s shows because children love it. They love to feel smart, able, independent and absolutely fantastic. Who wouldn’t? I’ve even aimed to get some child empowerment into my own shows.
But, as a father, I have to wonder if it’s always a good thing.
I find myself conflicted with my young daughters. I remember once telling Daisy quietly about how she can do anything she wants. She can be anything she wants to be. Sure, she may have to work hard but she can do it. She can do anything. That’s a message we all want to give our children, right?
Sure it is.
But I spent half the next day telling Daisy she couldn’t do stuff. You can’t throw daddy’s iPod. You can’t hang from the curtains. You can’t jump into the television to meet Mickey Mouse. You can’t have ice cream for dinner. You can’t go outside in just undies. You can’t drink the bleach. You can’t set your sister on fire.
What was I really telling Daisy?
That daddy is a dirty rotten liar? Yes, perhaps. But I was mostly sending her mixed messages. The empowerment of telling her she could do anything could only lead to frustration when she realised that, in fact, she can’t.
And of course she can’t. She’s only four years old.
So what can child empowerment really do for children? Frustrate them? And then it can only frustrate parents too because they’re the ones who have to go against the empowerment message. They get to be the bad guy. Because television told children what they want to hear and not what they need to hear.
So child empowerment might not always be a good thing. At least in its most general form. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a place and isn’t valuable, but I guess we have to pick our messages carefully. For children, and for parents.
Besides, some would argue children hold too much power as it is. Let’s have a bit of parent empowerment, eh? Time to take the power back! I’ll start by insisting I play Pop Goes Froggio to some thumping drum ‘n’ bass rather than the usual children’s CD. Yeah, that’ll make me feel like I’m in control…
Do you get hit with the right path early on and go for it? Does almost every part of you tell you that you should be going a particular direction?
I’m finding, while working on Cosmo and Fluffy Gardens before it, that these questions are important when it comes to show creation and its many elements ‘ design, sound, story and so on. But they are probably just as important to almost every area of our life, including work and parenting. We look to our instincts for guidance. To give us that ‘soul’ beyond just cold logic.
But sometimes what we think are instincts are simply habits.
They aren’t the same thing.
And yet, when being driven by either, they are very hard to tell apart.
It’s just one small example but I created the look for Fluffy Gardens while drawing with a mouse. A computer mouse. Not a rodent. That would have been very different. But I just had to do something to break out of my bad drawing instincts/habits that have haunted me since my teenage years and drawing badly with a mouse was one way of doing that. That simple big-eyed look has now become part of who I am.
Sometimes it’s worth challenging our instincts, deliberately going against them, to test if they really weren’t just habits all along. In the process, we can make way for our true instincts, or discover something entirely new.
Today is the birthday of the late, great Roger Hargreaves, creator of the Mr.Men and Little Misses.
We all get nostalgic about the shows from our past. For any of you in the US, you won’t know many of the shows I grew up with. What happened in the UK in the early ’70s was pretty magical.
I feel it was a golden age of children’s television.
We had Paddington Bear, still wonderful to watch today. Classics like Bagpuss. The Flumps ‘ which is still fantastic. The Mr. Men. Clangers. And, of course, Grange Calveley and Bob Godfrey’s wonderful Roobarb.
Pure entertainment. Driven by experimentation, freedom and the spirit of play ‘ just like the children the shows were made for.
Those shows will always have a special place in my heart and I admire and look up to the artists and creative talents involved. By the way, Toonhound is a great site for info on many UK children’s classics.
But those times are gone.
In recent years, we’ve had Barney, who hates parents and wishes them dead. The Teletubbies, who I suspect hate children too. What happened to children’s television?!
Well, actually… my daughter Daisy counted from one to ten in Spanish to me at about age two and a half from watching Dora the Explorer. She has learned from shows like SuperWhy. She has sung with the Wonderpets and danced with the Imagination Movers. She has laughed and laughed at the hilarious and fun Peppa Pig and had her heart warmed by the beautiful and wonderfully-honest Humf. I could keep on listing shows.
And, hey, that Fluffy Gardens show isn’t all that bad either. You know, if nothing else is on.
What makes many of these shows special is that they are not just entertaining, they have a clear educational goal. And those that don’t, especially in the UK shows, really offer a huge amount of fun, yet in honest and totally grounded childlike ways.
So, yes, sometimes I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s wrong with television. Or, importantly, what we can do better (and if we can, we should). But it’s worth taking the time to see that there have been some really good shows recently for younger children.
Perhaps we are living in a whole new golden age of children’s television? Albeit a very different one.
For those of us over this side of the Atlantic, though, no matter how good it gets, it’s hard to think we’ll see the total creativity and experimentation of the UK golden age of children’s shows again any time soon. The spirit of play has become secondary to the need to control. The need to license, exploit. But we’ll still have the inspiration, the history and the shadow of those greats egging us on to do better. Reminding those of us who care, why we’re doing this.
We owe a lot to the likes of Roger Hargreaves and probably always will. I know I certainly will. Happy birthday, Mr.Hargreaves!
I always imagined Fluffy Gardens as a series of books. Even when I was pushing it as a series, I always imagined it as books.
Well, I love children’s books and simply thought that the stories would work really well as books. I love the direct interaction between a parent and child that comes with storytelling.
I had figured out that, even if they weren’t books, I wanted the same feel of that parent/child interaction. It’s why I wanted one narrator to do the character voices, just like a dad would. And I had realised that, while it is said that television is a visual medium, very young children listen more than they watch. So, for me, getting the story to work in just the audio was a must.
So the one thing I needed to capture the feel of a show destined for television, was a book. And so we made one. Just printed up a few copies. I only have one copy myself. I’m not sure where the others went. But I thought I’d show it here, just so you can see part of the pitch materials we used for the show.
Here’s the cover -
Note the different logo. Also, you’ll see that the lines around the background elements are black. That would change for the show itself where we went for coloured lines.
And here is Paolo’s house…
If you’re familiar with Paolo’s house, you might notice that, while it has the same colour scheme as the final design, it’s simpler, more crude (there are stories to tell about the houses – another time). The font is the dreaded Comic Sans for some reason. I know that will make some people vomit. When you get back from the toilet, I’ll save you a second trip by letting you know we never used it again.
A cup of hot tea? On the arm of a chair?! That’s not safe! No, it’s not. That made it in to the pilot episode but broadcaster Deirdre Brennan, of ABC Australia at the time, pointed out that it shouldn’t make it to air. She was right and it didn’t.
My favourite book title -
We had a few funny Paolo book titles but I don’t think I ever managed to top that one.
And basically the book goes on from there. It’s slightly shorter than the final version and possibly the better for it. For me, Fluffy Gardens as a series of books seems a no-brainer. They’re written as storybooks. They’re written to be listened to. But then, if that had gone to books rather than television, I would have missed out on all the amazing and funny moments the animators added in themselves. Or the magic that Michael Maloney added. Or Jonathan Atkinson with the music. Animation can add so much.
Still… there’s nothing like that real parent/child interaction in reading a book, is there?