There appears to be an explosion of older children’s characters and shows being revived with new Teletubbies, Danger Mouse, Bob the Builder, Super Ted and those are only the most recent. In explaining this recent boom in nostalgia, I hear the words “risk-averse” on a pretty regular basis.
But does dusting down the oldies and presenting them to kids today really come with less risk?
My career owes a lot to classic characters. My first meaty children’s show directing gig was Roobarb & Custard Too, a revival of the 1974 UK cult classic Roobarb. With original creator/writer Grange Calveley and of course the irreplaceable Richard Briers, it was really a continuation of the original series – we always thought of it as series 2 rather than any kind of reboot. I have so much love for that show and it was a wonderful experience so I’m certainly not against looking to the past to bring something fun to kids today. But there are some things to consider, some real risks and I know this because we had no choice but to consider some of them. And as my career grew, I realise we should have considered more. Here are just a few examples:
Many classic shows, especially the older ones, existed in a whole different time and a very different media landscape. Would your classic property really have performed as well in a world with dedicated children’s channels running all day, with VOD and the Internet? Would it have stood up against Peppa? Would it have worked alongside Doc McStuffins?
Relevant to parents. Relevant to buyers. Not in any way relevant to kids. You might get it on air, you might get parents happy to leave it on their television and this gives your show a good chance. But that’s not enough. Have you really got more than nostalgia?
This is a really big one. Kids’ lives are different now. TV shows are different. You are no doubt going to want to update the show and the characters. You should – many classic properties come from a less diverse time, where certain things were acceptable that just aren’t now. But assuming you took on the property because you liked it, will your changes really make it better? Can you safely say that you can take a classic, a well-loved treasure, and that you can do better than those who made it a success in the first place? What if you lose what was good about it?
Are your characters still out there somewhere in their original form? Will they be if what you do is successful? Will old rights holders rush to get their versions out on to the shelves? Now you’ve got mixed branding on your hands with the danger that each form weakens the others rather than strengthening them. If the changes you make are significant (redesigning characters, for example), you could have a problem.
The Fresh Hit:
One of the main reasons hits hit is because they are fresh and different to what’s out there already. Few of the current generic ‘Team Dora’ type shows will ever hit as big as Dora because Dora was new. Spongebob was new. Peppa was new. Can you achieve that with your classic property? It can be done (Friendship is Magic, Battlestar Galactica in grown-up TV) but you have your work seriously cut out for you if you are taking on pre-existing characters.
So these are just some of the considerations when reviving a classic.
It’s not easy and to this day, ten years later, I wonder if we took the right approach with Roobarb even if we did make something that kids still enjoy. Classic properties can be fantastic to work on because we already love them. Cast and crew working on them often want to do justice to the originals and so you get good work. They can be easier to sell sometimes because they come with a name, a history and a proven track record, albeit in whole different conditions. But when it comes to really making a success, I’m not so sure that a classic property comes with much less risk than a whole new show where you have a blank page to create something tailor-made for the kids of today.
On Monday, I attended the launch of RTÉjr, Ireland’s new dedicated children’s channel. Broadcasting twelve hours a day, the channel brings content directly to Irish children, expanding what was once a block on RTÉ2 into a full channel sitting along with all the other children’s channels on Sky, UPC and Saorview. Now I should point out that I have five shows currently airing on the channel so it’s likely I would say some pleasant things about it – I have been referring to the channel as my ‘showreel’, after all. But there is more to RTÉjr than just being a place to catch some of my shows.
RTÉjr is a big positive step for all Irish children. An important step. Here is why –
It is a dedicated children’s channel focusing on children aged seven and under. I have previously expressed my appreciation for dedicated children’s channels on this site. I feel they give parents more control, lessen the risk of inappropriate content and they simply make it easier to pick and choose what our children watch.
It is a channel focusing on delivering specifically to Irish children. Local content is so important to children. Each country has its own culture, its own ways of looking at the world. That unique point of view should be represented in the shows kids watch. Anyone in children’s content will know just how difficult that is to achieve ‘ most shows need to be sold all over the world to stand a chance of breaking even so how can they be culturally specific? Well, that’s why local content in any country needs support.
RTÉjr has, yes, content bought in from abroad but it also currently carries a large amount of content created here in Ireland for Irish children. For example, one of my own shows now airing on the channel, Ballybraddan, is about Irish children playing hurling, an Irish sport. That show just couldn’t be made anywhere else. And it is wonderful now to see it sitting in the schedule, seeing it among the NickJrs, the Disney Juniors and all the other juniors. And RTÉ’s own produced content (of which I am not involved with) has jumped in quality recently and the level of talent has risen. So it is not just content tailored for Irish children, it is better content for Irish children.
The biggest part of this whole channel for me as a parent?
RTÉjr carries no advertising. None.
It was so encouraging to hear RTÉ’s Director General, Noel Curran, focus on that point at the channel’s launch on Monday, calling the lack of advertising a strong statement and positive for parents, while expressing his and RTÉ’s commitment to children and the new channel.
So what we have now with RTÉjr is an ad-free channel, focused on children aged seven and under, delivering some uniquely Irish content that children just can’t get anywhere else.
As a creator, a producer of content, RTÉjr offers a home for existing content and makes it much more accessible for our audience. With the channel sitting in the Kids section, it is now far more likely that children and parents will see our shows, take a chance on them over some of the more international content. It also creates a need for new content. The challenge laid down by the channel and the commitment is to keep it relevant, keep it current. Oh there will be budgetary constraints (there always are), but this channel will need content as it evolves. And with such a strong start, I am looking forward to seeing the channel grow.
The launch event was tons of fun. I got to meet Reuben and Bó Donie (who, as a children’s presenter, I was very impressed with ‘ this guy could be the Irish Justin Fletcher) and almost got to pet a hedgehog before his minder told me he gets a bit bitey. And my girls have been testing out the channel for the last couple of days and have been enjoying it immensely. So congratulations to Sheila DeCourcy, RTÉ’s Cross-Divisional Head of Children’s Content, and all her team on a great launch, a strong schedule, and for giving something really positive to Irish children.
If you’re in Ireland, you can find RTÉjr on Saorview (Channel 7), UPC (Channel 600) and Sky (Channel 624). For my own shows, you’ll find Fluffy Gardens at 1.15pm and 4.55pm, Planet Cosmo at 9.05am and 1.40pm, Roobarb & Custard Too at 11.05am, Punky at 8.40am and Ballybraddan at 6.15pm. But be sure to check out some of the other excellent Irish content on there too ‘ Beo Show, Garth and Bev, Why Guy and more.
The first episode of Planet Cosmo aired today. It was supposed to be a very happy day. Yes, the show looked awesome on television and the response so far has been incredible but, truth be told, the day turned out to be a bit of a stinker for a couple of reasons but mostly this – today was the day we got the very sad news of the passing of Richard Briers.
I worked with Richard on Roobarb & Custard Too, the follow-up to the classic 1974 show, Roobarb. It was 2005 and I was directing a television show for the very first time. Taking the place of the legendary Bob Godfrey, I had some pretty massive shoes to fill and I was probably well out of my depth.
How would I possibly direct someone of Richard Briers’ stature?
Well it turns out directing Richard Briers on Roobarb was mostly me just nodding and saying, “Fantastic. Wonderful.” He was amazing. When he stepped into that booth on the first day, I heard Roobarb. 1974 Roobarb. It was like no time had passed. He needed no reminders, just got straight into it and it was beautiful. I was a child again and there were tears in my eyes listening to him. All the old characters were perfect but we had new characters too so he had to handle the narrator and a host of characters, old and new. No problem for Richard. He found voices in minutes and never lost them. So absolutely consistent.
Richard Briers turned Grange Calveley’s wonderful words into music. And he did a mean Richard Burton Mole.
He was a joy to work with. Oh, there was a bit of a surprise at first because I was expecting Tom Good, wellies and all, and, instead, was meeting a rounder man in his early seventies. And there was the odd grumpy moment, but never angry. Mostly just about how something had been photocopied in a way he didn’t particularly appreciate. He always made it funny though, always light and always entertaining and these moments really just served to show how human he was. After all he had done, all he had achieved, after becoming a UK legend, he was really a very regular man, happy with just a cheese and pickle sandwich and the odd glass of wine. No pretentiousness, full of humility.
And so, so easy to work with. This from a man with such incredible talent. A national treasure. International treasure.
I went away from Air Studios in London having had a great life experience and with a bunch of fantastic recordings. All I had to do was put pictures to them. How could I go wrong? Grange Calveley and Richard Briers made my job easy and the result of that is that I was able to go on to make more shows. I was given a chance to learn more, to build expertise, knowledge. Without that experience with Richard Briers and those amazing recordings, I wouldn’t be launching Planet Cosmo today. It just wouldn’t have happened.
Thank you, Richard. For all you gave me, for all you gave Roobarb, all you gave children and adults alike in all your work. You’re truly one of a kind, a talent, a gentleman.
As many of you will have seen, it was announced last week that Monster Animation & Design has changed its name to Geronimo Productions. Monster Animation, started by owner and producer Gerard O’Rourke, has been going for 17 years and I joined very early in its history, taking the position of Creative Director of the company more than ten years ago. From there, we took Monster Animation from advertising into broadcast television, starting with us producing Roobarb & Custard Too and then creating Fluffy Gardens and moving us through Ballybraddan, Punky and now our new show and my latest creation, Planet Cosmo. All the while, I have been overseeing the creative vision of the company, building the studio methods and systems and creating, moulding, nurturing and producing shows.
We have come a long way together.
The name change is something Gerard and I have discussed for many years (mostly because of international confusion with another Irish Monster) and, with a brand new show launching, the time finally seemed right to make the switch. So this week, we’re working hard as Geronimo Productions to finish Planet Cosmo and you’ll be hearing a lot about that very soon. The studio at Geronimo is gearing up for more Punky (I’m serving as script editor at the moment with Andrew Brenner writing) and everything is moving forward with a new name and a new identity.
Will it bring exciting things? I think it will. It’s going to be a big and rather interesting year for all of us.
Cartoon enthusiasts (adults, I should point out) often lament the disappearance of certain cartoons or modern censorship of cartoons. Old movies not being rereleased, wartime shorts being swept under the carpet, Noddy characters being ‘retired’ and many old stories being sliced, chopped and sweetened. Times change and it can be quite sad if parts of your childhood get left behind when that happens.
Above is one of my favourite Roobarb images from the Calveley/Godfrey original.
So much character. A lovely drawing, so spontaneous. And one that I kept close to me when I was directing the second series. We couldn’t put a cigar in his mouth these days, of course. And that’s fairly minor compared to some of the changes in children’s entertainment. You don’t have to go too far back to find the level of violence, racism and just about everything else is completely on another scale.
Going even further, pre-television, to the real children’s classics, where wolves ate grandparents and, well, everyone ate everyone else, it’s easy to see the difference. Back when most of those stories were written, the life of a child was uncertain. Survival rates were low. Many children didn’t make it to adulthood. Those who did lost family and friends along the way. As my mother once pointed out to me, stories often had to do more to prepare a child for death than prepare them for life.
Luckily, most children in the Western world now have a far better survival rate. Dealing with death beyond the loss of a hamster is not something most have to face on any kind of regular basis. Many of us frown upon the violence of our ancestors, the racism, the intolerance.
We did a lot of things in the past we simply don’t do now.
And, hopefully, we’ll do things even better in the future. We move forward. In doing that, we have to leave that behind which is no longer relevant. We have to let it go to make a better world. A more fun world, a more tolerant world, a more expressive world. A world filled with laughter, confidence and exploration.