The big idea – ‘be a knight, do it right !’
What with the slaying and boiling oil, a medieval knight is hardly the ideal role model for impressionable young minds. So how do you turn a killer in a suit of armour into a friendly playmate?
“The usual play pattern for all things medieval is pretty gruesome,” says Alexander Bar, creator of CBeebies’ new animation series Mike the Knight (he’s also the man behind Lunar Jim). “Seriously, for the most part, medieval role-play (even among pre-schoolers) usually involves battling enemies, slaying dragons and/or hunting down witches.”
So how do you tackle the problem of turning a story set in medieval times with all the trappings of that age, but without the blood and gore that characterised it? Step one was simple – take Mike’s sword away. Or, rather, transform it into something not-at-all-deadly in each episode, such as a bunch of bananas or a trumpet.
Executive producer Chris Rose explains: “Mike’s sword has been accidentally enchanted by his wizard sister, Evie. So as much as he wants it to be a sword, whenever he draws it from his scabbard it’s always something else.” Mike’s dad – the King of Glendragon – is regularly spoken of in the show but never seen (he’s away exploring).
Mike lives with his mum, the Queen. A deliberate attempt to portray life in a single-parent family? No, says Rose. “Mike knows that his dad will be home one day soon, it just doesn’t happen in the series.” He’s absent for another story-led reason. “If his dad were around he’d solve all the problems.” The end result? Mike is an affable young trainee knight, eager to learn the ropes but blind to mishaps.
What’s in a name? Just keep it simple
You know what a show called Mike the Knight is going to be about. The producers hope his name will become as recognised as that of Postman Pat, Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder.
“The title is important,” says CBeebies controller Key Benbow. “Parents need to know what is going to be in the show. Simple is good,” she says, citing CBeebies shows such as Mr Maker and I Can Cook: “They do what they say on the tin.”
Short titles also work well on electronic programme guides, where there’s only space for a few characters. Sometimes a show has to change its name – ZingZillas was originally going to be called Punky Monkeys, but had to be changed because the words had been trademarked as a brand name in some countries.
Ideally, a title won’t need much translation in each new home – Mike has already been sold to France, Australia, Canada, Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Although it turns out that in France, Mike will not be Michel, but Mike le Chevalier (English-sounding names have a certain cachet).
Look who’s talking
Who do you get to voice a child’s words in a cartoon? A child or an adult? Mike is played by Alfie Field, who was 11 at the start of filming. “There’s something about an adult pretending to be a child that distances that character from the audience. It’s completely false,” says Chris Rose.
But Alfie’s voice started deepening during filming: if the show’s a hit they may need to find a new Mike. Meanwhile, what of the adults? Squirt – a small and shy dragon who is Mike’s sidekick – is voiced by Being Human’s Russell Tovey. Why him? “Russell came in and did a fantastic audition. He injected the humour and warmth we were looking for, and we were really struggling with that until we found him.”
Playing and learning
Primarily designed as an entertainment show, Mike the Knight has “embedded educational lessons,” says Rose. The producers say the programme is about “responsibility, discovery, eagerness”. “Mike will always learn something – the show is about learning new things in pursuit of being a better person,” continues Rose.
Along the way, Mike might practise a bit of counting, demonstrate the benefits of sharing his belongings or sympathise with a friend who is in difficulty. “Some of our shows are more overtly educational than others,” says CBeebies’ Benbow, “but everything has some sort of learning-through-play element – even Gigglebiz [a sketch show featuring spoof characters such as newsreader Arthur Sleep and sports instructor Keith Fit] has an educational value.
Anticipating and predicting a punch-line is very empowering for children. And, in my experience, children who are laughing learn better.”
Stories first…then the toys
The producers of Mike the Knight, Hit Entertainment, won’t reveal what it costs to make the show but, according to a TV insider, a 52-episode CGI animation is likely to cost around £120,000 per episode.
“It’s almost certainly impossible to fully finance a show on the back of TV sales,” says Jon Owen, senior vice president of Hit, which was recently sold to US toymaker Mattel for £425m. “This kind of animation is a substantial investment.” So when a programme-maker is looking at a proposal from a writer, alternative sources of income will be at the back of their mind.
Kay Benbow admits: “You can’t make a big show without thinking about merchandising. That is the world in which we live.” Many parents turn to CBeebies precisely to avoid their children being bombarded with advertising.
Doesn’t Benbow worry that she’s providing free advertising for toy shops? “I’d hate CBeebies to be called a shop window,” she says. For her, the programmes will always come first. “You can’t have a show based on merchandise. It always has to be the other way round.”
So what’s the plan for Mike? “It will really come into the fore in the autumn/winter of 2012,” says Owen. “You’re going to get comics, books, toys, clothes, arts and crafts – pretty much all of the areas you’d expect.”
Mike the Knight begins today at 4:05pm on CBeebies