Who is the most popular builder in the world? Easy. He’s eight inches tall and made out of foam and silicone. His best friend is a dipper called Scoop. And his fans have no doubt at all over whether he can repair things satisfactorily.
Can he fix it? Yes he can!
Yet Bob the Builder – a children’s show created in Britain that went on to conquer the planet – was very nearly “Bill the Builder”. Stranger still, there was serious talk he should be “Bob the Construction Worker”.
Bob’s creator, Keith Chapman, explains: “It was a toss-up between Bill the Builder and Bob the Builder. But Bill didn’t sound quite right.”
And “Bob the Construction Worker”? Well, Chapman was advised that the term “builder” isn’t often used in America, and if he was considering selling the programme overseas… “but, thankfully, in the end they let us keep the name.”
Being a bog-standard builder doesn’t seem to have held Bob back. He’s been translated into 45 languages and shown in almost every country on the planet. Chapman says that Bob has raked in worldwide revenues – from TV sales, merchandising and so on – of more than $5 billion. Incredibly, that’s nearly twice the amount earned by Avatar, the biggest movie of all time.
Of course, when we remember the children’s characters that mean the most to us, we’re not interested in how much money they made. (For a start, when the likes of Muffin the Mule or Noggin the Nog were doing their stuff on screen, the merchandising industry was barely out of nappies.)
Whether we’re from the generation that harks back to Andy Pandy, The Magic Roundabout or The Tweenies, we know the emotional power of these shows. Why? Because they were what we watched when we first started watching TV.
How can you not feel warm when you think of Mr Benn, Festive Road and “as if by magic, the shoekeeper appeared”?
Is there anything more enchanting than Basil Brush’s “Boom! Boom!”, the “underground, overground” Wombles of Wimbledon or Bagpuss’s satisfied yawn?
Which is probably why it’s so rewarding to watch our own children watching their own programmes. Because when they’re in front of Iggle Piggle, Fireman Sam or Charlie and Lola, they’re investing in their own future nostalgia.
But for every show that hits the spot, there are dozens that rightly drift into obscurity. So what’s the secret of a successful children’s TV character?
When RT consulted experts in the field, they all agreed on one thing: getting the name right is crucial. It has to be easy for a child to pronounce, it has to have the correct rhythm and, if you’re looking to sell lots of games and toys (and everyone is), it has to look good when printed on a box (another reason why “Bob the Builder” triumphs over “Bob the Construction Worker”).
Anna Wood, co-creator of Teletubbies, says the name Tinky Winky “just came to me. Then we sat down and worked out the other names so it went in a nice rhythm: Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po. It took about half an hour.”
Lauren Child, who came up
with Charlie and Lola, agrees
that the cadence was important:
“I liked the sing-song sound of
Charlie and Lola, they work well together and are easy to say.” Back in 1999 when she created the lovable brother and sister, few little girls were called Lola, “but
I sensed that there was something in the air and that this name would become popular. This has proved to be the case – I now meet countless Lolas.” (Whether this would have been the case without Child’s own characters is difficult to say, of course.)
Timing can be important, too. The Teletubbies – all of whom have hi-tech screens in their bellies – came at the start of the digital revolution.
Bob the Builder launched when DIY was becoming intensely fashionable (remember Changing Rooms and the 101 variations that followed?). Quite why this should affect an audience that wouldn’t be allowed to pick up a power drill, one doesn’t know. But Keith Chapman is convinced it helps explain his success: “The show hit at the right time.” Humour is the next key ingredient. On this, everyone is pretty much agreed. Physical comedy will never go out of fashion.
“Falling over is the best joke of all time,” says Anne Wood, the woman behind Iggle Piggle and Roland Rat as well as Teletubbies. “It’s funny to a pre-school audience because you’re at the age where you fall over and you’ve just learnt how to get up again.” If you fall over more than once, it’s even funnier.
Richard Starzak who devised Shaun the Sheep, agrees. “Slapstick is a universal language.” This can, however, pose a problem when you’re making a show aimed at very young people. “There’s a lot of comedy in other people’s pain, of course. But there are things you can’t do on children’s shows. We can’t really have characters being hit on the head.
“I understand why. We don’t want to be responsible for kids hitting each other with frying pans. But I sometimes think children’s TV can be overly safe. I don’t think cartoon-style violence affects kids. I think it’s a bit of escapism.”
He recalls with fondness an edition of ITV’s Tiswas from his own childhood. “They used to lift children out of tea chests by their ears. Then, one Saturday, one of the kids cut himself on the edge of the chest, and was bleeding on live TV. Chris Tarrant lifted him out, put him to one side and said: ‘Could you pass me another one that’s not bleeding?’ And they carried on with the show. Can you imagine the front pages of the newspapers if that happened today?” (Tiswas also featured a man repeatedly hitting himself over the head with a metal tray while singing Mule Train.)
Charlie and Lola, too, have been reined in. Lauren Child says that a proposed episode in which Lola caught head-lice was rejected by a squeamish Disney corporation, which had partially financed the show. Meanwhile, in the original books, Lola eats biscuits and crisps and sometimes stands on chairs. Not in the BBC version – where she snacks on fruit and never, ever climbs on furniture. (Though there will be plenty of parents who applaud the show’s anti-crisp stance.)
“And we almost had a problem with Lola doing forward rolls,” adds Child. “The BBC got terribly worried she could have a dreadful accident and break her neck. It doesn’t matter that she and Charlie are fictional, and they’re made of paper. The designers had to draw a very squishy mattress for her to do her forward roll on.”
Then there are the things that don’t matter. Look at an episode of Clangers or Trumpton and the quality of animation looks quite amateur by today’s standards – whether you compare it with the smooth stop-motion animation of Shaun the Sheep or the computer-generated Mike the Knight. Yet what difference did it make that the action was a little juddery?
Nick Park, creator of Wallace & Gromit, says his favourite show as a child was Clangers. “There was always something a little quirky about it, unpredictable.
“I liked the crude way it was done. It made you think you could do it at home. I started animating as a 13-year-old. I was emulating Clangers.”
He is currently part of the team making a new Shaun the Sheep movie. A prequel to the TV series, it’s due for release early next year and will feature all the characters from the TV show and explain how they got to know each other.
As editor of Blue Peter from 1965 to 1988, Biddy Baxter had her finger on the pulse of children’s TV – and was another Clangers fan: “It was wonderful… the animation and the groans and the squeaks and the grunts. It was so surreal. You could use your imagination.”
But she doesn’t envy readers having to choose a favourite in our children’s character poll. “How awful to have to choose between Basil Brush, The Magic Roundabout and Clangers!
“And then, of course, there was Paddington. I had a huge affection for Paddington because it was created by Michael Bond, a lovely man who was a cameraman on Blue Peter. Paddington was such a sympathetic character – and children, on the whole, are pretty keen on bears.”
Lauren Child is another Paddington advocate: “I was watching it on DVD with my four-year- old daughter yesterday, and I don’t think it’s dated: it’s got a snappy pace, it’s very funny and the jokes are very sophisticated.”
The point is you need to watch the programmes with the eye of a child and leave your adult preconceptions at home.
Never was this more apparent than in 1999 when the Teletubbies found themselves at the centre of a bizarre international furore. American TV evangelist Jerry Falwell denounced the BBC show for secretly “role modelling a gay lifestyle” – which, he said, was “damaging to the moral lives of children”. His evidence? Tinky Winky – “whose voice is obviously that of a boy” – carried a handbag, and “he is purple – the gay pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle – the gay pride symbol.” Even after all these years, Anne Wood is irked. “Jerry Falwell had his own agenda and before he died he admitted to that. But his comments stopped all the sales of Teletubbies merchandise in the southern states of America because everybody thought Tinky Winky was a homosexual.
“It was so insulting. The fact is that children’s television is about love, it’s got nothing to do with sex at all. And all children – boys and girls – love to look in your handbag. I haven’t known a child who didn’t.”
Meanwhile, Bob the Builder seems to have been sending out strange messages, too, albeit of a different kind. For he is rather more philanthropic than your average odd-job man.
“You’ll notice,” says Keith Chapman, “that he never seems to take money off anyone. Not even a deposit. So he’s doing all this work for nothing!”
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