Friday, 16 February 2018

The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends (1992)

James Corden. James ruddy Corden. You can't escape from the man nowadays. Ever since Gavin and Stacey took off, he's been in pretty much everything - he's appeared on (among other things) Comic Relief, A League Of Their Own, the Brit Awards, One Man Two Guvnors, Into The Woods, The Wrong Mans, and is currently the face of The Late Late Show in the states.

In short, he's literally everywhere: in theatre, in Hollywood and on television, including the adverts. From insulting the town of Sidcup, to making "surprise" cameos, to making cheap sheep jokes in a bid to sell car insurance, and even lending his voice in animated movies here and there. In fact, his latest addition has been the titular character of the recent Peter Rabbit CGI / live-action movie from Sony Pictures.

And I don't about you, but I for one have had enough of him. So has everyone else apparently. It's not just the over-exposure that's been maddening. For me, Corden just doesn't have the same appeal as, say, Bradley Walsh or Peter Kay when it comes to comedy and acting in general. Or rather he did, but something somehow got lost along the way. Very much like how Sony Pictures went about trying to adapt Peter Rabbit for a modern audience on the big screen., I'm sorry. I'm not going to continue moaning about what was wrong with the film, or why Corden just isn't funny to me. Instead, I'm going to talk about the real Peter Rabbit. The gentler, kinder version from a bygone era. And the animated series that came about in the mid-90's.

Here Endeth The Rant.

Many may have seen or heard the name Beatrix Potter but not know of the person herself. Born way back in 1866, Kensington, she was one of many women who, at the time, had limited opportunities for higher education. However, against the odds, and despite spending her childhood alone, she developed her knowledge and love of the landscape around her (vis, the English countryside), which led her to become a natural scientist and conservationist. She even went so far as to buy up several farms in the Lake District (now the Lake District National Park) in order to help preserve the scenery around her.

But as well as that, she is more famously known as an illustrator and writer, her most famous books tell the adventures of Peter Rabbit and his friends. How the very first book came about is a remarkable yet familiar scenario: originally written for her former Governess' five-year-old son, Miss Potter decided to revise her story and see it turned into a proper book. But frustrated by numerous rejections from publishers, she sought out to self-publish the book herself. 250 copies were sent out privately to friends and relations, which included 'Sherlock Holmes' writer Arthur Conan Doyle.
Thus, it wasn't until a decade later that Frederick Warne & Co. finally decided to officially print 'The Tale of Peter Rabbit' for all to enjoy. From then on, 22 further books were written featuring other characters, all who would interact with one another - including Peter Rabbit and his family as they gradually matured and had families of their own. These included Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Tom Kitten, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Mrs. Tittlemouse. Towards the end of her writing career, Miss Potter experimented with writing villainous characters like Mr. Tod and Tommy Brock. No doubt some, if not all, the characters were inspired by the many animals she kept on the farm/s and grew up with.

The books remain in print to this day, and are still cherished the world over. These stories are considered old-fashioned yet timeless. Almost Aesop-like in the tales they tell and the morals they deliver somewhere within. The watercolour illustrations are just as beautiful. From the rolling landscapes and numerous types of flowers, to the pain-staking detail put in both the animal characters and the clothes they wore. These were, and still are, considered some of the best British literature for children, and with good reason.

Overtime, the stories themselves have been adapted in various forms - not surprisingly, some of which have come from America. This included an offer from Walt Disney himself to turn Peter Rabbit into an animated feature-length (and one which Miss Potter wisely refused). One of the more memorable attempts has been The Tales of Beatrix Potter, a live-action ballet performance from 1971. Another success has been the biographical film Miss Potter (2006), which starred Renée Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.

But the most faithful and beautiful adaptation of all has to be The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends from 1992 - this time with the BBC involved, along with Japanese companies Pony Canyon Inc and Fuji Television Network Inc. It was my first exposure to Miss Potter's stories, and you couldn't get a better start than that!

Animation director Dianne Jackson (The Snowman, Father Christmas, Yellow Submarine) was deeply involved in the production and planning of this anthology series, although sadly she passed away due to cancer mid-way. Nevertheless, despite the fact that only 9 episodes were made, they remain as wonderful as the books themselves. Most of which contain two stories in the same episode that were adapted to tie-in to one another.

The animation and backgrounds are flawless, made at a time when traditional 2D animation was at its height and quality was key; the music by Colin Towns is simply memorable, right down to the quintessential song 'Perfect Day' which plays during the end credits; and the voice cast involved...!

Naturally, fans overseas may remember the redubbed American cast for certain characters, but I grew up watching the true British version. And I still adore them today, right down to the child stars of the time - Josie Lawrence, Sir Derek Jacobi, Felicity Kendal, Shelia Hancock, Rik Mayall, Prunella Scales, June Whitfield, Alan Bennett, Su Pollard...and bear in mind that these actors and actresses were chosen because they fit the characters they played, not for their popularity alone.

To top it off, all the animated stories were bookended by live-action segments, which featured Niamh Cusack playing the role of Beatrix Potter as she told the stories from the comfort of her farmhouse with her animals and watercolours at hand. All utterly charming!

All of this is why the series was nominated for best animated programme at the Emmy Awards in 1993. And it shows what happens when you put the money and effort into something you love. So to all involved in the making of this series, congratulations! It's still being remembered today alongside the original classics you helped bring to life =)

In conclusion, I implore to all the parents in the UK and hopefully the world...if you want to introduce today's generation to Peter Rabbit, you have two options:

  • Go find the books. They're in nearly every book shop you can think of; they're available for Kindle books from all online stores; or chances are that early editions are being kept in safe storage by a friend or family relation.
  • Track down The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends. The DVD was released in 2016 to commemorate Beatrix Potter's 150th birthday. And for those who can't, there's a handy playlist to watch below, however long it'll remain online.

Personally, if I wanted to see a feature-length Peter Rabbit movie, I'd have been content with a direct-to-DVD special based on the CGI animated series from 2012, which has also done pretty good for itself. While it may not be quite perfect to some, it's still a better example of how to adapt characters for the modern age without losing too much of its original charm.

There are some characters, however, that don't need to be "modernised" to suit today's generation, nor do they require to be adapted for the cinema either. Because the results will nearly always be the same so far as Hollywood is concerned - the characters, their backstories and their settings will be heavily changed to the point where they are only recognised by names alone. As the TVC series has proven, stories such as Miss Potter's work far better on the small screen rather than the big one: short but sweet, with the characters remaining faithful to themselves and the original source. And they don't need some bloke from Uxbridge to be shoehorned in either.

Thank you.


Thursday, 15 February 2018

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Monday, 12 February 2018

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Bug Alert! (1996)

As far back as anyone can remember, puppet characters have become as big a part of our lives now as Camera Phones or Oyster Cards do - while CGI remains mainstream, it's lovely to know that physical characters will always be around to inspire and amuse.

When Jim Henson first created Sesame Street, many shows have followed the familiar path made by Big Bird and the rest of the gang, by helping to educate and inspire generations of children the world over, and which is still going on strong today. Mind you, many puppet characters have also been a source of entertainment, whether you prefer the Muppets (as does everyone) or Hacker T. Dog on CBBC - or from the mid 90's, the satirical Spitting Image for adults.

But the real beauty in some children's shows - again, as Sesame Street have shown - is that puppet characters are pretty universal, no matter what age you are. Especially when you can have a little fun in the writing department...

Here is one such example where you watch an episode from this series and think: "How on earth did they get away with this?!"

Created and written by director Peter Eyre and puppeteer Francis Wright, Bug Alert told of the antics of Grub Bug, Plug Bug, Doodle Bug, Mystic Bug and Buggins, giant insects who all live in the kitchen of a house somewhere. Going by their names alone, each of the characters had particular foibles that played a part in giving its viewers something to do or learn from. Doodle Bug showed how to make arts and crafts, Grub Bug offered simple recipes to try out and Mystic Bug gave some worldly facts through her crystal ball.

Meanwhile, the characters would often engage in some rather bizarre adventures around the house. Like Plug Bug finding a baboon in his sink, or Doodle Bug hypnotising everyone with a magic gnome...

Really, it was a comedy series with an educational aspect somewhere in the middle. Each of the 70+ episodes had a theme of the day, teaching its target audience about colours or animals or the weather, among other things. And to vary things up, it also had music numbers and jokes courtesy of Grunge and Slop or Gorgon and Zola respectively.

After a 3-year gap, the third series moved to Channel 4 in early-2000, which saw the bugs themselves moving house and deciding to open a café. Throughout all three seasons, as the episodes went on, the storylines become more insane and the jokes more...well...clever. The cultural references, the banter between the characters, the many innuendo jokes that went way over the kids' heads. Even Grub Bug himself seemed to be an exaggerated caricature of Basil Fawlty, right down to the moustache. Rewatching the show now, I can only imagine the parents' faces with what was allowed back then...!!

The bugs inside your kitchen!
It's sad to think that only a handful of VHS cassettes and DVDs have been released after all this time. Were it not for YouTube - and the mad ideas in the writing process - this show would have very likely been forgotten.

Of course, special thanks goes out to the puppeteers who were part of the madness that is Bug Alert. In particular Francis Wright, who has been no stranger to kid's shows, having also worked on Wizadora, Beachcomber Bay, Art Attack (as The Head!), The Spooks of Bottle Bay and various episodes of BBC Schools. All of which (and more) you can read about here from his own Weblog!

Series 1 & 2

Series 3


Friday, 13 January 2017

Bottersnikes and Gumbles (2016)

To a lot of people, in this day and age, most animated shows are starting to look and sound the same. But if you look hard enough, there are at least a few somewhere that are completely different from the rest. Better still if one such series is based from something almost totally obscure and unheard of, and achieving success as a result of it. - sort of like what Marvel have done with Guardians of the Galaxy.

Here is such an example...

Way back in the late 1960's, Sydney Alexander (S. A. ) Wakefield wrote a series of books that would become a classic in Australian literature. The first of these told of the ridiculous but funny adventures of the Bottersnikes and Gumbles (1967), two races of fictional creatures that live deep in the Australian Outback.

Bottersnikes are fat long-tailed things with scaly skin, cheese-grater noses and pointed ears which turn red when they become angry. They shrink when they get wet, live on a diet of mattress stuffing and make their homes in rubbish heaps because they are too lazy to bother about digging or building homes of their own. But that's not a problem when there are Gumbles about.

Gumbles are the happiest, cleverest, friendliest creatures in the bush. They're also rather rubbery, meaning they can be squashed into any shape without being harmed. And because they are much smaller, it makes it easy for the Bottersnikes to catch any Gumbles close by, squash them into tins and only take them out when there is work to be done. So the Gumbles need plenty of resource to avoid being captured or to escape when possible, while also trying to have fun out in the bush.

Wakefield only wrote four books about the Bottersnikes and Gumbles, but they are still fondly remembered today; not just because of the imagination of the stories and characters, but because both creatures represent the opposing attitudes towards the environment. The 'snikes hate trees, animals and plants; so much so they once attempted a 'Dump Development Scheme' to turn the outback into one giant rubbish heap. Whereas the Gumbles are always willing to help an animal in trouble, and always put their rubbish in bins, or at least find a proper use for whatever they may find whilst "gumbling".
In short, these four books were almost the Australian equivalent of The Wombles. And like the original Womble books (in addition to the environmental message), they each have a self-contained ongoing storyline throughout each of them;

  • Gumbles on Guard (1975) sees the Gumbles volunteering to guard a lyrebird's nest from a fox;
  • Gumbles in Summer (1979) tells how the Bottersnikes try to replace their vulgar King, first by attempted poisoning then by a very odd election;
  • Gumbles in Trouble (1989) involves the Gumbles becoming trapped in a barn with the Bottersnikes, which also sees a rather odd newspaper created by the 'snikes themselves...

An omnibus volume would later be printed in 1993 (and again in 2016) as The Complete Tales of Bottersnikes and Gumbles - which is far from "complete" as it only contains selected stories from each of the four books above.

But even so, it's great to see characters like these being reprinted again for a new generation to enjoy, or for older fans to rediscover. All of which still contain the original illustrations as drawn by Desmond Digby - which would become very useful several years down the line as inspiration.

In 2012, development on an animated series based on the books had begun, which took the combined efforts and talent of up to four animation / media companies - Cheeky Little MediaCAKE Entertainment, Kickstart and Mighty But Nice. Quite a lot for one series alone, but it all paid off when the show was eventually released; first on Netflix in 2015, before being broadcast in 2016 on CBBC in the UK and 7TWO in Australia.

And from what I've seen of it so far, it hasn't disappointed!

The animation truly looks stunning - from the 2D-animated opening sequence to the energy and detail put into the CGI, which involves a lot of lovely squash-and-stretch from the Gumbles. Of course, even though both the 'snikes and Gumbles each have individual, quirky characters, the original illustrations showed them all looking very similar, as also shown in this early pilot from 2013. So big thumbs up to the animation team in designing them to appear different from one another, while also respecting Digby's style at the same time.

And because the series is aimed at 6 to 9 year olds, as one might expect, there is toilet humour involved - aka; snot and fart jokes. But don't be alarmed; these jokes are used sparingly, for the episodes concentrate more on the characters to tell a story. Most of what has been aired in the UK so far seem to have grasped feel of Wakefield's own stories, especially in the absurdity department - right down to the use of wordplay for either 'Gumbling Games' or 'Sniketraps'.

But my favourite area of this series is the voice acting - or to be more specific, the British-Australian cast. Oh Grasshoppers, what a voice cast they chose! They all sound brilliant and true to the characters they play; nothing feels forced or over the top. With a blend of young actors - Akiya Henry, Jason Callender, Kathryn Drysdale - and old - Miriam Margolyes, Jeff Rawle, Richard Grieve - their combined performance had me grinning halfway through the first episode. Not surprisingly, the cast members playing the 'snikes have been particular favourites...!

It is quite rare to see an animated series aimed at kids nail all three areas with such impeccable quality: solid writing, a strong cast and stunning animation. But it was thanks to this which prompted me to buy and read the omnibus book from Amazon - although as I mentioned earlier, it would be better still if all four original books would be republished and enjoyed in their eternity.

In a time when we're all in need of a good laugh, this series is just what we need - it's unashamedly silly, just as the original books had been. Everyone else seems to think so, too, as it nabbed quite a number of TV awards last year. And I dearly hope it continues to do well, going by the amount of care and attention from everyone involved in its making. All in the name of ridiculousness!