Microsoap is a 13 x 30-minute or 26 x 15-minute live-action co-production between Walt Disney Television International and the BBC. Targeted to kids age eight to 12, it follows the day-to-day adventures of brother and sister Joe and Emily Parker, whose parents have separated.
WDTI’s senior VP of programming and creative development for European broadcasting, David Snyder, describes the series as ‘a `90s version of The Brady Bunch, from the kids’ point of view. It’s about the trials and tribulations of bringing up parents.’
Most of the action concerns the madcap double family life that Joe and Emily inhabit. However, there is a weird side to the show that involves a talking boa constrictor called Mr. Squeezy and an imaginary six-foot-tall mouse called Pogo.
Partners: BBC, London, England
Walt Disney Television International, London, England
How the partnership began:
Richard Langridge becomes head of drama at BBC Children’s. Script editor Marilyn Fox alerts him to a script that has been written on spec by Mark Haddon, who has been working on another BBC show called The Wild House. ‘It was quirky and different, but I had no idea how we could do it,’ he recalls. ‘Initially, I saw it as something we would make cheaply for the downtime when Grange Hill wasn’t on. I couldn’t think of anyone who would be daft enough to co-finance a more expensive production.’
Langridge forms a friendship with the recently appointed head of drama development and production at WDTI, Elaine Sperber. ‘We talked about doing something together, so I showed her the script. But I didn’t think it was a Disney project.’ Sperber, however, was looking for ‘groundbreaking, internationally produced kids drama that could be made with local producers,’ she says. ‘Disney for eight- to 12-year-olds was seen as a bit nostalgic, so we wanted something with modern-day relevance. I flipped when I saw the Microsoap script.’
Langridge and Sperber agree that they want to make the show. ‘But we were conscious that this sort of relationship hadn’t been done before,’ says Sperber. ‘And getting the BBC and Disney together was like introducing two 800-lb gorillas.’ Before anything can happen, Microsoap needs the vote of approval from the strategic decision-makers. ‘The BBC’s head of children’s, Lorraine Heggessey, and WDTI’s David Snyder both embraced the idea of trying to get the show together,’ says Langridge. ‘That was important. But the crucial thing was for both sides to be honest about the things we couldn’t budge on. The BBC needed first transmission, and Disney wanted distribution for its international channels.’
With the groundwork established, Langridge and Sperber make sure they are present at all business negotiations. However, there are more hurdles to cross. The BBC’s Policy and Planning division has concerns about the wisdom of working with a company that could be regarded as a competitor. There are also unresolved questions over the length of the production. Initially, the BBC wants six or seven episodes. But Disney decides during its commissioning round that it needs 13 episodes. ‘This was an example of how both sides needed to be prepared to work something out,’ says Langridge. ‘It took cooperation from the BBC’s scheduler Roy Thompson and the willingness of Disney to [provide the necessary budget for the last six episodes upfront] so that the series could be made in one year. That was a breakthrough.’
The contractual detail is thrashed out over a number of months with the budget working out as about 50-50 between the BBC and Disney. However, the complexity of the partnership begins to threaten the viability of the production. ‘I remember standing in a field in Norfolk on Christmas Eve discussing matters on a mobile phone,’ says Langridge. ‘I was at a point of saying we would go back to the original cheaper concept.’
In a significant show of trust, however, the green light is given to the show before the contract is complete-and only the terms of agreement are ready. The commercial negotiators, Mary Bredin and Keith Porritt from WDTI and Paul Fagin and Bob Thompson from the BBC, deserve a lot of the credit for making the production happen.
Preparation starts. Haddon has already written four scripts. Now, Sperber and Langridge agree on Andy Rowley as the producer. He is exclusively attached to the series, thanks to financial input from Disney. The show’s lead director, Juliet May, is also appointed by mutual consent. A second director, Beryl Richards, is also appointed.
Principal photography begins. Sperber and Langridge have shared all creative decision-making on issues such as casting and production design. They claim to have seen eye-to-eye on everything-a key factor in making the series run so smoothly.
Shooting begins and runs through until August. Langridge says it’s ‘a tight turnaround. We shot seven to eight minutes a day with kids, animals and effects. The schedule was punishing, and I don’t think we could do it that way again.’ The process is made more bearable by ‘a first-class editor, great cast and producer,’ says Sperber. ‘There was no whining or moaning.’ The production is shot with pace, energy and drive, says Langridge. ‘I had a similar goal to Elaine, which was to shake up BBC children’s drama. We did Microsoap with a single digibeta camera to give it some of that ER feel.’
The series is nearly complete, and there is a disagreement at last. ‘Richard loved the last episode and I hated it,’ laughs Sperber. ‘But we worked it out between us and came up with something even better.’
The show broadcasted on the BBC in September, and will begin on Disney’s international channels this month. It will also travel to MIPCOM for its launch to the international market. There are high hopes for its ability to achieve ratings and sales. These two tests will influence any decision on a second series. ‘We both believe that terrific drama travels internationally,’ says Sperber. ‘Rites of passage and families breaking up are cross-cultural phenomena. The key thing for anyone dubbing the series will be to capture the spirit of the show, not its literal translation.’
Evaluating the partnership
Langridge says the co-production worked well, despite his initial concerns about the different corporate cultures of the two organizations. He thinks the benefits will show on the screen with expensive cutaway scenes that couldn’t have been made without a co-production partner.
WDTI’s Snyder calls the co-production ‘a marriage made in heaven.’ He is confident that the two partners will make more shows, though he is skeptical about the wisdom of entering into a three-way co-production. He has also developed other bilateral partnerships with the Australian Children’s Television Foundation to co-produce a drama called Crash Zone and with the CBC in Canada.
Langridge and Sperber have been looking for more projects, and have been exchanging their development slates. Unfortunately, Langridge is moving jobs within the BBC, so his personal chemistry with Sperber will be lost. However, she believes that the experience of the first project will help smooth the path for future ventures with whoever takes up the gauntlet at the BBC.