Redeveloping local heroes for the global kid stage

In most bars around the world, you can guarantee that, after a few drinks, someone will start talking about the TV shows they watched as kids. Before long, people at their table find themselves pitching in with fragments of catchphrases, rambling...
April 1, 2000

In most bars around the world, you can guarantee that, after a few drinks, someone will start talking about the TV shows they watched as kids. Before long, people at their table find themselves pitching in with fragments of catchphrases, rambling reconstructions of favorite episodes or barely recognizable renditions of the theme tune.

The commercial potential of tapping into this nostalgia has not been lost on the kids production business. While book-to-screen adaptations are a well-worn development path, the residual affection inspired by old shows has made reviving kids characters for modern audiences increasingly commonplace.

BBC Worldwide’s Bill & Ben, Carlton International’s Thunderbirds, Britt Allcroft Group’s Captain Pugwash and Entertainment Rights’ Basil Brush are all current examples of efforts to revive past TV glories.

Cinar Europe president David Ferguson has done his fair share of updates. Best known are The Wombles (52 x 10 minutes) and Paddington, which both originally appeared as U.K. animated series in the 1970s/1980s. Ferguson has also developed Pinky & Perky (unsuccessfully) and considered a remake of The Herbs (pending). Despite years of contemplating reincarnation, Ferguson is skeptical about the value of remakes. However, he accepts that ‘the market is so competitive, you have to look at anything that might help you rise above the clutter and secure a presale.’

In theory, the value of a remake is twofold. Firstly, it gets the seal of approval from parents who are happy to sit their kids in front of something they themselves enjoyed. Secondly, it eases open the door when talking to potential licensing and broadcasting partners.

In the case of preschool crossover series The Adventures of Captain Pugwash, for example, BAG head of licensing Valerie Fry says: ‘It certainly made the initial approach easier because licensees were interested to know what we had done to the lead characters.’ Pugwash began life as a book 50 years ago, and was originally a series in the 1970s. Carlton International head of consumer products Sian Facer agrees. ‘Licensing is so precarious that it can be a great advantage to go in with something familiar.’

If recognition is the upside, then the problem with classic TV properties is that ‘few of them had an international presence first time round,’ says BAG commercial director Charles Falzon. While residual affection might swing a commission at home, the reality of modern production financing is that you need to persuade at least two other partners that your idea can travel-and humming the theme tune won’t do it. More often than not, significant changes must be made to the original concept to suit new investors.

Arguably, however, this is not as onerous as it seems. The passage of time means few shows can survive in their original form anyway.

Core elements of Enid Blyton’s Noddy stories were changed in BBC Worldwide’s animated version in order to meet the expectations of progressive political opinion. Similarly, a new version of U.K. classic The Herbs would probably have to dispense with a madcap character called Basil who wanders around with a shotgun under his arm. If you are remaking a show for a modern kids audience, it’s the perfect opportunity to add an international flavor to proceedings.

According to Falzon, while blundering pirate Captain Pugwash was part of the fabric of a country’s culture, ‘you are really risking it if all you rely on is nostalgia. The stories and characters have to work for today’s audience in their own right.’ Fry agrees, stressing that licensees need to be convinced of a property’s merit today. ‘They still want to know when and where it is being transmitted and what other partners and promotions you have in store.’

In the case of Pugwash, the original animation style was crude by modern standards, but was part of the original show’s appeal. So BAG had to find a way to make the show seem cutting-edge, while maintaining its editorial na-vete. An audience share of 41% on ITV in the U.K. suggests Britt Allcroft pulled it off.

Pugwash had some notoriety in Commonwealth countries, but was unknown elsewhere. In order to give the show maximum exportability, its location was changed from the English coast to the Caribbean, which allowed a more international set of characters to be introduced. To make it more contemporary, Tom the cabin boy (who saves the day every episode) was toughened up. ‘Some people thought he was a bit of a wimp first time round,’ concedes Fry.

Although deals have been inked for the Pugwash remake with Cartoon Network in France, M-Net in South Africa and Televisio Valenciana in Spain, the real advantage of a revival is that it can help make a hit in the original home territory.

‘If you create a broadcast and licensing success in one country, it can act as a blueprint for the international market,’ says Falzon. This echoes the approach on BAG’s Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.

BBC Worldwide is also concentrating on getting the home market right with Bill & Ben, a popular U.K. preschool show from the `50s and `60s that’s now being remade by Cosgrove Hall as 26 x 10 minutes. Although the property is intended as a global brand, BBCWW’s deep pockets give it the luxury of complete creative and commercial control over the show. ‘We own the underlying rights, which makes it easier to unlock the potential of the characters,’ says BBC Worldwide director of children’s Mark Johnstone. ‘If you have a lovable character with an attraction in a major market, you can build a winning formula.’

Bill & Ben are flowerpot men who live at the bottom of the garden with their best pal and confidante Little Weed. Series exec producer Theresa Plummer-Andrews has no doubt they can travel. ‘There is loads of stop-frame animation out there, but nothing like this.’ She stresses, however, that there have been major editorial changes. Originally, Bill & Ben was a black-and-white puppet show. ‘Kids are more sophisticated in their expectations, so we have introduced stronger scripts and new characters such as Slowcoach the tortoise, a squirrel and a magpie.’ Little Weed will gain the power of speech and is expected to be a feistier personality-though connotations of Girl Power are rejected by Johnstone.

As part of the deal that secured Bill & Ben, BBCWW also acquired rights to preschool classics Andy Pandy and The Woodentops, 1960s TV characters that appeared on BBC TV. However, no decision has been made on whether to do 26 more episodes of Bill & Ben or commence production on the other shows. Much will depend on the flowerpot men’s appeal when they debut early in 2001, though Johnstone is also keen to develop an umbrella brand that would allow him to market the shows together.

While the above examples are remakes, Carlton’s 32-part series Thunderbirds is effectively a touch-up of the same production. Digital remastering and stereo have been added to ensure the quality is of a sufficient standard to appeal to a Pokémon/Power Rangers generation of six- to 11-year-old boys. Its first outing will be this fall on Saturday afternoons on BBC2 in the U.K.

Carlton International director of sales Louise Sexton says: ‘We aren’t pretending that this is a new show. But we think it will compete very well because of the strength of the stories and characters. We’ve also beefed up the explosions, which adds to the overall feel of the show.’

The danger, of course, is that today’s screenagers may find it horribly dated-particularly the sight of room-sized computers in the background. But CI’s Facer is convinced it will hold its own. ‘The production technique-Supermarionation-is still completely unique. And there are editorial ideas that still have a strong futuristic feel to them. It would have been a problem if the show was in black and white.’

In terms of distribution, Thunderbirds is known in the U.K., Japan, the Netherlands and Australia, where it was licensed in perpetuity to Channel 9. These markets are the focus of the first raft of commercial activity, though CI is also poised to announce an important

In the licensing realm, Thunderbirds merchandise has been geared to modern tastes. Although mobile phones do not appear in the series, there are kids mobile phones available ‘because they fit the spirit of the series,’ says Facer. Models of the Thunderbirds HQ have digital sound, there will be an official Web site and, perhaps most significantly, Carlton has linked up with SCi to create a pocket computer game. Facer believes this may develop into a major seller in its own right, regardless of the success of the broadcast platform.

Most of the above examples have stayed faithful to their original demographic, but there is some scope to redefine a character’s role. Alltime/Decode’s recent adaptation of the Richard Adams bestseller Watership Down moved well away from the brooding 1980s movie version. Aimed at younger children, the series was less menacing, more brightly colored and generally appropriate to a younger audience.

Recently formed U.K. kids studio Entertainment Rights is also reviewing its demo options with a puppet called Basil Brush-best known in the U.K. for guest celebrity interviews and his catchphrase: ‘Boom Boom.’ Created in 1963 by Peter Firmin for The Three Scampys kids show and puppeteered by actor Ivan Owen, Basil’s last screen appearance was in 1982. He has been sold to 14 countries, and in the U.K., The Basil Brush Show regularly scored audiences of over 12 million on BBC prime time. The fact that he scores over 90% awareness with adults over the age of 20, who cite him as a favorite character, is seen as a boon in his redeployment. Entertainment Rights chief exec Jane Smith says he generated the highest awareness in Japan, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. He also still has a rudimentary fan club Web site.

‘Basil was a humorous, irreverent character, and we are keen to retain those characteristics while adapting him for a modern audience,’ says Smith. She is flexible on possible formats. ‘He could be solo or part of an ensemble of characters, and he doesn’t have to be studio-based like last time. We will listen carefully to what the international market says.’

Smith says there is no reason why Basil could not also be adapted for animation. If this happens, he would be following in the footsteps of Sooty, a glove puppet that crossed over to anime in the mid-1990s. First seen in the `50s, Sooty is alleged to be the longest-running children’s TV program in the world. It is now part of the Britt Allcroft portfolio, having been bought by BAG in December 1999. However, the 26 x 30-minute animation series has been very low-profile.

‘It’s a difficult transition,’ observes Cinar’s Ferguson. ‘With glove puppets, you have to give them a whole range of new scripts-and legs. In the case of Sooty and his best pal Sweep, they never spoke, so the producer needed to introduce voices.’

Sometimes, the existence of a previous TV version can be less significant than a book’s heritage. In the case of Paddington, the first series was well-liked, as was a series of specials made for HBO. But the rationale for a remake was the overwhelming international popularity of Michael Bond’s original books. The same is true for Lucky Luke, who is far better known in Europe as a comic book character than as a TV series (see sidebar on previous page).

In Ferguson’s view, the market for revivals will always be limited. ‘Major broadcasters like the BBC need to be turning over new shows. They will never take on too many projects like this at once.’

The BBC’s Plummer-Andrews confirms this view. ‘We will remake shows if we think they offer fun and interesting characters, but we will always need a mixed portfolio of new productions.’ Besides, says Ferguson, the notion of parents sitting down to watch preschool shows with kids is often unrealistic. ‘Many parents I speak to aren’t even aware that classic shows have been remade because of the way kids programming is scheduled these days. We have as big a library of U.K. classics as almost anyone, but the truth is that many old shows aren’t worth remaking.’

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