Series tinged with a socially responsible message, particularly surrounding disabled children, aren’t often an easy sell to commercial broadcasters. But Dublin, Ireland-based Monster Animation’s latest project might just change a few minds.
Meet Punky. She’s an affectionate, happy-go-lucky, determined six-year-old girl who just happens to have Down Syndrome. And she’s the main character of a 20 x seven-minute animated series that’s set to air on Irish pubcaster RTE next year.
The animated character has the physical attributes of a person with Down Syndrome and is voiced by an actress with the condition. However, Monster’s producer Gerard O’Rourke says the series doesn’t call out the syndrome, but rather portrays Punky’s day-to-day adventures with her family (mom, older brother, granny and dog Rufus) as they happen, making for a light-hearted preschool series. ‘If you watch the show and you don’t realize Punky has Down Syndrome, that’s absolutely fine,’ says O’Rourke.
The Irish Film Board introduced the project to Monster and gave creator Lindsay Sedgwick seed money to develop the idea. Monster then worked with Sedgwick to draft a bible, raise financing and get the series ready for production.
Part of that process involved working with Down Syndrome Ireland (DSI). So the prodco learned about the unique challenges presented by the chromosomal disorder directly from people with Down Syndrome, as well as their siblings and parents.
‘We learned what it’s like to have Down Syndrome, what it’s like to live with someone who does, what their world is like, and what their limitations are – and we used that to create scripts,’ says O’Rourke.
Monster’s team also worked closely with DSI’s council of young adults with Down Syndrome. They reviewed the project, read the scripts and gave advice on how they would like to be portrayed.
A key point of the storylines is that Punky always manages to resolve her problems, albeit in her own unique way. ‘We didn’t want her mom or her grandma or her brother stepping in to sort out her problems because she is a special person,’ says O’Rourke. So in one episode, for example, Punky’s mom is sick and the pharmacist prescribes peace, quiet and a restful sleep to put mom on the road to recovery. Back at home, Punky takes the pharmacist’s orders to the extreme.
Grandma’s kettle whistles too loudly, her brother’s music is too noisy even with his headphones on, and Rufus keeps thwacking the kitchen table with his tail. So Punky insists they all spend the rest of the day outside. Later, mom wakes up, perplexed that everyone has been banished to the backyard, but nevertheless feeling much better. Punky then takes great pride in the fact that she helped.
O’Rourke is working with a budget of approximately US$76,000 per episode and hopes to have more partners in place to increase the number of eps to 39. Andrew Brenner, creator of Nick UK’s Humf, has come on-board as a writer. Delivery to RTE starts in spring 2011. O’Rourke says Punky would be a natural fit for other public broadcasters, but he is also hopeful that commercial channels will look at the series as a solid pro-social addition to their skeds.