July 30, 2010 5:04 pm

How Peppa Pig brought home the bacon

 
Peppa Pig creators Phil Davies, Neville Astley and Mark Baker

Phil Davies, Neville Astley and Mark Baker

Once upon a time there were three blokes called Nev, Mark and Phil, And they were mates. And they loved drawing cartoons. One day, they had a great idea for a children’s television cartoon, and they took it to the Big Bad Wolf, the BBC. But the Big Bad Wolf, he huffed and he puffed and he blew the idea all around the schedule, playing it at midnight one day and mid-afternoon a week later. And in the end, the Wolf blew the programme away. So the three blokes thought, “We will dream up another idea, but this time we will not give it to the Wolf. We will let someone else have our programme.”

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So Nev, Mark and Phil took their idea to Channel Five and America and 180 other countries. Their programme is now worth many hundreds of millions of pounds, and the spin-off merchandising is worth many millions of pounds more. And the silly old Wolf is full of regrets and now calls it “The one that got away”.

And that, dear reader, is the story of how Peppa Pig came to be on our screens. At the Elf Factory, where Nev, Mark and Phil work, there is a big board celebrating the sale of the three millionth Peppa Pig DVD in the UK. “At £10 a DVD, that’s worth quite a lot,” says Phil, who has just treated himself to three months’ holiday in the Galápagos and the Maldives, drives what he describes as “a fancy car”, and has plans to buy himself a Cirrus. (For the non-millionaires among us, this is a plane.)

Peppa merchandise

Peppa merchandise

Phil Davies seems to be the one who does the talking, producing and, as he puts it, “attention seeking”. Mark Baker does design and story, and Neville Astley story and animation, which sounds as if they both do a bit of everything. Davies is also a wannabe rock star. For a lanky, larky 54-year-old with a rather scary tan (“That’s the Maldives for you”), the bags under Davies’ eyes reflect a lifestyle more Red Hot Chili Peppers than Peppa Pig.

Earlier this year, as Davies was watching the sun go down from his hotel terrace in the Maldives, glass of bubbly in hand, “this elderly couple started to chat to each other about clearing out their attic,” he says. “Then they started to discuss a Peppa Pig episode where Granny and Grandfather Pig clear out their attic.” Did he reveal that he was one of the Peppa magicians? “I did not.” Still, it must have been a sweet moment for someone who has spent his adult life embedded in the thankless art form of animation. Does he now feel it was worth abandoning his youthful plans to be a rock star? Are you kidding? Just think about the fancy car and the plane.

“I still play, though,” he says, wistfully. “I’m quite happy to wander round with a guitar around my neck, making a lot of noise.”

Let’s get back to Peppa.

. . .

For anyone living with someone under five years old, Peppa Pig will be a familiar friend. For those who do not, Peppa Pig is a small pig with a red dress and a very loud oink. She lives with baby brother George, Mummy Pig and Daddy Pig. Daddy Pig is unshaven, bespectacled and the butt of Peppa’s scorn. He enjoys snorting and playing football with his friends Mr Bull and Mr Zebra, but his globular shape belies a penchant for chocolate cakes. Peppa’s big thing is jumping in muddy puddles, snorting and laughing. Every five-minute episode involves the entire Pig family, plus friends, rolling on their backs in fits of giggles. The overall idea? “There is no idea,” says Davies. “It’s about a character and her family. And situations familiar to small children.”

The three men made their original pitch to the American broadcaster Nick Jr, a cable TV channel aimed at two- to five-year-olds and owned by the MTV Networks subsidiary of Viacom. The Brits arrived with 52 story lines on a piece of paper – one story a week for a year. And the stories, they insisted, had to be played out at peak time, same time slot every week, so Peppa would become a regular, familiar presence in the lives of her small viewers. It was a hard sell, but the trio had learnt a lesson by then – better sell it right if you’re going to sell it at all.

Davies, Astley and Baker met at the animation department of Middlesex Poly in the 1980s. They were all animation groupies; Phil ran the department, Nev was his student and Mark taught animation at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, alongside Nick Park, creator of Wallace and Gromit. It was a good time for the art form, says Davies: Channel 4 commissioned cartoons and other channels found they were rather fun, in a zeitgeisty sort of way. Davies’ students used to sell quite a few cartoons to MTV, who used them for branding and stings between the videos.

 
A scene from 'The Big Knight'

The Big Knights – Davies, Astley and Baker’s breakthrough. It was a cult hit, but suffered at the hands of BBC schedulers, a snub they wouldn’t forget

Then, Astley and Baker landed an order from the BBC. The show was called The Big Knights, and each 10-minute episode, scripted and drawn by the pair, told the story of two well-meaning but hapless giants, brothers Sir Morris and Sir Boris, voiced by Brian Blessed and David Rintoul. The 13 programmes soon attracted a cult audience, but not a regular one watching every week – the BBC was somewhat cavalier with the product, shoving it all over the place and denying it the chance to take root. “It was critically acclaimed, but shown in graveyard slots,” says Davies. “Like midnight, when two men and a dog are watching.”

So, in 1999, Astley, Baker and Davies met up to discuss ideas for a new production. In a pub, of course. I can’t see them brainstorming in a swish members’ club. They are blokes, not dissimilar to the likable Daddy Pig himself. (And as with Daddy Pig, they enjoy having a laugh. Their modest, first-floor office on Regent Street is called The Elf Factory. Why? So that on the contract for the building, owned by the Royal Estates, Baker and Davies can gaze happily on a text drawn up between “HM The Queen and The Elf Factory”. It just makes them chuckle.) So they meet up in this pub, and eventually they hit upon a children’s cartoon show. They think it should feature a small pig. Why not? Animals get around the race/class/background issue effortlessly. Also, the pig should be female. At the time, there were very few girl characters around (this was the heyday of Bob the Builder, Fireman Sam and Postman Pat). And the name? Peppa is a great name, says Davies, “because she is smart and slightly peppery”.

Having cast their star, the lads decided that the one outlet they would not approach was the BBC. First, because of the Big Knights experience – they didn’t trust the BBC to give their new show a regular slot. And second, because of the gloomy atmosphere of almost every meeting they had had at the BBC. “It is very negative in its approach to pitches; the commissioners just put up problems and reasons why the idea should not be commissioned, rather than the other way round.” And finally, they wanted to keep their product independent: for artistic reasons, naturally, but for business reasons too. These blokes may like guitars, faded T-shirts, permatans and Converse boots, but they are a commercially canny trio. They knew that the value of children’s cartoons resided not only in the show, but in the licensed spin-offs. And if your programme is going out on the BBC, then you can be sure that BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the broadcaster, will want a slice of the pie.

It’s a slice of pie that, thanks to Peppa’s popularity, is now enormous, and available everywhere from Hamleys to Amazon to your local Sainsbury’s. At the Elf Factory, I stand before a large cupboard and gaze on Peppa Pig garden sets, Peppa Pig kitchens, push-along prams, clothes, “drive and steer” cars, spaceships, Royal trains, bath crayons, wellies. So successful is the 3D incarnation of Peppa Pig that the Labour party booked her to help launch its Families Manifesto prior to this year’s general election. She turned down the invitation, amid a media “storm”: Peppa, the papers said, was in danger of becoming partisan.

. . .

 
A scene showing Peppa Pig's house

Peppa Pig’s house is on top of a hill, because every frame is shot from a child’s perspective – “children will usually draw their house on its own”

This was all to come, however. In 1999, Peppa was still on the drawing board, and the team had to get her on to the screen, any screen, as long as it wasn’t a BBC screen. This was a serious problem. Children’s programming is expensive and not especially lucrative; only a very few “properties” wind up with branded wellies or bath crayons, and the reality is that only the BBC, with its public service remit, properly looks after children’s television in Britain. Or as Davies puts it, “You are not in the real world if you don’t believe the BBC runs kids’ TV in this country.”

After various dead leads, the team approached Nick Jr. “They were amazing,” says Davies. “They were the only broadcaster to nail their colours to the mast straightaway.” However, even Nick Jr could stump up only 12 per cent of the investment required, but this was enough to gain access to the Cartoon Forum, an annual arena where animators who already have a broadcaster in the bag pitch their ideas to other broadcasters and gradually amass the budget they require. In the independent production world, this is how television works.

The main problem for Peppa’s creators was that she was anything but a commissioner’s must-have. It was now 2001, and the world had been wowed not only by Pixar’s astonishing Toy Story feature films, but by the 3-D Plasticine alchemy of Nick Park, whose Wallace and Gromit had already won an Oscar. Peppa Pig was two-dimensional, was not voiced by Tom Hanks, and only came in five-minute bites. Moreover, our lads wanted to work in London, where the animation scene had withered almost to the point of extinction.

Nevertheless, Astley, Baker and Davies pitched their two-minute sample of Peppa Pig to the travelling Cartoon Forum, which in 2001 had pitched up in Cardiff. And Peppa worked her magic. The programme is sweet but funny: Peppa herself is feisty and smart, has a host of anthropomorphic mates (Richard Rabbit, Edmond Elephant, etc), and lives in a world revolving around a house, a car, a primary school, a science museum, a washing line, and plenty of muddy puddles to jump in. Just like the world of a normal four-year-old girl.

“I think the key is that she involves the audience,” says Davies. “And the whole look of it is so clean and fresh. You never see the strings, as it were. And the language is clean. That takes a lot of effort.” It is a tricky path: keeping the language easy, so pre-schoolers are engaged, but not making it so mindless that when adults watching alongside hear “It’s a lovely sunny day. Peppa and her family are driving to the playground” they will charge off for a cup of coffee, fearing either a yawning abyss of tweeness (My Friends Tigger and Pooh) or something utterly dull (Underground Ernie). It’s smart and droll, although Peppa is not the butt of the jokes. “Children don’t like laughing at the main character of a show,” says Davies. Who is the target? The amiable Daddy Pig, of course, a boffin who is so silly that he buys back his own junk from jumble sales by mistake. “The whole Daddy Pig thing evolved because children have no problem in making fun of their parents,” says Mark Baker, who still writes every script alongside Astley. Every frame is from a child’s perspective. “Which is why Peppa’s house is on its own, at the top of a hill,” says Baker. “When a child draws their house, even if it’s in a terrace, the child will usually draw it by itself.” And the hill? “Well, it’s just that having a huge hill like that is so funny. And ridiculous – that every time Peppa and George run out to play, they have to run down this very, very steep hill. It is optimistic, and fun.”

. . .

At Cardiff in 2001, Baker and Davies met a distributor who agreed to contribute 50 per cent of the funding. Then Channel Five offered 12 per cent to run Peppa on its children’s TV block, Milkshake; this left a shortfall of about 25 per cent. At a cost of £5,000 a minute, the budget for the first 52-show series was £1.3m. The group was short by £325,000.

At first, everyone was sure that filling the gap would be fine. “We had heard of this Media Fund from the EU, a scheme for programme makers to maintain their rights on a show, and it seemed to fit exactly,” says Davies. “We applied, but three months later, nothing had arrived. We discovered it was a bit of a box-ticking scam, and all the funds had already gone to French programme makers who had sold their shows to Estonia, or something.”

There was only one solution. “We had to tip the money in ourselves. We had to ask friends and families,” says Davies. “And our families trusted us … God knows why.” He looks over at his desk, where a plush, winged Princess Peppa is sitting. “We were a bunch of people who had a common vision about what they were doing, and faith in our ability to connect with an audience. And we just knew that the programme was right. It looked right, and it sounded right.”

The team worked out how Peppa and her friends would walk, how they would jump, how each character would move its ears, how each character dressed. Mark Baker’s wife, Jung Suk West, a colour designer, focused on the precise colour balance of each scene – how Peppa’s red dress or George’s blue top work against the green hill. A seven-year-old, Lily Snowden Fine (whose parents Alison Snowden and David Fine won an Academy Award for an animation short, Bob’s Birthday, in 1995), was cast as Peppa, to get the voice just right (as the voice-over artists have grown up, Peppa’s voice has had three incarnations, and is currently done by Harley Bird).

The first series of 52 episodes went out in the UK on Five in May 2004, the second series in September 2006, and series three in May 2009. After the first series went out, a couple of interesting things happened: in one show, Peppa puts on a princess costume with wings on it and stomps around grunting. Not very regal, but the licensees were over the moon: here were endless marketing possibilities for Princess Peppa – dresses, toys, castles. They were far-sighted: Princess Peppa Palace topped the children’s toy charts last Christmas. The team, meanwhile, was excited for another reason: putting wings on their key character and making her fly had been fun. But it was not something Peppa could do every week. Could it work, however, as the basis of another programme entirely, a series where all the characters fly?

 
A scene from 'Ben & Holly's Little Kingdom'

“We did it for our sanity”: Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom is the follow-up to Peppa Pig, and features a fairy, an elf and their pet ladybird, Gaston

The team had already been considering creating another show, to demonstrate they weren’t one-hit wonders. “We had made one, but there is no guarantee of success the next time round,” says Davies. “We thought we should do another – for our sanity and our status. Yes, it was quite a selfish reason.” The new series, Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom, stars Holly (a “bossy but lovable” fairy) and Ben (an elf, simply “lovable”). Holly lives with her parents, King and Queen Thistle, and a pet ladybird, Gaston, who barks. In its droll, slightly unconventional humour it is similar to Peppa, just a touch more sophisticated.

. . .

Every Friday night, the 30-strong company at the elf factory takes a look at what everyone has produced that week, whether for Peppa or Little Kindgom. Everyone clears off the cluttered sofas and settles down for an hour’s viewing; the beers are cracked open and the table football given a run for its money. “You never know what your work is like without an audience,” Davies says. “There are only 30 of us here, and it brings people together. It’s an old art college thing, the weekly crit.”

There is something delightfully workmanlike about the Elf Factory. The team tells me that when the chaps from Nick Jr turned up, they were astonished to find such a small office. And when the execs from Pixar turned up (indeed, they have), they said they’d been amazed to discover that when they announced, “Take me to the Elf Factory”, London cabbies didn’t know exactly where it was. Presumably over in the US they think Peppa is a British national treasure.

Is it time we recognised her as such? It would be fair to say that Astley, Baker and Davies have propped up the British animation world significantly. Nick Park’s shoulders must be weary by now, so it’s good to have another team helping out. Davies has a giant file full of ideas for new series sent in by Peppa fans. And animation has always been one of those quirky, intelligent things the British have done well, from the early days of stop-frame animation with Trumpton, Bagpuss and The Clangers to the irreverent collage look of Charlie and Lola.

Perhaps Nev, Phil and Mark had just reached the right time in their careers to invent something as deceptively simple as Peppa Pig: after 20 years, they knew their craft and, crucially, they had already been burnt by one broadcaster, so they knew the pitfalls too. There is no question that they see the Elf Factory as a continuing force, and Peppa seems set to remain a famous four-year-old for a long, long time. There’s a Peppa Pig World currently under way at Paulton’s Family Theme Park in the New Forest, which will open at Easter 2011; the first Peppa Pig phone app is on the way, and there are new episodes on Five this autumn.

And recently, Davies bought back The Big Knights from the BBC, whose shabby treatment of the show arguably gave Davies, Astley and Baker their ambition to triumph, and has made their subsequent success with Peppa Pig all the sweeter.

Rosie Millard is a freelance writer

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