FROM ME TO YOU
Daniel Johns and fellow Novocastrian Josh Wakely are bringing the Beatles’ hits to a children’s animated TV garden, writes Iain Shedden
Throughout his career in Silverchair and beyond Daniel Johns has pushed himself in new directions, so perhaps it was only a matter of time before he became a big blue slug called Walter. That’s the character to which Johns lends his voice in the new animated children’s series Beat Bugs, created by fellow Novocastrian Josh Wakely, but Johns’s speaking role is only a small part of the story.
What the 37-year-old musician is most happy about is that he got to produce and arrange more than 30 songs from the Beatles’ catalogue for the show — and have household names such as Sia, Pink, Eddie Vedder and Robbie Williams sing them.
“It’s a dream job to go into the studio and dissect all of the Beatles’ music,” says the singer, who bought his first Beatles album, The Beatles (also known as the White Album), when he was nine. “That remains one of my favourite pieces of music,” he says “They are responsible for writing some of the greatest songs of all time.”
Spending time with the Beatles catalogue — breaking it down and building it again — was also a learning experience for the Australian star. “That was half the reason I was so excited,” he says. “I had to force myself to pick up a guitar on occasions and figure stuff out.”
That Johns got to rework so many Beatles classics was an incredible coup for writer, director and producer Wakely, who has spent six years bringing Beat Bugs, 52 animated stories about five bugs who live in a suburban back yard, to life.
The first three of those years were spent working on the show without having the rights to the Beatles’ music. All the young director had was a strong belief in what he was doing.
That faith proved worthwhile in early 2014 when publishers Sony/ATV liked Wakely’s vision of bringing the Fabs’ songs to a new audience via stories written around them. They gave Wakely’s GRACE production company licence to use hallowed material such as Magical Mystery Tour, Penny Lane, All You Need is Love and Strawberry Fields Forever in the show.
“It’s pretty incredible that we got the rights,” says Johns. “That’s the thing that always surprises me about Josh. He’s so ambitious and brave. When he told me what he was trying to do I said, ‘I wish you the best of luck, but I don’t fancy your chances.’ I still don’t know how he managed to pull it off. It is such an honour to have a part in it, but of course there’s pressure that comes with that to do a good job.”
The series, which is aimed at five to sevenyear-olds, screens on the Seven Network and from August 3 on Netflix. Beat Bugs is the collected adventures of five characters: Jay, a mischievous beetle; a ladybug called Kumi; Crick the cricket; Buzz the fruit fly; and the aforementioned Walter.
“They have lived in my head for so long that I don’t have their date of conception,” says Wakely, taking stock of his achievement while in Sydney for meetings at Seven’s Sydney headquarters. He describes the five bugs as “little bits of me, probably. Even when I’m not writing episodes they occupy a strange corner of my mind”.
Each episode of Beat Bugs is designed to tell a story through a Beatles song, but with simple lessons about life embedded therein.
“The reason those songs have held up is not just the music,” says Wakely. “It’s because there are stories inside them. It’s about teaching kids, but with a bit of humour and not in a patronis- ing way. All You Need is Love was the main message we wanted to put in front of kids.”
For Wakely the completion of the show marks the end of a long and arduous journey. A self-confessed workaholic, he has several projects on the go, including a feature film and a television drama series, Time Out of Mind, based on the songs of Bob Dylan, for which he also has secured the rights. It’s a high point in his career, which has been on an upwards trajectory since he graduated from the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts. He studied acting but then turned his hand to writing and directing. Wakely was one of the writers on the award-winning Australian children’s series Lockie Leonard.
It was while pitching and selling screenplays in Los Angeles after moving there with his wife that he had the idea of using Beatles songs to tell children’s stories, although he can’t remember how or why he was so inspired.
“When you’ve lived with an idea for so long you can’t really remember its origins,” he says. Wakely is an animated figure when he talks about his work, clearly driven by his vision of and belief in the creatures he created. He is also
Daniel Johns, left, and Josh Wakely in Los Angeles