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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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