SOME PIGS DO FLY

Long be­fore Peppa Pig be­came a bil­lion-dol­lar brand, two an­i­ma­tors strug­gled to get it off the ground, writes Lizzie Catt

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Fea­ture -

For most par­ents of chil­dren born since the turn of the mil­len­nium, it’s hard to imag­ine life with­out Peppa Pig. The an­thro­po­mor­phic car­toon, based on a four-year-old piglet and her fam­ily, has cap­tured the hearts of mil­lions of preschool­ers around the world. Its sim­ply drawn, fiveminute an­i­ma­tions, with un­pa­tro­n­is­ing sto­ry­lines about fam­ily life and lib­eral doses of silly hu­mour, are broad­cast daily in Aus­tralia on the ABC and in Bri­tain on Chan­nel 5 and Nick Jr. It’s The Simp­sons for tod­dlers — with celebrity cameos and know­ing scripts that par­ents also smile at.

In one episode, for ex­am­ple, Daddy Pig over­sees the con­struc­tion of a new home for the Wolf fam­ily. Af­ter huff­ing and puff­ing to test the build­ing’s strength, Mr Wolf asks what the Pig home is made from. “Bricks,” Daddy Pig smirks. “So don’t even think about it.”

Peppa has now made her way to the mul­ti­plex with Peppa Pig: My First Cinema Ex­pe­ri­ence — an hour of new episodes, sin­ga­long nurs­ery rhymes and fa­mous guest voices. One plot line sees Peppa travel to Lon­don to visit the Queen; in an­other she flies to Aus­tralia with her fam­ily.

To­day the Peppa brand is worth $1.7 bil­lion in re­tail an­nu­ally: 50 mil­lion toys and 30 mil­lion books have been sold world­wide and six mil­lion peo­ple have vis­ited Peppa Pig World, a part of Paultons Fam­ily Theme Park in Hamp­shire, Eng­land, since it opened in 2011. The show has been broad­cast in 180 ter­ri­to­ries and trans­lated into more than 40 lan­guages.

Af­ter 13 years, the se­ries is big­ger than ever. But in 2000 Peppa was very nearly rubbed out be­fore she had even reached our screens. Her cre­ators, the an­i­ma­tors Neville Ast­ley and Mark Baker, had been plug­ging away, hop­ing for a hit, since 1994 and were on their up­pers.

“We didn’t even have an of­fice, we were work­ing from each other’s homes. We were skint. In the year 2000, I in­voiced for £400 worth of free­lance an­i­ma­tion work. We were con­sid­er­ing split­ting up and get­ting some ‘proper’ work,” Ast­ley re­calls.

The pair had met in 1989 while work­ing at TVC, the big an­i­ma­tion stu­dio be­hind Yel­low Sub­ma­rine and The Snow­man, be­fore set­ting up on their own as Ast­ley Baker in 1994. Their first shot at suc­cess had been The Big Knights, a se­ries of 10-minute an­i­ma­tions com­mis­sioned by the BBC. But the Beeb strug­gled to find the right slot for it. It was shunted around the sched­ule and, to Ast­ley and Baker’s hor­ror, aban­doned. De­ter­mined to cre­ate a hit show, they went back to the draw­ing board and dreamt up Peppa. But af­ter they strug­gled to drum up in­ter­est, the cash-strapped an­i­ma­tors — by then in their 40s — were ready to ad­mit de­feat.

“It was like go­ing back to be­ing a stu­dent,” Baker says. “Both of us had been stu­dents; you live for your art, you live on a shoe­string. But the dif­fer­ence was, at that point we both had mort­gages, we both had flats. It was a bit scary.”

Their idea for Peppa was a sim­ple one. Chil­dren love an­i­mal sto­ries and a pig char­ac­ter par­tic­u­larly ap­pealed be­cause it gave the char­ac­ters li­cence to do silly things such as jump in muddy pud­dles. Plus, Baker ad­mits, “grunt­ing sounds are funny”.

Iron­i­cally, though, in­vestors were ini­tially put off be­cause they didn’t be­lieve Peppa had mer­chan­dis­ing po­ten­tial. It wasn’t based on an es­tab­lished book, like Maisy Mouse or Char­lie and Lola, and 2-D char­ac­ters (“Eyes on the same side of the head, that sort of thing,” says Ast­ley) didn’t lend them­selves to be­ing trans­formed into toys as eas­ily as the likes of the Tele­tub­bies and Bob the Builder.

It was a chance meet­ing with an old ac­quain­tance at a Chan­nel 4 party that even­tu­ally helped them to get Peppa off the ground. Phil Davies had pre­vi­ously run the an­i­ma­tion de­part­ment at Mid­dle­sex Polytech­nic. Baker and Ast­ley also had a con­nec­tion with Mid­dle­sex, the for­mer as a teacher, the lat­ter as a stu­dent, and both knew Davies well from their time there. So he came on board as a busi­ness part­ner and the com­pany changed its name to Ast­ley Baker Davies.

Im­me­di­ately, Davies be­gan set­ting up meet­ings with com­mis­sion­ing edi­tors. It was Davies’s idea to have 3-D mod­els of the char­ac­ters made up to demon­strate the show’s mar­ket­ing po­ten­tial to in­vestors.

Still, Ast­ley and Baker re­mem­ber the pitch­ing process as “hor­ri­ble”. “Ev­ery­one sits there a bit glum-faced and you think, ‘ Oh, it’s aw­ful, isn’t it?’” Baker shud­ders. “Then they ex­plain to you why it won’t work.”

Even­tu­ally Nick Jr and Milk­shake, Chan­nel 5’s chil­dren’s di­vi­sion, both promised a mod­est in­vest­ment and guar­an­teed that the show would be shown. Next, the trio bagged a dis­tri­bu­tion deal with Con­tender — later ac­quired by En­ter­tain­ment One, the dis­tri­bu­tion com­pany be­hind Twi­light and The Hunger Games — to help fi­nance the rest of the pro­duc­tion. They weren’t out of the woods, though. They still had to raid their own sav­ings and bor­row from friends and fam­ily for the fi­nal £325,000.

Launched on Chan­nel 5 in 2004, it wasn’t long be­fore Peppa’s fame started to spread glob­ally. She has cracked Amer­ica and the lat­est con­verts are the Chi­nese. Since its launch in China two years ago, Peppa has been watched more than 12 bil­lion times on de­mand and is one of the most pop­u­lar shows on the state broad­caster CCTV.

Not ev­ery­thing trans­lates. In 2015, the ABC in Aus­tralia banned episodes fea­tur­ing the gig­gling spi­der Mr Skin­nylegs, who taught the Pig fam­ily that spi­ders are noth­ing to be scared of, which is very much not the case in Aus­tralia. Broadly speak­ing, though, the show has trav­elled well.

Even those who don’t have kids can’t fail to have no­ticed Peppa Pig’s dom­i­nance. In the su­per­mar­ket she pops up in nearly every aisle: there’s tooth­paste, birth­day cakes, fruit drinks, plates, raisins and the rest, with mer­chan­dise rights split be­tween ABD, which holds 15 per cent, and En­ter­tain­ment One, which has the rest. Head to the toy store and the choices are mul­ti­tudi­nous, ev­ery­thing from Aquadoo­dles to zip lines. A look around my own house, home to two small Peppa devo­tees — Eva, 3, and Alex, 17 months — re­veals an ocean of oink­ing pink plas­tic.

There is even a live stage show fea­tur­ing ac-

CHIL­DREN HAVE DE­CIDED THAT THEY LOVE IT AND THEY HAVE THE POWER

MOR­WENNA BANKS

An­i­ma­tors Neville Ast­ley, left, and Phil Davies re­ceive an Emmy award for their work on Peppa Pig

The fam­ily fly­ing over Uluru in My First Cinema Ex­pe­ri­ence: Peppa Pig’s Aus­tralian Hol­i­day

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