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
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
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