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September 1, 2015

In search of the British animated sitcom

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By Jesse Cleverly:

At Wildseed we’re determined to have a tilt at cracking the animated British Sitcom. I had a go in the 90’s when I Executive Produced Carl Gorham’s ‘Stressed Eric’ with Absolutely Productions. It burned very brightly for its 13 episodes on BBC2 but really we wanted it to be still running now, like The Simpsons or Southpark or American Dad. That’s the prize – a long running show that somehow captures the zeitgeist and is taken to the public’s hearts.

That hasn’t happened in the UK yet despite several credible attempts. The general feeling now is that may never happen, the conditions and opportunities in the UK TV market just don’t exist to support the creation of a long running animated adult sitcom.

Part of the challenge is economics. Animation is generally expensive and slow to produce and the slots for long running narrative shows in the UK just don’t come up that often. Soaps and panel shows take up all oxygen and can be produced quickly and far more cheaply than animation and on an industrial scale. For successful shows in the US, orders of 20+ episodes per year are commonplace, bringing economies of scale and giving shows the chance to find and keep an audience.

The characteristics of the US shows that we all admire and seek to emulate are reasonably simple to grasp: the shows are incredibly relatable – usually centering around family units living in un-extraordinary circumstances with recognizable social and personal structures – only Futurama really ditched that formula which is what in many people’s view made it into niche, sci-fi fare. There are really no examples of shows featuring talking animals (as the main cast) or which are set in fantastical worlds that have taken off in the mainstream.

The writing on the US shows is extraordinary and those writing teams attract the best minds in the US to them. The pace of the episodes is relentless, Southpark fizzes along so fast that some of us can barely keep up. All have great central characters, often a patriarchal figure, they all have kids in them and there is enough in the stories for kids to relate to (usually laughing at the parents) but the shows are never childish despite their huge following amongst the young.

The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, King of The Hill all follow that formula. The remarkable Southpark breaks the mould (it’s also the only show not on Fox in the US) but is essentially the tale of ordinary folk in an ordinary town but with kids in the lead roles.

There have been several attempts at cracking the code in the UK, none have really made it though some have come close. My, entirely biased, view is that Stressed Eric came the closest. An iconic, preposterous but sympathetic central character in a family set up (albeit a fractured one), it had a lot of the qualities that successful animated sitcoms have. It was perhaps a little relentlessly downbeat in a very British way and it was certainly slow and expensive to make relative to a live action sitcom and we had to co-produce it – with Klasky Csupo in the US for the first season (animation in Korea) and with Millimages in Paris for the second season (animation in Ukraine).

My view is that for a British Animated sitcom to take root it’s going to have to be made in the UK, by Brits with the British sense of humour permeating every frame.

It’s going to have to compensate for the economics of the UK TV market and be produced for the equivalent of a panel show or formatted entertainment show and not for the price of a live action sitcom.

It’s going to have to be produced quickly so that the wait from commission to delivery is not interminable.

It will need to crack the cool but functional design that Southpark cracked (Southpark was initially produced for $120,000 per episode and on an incredibly quick turnaround)

My guess is that if there is going to be a show that comes out of the UK it is not going to start with a TV Channel it will start online. TV Commissioners simply aren’t looking for animated sitcoms – they are perceived to ‘not work’ in the UK and even have a little toxicity about them after a succession of so-so ratings performances by recent shows.

It probably won’t originate with TV Writers, it will originate with a maverick talent (a bit like Matt Groening) who will make online shorts or episodes, which will break through and then start to attract the interest of TV to take it to the next level.

But, formulae and checklists aside, it’s just down to talent and hard work and luck and timing and creating fantastic characters that people fall in love with.

At Wildseed with our funding and channel model we think we have given ourselves as good a chance as anyone of finding that show. We are funding mavericks to make pilots and series of shorts and we are pushing them on our online channels to see if any of them can find an audience.

 

Our latest tilt at this prize ‘Peter’s Place’ by Nichols Bowe who creates, writes, voices, animates, composes and sings. We’ve done what we always do and put £10,000 into creating some shorts and bonus material to see if there is a central character and a concept that people are going to engage with. We love where Nick has got to – we discovered his songwriting skills quite late in the day and what we think we have got is a sort of Mighty Boosh-Coronation Street- Animated-Musical Comedy show.

For us, even though we know this isn’t yet the finished article it references a lot of our touch points for what think will ultimately make a great show: authentically British (and probably bewildering to other cultures), coming from a talented creator who is outside the system – a focus on jokes and character over the craft of animation, daft songs (which work well online) and capable of being produced at Southpark-like prices and speed with the right team and resources behind it.

So – here it comes on our Channel – we hope you see something in there that you like and let us know if you do (or if you don’t)

…. We’d love to do more.

 

A Quick History of British Animated Sitcoms

Crapston Villas

Spitting Image for Channel 420 x 10 minute Episodes by Sarah Ann KennedyStop Frame Animated comedy soap by Sarah Kennedy – now the voice of Miss Rabbit in Peppa Pig.

 

Pond Life

Bermuda Shorts for Channel 421 episodes By Candy Guard2D animated series about hapless singleton Dolly Pond, voiced by … Sarah Ann Kennedy (and others)

Stressed Eric

Absolutely for BBC 213 x half hours by Carl Gorham2D series about struggling single parent Eric Feeble bringing up his hyper-allergic daughter and slow son. Voiced by Mark Heap, Morewenna Banks, Rebecca Front, Alexandra Armstrong and more

Bob and Margaret

Nelvana for Channel 4 and Comedy Central52 x half hoursBased on the Oscar Winning short ‘Bob’s Birthday’ by David Fine and Alison Snowden about the trials and tribulation of a childless couple in their middle youth dealing with mid-life crises and the like.

Bromwell High

Hatrick and DHX for Channel 413 half Hours by Anil Gupta and Richard Osman. An Anglo Canadian co-production about a south London school and the lives of its pupils and their families.

I Am Not An Animal

Baby Cow for BBC, 6 half Hours. Comedy about highly intelligent animals rescued from a laboratory. By Peter Baynham. Voiced by Steve Coogan, Simon Pegg and others.

Popetown

Channel X for BBC. 10 half hours. Controversial Satire of the Vatican and Catholic Church never screened on TV in the UK.

The Full English

Two Brothers Pictures for Channel 4. 6 half Hours. Anglo US co-production about London Suburban Life but satirising various UK celebs. Only 5 episodes every aired in the UK

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