While Toy Story 3 is making the headlines — and mega-bucks — there's a gentle rebellion going on in another part of the children's entertainment wood. TV director Colin Williams (36) says he's not all that keen on comoputer-generated imagery and has just produced a new 26-part series for Cbeebies.
Big City Park uses puppets, Belfast children, and the perfect setting, Ormeau Park.
“When I was growing up, the shows I watched were Trumpton, Sesame Street, Mr Benn. I've got the DVD of Mr Benn and when I showed it to my children, Sophie (5) and Ben (7) they loved it, although when you look at the production values, they are a bit ropey.”
Colin's production company, Sixteen South, is the only company working in this sector in Northern Ireland. And in the global world of children’s entertainment, it is punching way above its weight, with a commission to make a Northern Irish version of Sesame Street in the bag.
Originally a designer, with a degree in the subject from the University of Ulster Art College, Colin moved into children's TV once he became a father. “When I had children, I realised that some of the stuff made for them was good, some not that good. I wanted to improve the quality of what they watched ... the memorable programmes of my childhood were all story-based. You look at Teletubbies, with characters like Po just making sounds, and there's not much going on.”
Big City Park is part educational, part classic entertainment and total fun: “We wanted to encourage kids to see nature on their doorstep,” he says.
He is evangelical about the need for children to enjoy things he enjoyed as a kid, and not be cocooned in this age of anxiety. “We hope to persuade parents to unravel the cotton wool a little in this over-protective age and allow their children the odd bruised knee ...”
Various parks were auditioned, including Victoria Park in east Belfast with its iconic boating lake, but it was a little small.
“We chose Ormeau Park because of its size — it's like Central Park, New York, and also because it's old and beautiful and has formal and rough areas.” The company created a set, importing a fake fallen oak (“a Northern Irish tree”) and only had two days' rain in a shooting schedule of 55 days.
Big City Park began when Colin had a lightbulb switching on in the head moment. He then pitched his idea to the BBC's children's entertainment section in London and against competition from around 400 others, won the chance to create a pilot episode.
“It was a co-production with Scottish BBC, as the children’s output is based in Glasgow. They’re good people and we found a connection.”
A key figure in the show is a female park keeper, May, played by actress Sarah McCardie.
Colin says he auditioned in Belfast and Glasgow, but knew as soon as Sarah walked in that she was his character May. “She’s engaging, very genuine and a real person, not some sort of model type if you know what I mean.”
Local actors play the puppet roles, including Billy the Badger (Josh Elwell), who has a key moment nose to nose with the real squirrels, and Lisa Gillespie as Dara the Fox.
How on earth do you find motivation for a fox, and isn’t it tough escaping from the mantle of the most notorious Reynard of modern times, Basil Brush?
Lisa says: “Dara’s very different from Basil — I played her as very eager to help out and calm and collected rather than hyperactive. She’s a clever girl and a deep thinker. Of course foxes get a bad rap but any animal does what it can to survive.”
She adds: “I was conscious of the tragic incident with the twins in London (when a fox attacked babies in their bedroom) but emphasised the cuddly side.”
Each episode contains a story and information about variously, recycling, rain, sun, animals in the park such as grey squirrels and various bird species.
One of the most interesting puppets is Ruairi, whom Colin calls a “foolish , maverick grandfather who lives in his house in the trees and does his own thing”.
He’s the comic focus. Colin says: “The humour is kids’ humour and at the end of every episode, Ruairi sums things up in rhyming verse.”
What’s interesting is that Ruairi, played by two actors — Paul Currie and Michael McNulty operate one arm each — is part-human, part-creature. “I’m honestly not sure what he is, but he’s definitely a storyteller and we put a lot of thought into how he looked.”
He has real feathers on his costume, individually dyed and sewn on. Looking at this cuddly creature in red with mauve in his hair (or should that be fur?) you immediately think Muppet Show.
This isn’t surprising. Colin spent a significant amount of his budget on creating the puppets, three for each character so they survive wear and tear (“and mud”). He commissioned American puppet designer extraordinaire Ed Christie who worked with Jim Henson on the Muppets and Sesame Street, a byword for excellence in the business.
“We knew we wanted the best and that’s what we got,” says Colin.
Feedback so far on Big City Park has been overwhelmingly positive. It is Cbeebies’ featured series in August, which means significant promotion on the network.
Its commissioner thinks it “unique and very good”.
Most importantly, perhaps, Sophie and Ben Williams like it. Their father says: “They’ve lived with it from the beginning but still enjoy the jokes. My own children really like Ruairi’s playful silliness — in one episode, he describes the bell that he rings to call everyone to his story circle as being louder than a giant playing a didgeridoo. My five-year-old copied the phrase when addressing a gentleman in front of us one day in a queue on his phone who was talking a bit too loud!”
It looks as if Big City Park might be around for a while.
Big City Park airs on Monday to Friday at 9am throughout August on Cbeebies