'Splat' on crowdfunding drive to make break into children's TV
The creators of cartoon Shelltown have enlisted top celebrities for their kids' show, but still need financial backers, writes Lesley Houston
The Ballymoney creators of a children's cartoon featuring the voices of Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and singer Ronan Keating are seeking a financial kickstart from the public to help bring their show to life.
Husband and wife Bernard and Patricia Sparkes are trying to crack the children's TV world with their cartoon Shelltown – a tale about life's good and bad eggs – which also features the voices of Belfast actor Kenneth Branagh, singer Kerry Katona and comedian Johnny Vegas, and are appealing for £75,000 through the crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter.
The crowdfunding venture aims to raise enough funds to assist their production of a full-length animation, which it is hoped will provide a springboard to a full series.
The Sparkes' Kickstarter project also aims to assist the marketing of their creative baby at the world's four main broadcast development events and to develop licensing opportunities.
Their ambitious product is the latest in a growing creative industries in Northern Ireland which are currently flourishing, with recent estimates putting their annual worth to the economy at just over £700m.
Northern Ireland's film, music and theatre sectors have been propelled into the global limelight with the popularity of Game of Thrones and a number of other national hit TV shows like The Fall.
The Sparkes' company, established to produce the show, Shelltown Productions Ltd, is among a stable of like-minded children's television producers which include Sixteen South in Belfast, behind The Sesame Tree and Londonderry's Dog Ears, makers of a new show, Puffin Rock, featuring the vocals of Irish star of Bridesmaids' fame, Chris O'Dowd.
Parents of 14 children, the Sparkes' Shelltown tales emanate from Patricia's own stories told to and penned for their children over the years, and which gained acclaim when they attempted to launch the idea in the early 2000s.
Back then, after remortgaging their house, they produced a four-minute teaser produced by artists from the former Cosgrove Hall company – the makers of 1980s cartoon favourite Dangermouse – and self-published a book on the characters of Shelltown, before captivating former Boyzone frontman Ronan Keating who became a shareholder in the firm.
Shelltown's heroes garnered support in the US, with one of the main characters, Splat, featuring in the department store Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in 2007.
And soon he had a list of celebrities agreeing to lend their dulcet tones to the characters, Bernard revealed.
With a previous career in the IT sector, the cartoon-maker had no contacts in the television industry or celebrity world – so he just picked up the phone and started calling famous names.
With Irish boy band Westlife flying high at the time, he had been keen for one of the boys to get involved.
"I got in touch with Louis Walsh and he said because of their schedule at the time they wouldn't be able to, so he recommended I try Ronan Keating and gave me his number.
"So I called him and he was really interested," said said.
"It was fantastic to have Ronan on board. Being a father himself he saw the appeal to children and instantly loved it," he added.
Kerry Katona soon joined the chorus of voices, being married to Westlife member Brian McFadden.
And the others?
"We just emailed their management and luckily they've no gatekeepers fielding calls," he said.
The celebrity list of eager participants convinced, Shelltown was soon waiting in the wings to help the Sparkes plug away at turning their kids' bedtime stories into a potential TV hit.
"We had interest from a few broadcasters but they wanted 26 finished episodes and no one was really funding anything at all really," Bernard continued.
Next, came New York retail icon Macy's who the Sparkes approached to enquire about Shelltown character Splat taking a place among some of the US's most famous and household names in their annual Thanksgiving Parade.
"They said they couldn't because it wasn't known yet but we sent them the taster and they came back to us and invited Splat to the parade."
Bernard said he couldn't take their invitation as anything other than a positive endorsement of big things yet to come.
That's also when Belfast International Airport stepped in with a generous offer to fly Splat and his creators out to New York for the parade, complimentary on Continental Airlines, in a gesture which was good PR for all parties involved.
Positive soundings fuelled the Shelltown ambitions when bosses in CBBC voiced interest, but when the relevant personalities moved on to other projects, their hopes died too.
"Some people really liked it but people change jobs so quickly in TV it seems and there's a real fear of buying something new," he said.
But then the entire promotion campaign hit a wall when the recession hit.
"No one was funding anything," said Bernard, let alone new or unknown projects without a full-series to purchase.
The Sparkes were forced to put their dreams on hold, with mounting household bills bringing them back down to reality.
They just hoped they could ride out the economic slump and try again as soon as the climate allowed.
That time, Bernard believes, is now, he told the Business Telegraph, as he and his wife prepare to re-launch their new cartoon.
"We are now looking to raise £75,000 to enable us to update the characters, produce a full length pilot episode, travel to MIPTV, MIPCOM and Kidsscreen, which are broadcast and producer events, including at Cannes in the south of France and other markets to gain a broadcaster and or other production partners," he said.
The Kickstarter project went live a matter of days ago and offers a number of incentives and freebies – including the chance to audition for a role in the show – to potential investors.
On the side, Bernard is also currently promoting a board game called Convoy.
It was produced to raise funds for charity, Autism NI, as two of the Sparkes' grown up children suffer from the condition, and which will eventually go on to be developed to feature the characters of Shelltown, Bernard hopes.
Can you help to egg them on?
Shelltown characters Splat, Cracker and Exactly are three mischievous young eggs seeking the public’s backing to let them continue to plague PC Boiler, eggs-periment on Exactly’s latest invention, cause chaos in the Eggcup Café, or run rings around the Bad Egg Gang.
With never a dull moment in Shelltown, the only thing the feisty trio fear is Poachers Way, over the Egg Shell Hills, from which intrepid eggs seldom return.