There are different ways of achieving this and I think some of it is done on a subconscious level. I mean that maybe as a writer, you translate some of your own inadequacies or characteristics and some people see this as a mirror image of themselves.
I think that part of the appeal of Bananaman was although he had the strength of twenty big men, he wasn’t very bright. It is interesting how this came about and was demonstrated. In the series, Graeme Garden was the voice of Bananaman; Bill Oddie was Dr Gloom, The Weatherman and a few other voices, and Tim Brooke-Taylor was Eric and a host of other voices.
There was a situation where Bananaman was on the moon with Crow and about to take off in a space ship. Now the script read, “Ready to launch! 3,2, 1, – launch!”
But Graeme Garden read it like this:
“Ready to launch! 3 – 2 – em, (pause) 1 – launch!” It was that little un-scripted hesitation that gave us a terrific insight into Big B’s character. Because of that you knew Bananaman had his intellectual limitations and later, when he got a note from the villainous General Blight, he could turn to Crow and say, “Here Crow. You read this. It’s in joined-up letters.”
You can sympathise with a guy like that, whereas if he was the perfect hero, he would be a little less likable.
The thing is, that is one of those breaks you couldn’t have planned. But if you recognise it you can build on it and follow it all the way through the series and I think that in that way you create characters the audience can develop a genuine affection for.
DJ: It is sociology, I Suppose.
BK: It could be. But I don’t think of it in those terms. I write and maybe reason it out later.
Another thing that makes stories more interesting is to have villains who are more than just evil but are capable of cracking jokes or commenting in a wry sort of way on their misfortunes when they fail to win in the end. It gives them another dimension rather than just being evil and having an obsession with conquering the world.
DJ: Do you have to work within some sort of limitations, particularly with the evil characters? For instance, with the IBA code there are certain things you cannot show.
BK: Well, first of all, lust as a matter of your own conscience, morality or whatever, you don’t show anything a child might try to copy and put themselves at risk. We certainly do not glorify cruelty or violence. If we have any sort of violence it is very muted or so comic it can’t be misunderstood as being a socially acceptable way of behaving.
For example, when Bananaman knocks out a succession of enemies – The Nerks – it was just “Boom!” they fall over, “Boom!” they fall over. They were not seriously damaged and lived to challenge him again.
DJ: What sort of experience or approach would you need for writing a children’s series like The Pondles?
BK: We knew The Pondles was going to be based on a forest universe. So I read a lot about hedges, fields, and wild flowers. That gave us an idea for characters’ names – they would be based on plants and flowers. For example, the Scottish postmaster and postmistress are Gorse and Heather. Pip is the hero, Conker is one of his friends, and Daisy is his sister. I really did steep myself in that miniature nature world. It is difficult to describe but you so immerse yourself in the setting that you’re almost living in it and out of that you get your approach and your stories.
DJ: The Pondles had a fairly slow pace.
BK: Yes. This is a difficult question. I know a lot of children seem to enjoy a great deal of Whizz-Bang activity on the screen, but I’m not sure they take it all in. I mean their experience of life is limited and it may take them a little longer to appreciate the information you are delivering. And what strikes them as being funny might be different from your ideas and mine. We all have a lot to learn about that.
At the very beginning of The Pondles project, Terry Ward was invited to visit some infants’ schools and tell the children about animation and how cartoons were produced. He was able to gauge his audience’s reactions to the cartoons and as a result of those experiences, we have been just a little bit more cautious about racing through the story and foisting adult jokes on them.
It was also evident that they responded to visual jokes very readily – like someone stepping in a puddle and getting splashed with mud.
You could say there are basically two types of animated cartoons, traditional ‘Bugs Bunny’ and ‘Coyote and Road Runner’ cartoons which consist of a series of gags, one after the other. And there are stories, such as we’ve been talking about.
DJ: The Pondles scripts are twice the length of the Bananaman scripts. That means you have a lot more time to develop the story. Any special problems?
BK: I have said one of my chosen story routes is establishing a situation that needs resolving and sorting it out. That’s OK for a five- minute episode. But it’s not enough for a ten-minute programme. We found we had to expand the characters – give them more to say. That is a good thing. Because you find out what they are all about from the way they talk.
But in addition to that we usually have a sub-plot going on in parallel with the main event. For example, in the story about a race between Mustard’s home-made automobile and the PuddleTown train, we introduced a minor problem: Conker got stuck in a post box. This device made the stories more interesting than simply progressing from A to B in a single storyline.
DJ: You would keep cutting between the main plot and the sub-plot.
BK: That’s right. And in the end, both plots are resolved. I know it sounds like a mechanical approach, but ten-minutes is a long time to sustain a young viewer’s interest. And maybe an older one’s as well! Unless there is something happening that continues to engage their interest, most children become inattentive after five minutes.
DJ: When directors use a stock/library system to re-use as much animation as possible, do you find it restricts your writing?
BK: No, not really. In fact, I don’t think it does at all. You’re talking about something like a ‘walk cycle’ – literally moving a character from one position to another. That imposes no restriction.
You might have another kind of ‘library’ scene. In a number of children’s TV programmes – including ones I’ve written -there is a ‘waking up in the morning’ scene. Or a breakfast scene. To me, those represent reassuring, familiar scenes children enjoy seeing again and again. So there is a good entertainment benefit from their re-use.
There are also opportunities for real ‘production value’ effects like many of the perspective and hi-tech scenes in Telebugs. They’re too good to use on one programme and file away.
I have to stress that on matters like this -production and the economies that budgets force on producers and directors – I’m only an observer. But as a writer, if the producer or director asks me to write in a way that doesn’t blow a 13 episode budget out of the water after Episode Three, I listen very attentively. I’d like to work for him or her again.
DJ: If you were addressing an audience of aspiring writers what advice would you give them to help them write for animation?
BK: I would start by saying, “Just write”. Like any other skill or competence, practice is everything.
I don’t know many other practicing writers so I don’t know if there are any established paths to recognition. I know that what has helped me a great deal is that I’ve been involved in quite a few development projects, speculative ones that never came off. But the sheer act of writing and thinking about what I was writing and working my way through those stories taught me a great deal. There is no substitute for practice.
It is also very helpful to know more about animation production. I can recommend two books I’ve found very useful both for advice on writing and production: “Scriptwriting for Animation” by Stan Hayward, published by the Focal Press. And “Animation from Script to Screen” by Shamus Culhane, published by Columbus Books,
Printed in Animator Issue 26 (Spring 1990)