Thursday, 15 August 2019

Coconuts (1990)

Richard Briers was such a versatile actor. He had the kind of face and voice that could apply to almost any role that was offered to him. From radio to stage to television to voice-overs, there are those who will remember him for one specific show or character - whether it'd be 'The Good Life', 'Roobarb', 'King Lear', 'Watership Down', 'P. G. Wodehouse', 'Monarch of the Glen' and an endless list of audiobooks (my personal favourites being the 'Wind in the Willows' sequels written by William Horwood).

In fact, Richard has starred in so many roles - leading and secondary - that it would be difficult to try and list them all. Some of these end up being sidelined and forgotten for some reason or other. This is one of them.

'Coconuts' is a little gem of a cartoon. Set on the tropical island of Guacamole, it focuses on the (mis)adventures of the clever, self-important Parrot, Minister to the bad-tempered, eccentric King Lion, who dotes on Parrot to do his every Royal bidding. Often, though, Parrot enlists the help of his assistant - the obliging but dim-witted Monkey - to do the jobs that Parrot tries to avoid. But it's not long before things go awry and then Parrot is forced to pull his weight by putting things right. Most of the time, if there is an opportunity for financial or personal gain, Parrot doesn't hesitate in trying to grasp either.

The title of the series seems rather fitting then that things become a little "nuts" in some shape or form!

On closer inspection, much of the humour for this series seems to draw inspiration from the popular Blackadder - ironically, Coconuts was released not long after Blackadder Goes Forth had first aired back in 1989. In fact, it's all too easy to imagine Blackadder and Baldrick reimagined as Parrot and Monkey (with Prince George more-or-less in the role of King Lion). Whether that was intended or not is hard to say. What I will say is that Coconuts is not only cleverly written, but nicely animated, designed and very pleasing to watch, made at a time when made-for-TV animation was slowly starting to pick up in terms of quality. 
In short: it's just plain fun! And bringing Richard in to voice all the characters is the cherry on this colourful cake.

The series was created and written by Graham Garside. Most of his life was dedicated to being Senior Graphic Designer and Animator at Central Television (ITV). These included Cosgrove Hall's 'The Talking Parcel', 'Jamie and the Magic Torch', 'Spot's Magical Christmas' and several title sequences - 'Bullseye', 'Emu's World' and 'Bloodbath at the House of Death' (not one for the kids!). He has also co-written/drawn the book 'Learn To Draw Animated Cartoons' with Janet Nunn.

Another surprise for me was discovering that Paul K. Joyce provided the theme tune and instrumental music here. In fact, this was his first television work as a composer. He would later go on to write music and theme tunes for many other shows afterwards, including 'Budgie the Little Helicopter', 'The Worst Witch' and 'Bob the Builder'.

Coconuts aired on ITV and ran for thirteen episodes. Unfortunately, all that remains is a single VHS cassette tape. I knew nothing about this until I came upon the episodes online by chance, as one often does whilst browsing on YouTube these days. Like many things in life, it was short but sweet, and so deserving of a proper DVD release if the master copies still exist somewhere (Or failing that, new life on a streaming app / service somewhere).

As for Graham: he too seems to have disappeared off the radar. But wherever he is, I'm sure that those that he worked with are grateful for his contributions to the animation world, however small they might have been. And it's only fair that people like me ensure that they don't go unnoticed.

"...And so it was!"

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Mouse and Mole (1996)

There are many characters in children's literature that are considered timeless. No matter how many revivals and adaptations of them are made, the original stories will always be remembered and referenced, and all with good reason. Winnie the Pooh, the Wind in the Willows, Peter Rabbit - each of them still holds a special kind of magic in the characters and their stories that not only entertains but inspires. The kind that makes you stop and think about the world around you. Of how life was more simpler, more kinder, more relaxed before social media and handheld devices.

The same can be said for Joyce Dunbar's Mouse and Mole stories (not to be confused with the books of the same title by Mr Wong Herbert Yee). Although remarkably, Mouse and Mole were only created in 1993, in comparison to Mr. Toad and Pooh Bear who were thought of at the start of the 20th century. However, if you were to read any of the Mouse and Mole stories, you might be fooled into thinking that they actually were.

Joyce Dunbar has been writing children's stories for over 30 years, most of them being picture books. She has been praised for "...her sensitivity, lyrical style and gentle humour..." She has covered various topics and themes in her books, each of them told in their own unique way that not only children but parents can enjoy and learn from. Of all the stories she has written, her most favourite and fondly-remembered are her set of books focusing on the gentle adventures of Mouse and Mole.

Mouse is practical, cheerful, and likes to have things in order. Mole is more thoughtful, rather naive and needs mollycoddling. But in spite of their differences, they're still the best of friends who genuinely care for one another. In much the same spirit as the original Winnie the Pooh books, the Mouse and Mole stories are each a character piece based on a simple premise: one character normally has an idea or thought, and the story develops naturally from that. Whether it's trying to catch a falling leaf for good luck, discovering the secret of happiness or how a game of pebbles can suddenly bring up the poignant subject of how special one truly is among so many...

A few years later, these stories were adapted for animation by TV Producer and Executive Joy Whitby, who was also responsible for Watch With Mother, Play School and The Mousehole Cat. Although 26 stories were written, only 19 episodes were made by Whitby's own production/publishing company Grasshopper Productions. Even so, they are as wondrous and sweet as the books themselves, with the visuals matching the original illustrations by James Mayhew to a tee.

In a time when children's media is becoming more colourful, active and loud, once in a while it's a change of pace to have something calmer to watch with the little ones. The right voice cast helps as well - here we have Richard Briers playing Mouse, and Alan Bennett as Mole. Voices that couldn't be any more perfect!

Sadly, thanks to the growing change in children's media, shows like Mouse and Mouse were quietly pushed aside to the point where only those who have the original books, VHS cassettes or DVDs will remember them.


Joy Whitby was lucky enough to have had one last hurrah with Mouse and Mouse in 2013 when, along with Baird TV and Clive Juster & Associates, a half-hour Christmas Special 'Mouse and Mole at Christmas Time' was created. It would be the last time that Richard Briers and Alan Bennet would be reunited to reprise their roles before Briers sadly passed away. This time, Imelda Staunton joined the voice cast for this one-off special, and for those precious 28-minutes it felt as though the books and the animated series never really went away. In short, it was a lovely way to rekindle those forgotten memories in the back of my mind.

Until only recently, I had though that that Christmas Special would be the only Mouse and Mole-related item still in the public eye (on DVD, with a handful of the original episodes included). But during a Google search whilst gathering my research for this blog review, I came upon the web page of the illustrator of the books, James Mayhew - recently he's posted a blog post of his own, recalling fond memories of collaborating with Joyce Dunbar, sharing her own memories of the stories, and how the books are to be reprinted for 2019...!

Yep, that's right. Miracles do happen.

With any luck, Dunbar's beloved characters will still be around for new generations to enjoy in the years to come. 'Happy Days for Mouse and Mole' indeed!


Friday, 21 September 2018

Wacky Races - "Drive & Driveability"

One of the unexpected reboots to have come out of 2017 has to be Wacky Races. Created by Larz Bourne at Hanna-Barbera, the original series from 1976 saw 11 drivers racing across the continent to become "the world's wackiest racer", resorting to gizmos and contraptions and all things cartoon-related to win each race. Not surprisingly, its biggest inspiration was the equally-wacky 1965 movie 'The Great Race'.

Now this blog post was going to cover the reboot in detail, but I changed my mind. On the one hand, it's nice to see Warner Bros willing to make use of the other franchises they own, for those who are sick and tired of Scooby-Doo / Tom & Jerry / Teen Titans Go all the time.

On the other hand, while I try to keep an open mind on reboots of any shape and form, the creative choices made for the new Wacky Races have been somewhat...baffling from what I've seen of it. And really, the end result would be me constantly comparing it to the original in what they did right and wrong, and what more could be improved upon.

Instead, here's a fun comic book story from wayback to enjoy. Drawn by Gary Fields and written by Matt Wayne, who has also written for many other shows and comic book lines, including Ben 10: Omniverse and Justice League Unlimited. If anything, it might give the creative team of the new Wacky Races some fresh inspiration, if they choose to accept it...

Sunday, 5 August 2018

Mike Pearse - Wild About Harry

Not so very long ago, everyone was celebrating Harry Potter's birthday - which just so happened to have been J. K. Rowling's birthday as well. What are the odds?! ;)

To many Potter fans, it seemed like only yesterday when 'The Philosopher's Stone' was first published. And seven books, eight movies, several supplementary works and over 20 years later, 'The Boy Who Lived' is still going strong to this day.

So it was hardly surprising that, a year after 'The Philosopher's Stone' movie was released in 2001, Mike Pearse decided to get in on the action in Issue #3121 of The Beano while the iron was hot. As with all of his Beano stories before and since, he doesn't disappoint. That one gag on Page 6 is a great example of his wit - you'll see what I mean when you find it...!

Monday, 30 July 2018

The Beano In Motion

Any time someone brings up the subject of comics / comic books, one of the first that comes into the minds of us British is 'The Beano', which celebrates its 80th birthday this year. It's amazing to think that while the comic strip artists come and go, the characters that they've drawn continue to develop, thrive and make kids laugh through each generation. I've already spoken about my favourite Beano Artist and characters before, and there are already countless of articles that detail the history of the Beano, from it's early years to its online presence today.

However, not many people would remember when the Beano first appeared in animated form.

The Orginal VHS Cassette cover!
The joy that six-year-old me expressed could not be described in one word alone when I happened upon The Beano Video on sale at my local Woolworths way back in 1993. To see the likes of Dennis & Gnasher, Minnie the Minx, The Bash Street Kids and The Three Bears brought to life with such fluidity and energy was - as today's generation would put it - "well cool".

Dennis and Gnasher break through!
Incidentally, the opening sequence and structure of The Beano Video was similar to another comic book-like series, by the name of ZZZap! There was no central plot or main focus, just a collection of 15 shorts all featuring the characters mentioned above. And many of these I still remember to this day - Dennis doing battle with 'The Pink Glove', Pa Bear trying to make Hare Soup, Minnie's attempts at scrumping from her Dad's apple tree...

Storyarcs and relating to the target audience are one thing, as today's shows aren't shy of doing, but it's nice to showcase a Variety Show now and again - made purely for the sake of being a fun, goofy cartoon. And at least there'd be something and someone different to watch rather than focusing on the set of characters alone.

The 3 Bears had the most expressive animation in the entire video!
The people who were involved here have just as much history as the Beano characters themselves. The animation directors, Tony Garth (Microscopic Milton, The Poddington Peas, Danger Mouse) and Dave Osbourne (Tube Mice, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Pip Ahoy!), have both worked as animators and writers respectively, while the entire comic book appearance was directed by Derek Modford (Charlie Chalk, Rastamouse).
All the shorts, presumably, were storyboarded by animation entrepreneur Mark Mason (Anglemouse, Philbert Frog, The Forgotten Toys), and the entire production was produced by Jo Pullen (Huxley Pig).

And of course, the voice cast consisted of versatile names like Jonathan Kydd (Bangers and Mash), Gary Martin (The Baskervilles), Enn Reitel (2DTV), Kate Robbins (Spitting Image) and the late, great Susan Sheridan (Jimbo, Noddy, Muzzy).

The B-E-A-N-O Videostars!
A 'sequel' was made a year or so later, The Beano Videostars. Unlike the first Beano Video, this one had a structured plot that tied the characters and their shorts together - in that the Beano characters (including Ivy the Terrible and Billy Whizz) were invited to a special cinema screening, which included a pair of curious aliens joining in the fun.
Terry Ward and Richard Everett (Nellie the Elephant, Bananaman) took their turn of directing, writing and producing this video cassette. It also showed the characters adapting to the times - as the Beano continues to do today - particularly with the inclusion of Rap Music...up to you whether or not the following songs have aged well!

Of course, when it comes to animation as whole, it's always a team effort - the writers, the directors, the voice actors and the animators themselves. No one person is better than the rest, and yet it'd be impossible to give thanks to every individual that plays their part in each production made. From time to time, it pays to 'Google search' a few names in the credits that grab your attention, and to find out more about them or any other work they contributed elsewhere. Chances are they may have worked on something else from your childhood, and thus gaining more respect for them than before =)

All Fall In!
The same also applies to the characters they've helped bring to life: while Dennis and Gnasher have had many animated reincarnations over the years, and are the headline characters for The Beano, in truth the comic itself wouldn't be as fondly remembered if not for the many other characters within its pages - and many of which who have not been fortunate enough to have made it into animation themselves.
In fact, it would be nice to see Beano Studios branching out to their other characters someday. I'd love to see how well Calamity James or Biffo the Bear would translate in animated form!

Luckily, as well as YouTube, both Beano VHS cassettes were also released to DVD, even though the 'video' term is slightly lost in translation today. No matter - for so long as the characters are remembered and people continue to draw / write / animate them, then chances are they'll still be going strong for their 100th birthday celebrations!

Friday, 23 February 2018

Wednesday, 21 February 2018