Saturday, 15 July 2017

Bug Alert! (1996)

As far back as anyone can remember, puppet characters have become as big a part of our lives now as Camera Phones or Oyster Cards do - while CGI remains mainstream, it's lovely to know that physical characters will always be around to inspire and amuse.

When Jim Henson first created Sesame Street, many shows have followed the familiar path made by Big Bird and the rest of the gang, by helping to educate and inspire generations of children the world over, and which is still going on strong today. Mind you, many puppet characters have also been a source of entertainment, whether you prefer the Muppets (as does everyone) or Hacker T. Dog on CBBC - or from the mid 90's, the satirical Spitting Image for adults.

But the real beauty in some children's shows - again, as Sesame Street have shown - is that puppet characters are pretty universal, no matter what age you are. Especially when you can have a little fun in the writing department...

Here is one such example where you watch an episode from this series and think: "How on earth did they get away with this?!"

Created and written by director Peter Eyre and puppeteer Francis Wright, Bug Alert told of the antics of Grub Bug, Plug Bug, Doodle Bug, Mystic Bug and Buggins, giant insects who all live in the kitchen of a house somewhere. Going by their names alone, each of the characters had particular foibles that played a part in giving its viewers something to do or learn from. Doodle Bug showed how to make arts and crafts, Grub Bug offered simple recipes to try out and Mystic Bug gave some worldly facts through her crystal ball.

Meanwhile, the characters would often engage in some rather bizarre adventures around the house. Like Plug Bug finding a baboon in his sink, or Doodle Bug hypnotising everyone with a magic gnome...

Really, it was a comedy series with an educational aspect somewhere in the middle. Each of the 70+ episodes had a theme of the day, teaching its target audience about colours or animals or the weather, among other things. And to vary things up, it also had music numbers and jokes courtesy of Grunge and Slop or Gorgon and Zola respectively.

After a 3-year gap, the third series moved to Channel 4 in early-2000, which saw the bugs themselves moving house and deciding to open a café. Throughout all three seasons, as the episodes went on, the storylines become more insane and the jokes more...well...clever. The cultural references, the banter between the characters, the many innuendo jokes that went way over the kids' heads. Even Grub Bug himself seemed to be an exaggerated caricature of Basil Fawlty, right down to the moustache. Rewatching the show now, I can only imagine the parents' faces with what was allowed back then...!!

The bugs inside your kitchen!
It's sad to think that only a handful of VHS cassettes and DVDs have been released after all this time. Were it not for YouTube - and the mad ideas in the writing process - this show would have very likely been forgotten.

Of course, special thanks goes out to the puppeteers who were part of the madness that is Bug Alert. In particular Francis Wright, who has been no stranger to kid's shows, having also worked on Wizadora, Beachcomber Bay, Art Attack (as The Head!), The Spooks of Bottle Bay and various episodes of BBC Schools. All of which (and more) you can read about here from his own Weblog!

Series 1 & 2

Series 3


Friday, 13 January 2017

Bottersnikes and Gumbles (2016)

To a lot of people, in this day and age, most animated shows are starting to look and sound the same. But if you look hard enough, there are at least a few somewhere that are completely different from the rest. Better still if one such series is based from something almost totally obscure and unheard of, and achieving success as a result of it. - sort of like what Marvel have done with Guardians of the Galaxy.

Here is such an example...

Way back in the late 1960's, Sydney Alexander (S. A. ) Wakefield wrote a series of books that would become a classic in Australian literature. The first of these told of the ridiculous but funny adventures of the Bottersnikes and Gumbles (1967), two races of fictional creatures that live deep in the Australian Outback.

Bottersnikes are fat long-tailed things with scaly skin, cheese-grater noses and pointed ears which turn red when they become angry. They shrink when they get wet, live on a diet of mattress stuffing and make their homes in rubbish heaps because they are too lazy to bother about digging or building homes of their own. But that's not a problem when there are Gumbles about.

Gumbles are the happiest, cleverest, friendliest creatures in the bush. They're also rather rubbery, meaning they can be squashed into any shape without being harmed. And because they are much smaller, it makes it easy for the Bottersnikes to catch any Gumbles close by, squash them into tins and only take them out when there is work to be done. So the Gumbles need plenty of resource to avoid being captured or to escape when possible, while also trying to have fun out in the bush.

Wakefield only wrote four books about the Bottersnikes and Gumbles, but they are still fondly remembered today; not just because of the imagination of the stories and characters, but because both creatures represent the opposing attitudes towards the environment. The 'snikes hate trees, animals and plants; so much so they once attempted a 'Dump Development Scheme' to turn the outback into one giant rubbish heap. Whereas the Gumbles are always willing to help an animal in trouble, and always put their rubbish in bins, or at least find a proper use for whatever they may find whilst "gumbling".
In short, these four books were almost the Australian equivalent of The Wombles. And like the original Womble books (in addition to the environmental message), they each have a self-contained ongoing storyline throughout each of them;

  • Gumbles on Guard (1975) sees the Gumbles volunteering to guard a lyrebird's nest from a fox;
  • Gumbles in Summer (1979) tells how the Bottersnikes try to replace their vulgar King, first by attempted poisoning then by a very odd election;
  • Gumbles in Trouble (1989) involves the Gumbles becoming trapped in a barn with the Bottersnikes, which also sees a rather odd newspaper created by the 'snikes themselves...

An omnibus volume would later be printed in 1993 (and again in 2016) as The Complete Tales of Bottersnikes and Gumbles - which is far from "complete" as it only contains selected stories from each of the four books above.

But even so, it's great to see characters like these being reprinted again for a new generation to enjoy, or for older fans to rediscover. All of which still contain the original illustrations as drawn by Desmond Digby - which would become very useful several years down the line as inspiration.

In 2012, development on an animated series based on the books had begun, which took the combined efforts and talent of up to four animation / media companies - Cheeky Little MediaCAKE Entertainment, Kickstart and Mighty But Nice. Quite a lot for one series alone, but it all paid off when the show was eventually released; first on Netflix in 2015, before being broadcast in 2016 on CBBC in the UK and 7TWO in Australia.

And from what I've seen of it so far, it hasn't disappointed!

The animation truly looks stunning - from the 2D-animated opening sequence to the energy and detail put into the CGI, which involves a lot of lovely squash-and-stretch from the Gumbles. Of course, even though both the 'snikes and Gumbles each have individual, quirky characters, the original illustrations showed them all looking very similar, as also shown in this early pilot from 2013. So big thumbs up to the animation team in designing them to appear different from one another, while also respecting Digby's style at the same time.

And because the series is aimed at 6 to 9 year olds, as one might expect, there is toilet humour involved - aka; snot and fart jokes. But don't be alarmed; these jokes are used sparingly, for the episodes concentrate more on the characters to tell a story. Most of what has been aired in the UK so far seem to have grasped feel of Wakefield's own stories, especially in the absurdity department - right down to the use of wordplay for either 'Gumbling Games' or 'Sniketraps'.

But my favourite area of this series is the voice acting - or to be more specific, the British-Australian cast. Oh Grasshoppers, what a voice cast they chose! They all sound brilliant and true to the characters they play; nothing feels forced or over the top. With a blend of young actors - Akiya Henry, Jason Callender, Kathryn Drysdale - and old - Miriam Margolyes, Jeff Rawle, Richard Grieve - their combined performance had me grinning halfway through the first episode. Not surprisingly, the cast members playing the 'snikes have been particular favourites...!

It is quite rare to see an animated series aimed at kids nail all three areas with such impeccable quality: solid writing, a strong cast and stunning animation. But it was thanks to this which prompted me to buy and read the omnibus book from Amazon - although as I mentioned earlier, it would be better still if all four original books would be republished and enjoyed in their eternity.

In a time when we're all in need of a good laugh, this series is just what we need - it's unashamedly silly, just as the original books had been. Everyone else seems to think so, too, as it nabbed quite a number of TV awards last year. And I dearly hope it continues to do well, going by the amount of care and attention from everyone involved in its making. All in the name of ridiculousness!


Thursday, 8 September 2016

Mike Pearse - Space Cadets

I may not be much of a fan of the series or the movies myself, but as it's the 50th anniversary of Star Trek this year, I couldn't let it pass by without celebrating it as only I know how...!

This special 2009 Bash Street Annual featured some of Mike Pearse's best "extra-long" Bash Street Kids stories originally printed in The Beano - and one new story drawn especially for this book alone, a hilarious tribute to one of the best sci-fi shows in the world.

It would also be the last time Mike Pearse contributed for DC Thompson. He didn't draw further comics, Bash Street or otherwise, until the 2015 Beano annual. But that's another story...

Friday, 2 September 2016


In his time, Frank Muir was a gifted English comedian who, along with writing partner and fellow comedian Denis Norden, wrote and starred in a variety of radio shows such as Take It From Here, My Word! and My Music. In later years, he would also become the face for television shows That Was The Week That Was and Call My Bluff, not to mention the voice for Cadbury's Fruit and Nut!

However, he is also remembered for something else entirely - as a children's writer.

Frank's pets included a variety of Afghan hounds and Burmese cats. And it was through these that inspired him to write a series of books about an Afghan puppy called Prince Amir of Kinjan. But because he was so accident-prone and is forever hearing people crying "What a Mess!", he grew up believing that to be his name.

What-a-Mess is forever getting in all sorts of sticky situations (as well as dusty, muddy and damp ones to boot). No matter how hard he tries to be good, things usually go wrong and he winds up making incredibly large messes - whether it's going on a camping trip, a visit to the town or avoiding a visit to the Vet, Frank's storylines are still as brilliantly silly as they first were back in the 1970's. Even the illustrations by Joseph Wright echo this, with random little creatures and people littered across the pages of each book doing goodness-knows-what. Just about anyone who owned an Afghan hound could see a little 'What-a-Mess' in each of them.

What-a-Mess was never lonely, though. As well as his tall, elegant Mother, The Duchess of Kinjan, he was always doing battle with a slim Burmese known simply as the Cat Next Door. The friends he made along the way include a plucky little hedgehog called Cynthia and an even scruffier puppy who jokingly calls himself 'The Archbishop of Canterbury!

This clumsy little puppy obviously became a hit with readers alike, so much so that the books were adapted to animation up to three times - all of which, remarkably, feature Frank Muir as the Storyteller!

Smallfilms, of Ivor the Engine and Clangers fame, were the first to try in 1979. It is without a doubt the hardest version to find as not even the Smallfilms crew or relations have any surviving props / reels of it. All that remains is a sparse episode guide from the BBC archives and various snippets from Wikipedia. The most impressive piece of information was that the theme song was supposedly written by Andrew Lloyd Webber...

The second version is much more remembered and (thankfully!) easier to find. This 1990 series was animated by Bevanfield Films, who were also responsible for adapting Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories. While any actual animation may have been few and far per episode, what they did make was consistently fluid and full of character. Joseph Wright's illustrations and designs were faithfully translated to the small screen - even the mad little creatures were allowed to scuttle about on-screen while Frank Muir's sophisticated tones happily read aloud the story of the day.

Eventually, as with most things in life, you know when a series becomes popular enough that even the Americans want more of it. So it came to pass that in 1995, Cliff Ruby and Elana Lesser, via DiC Entertainment, were given the reigns of adapting the third and final incarnation of What-a-Mess.

The Americanisation is evident here - not just with the accents and the change of setting, it became louder, messier and, of course, more animated for the target audience on that side of the pond. As well as many new episodes written specifically for this show, further changes included characters from the books being renamed and recoloured (the Cat Next Door became a blue Burmese named 'Felicia'), and new characters being added to the cast, including a tough Bull Terrier named Trash. Even the bird living on What-a-Mess's head was christened Baldwin (Makes me wonder if his first name may have been 'Alec'...).

As well as that, all the characters were given individual voices. Cast members included Jo Anne Harris, Joe Nipote, Charity James and former child star Ryan O'Donohue as the lead dog himself.
"Vulgar" some may call it, taking into account how many British characters have been Americanised over the years. But to be fair to DiC, I remember this being my first introduction to Frank Muir's loveable creation when the series was regularly replayed on either Channel 5 or the BBC. It was only later on when I found the books that made me realise that What-a-Mess had British origins.

Besides that, Frank's little character really does have all the things that appeal to children whichever part of the world they live in - an eagerness to please, a desire to get messy, their funny little ways of learning the world and mostly having fun. Especially fun. British or American, What-a-Mess is just one of those characters that translates nicely wherever he's placed.

To add, the producers for the US series were kind enough to acknowledge Frank Muir than just as the creator - as well as keeping him on as Storyteller, they also had him voice an old English Sheepdog known as Frank...

Since then, What-a-Mess seems to have quietly slunk under his compost heap out of the public eye. Sure, the various DVD releases of the DiC series can be found here and there, but many still hope that the UK series will be given the same treatment. Or better still, to see Frank's original books reprinted for a whole new generation to enjoy. Until then, there's always YouTube to turn to...


Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Flintstones - "The Return of Superstone"

Michael Kraiger and Vincent Deporter have both contributed to DC's various lines of comic books over the years, writing or drawing iconic characters such as Batman and Superman, as well as all the classic Cartoon Network stars of yesteryear - including, but not limited to, Scooby-Doo, Johnny Bravo, Dexter's Laboratory and many others within the Hanna-Barbera / Cartoon Cartoons vault.

What with everyone going ga-ga over all things superhero, the time seems about right to share this great Flintstones story. The combination of Michael's script and Vincent's energetic artwork has made this a personal favourite of mine, especially as they've "continued" the story from the original Flintstones episode which first featured "Superstone". Now if only the 2016 Flintstones comic book were more like this...!


Friday, 1 April 2016

Goof Troop - Everybody Makes 'Misteaks'

Something else from the Big Time Magazine archives - a rather unusual Goof Troop comic drawn especially for an April Fools Day release. Whoever the writer / artist was, they must have had a LOT of fun with the "mistakes" made here...!