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!