No show is easy to finance, but Hana’s Helpline was one that immediately drew support from a range of broadcasters. It was a preschool show about an Agony Aunt duck, Hana, who helps little animals out with their problems. Hana has a couple of eccentric helpers, and a son who she is in danger of neglecting.
This show is still being shown on Channel 5’s Milkshake block, sold extensively internationally, and won several major awards. It generated a small amount of publishing and licensing merchandise but, sadly, this never took off.
There are several reasons why we were able to make this show. I list these in no particular order:
· It was a concept that was easily understood. I have talked before about the notion of high concept and the importance of being able to explain it in a sentence or two. The title of the show makes it clear what it is about. A helpline, where little animals ring in for help.
A German couple had sent us a number of stories through the post, together with some rudimentary illustrations. We liked the stories because they had a sense of humour and also an emotional warmth. The story that struck me the most was about a bat that was having trouble hang-gliding.
We needed to find some sort of linking device for these stories. We had learned from past mistakes that stories that had a different protagonist in every episode would not build up a following. We needed to have some strong characters who appeared in every episode, who our young audience could become attached to.
My colleague, Andrew Offiler, came up with the idea of a Helpline, and we started to create some characters to form the backbone of the series.
· It was clear who the target audience was, and that the idea was suitable for that audience. This was a show for 4 to 6 year olds, and was about the sort of problems that children have when they first have to engage socially with other children, i.e. at nursery or school. The stories revolved around having to fit in, being different, being left out, having body odour, etc. Because we were using animals, we were able to give more serious issues like bullying, disability, etc. a soft, usually humorous spin.
These were stories that spoke directly to our target, who were either just starting to go to school, or in nursery. We consulted Childline to find out what sort of things our Agony Aunt should say, and Barnado’s about suitable storylines. We wanted to do one about a child with a father in prison, but this went too far for Channel Five.
The Agony Aunt herself, who was originally called Holly, but was later renamed Hana, worked in an office with two other characters, also clearly adults. To ensure the audience had at least one regular character they could identify with, we gave Hana a son, whose role was often to get to the bottom of the problem and to bring out Hana’s emotional side.
The use of children to voice all the children’s parts gave the show an authenticity and an emotional directness that would not have been possible had we used versatile adults voices.
· The design was warm, attractive and original.
We had at that time a head of production, Simon Quinn, who had a long track record in the business, and who has since gone on to work on some major feature films. Simon had started his career at Filmfair, who made the original series of Paddington Bear. He suggested that we took a similar approach to that series and use a combination of 2D backgrounds and fabric puppets.
I was giving a talk to students in Wrexham at more or less the same time, and noticed that one of the students, Bekah D’Aborn was making a stop motion film and had designed some attractive and very individual fabric puppets. We asked her to design the characters for the series.
The combination worked well. The 2D elements gave us the possibility of extending backgrounds with the use of compositing, and made prop-making very simple. The fabric characters, with their very obvious stitching, gave a warmth to the characters. The whole look of the show was attractive and original, and has been copied by others since.
· We had the right sort of track record. This is not essential, but it helps. Hana’s Helpline followed two successful series, Hilltop Hospital and Fireman Sam. The first of these had won a BAFTA and was a top rating show, constantly outrating Bob The Builder. It was very much an international show which was made in coproduction with a French company, Folimage, and the German public broadcaster, ZDF.
In the UK, Hilltop Hospital was for ITV, and is still shown on CITV. Nevertheless, our shows seem to have a strong appeal to public broadcasters in Europe. I believe this is because they are full of humour, yet deal with serious subject matter. Fireman Sam was a fairly blatant attempt to explain simple health and safety matters to young children. Hilltop Hospital was about reassuring children about illness and its treatment. Long after the series went out we still got calls from parents seeking out episodes on everything from kidney transplants to wetting the bed.
Hana’s Helpline was about asking for help, and involved both trivial and serious subject matter. The fact that we had already shown that we could treat serious subjects with warmth, humour and understanding reassured broadcasters.
· We had a terrific trailer. It does help, though it cost a fortune.
The trailer did everything we had hoped it would do. It put across the idea clearly. It showed off the design and style of the animation. It was emotional. It was funny. It was a very good indication of what the series would be.
Of course, getting a show off the ground is not the same as making it a success. We changed a few things. Holly got changed to Hana because S4C, the Welsh language channel, which was an important partner in the series, wanted a name that would work in Welsh and English (and German). We brought in different voices to those in the trailer, including Arabella Weir and the instinctively funny, Boyd Clack, not to mention a host of young children culled from schools and drama workshops.
Above all, we introduced several different potential areas for conflict. There was the child with the problem that needed to be solved. There was a team of bungling helpers in Hana’s office who, though always well meaning, got it her way and messed things up. There was Hana’s son who constantly reminded us and Hana that she had responsibilities as a mother, a role which often was in conflict with her work.
We used a variety of experienced and new writers, and had no trouble finding 52 stories. We could have continued with many more, but because the merchandising did not take off, that was not going to happen.