Whatever happened to Wind in the Willows? wonders Charles Darwent, on visiting the blood-and-guts world of Sleepy Kids.
"We're going bogies here, Charles," says Vivien Schrager-Powell, with relish. "We're going snot." Her husband, Martin, nods enthusiastically. "We're going vomit." I don't think I feel very well. What, you ask, is the subject of the Schrager-Powells discourse? Do-it-yourself pathology? A joint taste for punk rock? Not a bit of it. The Schrager-Powells are purveyors of children's TV cartoons, and the couple are describing their latest oeuvre, a 26-episode series called Dr Sidney Scuzzbag and his Transylvania Pet Shop. Whatever happened to Wind in the Willows?
Once upon a time, not so very long ago, children's entertainment was an innocent little genre, all Surrey and fluffy toys. As an art form, it, too, had its detractors. The late Algonquin wit, Dorothy Parker, memorably remarked that reading Winnie the Pooh made her want to "fwow up". The Schrager-Powells' newest cartoon would spare her the trouble: its promotional brochure bears the winning legend "Vomit in disgust as Scuzzbag stitches monsters-to-go". Clearly, we are not in A A Milne country. The reasoning behind this is as follows. "Children aren't kiddiewinks any more," says Mrs Schrager-powell, mordantly. "Six-year-olds just aren't content to be fobbed off with 'Mr Wizard go pouf and nasty man go away'. Stories these days have to be believable, contain some logical process." We are witnessing, it seems, the birth of the cartoon verite, warts, consumerism, vomit and all, and the Schrager-Powells are among its cinematic vanguard.
The story so far. In 1983, the couple bought an English springer spaniel that had found itself in Battersea Dogs' Home, and christened it Potsworth. As things were to turn out, their choice of name was not inapt. In 1987, Vivien Schrager-Powell began to write stories about Potsworth. No, not about a fluffy little cutiekins doggie who goes pouf (nor, indeed, woof-woof), but about a vaguely mid-Atlantic mutt who lives in an unspecified, but clearly American, city, with a sort of pre-pubescent United Nations: Keiko (Asian), Carter (black) and Nick and Rosie (white, but broad-minded).
These are not the kind of children who go up the stairs to Bedfordshire when Mummy tells them to. Keiko, for example, has a skateboard fixation, while Rosie, the Schrager-Powells cheerily admit, is "an anal retentive". Indeed, in one memorable story with the title "Santanapped", the abducted Claus, clad in Bermuda shorts and Ray-Bans, suggests that she has (and I quote) "an attitude problem": transactional analysis for the under-nines.
Now you might think that any attempt on the Schrager-Powells' part to market this idiosyncratic little menage would have met with muted gufffawing. But no: when the couple took Potsworth to the Californian animation giants, Hanna Barbera, the creators of such cartoon classics as The Flintstones and Top Cat instantly saw his appeal, and mooted a 50-50 deal to turn the stories into a television series. Surprisingly, a number of venture capitalists also shared Hanna Barbera's vision. In 1989, the Schrager-Powells floated Sleepy Kids plc for £1.4 million. Three years later, the company is listed on the USM, and its product - known to the 8.5 million US households who receive it daily as Midnight Patrol and the 5.1 million BBC-watching kiddies (sic) as Potsworth and Co - is the second most popular children's show on British television. ("After Neighbours", notes Vivian Schrager-Powell, "which we always think is a bit of a cheat"). The by now rather hefty canine who gave rise to it all (due, alas, for a prostate operation) is translated into Zulu, receives fan mail from Australia, has his own Italian pop single (trans: "Potsworth, you are so grand/You are a snob") and jealously defends his name, despite its unwieldiness on the foreign tongue. ("The French wanted to re-name him Popcorn," says Vivien Schrager-Powell, with deep scorn. "We refused, of course"). He also retains, thankfully, an English accent, fostering a view of Anglo-superiority in a manner described by Mrs Schrager-Powell as "very subliminal".
Now the question that might reasonably occur to you is: why? The answer would seem to be something like this. "Essentially", suggests Mrs Schrager-Powell, "children today have their own streetwise subculture, one that is formed in the playground that parents have no idea about. Realising this gives you a very different market picture from that of the great marketing pontificators." Martin Schrager-Powell cuts in: "We forget that kids today have a voice. That's something that buyers are only just becoming switched on to."
In other words, at least part of Potsworth's charm is that the series' multi-ethnicity and overt brattiness appeals to what we must still, faute de mieux, refer to as "children", but children who are able to discriminate between different brands of itsy-bitsy designer trainers. The "voice" of which Martin Schrager-Powell speaks is that high-pitched whine employed by these label-kinder in forcing their long-suffering parents to buy pint-sized designer goods. It is thus a sound that is becoming increasingly attractive to modern marketing folk, and lucrative ratings placements and advertising may be expected to follow it. Television companies are agog. Who needs Enid Blyton?
Not surprisingly, the Schrager-Powells share a background in marketing, Martin Schrager-powell's particular coup being the introduction to the US, during the Royal Wedding, of the Lady-Diana-lookalike-guaranteed-100%-genuine-zircon-engagement-ring (£4 cost - $50 retail). Mindful that Potsworth's charms might be translated more directly to their own bottom line, the couple have subsequently launched what is known in the trade as a "character merchandising" concern, Probrands Ltd. This markets a plethora of Potsworth spin-offs, including computer games, printed velour bath towels and other assorted imponderabilia. ("Oh my God," says Vivien Schrager-Powell, fingering a figurine, "Rosie's head's come off").
Continuing the Schrager-Powell's taste for the gothic, the firm has also acquired the agency for a commodity known as the Were Bear, invented by a Liverpudlian prize-fighter and described by Martin Schrager-Powell as "the first soft toy that works specifically for boys". (Sexual stereotyping: tsk, tsk). Mrs Schrager-Powell demonstrates why. Grab the apparently innocent looking teddy and turn its head and paws inside-out, and it is transformed into a fanged and clawed monster.
The Schrager-Powells insist resolutely that the Were Bear is a benign little creature, but I would not care to be left alone with one in a darkened room, boy or no. The couple's first interest remains the animated cartoon, and not merely for aesthetic reasons. While it is permissible to create a character and then merchandise it, the reverse is seen in the televisual world as unethical: shows plugging pre-merchandised characters are known as "programme-length commercials", and are fiercely discouraged. "It's the programme that gives us our property," reasons Mr Schrager-Powell, his wife pointing out the additional benefits of not having to work with human actors. "As Walt Disney once said", she observes, with a glint, "if I don't like a character, I can tear him up." This also helps to make animation a passably exact science.
Using studios in the Far East saves the need for heavy capital investment, and the Schrager-Powells can estimate the cost of producing a half-hour episode at £250,000 with a degree of confidence that appeals to backers. Not surprisingly, Sleepy Kids has been approached by several hundred would-be producers with ideas for new series. Most are duds (the duddest of all, sniffs Vivien Schrager-Powell, being one called Karate Pandas), but the aforementioned Dr Scuzzbag has been chosen as a worthy successor to the firmly established Potsworth. A recently announced deal with a French TV channel gives the firm $6.5 million to produce a 26 half-hour episode series, already pre-sold in France and Spain and, says Martin Schrager-Powell, arousing a considerable amount of interest in the UK and US markets.
Choosing Dr Scuzzbag also had its marketing rationale. "Potsworth", says Vivien Schrager-Powell, "is a classic product, one that's going to go on. Scuzzbag is a 'now' product, that will probably have enormous, but shorter-term, sales." A five-minute promotional tape reveals Scuzzbag to be quirky - this particular programme's denouement hinged on the creation of a zombie rabbit - although thankfully as yet devoid of vomit. We may await further developments in this area. It also seems curiously adult, doubtless due to its provenance: the eponymous doctor creator is Tony Barnes, inventor of, among other foul-mouthed disreputables, Viz magazine's "Sid the Sexist". (Otempora, Omores).
But won't parents object? Martin Schrager-Powell beams at the very thought. "If they do", he chortles, "I think we'll be extremely successful", although Mrs Schrager-Powell is quick to quash any hint of anti-familial anarchy. "When we were at story-board stage", she notes, "we removed the chain-saws that Scuzzbag was originally going to use in making Zombunny. You can't be too careful."
In spite of all this infantile blood-and-guts, Sleepy Kids' market performance has to date been faintly disappointing. Last year's trading is described by a soulful Martin Schrager-Powell as "not great" (most recent figures for the year to October 1991 reveal a £156,000 deficit, largely due to the recession, yet much better than the £805,000 loss in the previous 15 months), but backers are, apparently, happy, and the firm has no gearing problems at all. Among other sanguine developments are the entry of Potsworth and Co into the world of print cartoons: from July, the multi-ethnic, pan-mammalian menage will share page space with old war-horses like Dennis the Menace on D C Thomson's Beano, the cartoon equivalent of elevation to the House of Lords.
This month also saw the launch of an investment fund, designed, according to Martin Schrager-Powell, to give potential backers for further TV and film animation ventures "total liquidity". The lack of such liquidity has been the traditional bugbear of the British film industry, stifling investment - "just talk to Ken Russell," sighs Vivien Schrager-Powell - but the relative predictability of animation costs will, the Schrager-Powells hope, allow them to offer potential investors greater security.
All of this will help Sleepy Kids to take advantage of what seems to be a general renaissance in animation (not all of it vomitory: witness the re-release of Fantasia), and, in particular, of European animation. Recent developments have included the establishment of a Euro-fund for animators, known (predictably) as Cartoon, although the Schrager-Powells are faintly dismissive of the fund's non-commercial emphasis. "Being commercial does not necessarily mean not having integrity", says Vivian Schrager-Powell, thoughtfully re-inverting a WereBear's head.