What you get when you mix The Simpsons with Grange Hill and a dash of Tim Burton
There are some true cult gems hidden away on CBBC at the moment; shows the the kids of today will be getting all nostalgic about in pub conversations of the future; Wolf Blood , Wizards Vs Aliens , Young Dracula .
But if there’s one that should be the subject of pub conversations now, it’s the manically genius Strange Hill High . For one thing, it looks amazing: a combination of Japanese toy-inspired rod puppets and CGI sets that make Tim Burton fantasies look a little humdrum. For another, it has scripts so sharp, you could call cut carpets with them and call them Stanley.
Now into its second series, the crazy school based sitcom with its cultural in-jokes and lavatorial humour fathers the fantasy-marinated misadventures of too-cool-to-care Mitchell (voiced by rapper and comedian Doc Brown), swotty Becky (Emma Kennedy) and IT Crowd Moss-alike Templeton (Richard Ayoade). The writing on the show is overseen by former Simpsons writer/producer Josh Weinstein, who tells us that he’s having the time of his life being a big kid in Blighty...
Is this the first time in TV history someone has actually been officially credit as “showrunner” in the opening credits?
Ha ha. I think that it is. Usually I’d be called "executive producer" or something, but they actually asked me what I wanted to be called, and I liked the idea of being called showrunner. When you look at the credits for The Simpsons you get about 20 people called producer something or other, and the viewers haven’t got a clue what they do. Running the show, that’s what I do.
It’s also apt, because you’re not actually the creator, are you?
No, that was the brilliant Kat Van Henderson.
The credits actually say "Created by Yoshimi & Katoi" – we assume she’s the Katoi half?
She’s the whole thing. I’m not sure why she calls her company that. It sounds cool I think. Anyway, she came up wit the idea about three years ago. She’d already been working with CG-enhanced puppets with a series called Yo! Funkytown . The basic concept was hers, and a lot of the characters, but they needed someone to "run the show" – get that? – and as soon as I saw the outline I was like, "I have to do this!" It was mad puppets, CG and bad taste gags. Who wouldn’t jump at that?
And that was the start of a two-year development process! That was really fun. I had never been given so much time to work on something before. And there were no rules because nobody had ever done anything like this before. We just worked it out as we went along.
So how fully formed was the concept when you arrived?
It was pretty much there in an embryonic form. Kat had come up with most of the characters. Mitchell, Becky and Templeton all sprang from that brilliant brain. Croydonia too. I love Croydonia. Is she the first ever chav puppet? But the kids were all three or four years younger. As a group we decided to age them as that gave us more story opportunities.
I must tell you this little story. I hired Emma Kennedy as a writer, but during the development period she so sparked with the character of Becky, I just knew she had to be the voice. But we didn’t tell her that for a long while!
The relationship between Mitchell and Mr Abercrombie, though, draws very strongly on my relationship with my own headmaster.
Was the first series a big learning curve, then?
The whole development process was. But yeah, we were still learning fast as we were shooting. We used directors from a stop motion background because of the CG elements, but they quickly learned how to shoot things and pace things that made the most of the puppets. You could also see the puppeteers becoming more attuned to the characters.
It’s a very British show with very British humour, so are you a bit of an Anglophile?
Absolutely. Ultimately I hope to live over here. I grew up obsessed with British comedy. You’ve had thousands of years of being funny, and we’ve had 200. No wonder you’re better at it.
I find it amusing that British people assume that all the British gags and characters must come from the native writers on the show, though. I’ve kinda become obsessed with Luton, ever since I discovered it was the centre of the hat-making industry once. Who knew the hat-making industry ever had a centre?
The Simpsons may be a cartoon, but it was prime time TV in the States. You never felt you were slumming it in children’s TV?
No. Not at all. Making kids TV in the UK is the most rewarding experience. The BBC execs have been so encouraging. They actually kept asking us to make the show more out there.
Did you always intend for the show to be a cult? Were you writing it with a mind to “appealing to the grown-ups”?
Well, I hoped grown-ups might get into it, but it’s never written with that in mind. But one thing I learned from Matt Groenig was never talk down to children. So we just write gags that we like. We have to make sure they’re not too rude, but they can be quite adult. And when it comes to toilet humour – which I love – kids can sometime be less queasy about bodily functions than their parents. We do a lot of film references but the kids don’t need to know those films. I’d be a bit disturbed if they recognised that a toilet looks like the one from Trainspotting …
And besides, we have to really like a joke, because we’re going to hear it 20, 30 times or more before it even hits the screen.
So what did you learn on series one that helped shape series two?
We learnt that whatever we throw at the production team, they can do. Serious. I don’t think we’d have attempted an alien invasion in series one. Or a giant boy, like in the King Kong episode. We’ve just had the confidence to go bigger. Though there are limitations. We limit ourselves to one new big set per episode – like the swimming pool in the Kong episode. But once it’s built, we can use it in future episodes.
How big are the sets?
The library, which is probably our biggest, is 10-foot hight and about 20-foot across. Massive. We have to scale them to the puppets obviously. The puppets are made by McKinnon & Saunders who make all the puppets for Tim Burton’s animated films. The armatures inside them are just amazing.
What about the future?
Our Christmas episode has a two minute The Shining montage. We also learn something major about one of the teachers.
And a third series?
I hope so. We’re just hitting our stride and the numbers are good, but there’s nothing official yet.
As with The Simpsons , the supporting characters are brilliant. Who are your favourites?
I love Matthews, the grinning posh kid who always seem on the edge of hysteria. And keep an eye on Gazza, the graffiti artist who never says anything. Hopefully he’ll gradually get a bigger role.
Strange Hill High is out on DVD now.