Wildseed Studios is a broadcast alternative for online video producers. Founded by former BBC creative executive Jesse Cleverly and Aardman Animation’s former head of broadcasting Miles Bullough (right), the company was notably a finalist of MIPLab, MIPTV 2015’s startup competition. In this exclusive interview, the latter discusses current British animated sitcoms.
MIPBlog: Tell us about your love for animated British sitcoms.
Miles Bullough: At Wildseed we’re determined to have a tilt at cracking the animated British Sitcom. I had a go in the 90’s when I Executive Produced Carl Gorham’s Stressed Eric (watch series one intro below) with Absolutely Productions. It burned very brightly for its 13 episodes on BBC2 but really we wanted it to be still running now, like The Simpsons or Southpark or American Dad. That’s the prize – a long-running show that somehow captures the zeitgeist and is taken to the public’s hearts.
> And why do you think this hasn’t materialised in the UK?
Despite several credible attempts, the general feeling now is that may never happen. The conditions and opportunities in the UK TV market just don’t exist to support the creation of a long-running animated adult sitcom.
Part of the challenge is economics. Animation is generally expensive and slow to produce and the slots for long-running narrative shows in the UK just don’t come up that often. Soaps and panel shows take up all the oxygen, and can be produced quickly and far more cheaply than animation and on an industrial scale. For successful shows in the US, orders of 20+ episodes per year are commonplace, bringing economies of scale and giving shows the chance to find and keep an audience.
The characteristics of the US shows that we all admire and seek to emulate are reasonably simple to grasp: the shows are incredibly relatable, usually centering around family units living in un-extraordinary circumstances with recognisable social and personal structures. Only Futurama really ditched that formula, which is what in many people’s view made it into niche, sci-fi fare. There are really no examples of shows featuring talking animals (as the main cast) or which are set in fantastical worlds that have taken off in the mainstream.
> Why have animated sitcoms worked so well in the US?
The writing on the US shows is extraordinary and those writing teams attract the best minds in the US to them. The pace of the episodes is relentless, South Park fizzes along so fast that some of us can barely keep up. All have great central characters, often a patriarchal figure, they all have kids in them and there is enough in the stories for kids to relate to (usually laughing at the parents) but the shows are never childish despite their huge following amongst the young.
The Simpsons, Family Guy, American Dad, King of The Hill all follow that formula. The remarkable South Park breaks the mould (it’s also the only show not on Fox in the US) but is essentially the tale of ordinary folk in an ordinary town but with kids in the lead roles.
> Can you give us some examples of good British animated sitcoms?
There have been several attempts at cracking the code in the UK, none have really made it though some have come close. My, entirely biased, view is that Stressed Eric came the closest. An iconic, preposterous but sympathetic central character in a family set up (albeit a fractured one), it had a lot of the qualities that successful animated sitcoms have. It was perhaps a little relentlessly downbeat in a very British way and it was certainly slow and expensive to make relative to a live action sitcom and we had to co-produce it – with Klasky Csupo in the US for the first season (animation in Korea) and with Millimages in Paris for the second season (animation in Ukraine).
> What will it take to create a successful British animated sitcom?
My view is that for a British animated sitcom to take root, it’s going to have to be made in the UK, by Brits, with the British sense of humour permeating every frame.
It’s going to have to compensate for the economics of the UK TV market, and be produced for the equivalent of a panel show or formatted entertainment show and not for the price of a live action sitcom.
It’s going to have to be produced quickly, so that the wait from commission to delivery is not interminable.
It will need to crack the cool but functional design that South Park cracked (South Park was initially produced for $120,000 per episode and on an incredibly quick turnaround).
My guess is that if there is going to be a show that comes out of the UK it is not going to start with a TV channel: it will start online. TV commissioners simply aren’t looking for animated sitcoms – they are perceived to “not work” in the UK and even have a little toxicity about them after a succession of so-so ratings performances by recent shows.
It probably won’t originate with TV writers, it will originate with a maverick talent (a bit like Matt Groening) who will make online shorts or episodes, which will break through and then start to attract the interest of TV to take it to the next level.
But, formulae and checklists aside, it’s just down to talent and hard work and luck and timing and creating fantastic characters that people fall in love with.
> And how will Wildseed Studios’ unique model facilitate this process?
At Wildseed, with our funding and channel model, we think we have given ourselves as good a chance as anyone of finding that show. We are funding mavericks to make pilots and series of shorts and we are pushing them on our online channels to see if any of them can find an audience.
Our latest tilt at this prize Peter’s Place (video above), by Nicholas Bowe, who creates, writes, voices, animates, composes and sings. We’ve done what we always do and put £10,000 into creating some shorts and bonus material to see if there is a central character and a concept that people are going to engage with. We love where Nick has got to. We discovered his songwriting skills quite late in the day and what we think we have got is a sort of Mighty Boosh-Coronation Street-animated-musical comedy show.
For us, even though we know this isn’t yet the finished article it references a lot of our touch points for what we think will ultimately make a great show: authentically British (and probably bewildering to other cultures), coming from a talented creator who is outside the system – a focus on jokes and character over the craft of animation, daft songs (which work well online) and capable of being produced at South Park-like prices and speed with the right team and resources behind it.
Jesse Cleverly was formerly head of development at BBC Fictionlab. He left his following job, as head of co-production and acquisition for BBC Children, to found Wildseed Studios, where he is creative director. More from Wildseed on MIPBlog soon!
Top photo: Wildseed Studios’ Jesse Cleverly (left) and Miles Bullough