Friday 21 July 2017

Why millions of us are tickled pink by Peppa Pig

The cartoon pig is one of the world's biggest TV stars and is on her way here, writes Ed Power

Ed Power

Ed Power

She is five years old, enjoys playing outside with friends and, when excited, communicates with a loud 'oink'. She is also one of the world's biggest TV stars, with loyal viewers in 180 countries and annual merchandise sales worth an estimated €250m.

She is Peppa Pig, the diminutive farmyard animal who has just surpassed Thomas the Tank Engine and Winnie The Pooh to top the toy world's best-seller list. And with her creators planning to launch Peppa in the US, it is believed the franchise may eventually be worth a billion each year.

This month, her huge Irish fanbase will flock to Dublin, Limerick, Killarney and Castlebar for the Peppa Live show.

Featuring Peppa and family belting out songs from the Nickelodeon TV series, the performance has been playing to sell-out audiences in the UK.

It is produced by the same British theatre company responsible for a hit adaptation of Roald Dahl's The BFG. In all, some 18 shows have been scheduled around the country from March 23 to April 8.

"The simplicity of Peppa Pig is a big factor in her popularity," says children's author Joe O'Brien. "Simple animation with animals as characters doing everyday things that kids of that age group do -- they obviously can relate to Peppa and her friends and that is always important to kids."

"I have four children and they all watched Peppa and were really taken with it," adds author and illustrator Dolores Keaveney.

"I asked my granddaughter Ellie what she liked most about Peppa. She said she liked it because it was funny, the songs were great, she loved the colour pink, loved the dresses Peppa wore and thought that (Peppa's brother) George was hilarious."

It may seem glaringly obvious in hindsight but nobody expected Peppa to be such a phenomenon, not even the animators who created her on the back of an envelope at their local pub in 2001.

Indeed, initially they struggled to get their Peppa cartoon into production, having been turned down by the BBC.

Such was the shortage of investors Phil Hall, Mark Baker and Neville Astley -- who had all met in the 80s at Middlesex Polytechnic -- had to stump up €300,000 of their own savings to fund the first season of Peppa, which belatedly debuted in late 2004.

"We didn't pay ourselves for the first couple of years," Hall said earlier this year. "It was beans on toast all round. But that changed when we met the kids' TV boss at Nick Jr. She loved the show."

Agreeing the secret to Peppa's charm is the straightforwardness of the character, he said many of her adventures were inspired by the creators' own childhood memories.

"We've tried to keep the show simple and have based Peppa on our own experiences as kids -- a trip to the park or playing with friends."

Peppa is a potent brand because she reaches the hugely lucrative demographic of under-twos.

With doting parents prepared to pay whatever it takes to ensure their toddlers' happiness, successful children's franchises stand to make a fortune.

Moreover, because these children are so young, cultural barriers don't exist -- a character's popularity in one territory will usually translate internationally. Hence Peppa's global fan-base.

"Pre-school has the best chance of success in multi-territories because they are under two," said Darren Throop, of eOne, the company behind Peppa. "They have their own point of view and it is not distorted by culture."

Having made her debut on the UK's Channel 5 in 2004, Peppa was an immediate hit. She might have been inspired by earlier kid's characters such as Bob the Builder but her popularity soon eclipsed any of her rivals.

Within 12 months of those first broadcasts, merchandise sales were worth €1.3m.

A children's BAFTA boosted the show's profile and soon there was a flood of tie-in products,including Peppa books, clothes, console games and even an iPhone app.

Now plans are under way to turn the cutesy oinker into a truly global brand. In April a Peppa theme park opens in the south of England.

Shortly afterwards Nick Jr USA will introduce the character to the American market. Should she prove as popular there as in the other countries, annual merchandising revenues are predicted to be in the vicinity of one billion.

Whatever about kids, it's obvious why parents are drawn to Peppa.

Far from painting childhood as some sort of idyllic neverland Peppa's world is clearly informed by our own.

Her household is often chaotic and her mother and father are recognisably struggling as best they can to provide for their family.

Peppa's mum is actually a work-at-home parent, often to be seen toiling over a computer in the spare room.

They didn't have that in Noddy or Winnie the Pooh -- which may explain why Peppa is the perfect children's character for the 21st Century.

"This is a contemporary family getting on with it. It reflects a family dynamic, and is done in a whimsical way," animation writer Alan Gilbey has said.

"Parents are very happy to watch it, because there's an extra knowingness about it."

Irish Independent

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