How Peppa Pig took over the world
One of the most lucrative creations in entertainment celebrates her 10th birthday...
As any parent of pre-school children will surely know, Peppa Pig is more than just a cartoon.
The cute porcine creature in the red dress is also a babysitter, a temper-tantrum alleviator and the two-dimensional friend who makes teething stop temporarily. Her appeal to toddlers is quite extraordinary.
Peppa Pig is also one of the must lucrative creations in the entertainment world, with the distribution company behind the animated series, Entertainment One, posting a four-fold increase in profits this month.
Not only is the five-minute cartoon a staple of one of the world's biggest kids TV channels Nick Jr – the under-fives' offshoot of the Nickelodeon giant – but it has spawned a near endless glut of merchandise. There are, of course, Peppa Pig books and DVDs – the latter sell by the truckload – but also crockery, houses and spectacles.
Few could have imagined just how enormous the cartoon would be when it first aired in Britain 10 years ago this weekend. But thanks to its combination of superb animation, clever storylines with an empowerment message and the sort of storylines that appeal to both two-year-olds and their parents, Peppa Pig soon became a classic of the genre.
And it has made the three Englishman behind the phenomenon very wealthy indeed. Phil Davies, Neville Astley and Mark Baker are worth several hundred million pounds between them.
"I think the key is that she involves the audience," Davies says. "The whole look of it is so clean and fresh. You never see the strings, as it were. And the language is clean. That takes a lot of effort."
It says something for the trio's skill in writing scripts and scenarios that parents often appear to enjoy the episodes as much as the children. Every frame is from a child's perspective. "That is why Peppa's house is on its own, at the top of a hill," says Baker. "When a child draws their house, even if it's in a terrace, the child will usually draw it by itself."
And the hill? "Well, it's just that having a huge hill like that is so funny. And ridiculous – that every time Peppa and George run out to play, they have to run down this very, very steep hill. It is optimistic, and fun."
Each episode is shot through with humour to appeal both to kids and adults.
Crucially, Peppa is rarely the butt of the jokes. "Children don't like laughing at the main character of a show," says Davies. It's the genial Daddy Pig who is the figure of fun. "The whole Daddy Pig thing evolved because children have no problem in making fun of their parents," adds Baker.
The three animators first broke into the world of children's TV when their series The Big Knights was shown on the BBC in the late 1990s. But they became frustrated by the fact that the broadcaster aired the series at erratic hours. "It was critically acclaimed, but shown in graveyard slots," says Davies. "Like midnight, when two men and a dog are watching."
The idea for Peppa Pig was first sewn in a London pub in 1999. They chose an animal as it gets around issues of race, class and background and they made the protagonist female because there were very few central female characters at a time when Postman Pat, Fireman Sam and Bob the Builder ruled the roost.
They also vowed to approach a different broadcaster after being left disillusioned by the BBC, yet they realised that such an aspiration was easier said than done. The Beeb remains one of the world's biggest players in children's broadcasting.
Initially, they had difficulty securing funding – especially as they wanted to make the series in Britain – but when Nickelodeon came on board with some of the necessary cash, the project gathered pace. Still, five years were to elapse from original creation to appearing on screen for the first time.
Unlike The Big Knights – now something of a cult hit – Peppa Pig was a success from the off and is now shown in 180 countries. It had attracted such a level of fame within six years that the UK Labour Party wanted to use Peppa's image as part of their election campaign in 2010. Her creators politely declined.
The Dublin-based children's psychotherapist, Joanna Fortune, has become very familiar with Peppa Pig. "There's a lot of good about it," she says. "I like the fact that the central character is female, because so many of the other cartoons have a male lead, and then there's a character called Mrs Rabbit who is shown to do pretty much every job in the locality. Again, that's a strong female message in a cartoon that appeals to boys as much as girls."
She is also enthused by the everyday scenarios in which Peppa engages. "Young children can relate to her and her world and there are worthwhile messages about sharing and being kind and considerate. I also like the fact that Peppa's grandparents are involved in many of the episodes. It stresses the importance of family across the generations."
The psychologist, who runs the Solamh clinic, is less enthused by the depiction of Daddy Pig. "He is seen as hapless and sometimes idiotic, which is not a positive way to portray a father figure to young children."
She advises caution to parents when it comes to the amount of time their children watch Peppa Pig – and television in general. "Very young children really shouldn't be watching TV for more than 30 minutes in a day, and ideally not all in one session," she says.
"And the idea of using it as a babysitter really should be avoided.
"The best thing for parents to do is to sit down with their child and watch Peppa Pig together and talk about what they're watching and to ask their child quest-ions about the storylines. It can have a real educational purpose that way."
Favourites throughout the years
* The Wombles (1973) – lovable pointy nosed creatures living on Wimbledon Common and based on the Elizabeth Beresford books
* Paddington Bear (1975) – hugely influential cartoon made with "stop-motion" technology and based on Michael Bond's enduring books
* Postman Pat (1981) – a classic animation with its idealised English village backdrop was a hit with pre-school children
* Fireman Sam (1987) – based on an idea from two-ex firemen and set in a fictional village in Wales, it has also spawned a successful stage production
* Teletubbies (1997) – the curious looking creations with the funny voices became a huge hit with little ones
* Bob the Builder (1998) – Bob's catchphrase "Can we fix it?" is still going strong
* Charlie and Lola (2005) – artistically superior animation based on Lauren Child's best-selling books
* Hacker T Dog (2009) – created for CBBC, the puppets are modelled on the Border Terrier breed of dogs