Award winning British producer, writer and composer, Andrew Davenport, was speaker for Thursday’s Coventry conversations.
Dubbed as ‘the J K Rowling of the under fives’, his charisma held the attention of eager adults who were ready to hear all about the children’s series that took the nation by storm.
His presentation was about two of the works he is most associated with: Teletubbies and In the Night Garden. The aim of his creation with Anne Wood was to connect with the universal experience of childhood.
Davenport, a speech scientist by background said: “Playing is an important thing to look at in child development. Child play tells us a lot about their cognitive and social development.”
Teletubbies was aimed at pre-school children and this he described as the most important stage in the development of a child. In The Night Garden however was aimed at children over 3 years of age. He also added that a new language emerges in play before it comes out in the real world: “with Teletubbies came a whole new infantile language.”
Teletubbies was shot in the beautiful grassy landscape of Stratford upon Avon giving it a sense of reality. The visual work is effective in the way it appealed to children and the vast landscape also allowed for things to be described as ‘here’, ‘there’ and ‘over there’. The visual positioning is a way of communicating to children that even though things may be in the distance – ‘over there’ – and they couldn’t see it, it still exited.
The Teletubbies, aired by BBC on the 31st of March 1999, became a critical as well as a commercial success in Britain with 19 people placing calls to the BBC calling it infantile and silly. Some saw it as dumping the British culture and although most people thought of the programme as silly, the audience didn’t find it so.
Davenport further added that teletubbies was being misunderstood because it excluded the adult audience. Some parents reported that their child’s language development skill is going backwards instead of forward. This was because they have taught their infants to say ‘hello’ properly but after watching teletubbies they say ‘Eh-oh.’
He justified this complaint by saying, language acquisition is a constant and resilient process therefore it goes forward and not backwards. Children in general ‘’mimic infantile language because it is appealing and that is the reason why teletubbuies speak the way they do’’, he explained. He also mentioned that children will speak appropriately when in different social setting therefore older children mimicked infantile language just to seek attention from their parents.
Teletubbies were created to speak a silly and playful language but in a relevant way. They couldn’t speak any differently because the ‘playfulness’ in the language is what makes a teletubbie. Like saying ‘Eh-oh’ for hello and ‘Uh-oh’ a common toddler’s response to describe events or anything that is not good. The repetitive nature was because children love repetition. The teletubbies are dressed in different bold colours to allow toddlers to follow their constant consecutive movements.
To move the programme forward, Mr. Davenport said he relied on the memories from his childhood and these were occasions at his grandmother’s house, the tradition of tucking him in bed and telling him bedtime stories.
This also brought about the creation of ‘In the night garden’ which featured a new landscape and new possibilities. The title also suggested the beginning of something different hence the characters were created by what they do adding to it the feeling of a living book.
He added that bedtime stories were appealing because he saw the characters as resilient and also they have lived through the years of the stories being handed down from generations. The impossibilities in the rhymes as such ‘the cow jumps over the moon’ gave children a sense of imagination, hence creating a picture in their mind and thus developing their thinking ability. He also wanted to give children a beautiful and romantic idea of bedtime as bedtimes stories were dying out and children were becoming hesitant to go to bed.
The drawings he said were not amazing from the start but were side-stepped by his adult imagination.
‘You start with a design, and as you work with performers everything changes and adapts but it is important not to lose the original idea of what the character was design to do’. An example he said was for ‘Upsy Daisy’.
He wrote books and the melodies that went with programme and the melodies he said came to him whilst designing and as the characters fell into place.
‘In The Night Garden’ was shot in HD and that was the biggest technology at that time. Despite the few technical difficulties the great resolution allowed opportunities in the way things could be shot. The inclusion of an old fashion style animation which was familiar with parents was an attempt to draw them in as some parents were the main critics of the programme. We had an idea there of an audience who were watching a programme which was not made for them he said.
His source of inspiration came from a children’s book over 200 years old published in 1792 called ‘Evening at home children.’ All the things he remembers as a child worked for him he said, because that is what he grew up with so his experiences would also make sense to other children. The popularity of the programme also created a high demand for teletubbie dolls during Christmas periods.
A live stage show of teletubbies is about to start in April 14.The show has been adapted to fit the age group it is reaching out to because conventional theatres are not designed for seating children of that age.
Davenport added: ‘’the younger the children the more universal the programme is likely to appeal to them’’. He believed pre-school children share the same experiences universally. Outside this age group however experiences are different because cultural differences come into play.
Teletubbies also reaches to an audience in Australia, China, the Fareast and some parts of Africa and the programme is tested on children before it is aired.
When asked if he was proud that children as well as some adults all over the world have grown up speaking his language. He modestly replied: “it is the teletubies language.” When also asked if he saw himself as an educator, he responded by saying: ‘’Stories are used to educate and impart knowledge. The process of understanding a story and developing meaning involves practise and concentration’’.
He was asked what advice he would give to budding journalist and creators. He said the advice applied to anything.
“If you want to make something that is different and ground breaking then you are half way there at becoming successful. Always start from your audience.”
He further added that making contacts with people in various circles of life is not as difficult as it looked. “Once you have something to show someone you are half way there.”
(Information about teletubbies stage show: www.inthenightgardenlive