Tired of Teletubbies and need another bizarre pre-school fix? Well check out Consortium of Gentlemen's Yoho Ahoy on the BBC. Soon you'll know every line...
Now most of you know that I'm not exactly a mainstream animation fan, however now that I've got a youngster I certainly watch a lot more kid's animation then I did. Frankly, before I became a parent the idea of a TV show made for babies and toddlers kind of sickened me. But now I understand that it's impossible to hang with the kid all day. TV becomes tempting. Of course we're careful. We guide what the boy watches. As such, I've become fully exposed to this new world of kid's TV. Honestly, most of it has been fairly unimpressive. Teletubbies was good for a lark, however, I want to strangle most of the sickeningly sweet characters that parade across the screen.
Thankfully, this past fall in my post-festival leisure time, I discovered this bizarre little show that takes place on a pirate ship. This puppet animation show features a gang of little pirates who say nothing more than "Yoho" and "Ahoy." The first thing that struck me about the show was the obvious Buster Keaton influence on the antics and dead pan glares of the cast. At the same time, each five-minute episode finds the characters, very much like Keaton, using their material environment to solve a problem.
Ah, What Gentlemen
Every episode focuses on one of the ship's crew who have outlandish, nautical inspired names: Bilge, the bitter, peg-legged captain; Booty, the snotty princess type; Grog, the handless cook; Cutlass, the butch pirate; Poop, the always yawning deckhand; the innovative Jones; Swab; Plunder; Plank; Flamingo; a cat and some rats.
Yoho Ahoy is the brainchild of U.K company, Consortium of Gentlemen (COG), specifically Mole Hill, Mark Slater and producer Julian Roberts. Mole Hill might be known to some in the animation world through his work on The Plague. Prior to Yoho, Hill and Slater worked on the children's series, PB Bear. While the trio have worked together for years, COG was established specifically for Yoho Ahoy. While the company has a number of ideas in development, Yoho is their only series under the COG banner to date.
The primary creator of the show is Mole Hill who came up with the concept and design. Yoho Ahoy was inspired by the birth of his daughter, a love of pirates, sleep deprivation and the awareness of "how cute babies can be." Says Hill, "I've always liked pirates and wanted to do a series combining pirates, babies and French rococo painting." Hill also acknowledges the silent comedy influence: "I wanted it to be like a Buster Keaton film."
Slater and Hill then worked out the world of characters and defined the universe that they lived in. According to producer, Julian Roberts, "The primary aim of the show is to entertain and amuse its audience. What children should take away from the show is the understanding that although rubbing along with your peer group can be difficult, it can also be fun."
The Two Word Production
When Yoho Ahoy is in full production there are about 15 people working. There are set builders, three animators, an editor, a musician and a small pool of writers who work with Mark Slater. Both Slater and Hill serve as directors. It takes about two months to make each episode: three weeks to shoot, two weeks to edit and about a week to do sound.
While COG is well aware of the parameters of the BBC (i.e. no violence), Roberts notes that they have a great deal of freedom. "All scripts and storyboards have to be submitted to BBC before shooting but it's rare for comments to be made other than, 'Okay.' This is not due to any slackness at BBC, it's just that we are on the same wavelength."
A cynic might say that the lack of dialogue is an easy way to sell to an international market. Of course, that's true, but the little pirates also communicate a wide array of emotions through the tone of their voice in speaking those two words, and also through very expressive body language. One can't help but feel the COG group have slightly higher ambitions. Says Roberts: "'There is no art,' someone said, 'Without the resistance of the medium.' Mole and Mark don't like to make things easy for themselves. Maybe if you up the resistance of the medium you up the quality of the art?"
To hear such words come from the mouths and minds of television animators, brings warmth to my small, blackened heart. If only more TV folks could follow the lead of this innovative, intelligent crew. So watch Yoho Ahoy and pray that this merry trio of troublemakers makes more great television for me and the boy.
And by the way, Grog lost his hands in a fondue accident before the series began.
Chris Robinson is Artistic Director of the Ottawa International Animation Festival and the founder and director of SAFO, the Ottawa International Student Animation Festival. He is a board member of ASIFA International and Editor of the ASIFA Magazine. Robinson has curated film programs and served on festival juries throughout the world. He writes a monthly column (The Animation Pimp) for Animation World Network and has written numerous articles on animation. His iconoclastic tendencies have led him to be called the "John Woo of diplomacy" and most recently, "the enfant terrible of animation" by Take One magazine. He is currently working on a documentary with Otto Alder on Estonian animation; a biography of writer, Richard Meltzer; and a book on animation entitled, Unsung Heroes of Animation. Apparently he's a Canadian.