But then there’s Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom.
Animated by Astley Baker Davies, the studio that created the phenomenon that is Peppa Pig, Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom has old school innocence and charm aplenty – but it’s also possibly the best-kept secret in modern British television.
Everybody knows about Peppa Pig, of course – and the great news for parents is that there is currently a fifth series of 52 episodes in production. It’s the delightful programme about a family of animated pigs who live in a house on a hill, the episodes generally being five-minute vignettes about particular incidents that children – and grown-ups – will recognise from day-to-day life, as related through the perspective of little Peppa and her even smaller brother George. There’s an especially lovely instalment about a friendly spider in a doll’s house, for instance, and what the series really succeeds in doing is in informing the audience about commonplace situations without either pandering to the adults or patronising the children; Peppa Pig will often take its characters to the playground, the classroom, the doctors surgery or on holiday and by doing so children watching will learn about these things and the customs and etiquette surrounding them, without any ostentatious teaching going on. It’s an obvious approach but one that Astley Baker Davies have down to a fine art. The level of humour is never knowing in a cynical way; the “jokes for the grown-ups” are presented as if they’re actually intended as a comment on adult behaviour from the child’s point of view, and what the creators of the series have managed best of all is the assembly of a collection of characters who are empathetic, endearing and credible; a universal objective of children’s TV producers and one that Astley Baker Davies have adopted as their own peculiar alchemy.
All of which is also true of Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, but to a perhaps much greater extent.
Astley Baker Davies’ follow-up series, currently standing at 104 episodes and which began broadcasting back in 2009, takes the magic of Peppa Pig and adds some sorcery of its own, aiming at a slightly older audience with episodes of just over double the previous series’ length. “Peppa Pig is set in a world that is basically the everyday world that we live in,” says co-creator Mark Baker. “The stories come from everyday events. We thought it would be interesting to make a series which was set in a magical world but where the stories still start off from everyday events – if that makes sense!”
The “magical world” of Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is the meadow in which the regular characters live. “Somewhere, hidden amongst thorny brambles, is a little kingdom of elves and fairies. Everyone who lives here is very, very small,” as the opening narration has it. It’s the story of Ben, a little elf boy, and Holly, a fairy princess, each about as tall as a blade of grass.
“In some ways it's not that different because much of the process is the same,” adds producer Phil Davies. “I suppose in the detail of each script we can use more complex language, and the storytelling can be more complex, for instance having several threads to a storyline. In reality, everything we do is a huge challenge, whether it’s for audiences who are two or 92.”
The series posits an entire infrastructure among the tiny peoples of the meadow, with the elves living in a multi-storey tree at one end and the fairies inhabiting a castle at the other. The elves are the working class in Ben and Holly’s world, a society of manufacturers and menders, while the fairies are a benign ruling class whose accomplishments are arrived at through the use of magic. There are episodes set in the elves’ toy factory and the fairies’ magic school.
“Another starting point was that we wanted to make a series that was equally for boys and girls,” says co-creator Neville Astley. “We knew this would be a challenge but that’s what made it interesting. This is why the series is Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom rather than say ‘Holly’s Little Kingdom’. We try to make an equal number of Elf adventures (I suppose more appealing to boys) and Fairy adventures (which are a natural for girls).”
While the narrative in each instalment might begin with something relatively mundane (such as the King’s desire for a fish and chip supper), often this is just the springboard for a journey into the peculiar (the attempted acquisition of said fish leading to a Moby Dick-esque struggle between Ben’s father and a giant – and for giant, read “normal-sized” – fish, in the celebrated Season One episode Big Bad Barry). The relationship between the two peoples – and we are also introduced to dragons and mermaids, dwarves and aliens and even normal-sized people along the way – is what gives Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom its cornerstone; although the two children (and their friends) are of necessity the identification characters for the watching children’s audience, it’s the fully-realised world they inhabit, their elders and their preoccupations and the often self-made crises that ensue, that makes the series so universally appealing.
Among the more likeable characters are the two dads. Holly’s father is King Thistle (voiced by Ian Puleston-Davies, Coronation Street’s Owen Armstrong), an affable duffer who loves a quiet life but rarely if ever gets one, while Ben’s dad is Mr Elf (John Sparkes, the 2005 Fireman Sam and better known as Barry Welsh), voice of the common sense that nobody ever listens to – hence often the calamities that underpin the stories. Beyond the immediate families of our eponymous heroes (including Holly’s younger sisters, the attention deficient twins Daisy and Poppy) are a wealth of supporting characters, leading the closing titles to occasionally run to several pages’ worth of names.
The three true stars of Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, however, are Ben’s pet ladybird Gaston, the Wise Old Elf and Holly’s housekeeper Nanny Plum. Nanny Plum is possibly the most sardonic character in children’s television – so much so the parents without a facility for irony can frequently be found complaining about her voice on mums’ forums – but the sarcasm (catchphrase: “Whatever!” Oh, and occasionally “Jelly flood!”) comes with an artlessness that’s common to all of the inhabitants of the Little Kingdom. Including the Wise Old Elf (whose real name is revealed late enough into the run that I’m not going to spoiler it here), the elderly know-it-all beneficent patriarch of the elf society, a character who oversees everything but understands comically little. It’s a running joke that Nanny Plum’s magic is somewhat incompetent and the Wise Old Elf’s schemes can cause more trouble than they solve, and the constant back-story of Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is the friendly feud between the two; the elves are distrustful of magic and none more so than the Wise Old Elf, while the fairies tend to amusement in the elves’ reliance on practical solutions. Of course, frequently it’s practical solutions that solve the fairies’ problems and magic that resolves the elves’, but the Wise Old Elf and Nanny Plum never let that get in the way of a good snipe. Nanny Plum is voiced by the sublime Sarah Ann Kennedy (one alumnus among many of Peppa Pig), and the Wise Old Elf is David Graham, Parker from both the Real and new Thunderbirds and the original voice of the Daleks. Both actors effortlessly match one another – and the entire rest of the cast, chosen very carefully for their sympathy to the series’ conceits – for a combination of guilelessness and worldly-wisdom.
Gaston the ladybird is the only character other than Ben and Holly themselves to have been name checked in the title of one of the ten DVD collections that are available, and he is possibly the most collectively popular character of them all. Effectively playing the part of a pet dog, complete with panting and growling voices courtesy of Taig McNab, Gaston is as imbued with character as any of the other occupants of the Little Kingdom; he has his own little dwelling to the north of the meadow and any number of episodes place him front and centre (he is named in the titles of eight of them). Whether he be spoiling Mr Elf’s holiday plans by making repeated visits to the vet, or undergoing training at Miss Jolly’s pet school after eating King Thistle’s slippers, Gaston is in spite of the very simple animation the character you cannot take your eyes off. And it’s in the eyes where the genius of the Astley Baker Davies animation is to be found; by doing nothing more complicated than moving a single black dot around a larger white circle, the programme’s creators manage to tell you everything you need to know about the characters’ reactions and feelings. Even the fairies’ wands are given eyes and it can often be hilarious just watching them responding to what’s going on in the rest of the scenes.
Of course, Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom isn’t without its nods to the Real World. The Elf Mayor (father of Holly’s friend Strawberry; the fairies are all named for plants) is a dead ringer for Boris Johnson, the episode Gaston’s Visit (over two million hits on YouTube) features a sequence involving a familiarly unindustrious team of builders headed up by the Wise Old Elf (“We each have our jobs to do!”) when he’s not in command of Elf Rescue or supervising the Toy Factory, and there’s a running theme concerning the normal-sized Lucy and her family (Lucy’s father is voiced by Alexander Armstrong, who also plays the Boris Johnson-alike Mayor), involving a number of visits by Ben and Holly to the land of the Big People.
The music is another area in which, like Peppa Pig, Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom excels. The main theme and incidentals are an ideal blend of the cartoonishly unfussy and the timelessly wistful. “For the music,” says Mark Baker, “we work with a talented composer called Julian Nott. People may know his music from Wallace and Gromit and he also does all the music for Peppa Pig. Julian visits the studio regularly and views the episodes with the directors and editor. Then he goes away and composes the music for each episode. Sometimes we can re-use bits of music but often Julian has to write special new pieces for us.” Outside of children’s television, Knott has also provided the scores for Lark Rise to Candleford and the early Russell T Davies series The Grand, and in 2009 he won an Ivor Novello Award for A Matter of Loaf and Death.
And here’s the thing. Although obviously it helps, you don’t need to have small children to enjoy Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom. The internet is awash with tales of parents who leave Nick Jr. running after the little ones have gone to bed, just so they can catch an extra couple of episodes. Because as with all kids’ programmes, the people who make Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom are grown-ups themselves, but in contrast to the likes of Spongebob Squarepants and Adventure Time Neville Astley and Mark Baker don’t pitch their programmes at multiple levels. Instead, the series – just like Peppa Pig before it – is created with an all-inclusivity that uniquely leads to viewers of all ages laughing at the same moments, caring about the same characters and undergoing the same tensions. Ben and Holly, and King Thistle and (in spite of themselves) the Wise Old Elf and Nanny Plum and all of the other characters, share a genial worldview that matches a child’s innocent wonderment to an adult’s magical fantasy, and the series is filled with oddness and charm in equal measure. It’s a programme about engaging with life and not letting little problems, no matter how huge, temper your enthusiasm for discovering more of it. It combines the sense of nostalgia for a bygone simplicity that infuses the best works of Oliver Postgate and Gordon Murray, with the world-building and rule-shaping of a Lord of the Rings or a Harry Potter.
If it isn’t the cult hit among adults that Spongebob Squarepants is or quite as ubiquitous with families as its predecessor Peppa Pig, then that’s a shame. But don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself. Most if not all of the episodes can be found on popular video sharing websites, and the entire 104 episode run has been released on easily affordable DVD. So dial up Visiting the Marigolds, Dolly Plum or Acorn Day and give Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom a whirl. If you’re not entranced by the middle of your second episode, then you probably don’t deserve to be.