LEARN WITH GRANDPA
THE EDUCATIONAL AIMS OF THE SHOW
TARGET AUDIENCE AGE 4-6 YRS
When Grandpa was first commissioned in 2007 it was the first ever live action comedy on a pre-school channel anywhere in the world. In that respect it was a high risk endeavour and nobody quite knew what the reaction of the audience would be. Previously pre-schoolers had only had live action presenter led content, suited characters like Teletubbies and a lot of animation. Here was a sit com with real actors.
It turned out that it was just what the audience were waiting for which was lucky for us but really rewarding. We had a lot of comments from parents “At last! Something REAL!” And it is now a given that there is a real appetite among small children for live action television. This is no surprise to us really because little kids are known to respond to real faces. Grandpa has sold to over 104 countries worldwide.
The universality of the theme is key to its success internationally. The Grandparent/Grandchild relationship is a very special one all over the world. When we came to explore how to make this work with the maximum amount of humour for our audience we decided to flip the relationship and make Grandpa the childlike “naughty” one and Jason, Josh and Elsie, the responsible ones who were trying to control him! Of course, everything that Grandpa initiates might look like mischief but his motives are good and things always turn out better as a result of his capers. So to get Grandpa to shrink was funny, it empowered the young characters in the show, and it got over a lot of potential compliance issues. We can’t have children being seen to do dangerous things on screen that kids at home might copy. But we CAN put a tiny Grandpa into jeopardy – in a baguette or a teapot or a food mixer because this is impossible to imitate as well as being utterly fantastical.
Grandpa in My Pocket is recognised as an informal learning tool for storytelling, social and moral behaviour, empathy and humour. We are very careful, when developing pre-school content, that it is properly pitched for the specific age range and this entails a knowledge of the cognitive development of small children. So although this may look like a romp, it is underpinned by sound developmental knowledge and educational principles in every area.
When developing shows for pre-schoolers they need to be written, performed, shot and edited with the developmental stage of the audience in mind. We have discovered that very young children are mesmerised by Grandpa even though they don’t fully understand it, our target age range totally understands it and believes it, and older children completely get the fact that it’s comedy fantasy but enjoy it because of that.
Grandpa has what we call a “soft” curriculum. It isn’t going to teach a child their numbers or their letters but the stories or hard facts about geography or science. The stories are about human relationships and situations. They’re little moral tales wrapped up in a load of fun. Language development, creative thinking and problem solving are all stealthily embedded in the content.
The stories in Grandpa are essentially classic stories of good and bad. Moral lessons are embedded in the broad comedy. Grandpa is a source for good and, with the help of his Grandchildren, they always make things better. We use pretty traditional, tried and tested stock characters which are guaranteed to appeal to kids. Negative characters always get their comeuppance or learn by their mistakes. It’s a very clear message. We have been able to write characters who demonstrate negative behaviours – there would be no comedy here if everyone was full of Polyanna goodness! In Grandpa we go back to classic storytelling where there are some naughty or bad people – even if their badness is wrapped up in ludicrous comedy. This is unusual in pre-school television but we believe that it’s really important. Mr Greator, the Creator is the classic comedy baddie who wants to take over the world. Belinda Lucinda, Troy and Floyd are the classic spoilt, bossy child. Lady Prigsbottom is the snobby, posh lady. Mr Mortar is the avaricious property developer; Mr Munchmould is the glutton. So think about the seven deadly sins (Oh! Apart from adultery!) and we pretty much cover them. Obviously it is all massively exaggerated for the sake of the comedy. But, children will recognise these character traits in people they meet in “real life.” The Grandpa stories, like all good stories, help children to process the emotions that they have when faced with a bully, a scary person, a greedy person, a snob – whatever. And all the stories are resolved in a positive way. We think this kind or preparation for the school playground is very important. If little kids only ever seen lovely, kind, gently, sweet, well intentioned characters on screen we are not preparing them for the real world when they walk through the school gate. We are not giving them an opportunity through story to confront their own fears. So that’s our aim here. Through story and, as importantly, through comedy, young children can experience situations and see how they can be resolved in a positive way. This is very much a European storytelling tradition but has a universality that is recognised in many parts of the world.
Laughter is the best medicine and little children laugh a lot. In developing shows for this age range, it’s important to know what makes them laugh adults doing inappropriate things (which is why we have so many bonkers adults in the series), funny use of language (which is why we have Mr Mentor’s ridiculous vocabulary) slapstick (which is ably supplied by Mr Whoops who is always having little accidents.) We also know that we all learn through laughter. If they laugh, they’ll remember things better. John Cleese tapped into that basic truth in the days when he produced corporate training videos back in the day. Developing kids’ sense of humour is essential. It will rescue them over and over again in later life.
THE ACTING STYLE
We occasionally get moans from parents that the acting style is “ham” and “over the top” and very “stage school.” It is certainly an “elevated” style but that’s because the whole concept is an elevated one. The broad acting style that you see in this show is deliberately there because it is appropriate for our target audience. Broader facial expressions, gestures and clarity in the dialogue engage young kids and helps them with the comprehension of the story. Simple as that. Pantomime does the same thing. If Grandpa were performed naturalistically we would not engage the kids to the extent that we do. So sorry Mums and Dads if you find it too “in yer face.” It wasn’t designed for you! That said, it has got a huge “family” following. It is real family viewing and we were surprised that children as young as two are as keen to sit through the episodes as their older brothers and sisters, Mums, Dads and Grandparents. There’s something in it for everyone.
THE VOICE OVER
This, again, is a device we use because it works so well with a young audience. If you show AND tell then they are far more likely to understand what’s going on. It enables us to cover more story and to make the stories a little bit more aspirational and sophisticated because our young narrators are helping the audience along the way. The audience really identify with the children in the show too, because they feel that they’re being spoken to directly by them.
At around the age of four, children start to develop an understanding of “point of view.” They can see other people’s perspective on things and can empathise with other peoples’ emotions. Although, in Grandpa, we have a bunch of outlandish, bonkers characters, at the very heart of the concept is something very real and truthful. The relationship between Grandpa and the grandchildren is real and very credible. As you spiral out from that small group, the characters get more and more bizarre. So Jules and CJ are a real Mum and Dad but quite quirky and of course totally oblivious to the fact that Grandpa shrinks. Then there’s Loretta who is more than just quirky, but borderline bonkers. Then the characters get even bigger with Mr Mentor and Mr Whoops and many of our visitors to Sunnysands are more bonkers still. But at the core, there’s something completely genuine and real. It has “heart.” Even the broadest comedy should have this or it won’t capture the imagination of the audience.
The whole concept of Grandpa in my Pocket is designed to encourage imaginative play. Kids have, since time immemorial, had “imaginary friends” – often miniature ones. Or they have toys that they imagine come to life, dolls that live in their lunchboxes, soft toys that go to playschool with them in backpacks. The Grandpa world is full of these basic, childlike, desires but with a sprinkling of magic to boot. We have had so many e mails and messages about kids pretending that they have a magic shrinking cap and many requests about where to buy one!
We hope that Grandpa in my Pocket will stay with the young audience who are growing up with it in the way that many shows did for us in our youth! And we hope that they remember, as they grow up, that it helped to reinforce the difference between right and wrong and of course helped teach them how to laugh.