Making It Tough for Tots

Article excerpt

Whatever happened to Wind in the Willows? wonders Charles Darwent, on visiting the blood-and-guts world of Sleepy Kids

'We're going bogies here, Charles,' says Vivien Schrager-Powell, with relish. 'We're going snot.' Her husband, Martin, nods enthusiastically. 'We're going vomit.' I don't think I feel very well. What, you ask, is the subject of the Schrager-Powells' discourse? Do-it-yourself pathology? A joint taste for punk rock? Not a bit of it. The Schrager-Powells are purveyors of children's TV cartoons, and the couple are describing their latest oeuvre, a 26-episode series called Dr Sidney Scuzzbag and his Transylvania Pet Shop. Whatever happened to Wind in the Willows?

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, children's entertainment was an innocent little genre, all Surrey and fluffy toys. As an art form, it, too, had its detractors. The late Algonquin wit, Dorothy Parker, memorably remarked that reading Winnie the Pooh made her want to 'fwow up'. The Schrager-Powells' newest cartoon would spare her the trouble: its promotional brochure bears the winning legend 'Vomit in disgust as Scuzzbag stitches monsters-to-go!'. Clearly, we are not in AA Milne country. The reasoning behind this is as follows. 'Children aren't kiddiewinks any more,' says Mrs Schrager-Powell, mordantly. 'Six-year-olds just aren't content to be fobbed off with "Mr Wizard go pouf! and nasty man go away". Stories these days have to be believable, contain some logical process.' We are witnessing, it seems, the birth of the cartoon verite, warts, consumerism, vomit and all, and the Schrager-Powells are among its cinematic vanguard.

The story so far. In 1983, the couple bought an English springer spaniel that had found itself in Battersea Dogs' Home, and christened it Potsworth. As things were to turn out, their choice of name was not inapt. In 1987, Vivien Schrager-Powell began to write stories about Potsworth. No, not about a fluffy little cutiekins doggie who goes pouf! (nor, indeed, woof-woof), but about a vaguely mid-Atlantic mutt who lives in an unspecified, but clearly American, city, with a sort of pre-pubescent United Nations: Keiko (Asian), Carter (black) and Nick and Rosie (white, but broad-minded).

These are not the kind of children who go up the stairs to Bedfordshire when Mummy tells them to. Keiko, for example, has a skateboard fixation, while Rosie, the Schrager-Powells cheerily admit, is 'an anal retentive'. Indeed, in one memorable story with the title 'Santanapped', the abducted Claus, clad in Bermuda shorts and Ray-Bans, suggests that she has (and I quote) 'an attitude problem': transactional analysis for the under-nines.

Now you might think that any attempt on the Schrager-Powells' part to market this idiosyncratic little menage would have met with muted guffawing. But no: when the couple took Potsworth to the Californian animation giants, Hanna Barbera, the creators of such cartoon classics as The Flintstones and Top Cat instantly saw his appeal, and mooted a 50-50 deal to turn the stories into a television series. Surprisingly, a number of venture capitalists also shared Hanna Barbera's vision. In 1989, the Schrager-Powells floated Sleepy Kids plc for [Pounds] 1.4 million. Three years later, the company is listed on the USM, and its product -- known to the 8.5 million US households who receive it daily as Midnight Patrol and the 5.1 million BBC-watching kiddies [sic] as Potsworth & Co -- is the second most popular children's show on British television. ('After Neighbours', notes Vivien Schrager-Powell, 'which we always think is a bit of a cheat'). The by now rather hefty canine who gave rise to it all (due, alas, for a prostate operation) is translated into Zulu, receives fan mail from Australia, has his own Italian pop single (trans: 'Potsworth, you are so grand/You are a snob') and jealously defends his name, despite its unwieldiness on the foreign tongue. …