Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Pablo Series 2: The Launch Event and Belfast Adventures

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to the launch for the second series of Pablo (now broadcasting on CBeebies and RTEjr). Our wonderful producer and brains behind Pablo, Grainne McGuiness, flew over the writing team for the launch of Series 2 on Oct 1. What follows is an account of that experience and, possibly, one of the most humbling days of my life.

I flew out on Sunday from Heathrow Terminal 2: long story short, it became complicated and the flight was delayed from around eleven to nearly nine at night. Officially it was due to bad weather, though a different source claims it was kamikaze birds. Still,  I met up with two other members of the amazing team, Paul Isaacs and Sumita Majumdar and chatted over Pepsi and peppermint tea, so not all bad.

Monday is where things really got started: we conveyed for a day-long writer's room to talk shop about the future of the franchise in multiple areas. Sat in a fancy conference room up at the Clayton Hotel, we did a dry-run for Tuesday's panel, before jumping in on pitching stories for the (potential) third series. Pablo was aging, so we had to take that into consideration. Following a sandwich-based lunch, we then brainstormed plot for a stage musical based on the series, doing it in partnership with Selladoor Worldwide/Productions, debuting hopefully next Christmas for a nationwide tour.

The atmosphere was electric, and everyone was on top form. We joked, spitballed and pondered a number of topics - school, sports, the myriad manifestations of autism, Dead Ringers sketches, old Gerry Anderson shows. Alas, I cannot discuss more details of either project at the moment, but sufficed to say, I was really proud of what we came up with.

Then, we had a few hours free in the evening, I pottered around Belfast City centre, did a bit of sightseeing in the rain and bought Kraven's Last Hunt, an iconic Spider-Man story from the 80s, for a cheaper price then I'd find online or here in London. Not that this is a vital part of the trip, but when else am I going to bring that up in conversation?

Onto Tuesday, the day of the panel and premiere. Dressed up and checked out from the Clayton, we were all taxied down to Queen's University Belfast for the event. The room was set up with a number of tables: the event was organized as a lunch, with a buffet stand nearby. Many of the invited were child actors on the show and their families, in addition to press and television people. Just seeing these kids there, how their lives had been changed by both watching the show and then acting in it... it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. There and then, I felt like, in my own small way, I had helped give these children something that they'd never access otherwise.

As for the panel, the writers would get on stage, have clips from their episodes play, and then discuss the genesis of said episodes. Being me, I opened with some quick jokes before diving into mine: seeing a clip of Oink Cluck Neigh getting a big laugh was just delightfully reaffirming. Afterwards, we adjourned for steak pie and then watched the first episode of Series 2, The New Sofa by Michael White. A funny and sweet romp, it could not have closed the event off better.

What a time. Sure, it was bookended by delayed flights (thankfully shorter on the return), but being in that room with all those families.... what an honour. Here's hoping Series 2 is everything fans love, want and more. Hopefully, it won't be long before I return...

Monday, 7 October 2019

Five things I learnt from writing Pablo - Working in Preschool TV

Almost a year on from delivering my last draft of my second episode, and I still can't believe I got to work on this amazing and progressive little show. Pablo has helped open up a conversation and humanity previously not common in mainstream representation of autism, especially with an audience this young.

Having just had such a wonderfully humbling experience, attending the launch for Series 2 (starts today, Oct 7), I figured I'd go back and talk about what I learnt, as a screenwriter, from working on the show with PaperOwlFilms and Andrew Brenner.

1. Tailor your ideas to the show; don't be generic.
Kids shows, especially pre-school, can often seem like they recycle a lot of plots and concepts: birthdays, making friends, sharing, family troubles, playing games, learning about rules and manners etc. However, the nature and cast of the show will often provide a framework that dictates what will and will not work, so going broad doesn't work.

In the case of Pablo, it was important to tailor the stories to be about autism and how it can affect one's perception and interaction with the world. Generic stories of mischief and messing about were not going to cut it (I foolishly tried early on), and through that, I came up with Headache Volcano and then, through a lot of trial and error, Oink Cluck Neigh.

2. Be concious of other languages and cultures.
Every language is different: not simply in the obvious, but also in terms of colloquialisms, sayings and maxims. Not every phrase or word can be translated, and this becomes even more tricky when dealing in metaphor. The saying 'peachy' may have a clear meaning in English, but does it make sense in Italian or Greek or Swahili or Japanese? And that's just one example.

It's also a matter of practicality: the animation's audio can be dubbed easily, but the live-action requires lip-sync and, of course, animation cannot always be redone for visual symbols anchored to a specific saying and culture. When you are selling to countries whose languages don't have equivalents can create problems for whoever's doing ADR and even the editing (alternate cuts of episodes are hardly uncommon). In an increasingly globalized marketplace, accessibility is key.

3. Even when you get commissioned, you get rejections.
Many newer screenwriters believe that just being commissioned is the end of the struggle: you've been hired, so you're good enough. You just pitch and write, cash and cheque and that's that.

Well, not exactly... 

 Aside from just coming up with appropriate ideas, as discussed above, there's also the process of redrafting and rewriting.

One pagers, treatments and even scripts can get shot down or scrapped at any time, for any reason. Even if an aspect or the core is good, it may simply not be doable on the budget; the time; be too similar to something they're making concurrently or evolves into something that doesn't fit. It happened with Oink Cluck Neigh: that went through several versions and alternative plots that were just unworkable with what we had

4. Don't underestimate kids.
An enduring stereotype about kids TV is that it's made by cynical hacks who believe kids are stupid and need something bositerous and loud to keep them amused while their parents do something they're actually interested in.

While bad media does exist, it's important not to assume that as the default and come into work with a negative attitude. Children are the most honest audience: if you're boring, they will let you know. However, they can quickly pick up symbols and meaning, and get deeper implications of relatively simple stories (think of say, Aesop's Fables or various fairy tales)

5. 'Being gentle' is not the same as 'dumbing down'.
Pablo is a gentle, delicate show: it's light and fun and colourful, perfect for the intended young audience. However, as anyone's who's watched it can attest, it is not twee or slight in the least: we've used the show to talk about everything from communication difficulties, social anxieties and illnesses to science, maths and art.

The key is being mindful: we don't go too hard or be really obvious when discussing something potentially distressing like social events or life changes. Using metaphor and proxies, creating universally-comprehensible subtext, enabled us to tackle an impressive amount of topics that children with autism face on a daily basis. This, paired with the above-conciousness for the wider market, challenged me and others to create something anyoen and everyone could get.