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“If anybody thinks that children’s television is just an easy way in, forget it. It’s harder,” declares Anne Wood. She’s somewhat of an authority on the subject, and not only because she’s worked with children in various capacities for 40-odd years.
As founder and Creative Director of Warwickshire-based Ragdoll, Anne has launched a bewildering array of timeless classics, from Pob in the early days through to Rosie & Jim, Brum and Tots TV, not to mention that colourful quartet of aerial-headed custard lovers who have hugged, skipped and said ‘eh-oh’ in 120 countries.
“Teletubbies was the result of thirty years’ experience and experimentation: a lot of people have tried to imitate it, but they’ve fallen flat,” she observes. Her voice is soft and motherly: she’s not being arrogant, she’s stating a fact.
Coursing through the veins of any potential Ragdoll employee should be passion about children’s TV as an art-form on a par with children’s literature – not to be sidelined.
“This is the most challenging of all forms of television, and you have to be really, really interested in your audience,” Anne insists. “Making a programme for a two-year-old is very different from making one for a twelve-year-old.”
Anne’s obvious fondness for the region she now calls home gives her programmes added warmth: all of them have been filmed in the Midlands, from the chugging canal boats of Rosie & Jim and the ‘big city’ of Brum to the lush, bunny-strewn mounds of Teletubbyland.
“Personnel here – editors, camerapeople – are as good as anywhere,” she asserts. “We’ll go for the best people wherever they come from, but lots of them are local. This is a buoyant, enterprising place; I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
From valiant little motorcars to loveable toys, Ragdoll’s iconic characters over the last two decades have all been eminently touchable. And while she’s keen to embrace the potential of CGI, Anne maintains that successful programmes should always be character-led. To command global influence from the rural Midlands, quirky originality makes all the difference.
Some of the creative gauntlets that Ragdoll have run – the ‘again… again…’ repeat gimmick in Teletubbies she dubs an “outrageous” risk – couldn’t have been justified to shareholders, but then as a proudly-declared “family business” this isn’t one of their concerns.
“We’re a small company in a big world; we may seem influential in the Midlands but look at Warner Studios and Disney – these are our competitors. Still, people will always come and see what we’re doing because we’re unpredictable. It’s quite a thing to sustain, and all our profits have been put back into research and development.”
When Ragdoll discover talent they make sure it’s put to good use. Take writer, producer and performer Robin Stevens: involved with the company since its conception in 1984, he’s voiced Pob, Jim, Tom from Tots TV and Grandpappa in Boobah, and is soon set to appear in front of the lens as well.
“I certainly don’t want to give the impression that we’re a closed shop, but if we get someone who’s multi-talented we’ll keep working with them,” reasons Anne.
“We don’t teach: we’re all about learning, but in terms of exploring life imaginatively. If you make a child laugh, it means they’ve understood something,” is her philosophy. “It’s the interest in what we’re doing that drives us. It’s not saved us much money, but we’re still having a very good time.”
© Nick Carson 2005. First published as part of an industry focus on TV in the Midlands, in Issue 1 of TEN4 magazine