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‘We got so many things wrong!’ – How we made cult kids show Hey Duggee

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-12-05
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‘It’s strange. And it’s slightly surreal. I think kids are fine about that’ … Hey Duggee.

The creator of the fabulously silly show reveals how it was almost called Chop Chop – while its busiest voice artist recalls playing an antelope golfer in the style of Katharine Hepburn

Grant Orchard, creator

Studio AKA wanted to do a children’s series and asked me to do it. The timing coincided with me having two young boys, which makes you think about what you require as a parent – mainly time to yourself. But if you are going to be forced to spend time watching TV, you at least want to be entertained.

When I was younger I used to be part of an organised outdoor activity group and I wanted to recreate it for TV, with a great big leader who was very avuncular. I wanted to make everyone feel comfortable with that environment, because that would allow us to do anything we liked. We would run out of ideas pretty quickly if we stuck to one location and one storyline.

I didn’t want a soporific show that kids would watch before bedtime. I wanted them to be really close to the TV when it was on – that’s how I sold it. At first the show was going to be called Chop Chop, but the BBC didn’t like that because it could come across as violent. And then we found out there was another show for older kids with that name about ninjas.

Many people comment on the show’s Britishness, but I was a bigger fan of American shows, and a lot of references are American. I was brought up on a diet of comedy of men dressing up as women, so maybe it’s just as well that we don’t reference British comedy as much.

We’ve got so many things wrong over the years. One of them was probably the show’s structure, which is that when a problem comes up, Duggee reveals that he’s previously encountered the same thing and has a badge for it, then the kids he looks after have to earn that badge. There will be a point where we can’t come up with any more badges. You go through the obvious ones very quickly, and after that comes a lot of lateral thinking.

One thing we’ve got right is that we wanted to jump the shark immediately. In The Rescue Badge, the first episode we made, there’s a moment when a cat chases some mice who drive a car and talk in voices like they’re in The Wild Bunch. The chase goes up a tree but then the mouse takes a lift in the tree trunk down again. That was questioned at the time, but I was adamant that we needed silly moments, because if we restrain ourselves this is going to get difficult really quickly. Our show is very silly. And it’s strange. And it’s slightly surreal. I think kids are fine about that.

I found my first sketch of one of the characters, Happy, just this weekend. It was dated 2011. That’s quite sobering, to realise I’ve been working on this for over a decade. Lots of people seem to know the show now, whether they watch it or not. Duggee was on Strictly the other day, for no apparent reason. But that’s a good level to be, I think. A cameo on Strictly.

Lucy Montgomery, assorted voices

Grant first saw me in the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood with my children one day, while he was there with his kids and it must have jogged something in his memory. He apparently thought, “Maybe she’ll do this new show I’m working on”. I went in to audition for it , and vomited every accent I could at him to see what he liked. I know voiceover work probably sounds like reading for money, but let me tell you, there is more to it than that. If you don’t come out with bloodshot eyes and really sweaty headphones, you haven’t done it right.

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‘A bit of Kathy Burke and a bit of Catherine Tate’ … Chew Chew the panda. Photograph: BBC Studios/PA

I’ve lost count of the characters I voice. I’m still playing Chew Chew the panda and Hennie the ostrich. I’ve been Spanish chickens and I’m sure I’ve played some chipmunks. And Katarina the singing flamingo, I love singing songs as her – Grant has let me become a pop star. There was a Katharine Hepburn-style antelope golfer, too. That’s the brilliant thing about Grant. I’m not just playing any golfing animal. He’s like, “Can it be Katharine Hepburn?” His references are so amazing. We did an Apocalypse Now episode. The children watching it do not yet know what they have, but in years to come they’ll go “Oh, that was what that was.”

Grant is a very gentle kind man but he knows exactly what he wants. He’s the one who lays down all the guide tracks for when it’s being animated. All of Hennie’s vocal swoops, he knows precisely what should go where. He’s a megalomaniac when it comes to ostriches.

I’ve done lots of animation with lovely people, but sometimes they will say the most irritating thing, which is “Can you just be neutral?” But with Grant it’s go big or go home. The voices need to punch through. Chew Chew, for instance, is a bit of Kathy Burke and a bit of Catherine Tate. Some people have said she sounds like Adele, so she could probably do it instead of me if I died.

Hey Duggee has such confidence about it. Every episode is a tiny masterpiece. I do wish my kids had been younger when it came out, because now they’re slightly too old to appreciate the phenomenon. Even David Bowie’s son tweeted about it. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?

Hey Duggee airs daily on CBeebies. Hey Duggee: The Live Theatre Show is at the Mayflower Studios, Southampton until 10 December, the Royal Festival Hall, London 14 December – 8 January then tours.

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