Serialized adventures of an orphan mouse who dreams of becoming a heroic warrior come to the screen [in April 2001] through American Public Television. Redwall, an animated series about woodland creatures in a medieval abbey, stands apart from PBS kiddie fare as a series that's not appropriate for the Barney and Dragon Tales set. Redwall is for school-aged kids.
British author Brian Jacques, whose books are the basis for the series, began writing them out of dissatisfaction with modern children's stories. "I thought to meself, what's wrong with kids discovering the magic of a real story like I used to read as a kid?" When producers began developing the TV show, Jacques made sure it was structured like a "Saturday matinee serial," complete with gripping, scary elements.
"Kids at the matinees loved being scared by the clutching hand—that was part of the fun," he told Current.
In the first episodes of Redwall, Cluny the Scourge is the scary villain, raiding a village and quickly making an orphan of poor Matthias, a boy mouse who aspires to be a heroic warrior. Peace-loving woodland creatures at Redwall Abbey take in Matthias and discourage his fighting fantasies, which nevertheless prove useful when Cluny threatens to take over the Abbey.
Jacques said his reading audience is aged 8 to 80. The upper end of this fits public TV's audience profile quite well. But it may take some special strategies to draw in a regular audience of school-aged kids—especially since parents will want to keep Baby Bop fans away from the TV set when Cluny's band of rats launch their attack.
PBS declined to distribute the series partly for this very reason, according to John Wilson, senior programming v.p. "Because of the nature of animation, we know you'll end up with younger kids in the audience, along with the target audience." For this reason, an animated show on PBS needs to function at "two levels" to be appropriate for both age groups. The sword-fighting and scary bad guys in the Redwall adventure stories were problematic for PBS. "Given the amount of animation that's already in the schedule, we didn't feel it could overcome some of its challenges."
Nelvana Ltd., the Toronto firm that co-produced the series with European partners, is distributing Redwall as a free program offer via American Public Television. "We knew the audience was a different target than PBS's standard fare, and wanted to be really aggressive in marketing it to stations," said Jill Newhouse Calcaterra, v.p. of marketing.
Stations covering 70 percent of the country plan to broadcast Redwall, according to Beth Potier, APT spokeswoman. She described the carriage rate as "very high," even among APT's free programs.
Klutz, a California publisher acquired last fall by Nelvana, is underwriting the public TV broadcasts. Klutz makes "books-plus" products, which combine books about kid-oriented activities with relevant materials, such as a face painting book packaged with face paints. Klutz also underwrites Bookworm Bunch, a Nelvana-produced Saturday morning children's block on PBS.
WGBH has scheduled a special Patriots Day April 16 marathon of all 13 Redwall episodes. Holiday Monday marathons of series such as Arthur and Dragon Tales have "worked quite well" in Boston, said Ron Bachman, program director. "This is the first time we've scheduled a brand new series with no regular place in the schedule." The response from viewers will help determine how 'GBH schedules Redwall on a regular basis.
"The fantasy violence is a little bit of a question mark for us," said Bachman, noting that none of the violence is shown explicitly. "I like the fact that it's based on a well-known book series, and that author appears in each show urging kids to check out the books." Publicity materials for Redwall tout its imaginative qualities and lessons in character education.
In Jacques' mind, a "great warrior" isn't a character played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis. "It could be someone of a child's age who others look to for help because there's something in them that's honest and tells the truth and is not a bully."
Thirteen additional episodes based on the Redwall books are now in production, and Nelvana is compiling a 90-minute movie/pledge special from the first package of shows.