“I will lend this monkey my monocle,” says Tom Hardy, in a brightly cushioned nook. He’s flanked by a tutu-wearing elephant, an oversized chimp, and a badger named Jeff. On his lap is a blissfully snoozing Labrador-cross. He’s telling a story to the nation’s children, and—there’s no getting away from it—to some very happy mums.
In December 2016, that five-minute clip changed the course of CBeebies’ long-running Bedtime Stories segment, which is now flooded by Hollywood publicists asking for their clients to appear. It’s The Graham Norton Show of children’s television. The word is out among LA agents that Bedtime Stories is a fun gig that stars enjoy and audiences adore.
Producer Claire Taylor calls it “the Tom Hardy effect”. While careful to praise the long list of talent that appeared on the programme pre-Hardy, it’s been inundated with high-profile requests since Tom, she tells Den Of Geek.
Booking the Dark Knight and Inception actor for Bedtime Stories wasn’t part of a master plan; he approached them. Hardy’s wife, actor Charlotte Riley, “asked him to pop in a request,” Taylor says. “Of course we snapped it up.” Hardy was keen to take part for his family. “We find this,” she says, “actors want to be able to read bedtime stories so that their children or nieces and nephews can watch something that they do rather than hard-hitting dramas or scary films.”
Since Hardy, Bedtime Stories has welcomed Eddie Redmayne, Ewan McGregor and the MCU’s own Chris Evans. Elton John has read a story. Dolly Parton has read two. Parton’s people got in touch, and Bedtime Stories’ very small production team was flown to Nashville to record there. Taylor will never forget the day they were approached by the country singer, she says, “I had to pull over into a layby in such shock!” The last couple of years, she agrees, have really felt like a phenomenon. “The Tom Hardy phenomenon!”
Hardy’s second bedtime story aired on Valentine’s Day 2017, and was greeted by some grown-up viewers as a special treat. This Mumsnet thread quickly filled with saucy allusions to having ‘sweet dreams’, with grown-up viewers offering standing invitations for Hardy to come and tuck them in at his earliest convenience. The 2018 Valentine’s Day reader was Game Of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer, and the 2019 reader is Beauty And The Beast and The Hobbit’s Luke Evans. It’s not, says Taylor, a deliberate ploy to repeat the 2017 effect. “It doesn’t cross my mind that you’re putting ‘the hottie’ on Valentine’s” she says, the social media buzz “is just a bonus”. The show’s only interest, she emphasises, is in its young audience and making the right choice of books.
Luke Evans will read Jory John and Benjii Davies’ I Love You Already on Thursday evening’s programme. “It’s not a soppy, lovey-dovey, stereotypical Valentine’s tale,” says Taylor. “It’s about friendship. He uses the most amazing voices that he’s obviously really thought about – a gorgeous character voice for each the bear and the duck, which is brilliant for our little viewers.” He was a particularly game reader, says Taylor. “He asked for a little blanket to cover the bear and the duck.”
Bedtime Stories readers are always asked if they have particular children’s books that are special to them and their children. Many end up selecting their stories from established family favourites. For her 2019 reading, actor Sinead Keenan (Being Human, Little Boy Blue) opted for Julia Donaldson’s Sharing A Shell, which she read “with such gusto it was obvious she clearly knew it and read it every night to her kids,” says Taylor. “It does make a difference.”
The news that Will Young was to read a story celebrating February’s LGBT history month was met with enormous warmth, says Taylor. “He’s reading a book called Two Dads, a self-published title,” says Taylor. We’re really, really proud of that one.”
Otherwise, the selection of books is done for readers, to suit their characters and voices, and with the odd tie-in nod for grown-up viewers. Call The Midwife’s Helen George recently recorded a selection of books involving babies. Last year, Jodie Whittaker read Ada Twist, Scientist dressed in a lab coat as a nod to her Doctor Who role (incidentally, there’s a huge Who crossover with Bedtime Stories – over 40 Doctor Who actors have appeared on the programme).
Dressing up in costume is rare, and readers are asked to bring outfit changes with them to ensure each story has a different look. “If it’s a wintry story, we might advise them to bring a jumper,” says Taylor. “We’ve had someone wearing a unicorn horn. It depends if the celebrity is up for it.”
Readers sometimes bring in significant personal items. Jodie Whittaker wore a necklace featuring her child’s initial, while actor Laura Haddock brought in her childhood teddy bear, which was in the background for each story she read. Tom Hardy, memorably, brought his dog Woody to the recording. (“Brilliantly behaved,” says Taylor. “We didn’t hear a single bark!”)
The readings are most commonly filmed in the CBeebies House in Salford, but sometimes out on location and often at press junkets. The small but talented design team often has to “turn a boring hotel room into a gorgeous tiny world,” with very limited notice and a very limited budget, says Taylor. Time is the biggest pressure, and every reader receives the same fee.
Being the BBC, they’re not able to auction off props for charity (though if they were, the plush sausage dog and lilac blanket that featured in one of Hardy’s videos would no doubt prove popular). Occasionally the set dressing items do go home with the readers. “If we see that they’ve commented on, say, the avocado cushion, how lovely if they’re able to go home and give their child a memento, that does happen,” she says.
Said cushion featured in a recent reading of John Burningham’s Avocado Baby by actor, writer and comedian Rob Delaney, whose first CBeebies bedtime story in November last year made a huge impact. “It was a real joy to make that one,” Taylor remembers. “Rob asked if he could sign one of the three stories he read as he’d used [sign, symbol and speech system] Makaton with his family in the past so we worked carefully to select the book. We went for a lovely simple, repetitive story that kids could easily join in with and learn key signs about animals that are useful for them every day.”
Delaney’s family had used Makaton, the system familiar to many thanks to Justin Fletcher as Mr Tumble in CBeebies’ Something Special, to communicate with their infant son Henry, who passed away in January 2018. The actor has written and spoken with great compassion and dignity about his family’s loss and his gratitude for the support they received from the NHS. He used his bedtime story, Penny Dale’s Ten In The Bed to speak to children and parents who aren’t often addressed as an audience.
It was an emotional experience for all involved. “My team all had to take a deep breath here and there to get through that together,” Taylor remembers, “just because there was such a backstory about why Rob was doing that as a signed story. We took our time and it was a gorgeous environment, very positive. He really wanted to be there.”
After Ten In The Bed aired, the feedback was overwhelming, says Taylor. She describes one response in particular, a video of Tom McCartney delightedly watching and joining in with the story, as “just beautiful, really really special.”
“That, for us, is everything,” says Taylor, “to reach that audience.” Also a series producer on Something Special, Taylor has experience working with Makaton, charity representatives of which were invited to attend and assist with the filming. “But now,” she says, “my goodness, we’ve realised Bedtime Stories can and should as well include everyone. I can now also say that we’re filming more.”
Five new signed Bedtime Stories are on their way from Justin Fletcher. “We thought, right, let’s get the pro in as well and get some more in the can!” The team is currently on the lookout for celebrities who might use Makaton in their everyday lives with family members.
And as for the future? “There are requests coming out of our ears” assures Taylor, “and we have a wish-list.” There are more surprises and A-listers on their way to CBeebies House. The Tom Hardy effect is in full swing.