There are certain things that we all know and expect to happen when you become a parent. But one that you don’t tend to get warned about in the training manuals or NCT classes is that you will become intimately familiar with the programming output of the CBeebies channel. Even when your offspring is too young to truly understand what’s actually happening on the screen, it becomes a handy way to distract them with noise, colour and repetition for a valuable few minutes. And that means that, in place of all the TV shows and movies you fall badly behind on (I still haven’t seen The Force Awakens or the last Hunger Games), you get to watch all of this stuff instead.
Of course, being programming that’s aimed at zero-to-five-year-olds, it’s fair to say that most of what CBeebies puts out isn’t really the most engaging or stimulating for the average adult, even those of us in a persistent state of arrested development. Most of it is well-meaning in intent, of course, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily entertaining in execution – and some of it (I’m looking at you, Me Too) is downright rotten.
But you find the bright spots where you can. I know several mums who are more than a bit fond of Mr Bloom, and dads who feel similarly about Katy from I Can Cook. I’m always amused whenever I catch Messy Goes To Okido and hear Adam Buxton voicing the title character, or Simon Greenall in the otherwise-not-much-cop Octonauts. And despite its low production values, Let’s Play is often good fun, thanks to its engaging presenter/actor pair Sid and Rebecca.
The brightest spot of all, however, is a cartoon that has become – and I mean this genuinely and completely unironically – my favourite thing on television right now. Created by Oscar-nominated director Grant Orchard and his company Studio AKA, Hey Duggee debuted in December 2014, and has so far run for one series of 52 episodes that are currently in repeat rotation (and thankfully, mostly available on iPlayer).
Like most cartoons aimed at children of this age range, Hey Duggee follows a simple and deliberately repetitive formula. It’s about five animal children – Norrie the squirrel, Tag the rhino, Betty the octopus, Roly the hippo and Happy the crocodile – who make up a pre-school playgroup called the Squirrel Club. It’s run by a massive dog named Duggee, who only communicates by a series of woofs. Each episode, the Squirrels either take part in a fun activity, or solve some kind of problem, and at the end they earn a particular badge for doing so. Then they give Duggee a hug, and their parents arrive to take them home.
Beyond that basic premise, however, there’s a wit and imagination – not to mention huge volume of charm – that puts Hey Duggee far above almost every other show like it. Every aspect of the series is expertly wrought – starting with the animation, which is bright and clean and simple, but in what seems like a deliberate stylistic choice rather than simply by production necessity (and indeed, its simplicity means that it’s more striking when it then does something unusual). The music, too, is a cut above what’s usually found in shows of this type – from the tremendously catchy theme tune to the brilliantly varied incidental music by Tinsounds.
And the voices are well-judged, with a Peppa Pig level of quality in the young actors that voice the Squirrels, alongside Alexander Armstrong’s clipped tones as the fourth-wall-breaking narrator. Each of the main characters has their own distinct personalities – broadly-drawn, of course, but clearly recognisable (my personal favourite is Roly, the loudmouthed and hyper-excitable hippo). There are neat touches such as Happy the crocodile being adopted (his parent is an elephant, but this is never commented on or drawn attention to – just present in the opening and closing sequences and thus perfectly normalised), and a wide range of additional one-off and recurring animal characters, from a UFO-conspiracy-nut hyena to a gang of New York wiseguy-inspired mice (and while most of the additional incidental characters are voiced by crew members, fans of Brian Pern might spot the familiar tones of Lucy Montgomery in a few different roles).
All of this would make Hey Duggee simply a charming and well-made show for children, were it not for the fact that, even watching as an adult, it’s often tremendously funny. What’s impressive is that it doesn’t appeal to adults simply by throwing in gags that would go over the kids’ heads (although you will spot fleeting reference gags to things like The Simpsons, Monty Python and The Life Aquatic). Rather, it does it with jokes that are just a genuine, all-ages kind of funny. Every episode I’ve watched has given me at least one proper laugh-out-loud moment – and I’m not even the target audience. It’s an effortless, wide-ranging appeal that calls to mind Pixar at their best.
And every so often, it takes a step into something even more clever – such as the fourth-wall-breaking brilliance of The Puppet Show Badge, an episode in which the Squirrels put together hand-made puppets of themselves to tell the story of their adventures earlier that day. When the puppet show starts, the episode actually switches to showing the handmade puppets themselves, filmed in live-action – cutting back-and-forth between that and animation as necessary. It’s the sort of thing that feels like it wouldn’t occur to the makers of an ordinary show – a lovely and hugely imaginative piece of stylistic flair.
I have no idea how good a job Hey Duggee does of appealing to CBeebies’ actual target market, as my own daughter is only old enough to enjoy the theme music (which she does bop along to with a massive grin on her face every time we watch it, which is daily). But it certainly works for me – and I can’t think of another cartoon in recent years that I’ve enjoyed quite as much. If you want to check it out but don’t have the excuse of a pre-schooler in the house to justify putting the channel on, then The Paper Boat Badge episode is probably the strongest example of basically everything I love about it.
Or alternatively, The Super Squirrel Badge is probably closest to the standard Den of Geek area of subject matter:
Maybe I’m just getting soft in my old, newly-parented age. But having something as clever, funny, charming and downright upbeat in the world as Hey Duggee just seems to make it feel like a better place.