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    Toonhound meets Keith Littler and Jasper Jones - producer and star of "Little Red Tractor" (Little Entertainment Group)
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   Me and Mister Jones...     (15.11.10)
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   Many of you will know that The Hound has a lot of love for Little Red Tractor.
   This small rural series with a big heart was produced by Keith Littler and the
   Little Entertainment Group, and there's just a feeling that it's somehow never
   really had the appreciation it deserves from the wider world at large. 
That's not
   to say it hasn't been a success. Goodness, we ended up with 78 episodes of this 
   fine show. And let's be frank, you don't get to make 78 episodes of anything
   without it being an unqualified success. Even so, there's no escaping the fact
   that LRT has had to plow it's determined little furrow alongside likes of
   Bob the Builder and Fireman Sam and Roary the Racing Car and so many
   great big productions from HIT and Chapman Entertainment and more, and
   Stan and Red and the Babblebrook gang have had to look on as the bigger
   boys in the stop-motion
school yard have run off with all the awards at the
   BAFTAs and the BAAs. 

   So why are we rabbiting on about this fine series again, after production has
   long-since ended? Well, as luck would have it, The Hound has recently had
   the very good fortune to exchange emails with the Tractor King himself,
   Keith Littler. And that exchange sooon snowballed into something completely
   wonderful. To cut a long story short, The Hound now has in his possession a
   terrific write-up about the series, from the producer's very own notepad. And
   better - ridiculously better - than that, he has aquired something he can only
   refer to as a
Most Marvellous & Wonderful Thing. It's an original puppet from
   the series. Oh yes, I kid you not. It's Mr Jones - Jasper Jones - of Beech Farm.
   Legitimate, utterly unique original. Keith says that he's never, ever, ever, ever
   released one of the original models from the production vaults before, so it
   really is a huge surprise and honour for The Hound to welcome him in to his
   animation collection. It is the most extraordinary creation, something that
   means The Hound is now forever indebted to Keith's humbling generiosity,
   and something that's simply far too special to keep under wraps.

   It's Jasper Jones - for real! (image copyright Little Entertainment Group)

   Here are the facts for you. There were four copies made of each of the main
   characters in the series, principally to enable several scenes to be shot at
   any one time. But it also enabled each animator to set up the models to fit
   their individual needs. Each model was was made of silicon, overlaying a metal
   armature. Mr Jones stands around 8 inches (21cm) tall. You can move his
   limbs, his wrists and ankles and fingers, etc, and there's a lovely subtle
   stiffness to the joints - just enough so that the figure holds its pose as you
   manipulate it, without you having to exert too much force. Jasper's fingers
   are a little the worse for wear, with the ends of armature exposed through
   the silicon, poor thing...

   This version of Mr Jones is sporting his "Summer" wear. The clothing
   is exquisitely tailored to scale. Those trousers are proper corduroy, and
   Mr Jones is even sporting a little belt, with a silver buckle. What you can't
   convey in a photograph is the prescence the character radiates. That
   interior skeletion give him real weight in your hands. It's as if you're cradling
   a living thing in your palm, and one would imagine an animator could
   get a great riff of that, as they prepare and shoot each scene. It really is
   a most beguiling thing. You can gaze into this puppet's eyes and see
   him eulogizing and pontificating, just like he does in the series. And
   it goes up to another level entirely when you watch the series again,
   and look across to the actual puppet, standing in your living room.
   Honestly, you half expect it to gesticulate towards the screen and
   pass comment on its performance!

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   The Making of Little Red Tractor...    (15.11.10)

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    What follows now is an exclusive piece Keith Littler has put together
    for Toonhound. But just before we begin, I'm sure there are a few folks out
    there who would like a little more background info. So you should steer
    yourself towards the Little Entertainment Group web site, which details
    Keith's work behind and in front of the camera. LEG have recently brought
    us the live-action "Roman Mysteries" series, which has been a big BBC hit.
    And Mr Littler is currently leaping and singing all over our
screens as one
    of the founding members of The Bopps (he's Keith Bopp). On the animation
    front, Keith has had dipped into animated waters over the years, but LEG's
    first fully-fledged standalone commission was for the 2D series "Billy".
    This was followed by the company's first stop-motion series Merlin the
    Magical Puppy (which is another gem!), before Stan, Red and the
    Babblebrook gang rode into town. Here, then, is what Keith has to
    say about the development and production of "Little Red Tractor":

   "As Merlin the Magical Puppy was coming to an end I had a
    decision to make. I had set up a stop-frame studio to undertake
    this commission from ITV including sixteen excellent people, set
    and model building facilities and spacious studios. The choice was
    simple, go back to my career as a post-production studio owner
    or continue with my first love, which was production.

    
It was not a straightforward option. I had no show. If I kept the
    studio open then everyone working there would have to be full
    time as there was no other similar work for miles - so freelance
    agreements were impossible. The costs of running the place
    were close to 300,000 a year....in Gloucestershire!!!

    I tried to create a project myself but could not settle on anything
    that I felt passionate about or that I could convince the crew to
    get stuck into. Then I met a chap called Peter Tye who had been
    running this Little Red Tractor brand for 8 or 9 years. It was a
    low-key thing. A few videos, books and badges. Stan the farmer
    was a large, balding, middle-aged man, the tractor was a modern
    design with cabin and, for me, it was all jolly but not a pre-school
    proposition.

    However I read one of the books and really liked it and I liked
    Peter Tye and his passion. I asked him if I could re-design it,
    make it younger and cuter and all together more CBeebies.
    To his credit he was willing to allow me to do my thing on the
    single proviso that I stuck to the integrity of the concept,
    as created by Colin Reeder.

    I
did not want to do a Thomas The Tank Engine, Bob the Builder
    or Brum, even though I loved the shows. I wanted to create real
    vehicles, but without faces. We could create the effect with
    headlights, grilles, etc. but they would not be faces and the
    vehicles would not talk. I wanted the little ones to recognise
    everything for when they saw a real farm.

    We set about designing it. The BBC, though a major and long
    standing client, had yet to acknowledge me as a stop-frame
    contender, so I decided to make a two-minute pilot to demonstrate
    our increasing skill and development as an animation studio.
    We set our standards very high, moving engine parts on the
    tractor, beautifully tailored costumes for the characters,
    genuine textures in our buildings, etc.

    
The meeting arrived in September 2001 and, with knees knocking
    and clean shirt on, I pitched it. A disaster! Theresa Plummer-Andrews
    (head of Children's acquisitions) took one look at the gorgeous red
    tractor model I place on the table between us and announced,
    "I bloody hate tractors!"

    
Visions of the total collapse of the studio flashed before my eyes
    and I left rather concerned that I had spent all my hard earned loot
    on a ''wrong 'un."

    
My distributors were uncertain and the BBC rejection didn't help
    their optimism.

    
It was exactly a week later on my way to Cannes for the TV
    festival that I got a call telling me the BBC had changed their
    minds. We were in business, albeit with a whole list of tweaks and
    amendments to make, but in business nevertheless. With a BBC
    deal in my hand I had to go and find a further 1.2m to complete
    the series, but these were times when there was a bit of loot
    around and one or two incentives for investors, so it didn't take
    long to complete the commercial framework.

    
Then the fun started. What vehicles would we have? What people
    and why? Where would they live? We had Gosling Farm but what
    about the neighbourhood? What should that be called?

    
Being in charge has it merits as, ultimately, I was able to get the
    characters, designs and vehicles that I wanted. However, wanting
    something is not enough - I was blessed with a team of people who
    were excellent at realising the vision...and in many cases improving
    upon it.

    
Casting was a dream, except for Stan. Everyone had a view.
    My view was Phil Jupitus as I had directed him on Watership Down
    and loved his take on character delivery. Somebody else on the
    production wanted Les Dennis (who did a great voice for us but,
    if memory serves, the BBC couldn't agree on it). Stephen Tompkinson
    was in the mix from the start, but very busy. Finally one day, after
    more exasperated meetings and no final decision I picked up the
    phone again and, to my surprise, he was available and delivered
    exactly the voice everyone could agree on. I've never worked
    with a better reader, or more multi-talented actor. A very funny
    man and genuine good egg, too.

    
Derek Griffiths became the rock and roll loving garage owner,
    Walter and doubled up as Mr Jones. Everyone at the studio
    became even greater Griffith's fans with every episode.
    He was brilliant! Oh, and what a singer!

    
These two chaps were supported by the top animation voice talent
    in the land and I've never regretted a single decision - except to
    have gone back and created a character for Phil Jupitus. That
    would have been perfection.

    
We aimed to have three to four animators working on a different
    aspect of up to three episodes at a time. The walls were covered in
    storyboards and amended scenes. As each scene was completed
    there was a ritual marking up of the board with a large red cross
    to signify it was done. Watching all of the boards disappear under
    rows of red crosses was a thrill.

    
We had a target of 10 seconds per animator per day, which was
    managed by Series Director Russell Haigh. Of course, each change
    of set required creation of set, light changes, set dressing and
    movement plan.

    
Behind the scenes there was constant attention to each animator's
    set of characters (tightening of joints, repairs and costume
    amendments), design and build of props and creation of sets
    for the next three episodes.

    
The constant activity and creative energy had to be seen
    to be believed.

    
Back at the sound studios, the music and effects creation was
    overseen by my colleague Mike Cross and was flawlessly fab. I saw
    an episode recently and had forgotten just how good the
    soundtracks were.

    
Russ Haigh, Jimmy Hibbert and myself worked all of the scripts
    between us and kept to a strict brief of an 'A' plot allied to
    sub-plot, rather than the traditional linear storytelling one
    usually sees in this age group. I think the scripts are consistently
    good and a lot of credit goes to our BBC Execs who worked hard
    to maintain freshness and originality. I know there were many
    battles over how stories would develop and what role the vehicles
    would play.

    
75 episodes later we finally finished. To this day, the series still
    comes up in conversation with all manner of people...."

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   Erm. Like here, Keith. It comes up at Toonhound a lot, because it's terrific!

   Anyway, there you have it, straight from the mouth of the producer. Little Red
   Tractor is a gem of a series, with some fantastic characters and banter and
   interplay. I know, I know, The Hound is repeating himself. And he's going to
   repeat himself once more as he says thank you, thank you, thank you over
   and over to Keith for his incredible gift. Jasper's finished his photo-shoot and
   he's now been returned to his bubble wrap, whilst The Hound ponders the best
   way to display him, and considers again just how very lucky he is to have
   received such a wonderful gift. Keith, I can't thank you enough...

   Till next time!

   
  The Hound says "Stay tooned!"


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