Punky, a cartoon heroine for the Saorview age
The character of Punky, created by the writer Lindsay Jane Sedgwick, is voiced by Aimee Richardson, who herself has Down syndrome and Down Syndrome Ireland reviewed material during production of the series. “It’s basically a look at everyday life from Punky’s perspective. It’s her daily routine,” says Monster’s Gerard O’Rourke. “She lives in the moment.”
Monster, which has a track record in animated kids’ TV shows through Ballybraddan and Fluffy Gardens, was approached to produce the series by the Irish Film Board, which had granted development money to Sedgwick. RTÉ was keen on the project and commissioned it, while Monster also secured licence fee funding from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Sound & Vision Fund.
After several phases of development, it was decided that Punky would be aimed at the discerning preschool audience. The 20 episodes, each seven minutes long, will be broadcast twice a day on the RTÉjr programming block of RTÉ 2, before finding another home later in the summer on the dedicated RTÉjr channel on Saorview, RTÉ’s free-to-air digital terrestrial television (DTT) service.
“To have a dedicated children’s channel is an amazing thing,” says O’Rourke, as RTÉ 2 pushes RTÉjr off the air whenever the Olympics or the European Championships or the World Cup is on – “anything that is more important than children’s programmes basically and the children’s programmes get bumped.”
RTÉ 2 also attempts the tricky task of catering for kids ranging in age from two to 15, which means that during school holidays, the preschool programmes often give way. The RTÉjr Saorview channel will mean there is a home purely for younger kids’ programming, while the older kids’ shows (styled TRTÉ) remain on RTÉ 2.
“By having these long schedules, RTÉ is obviously going to need more content. They can acquire programming, but the onus will be on them to support more home-produced content,” says O’Rourke. “So [DTT] is for us very much something that will drive our business over the next few years.”
Much of this optimism depends, however, on the frequency with which RTÉjr chooses to repeat programming blocks. Early reports about the channel suggested it would run the kids’ shows on a tight loop rather than making a major extension to its schedule of new programming. But if the broadcaster does find the resources to avoid a parent-torturing level of repeats, it will find a home animation industry with the talent to produce low-cost original content – content that can become cultural exports via industry sales events like Mipcom Junior at Cannes and New York’s Kidscreen Summit.
Monster has already had export success with Fluffy Gardens, which it presold to UK and Australian broadcasters. It then brought in a distribution partner, Target Entertainment, which put up the finance for sales into other territories. “Fluffy Gardens has reached 100 countries now,” says O’Rourke. Monster is close to securing international presales for Punky, talking to broadcasters in Australia and Germany, while the series is currently being market-tested in the UK by CBeebies. The initial feedback has been “very positive”, he says.
Punky is described as a happy girl who loves music, dancing, playing with her big brother, Con, and jumping around with her dog, Rufus. She enjoys helping around the house and trying to make Cranky, her grandmother, a little less cranky.
“We don’t overly emphasise that she has Down syndrome. She tells you at the start of each episode that she has it and as she’s voiced by Aimee, she sounds like she has Down syndrome,” O’Rourke says. Her family sometimes has to stop everything and pull together to help her cope with unanticipated disruptions to her daily routine. “But she gets things done as well,” he explains.
Though the series deals with themes of difference, diversity and the problem-solving issues specific to people with Down syndrome, O’Rourke says he hopes Punky doesn’t “get pigeonholed” as an educational programme. “We hope that it will be as mainstream as Peppa Pig or Dora.”