Firstly how did you get involved with Zzzap and The Media Merchants?
Tim Edmunds, Neil Buchanan and I were all working for TVS. Tim was a Producer in the Children’s Department, Neil was presenting, I was Head of Independent Programmes at the time when we heard that TVS had lost its franchise. We knew that the company was going to effectively close down within 18 months and we decided to set up a new production company together. In fact we set up two companies, The Media Merchants TV Company Ltd (production & rights holding company) and Television Support Services Ltd (production management company) so we could write, produce and manage all our own ideas and also provide a management & creative service to other newly formed production companies as needed.
We were able to start producing our own shows pretty quickly, Art Attack being the first. Zzzap was the second show we wrote for ITV who wanted a show that could be enjoyed by hearing impaired children. Neil came up with the idea (as he did on almost all of our shows) to create a show that everybody could enjoy including hearing impaired and ITV commissioned it. There may have been ideas floating around in TVS but I was not involved in them, I do not remember them shooting a pilot.
I understand there was at least one pilot for Meridian during 1991 or early 1992 (heavily rumoured to have been called Buzz!). Do you recall if there were any notable differences between the pilot(s) and Series 1? i.e. cast, characters, crew, concept of the show, locations etc.
In fact we did not produce any pilots at all of any of our shows, we were able to secure commissions through creating ideas and writing detailed format documents and meeting with the commissioners. Fortunately we all had a very good reputation in the industry and with the commissioning editors. In those days the commissioners had confidence to commission programmes without having to shoot pilots. We did however go through all sorts of ideas for the title and which characters should be featured. Neil tended to have the ideas Tim then wrote the first draft and they then ‘ pitched’ them to me. We then all threw in thoughts and ideas. Tim quite rightly always used to say “there’s no such thing as a bad idea”. We had a golden rule never to criticise any idea no matter how mad. We spent many happy hours together often in Tim’s barn coming up with ideas.
You played a vital part in extensively developing and managing a vast array of Media Merchants productions alongside Neil Buchanan and Tim Edmunds. These not only included Zzzap! and Art Attack, but Terror Towers, Animal Crazy, Quids In, Telegantic Megavision, WOW!, It’s a Mystery and You’ll Never Believe It. As a Production Manager for Zzzap! between 1993 – 1997 and Director of the Media Merchants from 2000 onwards, how was the show different compared to other Media Merchants productions you worked on?
When we set up the companies, we all did pretty much everything. But it did not take long for us to develop our own roles in the business; Neil would come up with most of the ideas and present many of them, Tim tended to produce or Exec Produce everything and I ran the businesses. I negotiated every broadcast contract, hiring on and off screen talent, setting up merchandising deals and production managing the shows etc. I ran all business elements of the group. Having said that we were all pretty good at doing each others jobs (except Tim and I were rubbish at presenting!) and could help if needed. We had an equal say in everything and we never said who was in charge because we genuinely made all the key decisions together and trusted each other perform our roles to the best of our ability. I production managed all the shows but as we grew, Matt Porter came on board to help, I started him off as a runner and we trained him to production manage, he ended up being an excellent PM.
Zzzap! ran for over 10 series and changed a lot over the years in terms of appearance and production team (most noticeably when Tricky Dicky was replaced by Daisy Dare and when Smart Arty was succeeded by Minnie the Mini Magician). Which character(s), cast or crew members did you enjoy working with the most?
Yes the show did evolve over the years, we used to spend a lot of time working on improving all the shows we did and we were always making small and sometimes big changes. My personal favourite in Zzzap was Cuthbert Lilly (he’s dead silly). Richard Waites played Cuthbert and did a fantastic job.
There was a spin-off called Cuthbert’s Diary in 1997 featuring Richard Waites as Cuthbert Lilly – which I remember vividly watching! Despite this being a one-off special for CITV Comedy Week, many later shows such as Scottish TV’s Sharp Practice and Timmy Towers were recommissioned for a full series. Were there any plans for a Cuthbert’s Diary series?
Yes we did indeed do a one off special with Richard for CITV comedy week, in fact I think we also produced a show that included lots of CITV hit shows at the time called “CrazyHowBadAttack” or something like that. It was an honour to be asked by ITV to put that together. We never did pitch a spin off series with Cuthbert, I can’t remember why, possibly because Richard was not the easiest person to deal with. Timmy Towers was not a Media Merchants show, I did however help develop it and we production managed the series for Timmy.
What day-to-day or big challenges did you face when working on the show?
It was certainly a challenging show to write as there was never any dialogue! Tim and Neil did a fantastic job on coming up with stories every week (we rarely, if ever used outside writers) that could be made within the budget we had. Also each segment was a show in itself and had to be managed as such, it took ages to make.
Zzzap! still has a huge following due to social media, nostalgia and the likes of YouTube. Are you aware of the fanbase and legacy of the show?
I love the fact that the show is still being watched, I had no idea how popular it still is until recently. I do get emails and letters sometimes from all over the world asking about our shows but Zzzap and Art Attack seen to have passed the test of time more than the others. I am very proud of the fact that so many kids enjoy watching our shows, we all worked very hard on them.
Zzzap! ended rather suddenly in 2001. Were there any plans in place for a series in 2002 and were you assigned to work on it?
It did indeed, we sold the group in early 2000 to a company called The Britt Allcroft Group, a very big children’s TV and Merchandising company famous for Thomas The Tank Engine and many other shows. The three of us were locked into the group for five years. They made me Head of Global Production, which meant I had less time to spend on our shows which sadly lost there way a little, It was a very corporate company and was later taken over by HIT entertainment. Sadly when CITV told us that the show was coming to an end, Head office were not too concerned. Also, every show comes to a natural end and Zzzap was close to that, although I do think that we should have had a couple more years.
Finally, what do you remember most or best about working on Zzzap?
Without question, working with such a talented team, not just Tim and Neil but all the production team, cast and crew were fantastic. I have gone on to run public companies, produce feature films and get involved in some very large projects but without doubt my happiest memories were being partners with Tim and Neil and playing my part in creating shows such as Zzzap.
Thank you Peter for the brilliant interview! 🙂