A colour of magic: BBC Studios talks Bluey, Hey Duggee, His Dark Materials and Terry Pratchett

It’s with a great sense of betrayal to my own ambitions of a writing career that, sat opposite Rikesh Desai, BBC Studios’ licensing director, I am forced to admit to having read only one book by Terry Pratchett in my lifetime.

Of the ‘at least 32 titles’ that the treasured author has been credited with writing, it wasn’t even one of his particularly most celebrated ‘must reads’ that found its way from a charity book giveaway table just a few months into my 32nd year, and onto my heaving bookshelf.

My only redemption is that the copy of ‘Going Postal’ that now sits there, does so having been thoroughly read and thoroughly enjoyed, and guilty of enticing me willingly into Pratchett’s Discworld universe. So, it’s when BBC’s Desai begins to tell me of the licensing potential for its new IP, The Watch, a fantasy series inspired by Pratchett’s fictional universe, and the book of the same name, that I only wish I hadn’t been so late to the party.

With filming currently taking place in South Africa, The Watch, Desai explains, is best described as Blade Runner meets Monty Python, meets Lord of the Rings. It’s an amalgamation of two books from the Discworld series targeted at not only the hardcore Pratchett fanbase that spans the globe, but, with “simplified story arcs from the Discworld universe,” has been made just as accessible to the mainstream audience, too.

As a self-aware bibliophile, it’s likely a topic I’ll linger on a little too long in any scenario. Admittedly, The Watch won’t necessarily be setting the toy world alight any time soon; BBC Studios is confident it has that market covered in the continued success of Bluey and Hey Duggee, but the vision as to where the property can sit – amid the ever-growing geek market – is crystal clear.

The same could just as easily be said of His Dark Materials, the upcoming co-production between BBC Studios and HBO, based on the wildly successful book trilogy from Philip Pullman.

“This is hopefully going to fill that slot left by the Game of Thrones series,” says Desai. “That’s how HBO is looking at it, and it’s great to have them on board with us for this adaptation. From the trailers and rushes that we have seen, it looks fantastic. It’s got an art deco feel to it, alongside these fantastical gadgets. It’s got the perfect balance and we think it’s going to do big things for us in the coming months and years.”

Arriving some 20 years after the publication of Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – comprising Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, the serialised television adaptation, starring James McCavoy and Ruth Wilson, will look to tap into a new generation of fans as much as those of two decades ago.

What both His Dark Materials and The Watch bring to the BBC Studios portfolio for this year and next, however, is a real chance for the outfit to stamp itself firmly on that geek-fantasy-science-fiction market that is trending with such strength at the moment.

It’s certainly a robust and healthy market that continues to pick up great mainstream awareness, while presenting a fine opportunity for a company well-versed, thanks to the success of Doctor Who, in telling stories to enthral the ever-growing audience for fantasy.

But this is only part of the BBC Studios story, not forgetting, of course, that the BBC is a powerhouse in children’s entertainment, and by extension, a trusted name and compatriot of the toy industry.

With a history of developing rich content for the children’s market, and vast success in growing IP into the consumer space, it’s little wonder that BBC Studios has already seen such early success for even its newest brands. Brands such as Bluey.

“We have high expectations of Bluey,” says Desai. “The toys launched in Australia earlier this year, and already, the team at Target have told us that it’s among their fastest-selling pre-school items. It’s had a tremendous early reception; it feels like it’s an evergreen property, but it has only been around for a year.”

Recently, BBC Studios secured a deal with Disney to broadcast Bluey to global audiences, following its Australian debut earlier this year. The series launched on Disney US in September this year and will continue its roll-out across Europe throughout October.

“Our plans are to take the toys and all of our consumer products to the US market from next summer, and in the UK from Autumn 2020, all things going well,” Desai tells Licensing.biz during our catch up at this year’s Brand Licensing Europe show.

“Bluey is already commanding a success in a very competitive space; pre-school. It’s got this humour that both kids and parents can enjoy and appreciate, so it starts off with this generational appeal and real, genuine laugh out loud moments for families, and that is really important in establishing trust with parents.”

There’s no question as to just how popular the Hey Duggee brand is among children and families today. For proof, you only need to look towards London’s Design Museum, who has just signed up for a Designing Hey Duggee exhibition to run this October school half-term, in which kids and families can get up close with the design of this popular pre-school series, to learn how Hey Duggee was created and what inspired its creator in developing this warmly-loved pre-school character.

“It’s because Hey Duggee has such a striking design that it is getting recognised for this appeal,” says Desai. “We have been on a long journey with Hey Duggee and we are now in year three of our licensing programme with it, and still, it is the design that is translating so well into toys and our softlines. In fact, our softlines business has gone phenomenally well.”

It’s the pre-school specialists, Golden Bear that are master toy for plush and plastics. Safe hands for a brand that couldn’t have found a better partner to nurture an IP with such a pre-school appeal.

“Plush is the top performing product, but it is starting to expand out now into these new plastics – very nice looking, top quality plastics from Golden Bear. Add to that, the new wooden toy line from 8th Wonder and what we have got is a really striking line up of well designed, quality toys that will stand the test of time.”

Hey Duggee is also currently the focal point of conversations around expanding its live entertainment offering. It’s becoming part and parcel of the children’s space, today, and BBC Studios is keen to see just how the pre-school IP can grow within it.

“We already have Hey Duggee live shows at CBeebies Land in Alton Towers Resort, but there’s a wider conversation that is ongoing as to how we expand on that for the brand and give Duggee a larger footprint in that space.”

For Desai and the licensing team around him at BBC Studios, it’s all about developing the most immersive brand experiences possible, in order to maintain fan and audience engagement with its slate of – and he emphasises this one emphatically – Great British content. It so happens that this is the BBC’s answer to the shifting licensing and retail landscapes.

“There have been a lot of changes in licensing,” he says. “The market is down, and toys are down. There’s a whole change in retail confidence and the retail landscape, on top of which consumer behaviour is changing.

“But the one constant is that fans want to be engaged. What we are doing is ensuring we push out strength of content. We have shows that have the chance to really resonate with fans, and build on all of those emotional connections. We are all about the evergreen, and we are in with every brand that we have to our name, for the long haul.”

It seems then, that much like myself and the newly formed appreciation of the works of Terry Pratchett, BBC Studios will be in this for the journey.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent almost eight years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@biz-media.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobGHutchins if ranting is your thing...

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