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Scotland’s own Simpsons’ land prime radio slot

Mike Wade 17 Dec 2006
His animated tale of a French racing cyclist kidnapped by the Mafia won him international plaudits and an Oscar nomination. Now Sylvain Chomet, the celebrated French animator, has turned his attention to the dysfunctional inhabitants of a fictional Scottish island as part of a BBC project.

Chomet, who is based in Edinburgh, has produced a pilot radio programme for the BBC, featuring Richard Wilson, Ashley Jensen, who co-starred with Ricky Gervais in Extras, and Michelle Gomez, of the Channel 4 comedy Green Wing.

The Clan, described as “the Scottish Simpsons”, will be aired on BBC Scotland on December 27.

If it is a success, the BBC is expected to fund a 13-part animated series based on the inhabitants of the fictional island of Rhuck.

Characters include the evil Laird of Rhuck, played by Wilson; Jenny, the Radio Rhuck DJ voiced by Jensen; and Morag, a regular at the Baldersed Stag Inn, played by Gomez, who threatens drinkers with violence or overbearing affection.

The cast also features drunks, dirty old men and Hebridean beauties, most sporting kilts and all sharing a morbid fear of incomers.

“It’s taking a cliché about the Scots and making it worse,” said Chomet. “Clichés are not really based on any reality. It’s like saying all Frenchmen have berets and strings of onions.

“Like The Simpsons, they are horrible, but you like them with all their bad behaviour.”

“What Sylvain did on Belleville (an earlier cartoon) was very clever,” said Harry Bell, of Tern TV, the production company behind The Clan. “He made the characters affectionate, warm, but caricatures of themselves. Scotland can wear that kind of treatment. This is nothing less than a Scottish Simpsons.”

Bell said the long-term plan was for a 13-part series of half-hour animated episodes.

The Clan is one of Chomet’s first productions since he moved from Paris in 2004 to establish his animation studio, Django films, in Scotland. Having brought together artists from around the world, Chomet and his 30-strong team are already working on The Illusionist, an 85-minute feature film based around a Jacques Tati script. The film is due for release in 2009.

Chomet said he was not concerned that The Clan had been produced for radio.

Alan Tyler, head of comedy and entertainment at BBC Scotland, is expected to make a decision on the animated series next month.

“The script for its radio pilot was strong and one that we were interested in developing. We therefore put some money behind it,” he said.

He's been strangely drawn here
The Sunday Times Dec 17, 2006

Sylvain Chomet, the acclaimed animator, talks to Mike Wade about his love for Edinburgh and his new project, dubbed the Scottish Simpsons
High above Christmas shoppers scurrying through the rain, an extraordinary project is taking shape. In an old building above an Edinburgh pub, Europe’s largest team of animators is at work on cartoons that will take Scotland to the world.

These are the studios of Django Films, established in 2004 when the Oscar-nominated animator Sylvain Chomet moved to the city. The Frenchman’s arrival was greeted with disbelief and cautious excitement; he was still basking in the admiration generated by his film Belleville Rendez-Vous. Now, as he leads a guided tour of the building, it is plain that Chomet, 43, is beginning to live up to the hype.

Behind each door a new team of artists is revealed. One door opens on a group working on images of a Scottish island, another has walls covered in cartoon characters of all shapes and sizes. In a third, the drawings are of Edinburgh itself.

These 30 artists — drawn from every corner of the globe — are helping to create The Clan, a television cartoon series billed by its backers as “the Scottish Simpsons”. With support from the BBC, the genius of Chomet as director, and some of the country’s best known actors voicing the production, prospects for the project are good.

Like The Simpsons, Chomet explains, The Clan will offer a kind of manic sitcom. “It is very surreal,” he says with a chuckle. Where Homer and Marge wallow in small-town America under the shadow of Springfield’s nuclear power station, the Clan’s members inhabit the even more remote island of Rhuck, where they live in fear of visitors from the mainland. And when a stranger, Jamie, is shipwrecked on the island, he is doomed to stay for ever.

Part of the first episode has been worked as a cartoon, but the pilot of The Clan is sound only and will be broadcast on BBC Radio Scotland during its day of comedy on December 27. “It’s like film in a peculiar way, but makes pictures in your mind,” says Chomet. “There is a scene in which mad Morag wrecks a pub. It wouldn’t work on film — but it works in the imagination, just as it would in an animation.”

A stellar cast heightens the impact. Jenny is voiced by Ashley Jensen, now a huge hit in America for her role as Christina in the comedy drama Ugly Betty; Michelle Gomez, madness personified in Green Wing, achieves similar levels of hysteria as Morag; and Richard Wilson adds a twist of malevolence to the character of the laird.

The Clan could easily overplay outmoded Scottish stereotypes, but Chomet’s experience is proof against that. His brilliant 2003 feature, Belleville Rendez-Vous, drew on every kind of French and American stereotype, but the comedy worked because Chomet so clearly loved his characters. The same affectionate hand will pen The Clan.

“It’s taking a cliché about the Scots and making it worse” he says in a soft voice that belies his big, lumbering frame. “Clichés are not really based on any reality. It’s like saying all Frenchmen have berets and strings of onions.

The important thing is that the characters are likeable. Like The Simpsons — they are horrible, but you like them with all their bad behaviour. These characters are like that. It’s like watching your neighbours, because the story just goes on and on.”

Harry Bell, the show’s executive producer, adds: “What Sylvain did on Belleville was very clever. He made the characters affectionate, warm, but caricatures of themselves. Scotland can wear that kind of treatment.”

BBC Scotland has already given funding to producers, Tern TV, to work up ideas for the animated series to be scripted by Moray Hunter and Colin Edwards. A decision to commission a 13-part series will be made in the new year, and the Cannes festival in April has been earmarked as a prime opportunity for worldwide sales.

Meanwhile, there is plenty to keep Chomet’s team going. Many of his animators are working on The Illusionist, an 85-minute feature film based around a Jacques Tati script, due for release in 2009.

Originally conceived as a journey of love and discovery that takes two characters across western Europe to Prague, Chomet has changed its location. Now the hero (“We just call him Tati”, he says) meets Alice on Iona, and the couple’s odyssey takes them to Edinburgh.

I made the decision to change the script because I have been to Prague and, though it is nice, it does not have the magical light you find here. And the story works so much better now — the journey from Iona to Edinburgh makes more sense.”

Backed by Pathé, Chomet has high hopes for the film. Yet any success will have been achieved without the input of Scottish Enterprise, the executive-backed agency that promotes business.

Chomet says he has already lost one substantial project because he lacked the financial support that he is convinced Scottish Enterprise should have been able to provide.

“They don’t take us seriously,” he complains. “They told us: ‘We can’t give you anything because you are based in the middle of Edinburgh.’ We said: ‘But we want to be in Edinburgh, because it is Edinburgh that is inspiring us.’ They want you to go to the airport or some dreary place. We are not DHL — we are artists. We are making a film about Edinburgh that will show the beauty of the city to the world and they are not interested.”

Other parts of the establishment have left a sour taste. Chomet is as disappointed in Edinburgh College of Art as he is in most other British art colleges. Quite simply, he says, they are not training kids as animators, and standards of drawing are very low.

“I should be able to pick students from the school and carry on training them. They should have the basics which I can use. But increasingly art schools don’t teach how to draw. I can’t just take anybody. I think it is very sad.”

But for all his gripes, Chomet is settled here. He has bought a house in North Berwick with his wife and business partner, Sally, and the couple have an eight-month-old daughter, Jinty. Every day Chomet makes the 40-minute train ride into the Waverley station and emerges again into that clear Edinburgh light.

“It is not so bad today,” he says, as the rain rattles against the window panes. “Edinburgh has an amazing clear quality of light, which you can only find in places like Provence.” It takes a real artist to see so far through the cold December drizzle.

The Clan is on BBC Radio Scotland at 4.05pm on Wednesday, December 27

Beginner's guide to The Clan

Richard Wilson: The evil Laird of Rhuck
Dispenses Christmas punch to the islanders with unseasonal hostility

Ashley Jensen: DJ Jenny
Radio Rhuck personified, the sweet voice of the beautiful DJ Jenny beguiles many an unwary traveller

Michelle Gomez: Morag
Never sit in Morag’s favourite seat at the Baldarsed Stag Inn — either violence or unpleasant displays of affection will ensue, and neither are desirable

Sandy Nelson: Jamie
Shipwrecked and mistaken for a mermaid, he’ll always be a long coracle ride away from the sanity of the mainland

Moray Hunter: Finn
The island’s resident dirty old man, everything makes him think of sex — especially the unfortunate mermaids
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