Entertainment & Arts

Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein launches British TV show

Strange Hill High
Image caption Strange Hill High was made using a mix of old and new animation techniques

Josh Weinstein has had spells in charge of US TV favourites The Simpsons and Futurama. Now he has made his first series for British TV.

He may have been a linchpin of some of America's most popular animated shows, but making a series in the UK is "a dream", says Josh Weinstein.

He readily volunteers himself as one of the many US writers who look to Britain as - as he puts it - "the God of comedy".

Weinstein immediately lists Monty Python and Fawlty Towers among his favourite British programmes before declaring The IT Crowd to be "my favourite comedy of all time".

Then he reveals a more unlikely fixation with a British TV classic.

"One of my favourite shows ever is Postman Pat," he says of the gentle children's tale of a jolly postman and his trusty black-and-white cat who help villagers out of low-danger scrapes.

Image caption Strange Hill High's writers include Josh Weinstein and Emma Kennedy, who is also the voice of Becky

"I don't know why, but I was obsessed with it. I didn't know of it as a kid, but as a young adult. I remember ordering it in the videotape days, and getting it and just loving it."

Now his latest show Strange Hill High, a children's series that launches on the CBBC channel next week, has been made in the same animation studio near Manchester that has been used for Postman Pat.

"There's this history which, to me, is really exciting," Weinstein gushes as only a true fan can.

Strange Hill High follows three animated misfits who get sucked into some very odd adventures at their school.

It is Scooby Doo meets Grange Hill, with 21st Century irreverence. The IT Crowd's Richard Ayoade is among the voice actors.

Weinstein has the rank of "showrunner" - an American title that means he is lead writer, oversees production and, well, runs the show.

Another American innovation he has introduced is the writer's room - a collection of crack comedic talents who get together to craft jokes, a relatively alien concept in Britain, where comedies are traditionally written by just one or two people.

"For a show like The Simpsons, where you have a group of writers just sitting locked in a room pitching ideas, you always come up with better ideas and funnier jokes as a group," Weinstein says.

But if the atmosphere in the room is not right, things can turn "nasty", Weinstein reveals.

"In some American shows, instead of being funny, they're just rude. It's very competitive. A show like Saturday Night Live is extremely competitive, where writers are just out for themselves.

"But with The Simpsons and Futurama, it's always been a communal effort and it doesn't matter if you're a junior writer or a senior writer - if the joke is good it's funny. It's very democratic."

Weinstein joined the writing staff of The Simpsons in 1992 and, with co-writer Bill Oakley, became showrunner for the seventh and eighth seasons.

The Simpsons is now up to its 24th season and there are continual murmurs that its days may be numbered. But Weinstein believes it can go on "for ever".

"I left and didn't watch it for a few years. But now that I have kids, when they were around 10 or 11, I started watching it with them and it still makes me laugh a lot more than any show."

One show that is ending is Futurama, which has just been cancelled by Comedy Central. Weinstein joined that team in 2001 and recently finished work on the seventh series, which will conclude later this year.

"It comes down to a decision about money," he says. "It's a really expensive show to do with such careful animation that's very expensive, and there's a lot of cheaper animation being done.

"Also, our ratings were just so-so. If we had really good ratings we'd probably be still going. So I understand it, I'm not overjoyed."

But this is the third time the animated sci-fi show has been cancelled - so it may pop up again on a different channel. "It always comes back. But it might be years in between."

'Uptight' executives

For now, he has Strange Hill High, which "I love more because it's so fresh and new and fun".

Strange Hill High has been made using an animation technique called hypervynorama, an unlikely mix of old and new technology.

The characters are old-fashioned puppets - even with visible rods supporting their hands - but their facial expressions are added afterwards using CGI.

Weinstein now hopes he can sell the show back to the US. But if British children's TV shows cross the Atlantic at all, they rarely make it complete with their British voice-overs.

"Before they even see a show, there are certain networks that will insist that they see the American version," he says. "They won't even consider the British version.

"So we've had to prepare a partial version that has American voices. That's great but I don't want to do that. I think they're wrong. I think a funny show will appeal."

American networks routinely remake or reversion hits from other countries, rather than run the originals. Weinstein uses the word "uptight" a couple of times when talking about US television. Is it American executives or viewers who are uptight?

"I don't think it's the American audience," he replies. "I think it's American TV executives.

"So often, like when they did the American version of The IT Crowd, it was just like a cheap… they feel like knock-offs. And people don't like it because it's a cheap knock-off.

"So I think American executives think too lowly of the audience and, because an English accent sounds different, are too afraid to do it.

"But English comedy has a huge following in America."

Strange Hill High begins on CBBC on Wednesday 8 May.

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