Hoho Entertainment’s joint-MD Oliver Ellis tells Mark Layton how Toad & Friends will both honour and update The Wind In The Willows for a new generation
Among the children’s series headed to market in Cannes this year is a new adaptation of a British literary classic in Hoho Entertainment’s Toad & Friends.
The London-based firm, founded in 2011 by joint-MDs Oliver Ellis and Helen Howells, has spun Kenneth Grahame’s beloved 1908 fable The Wind In The Willows into a 52 x 11-minute CG animated series that Ellis tells TBI remains “true to the spirit of the book and the characters”, while adding some much-needed diversity to bring it up to date for modern audiences.
The original story follows the adventures of riverbank residents Mole, Ratty and Badger as they try to help the irascible Mr Toad of Toad Hall when his obsession with vehicles lands him in trouble with the law.
As Ellis notes: “There are very few female characters in the book and certainly not central ones, so we have changed that in our series adaptation, with Hedge (Seána Kerslake), our feisty cheery hedgehog joining the trio of Mole (Rish Shah), Ratty (Reuben Joseph) and Toad (Adrian Edmondson), thereby making a strong quartet of primary characters.
“Other female characters include Mrs Otter, who was in the book, but we make more of her in the series, and the new characters, Tinker, Heron and Adder.”
An essential addition
Amid the current push for diversity both on-and-off-screen, children’s programming is among areas where such change is most crucial.
As Ellis highlights: “The book was written in 1908 in a much more paternalistic society than we have now, so it wasn’t just important, it was essential to make changes to better reflect 21st century society.”
Alongside the addition of “eternal optimist” Hedge to the main cast of characters, Hoho has also created “Heron the taciturn delivery bird, Adder the self-serving opportunist, Tinker the clever-but-scheming weasel and Mrs Otter, the maternal figure of the riverbank.
“They all fit into the setting and amongst the other characters very naturally and serve as a seamless extension of the line-up of characters from the original book,” says Ellis.
The producer reveals that Hoho, which is also behind Cloudbabies for Cbeebies and Shane The Chef for Channel 5’s Milkshake!, has a commitment to diversity that extends off-screen as well “from the writing team, casting and throughout the production team.”
Animated in Scotland by Wild Child Animation and directed by Tim Searle (Danger Mouse, Dennis And Gnasher), the series is not a direct adaptation of the novel, but rather an extension of the source material that follows the characters in situations both new and familiar.
Ellis explains: “Although these are 52 new stories, we were keen to continue giving nods to the original book. For instance, in the episode A Lick Of Paint, we see Mole whitewashing his front step, which is a nod to the very beginning of the book.
“Toad in the book has a passion for anything new, particularly the motor car. This continues in the series with Toad loving his car obviously, but he’s also driven to enthusiastically embrace a hot air balloon, his own specially designed boat and his power kite; all with the same feckless passion and zeal that we have come to expect,” he says.
Ellis adds that the traditional villains of the story, the weasels, will also return: “At the end of the book, the weasels are chased out of Toad Hall by our hero characters led by courageous Mole. In the series, we return to this theme with the weasels constantly trying to get into Toad Hall and get the better of Toad, always with disastrous consequences. We have also made much more of the weasels’ individual characters, who provide an additional comic element to the series.”
Toad & Friends has already been picked up by Warner Bros. Discovery for pre-school brand Cartoonito across EMEA and on streaming service HBO Max in Europe for a 2023 debut, with Ellis describing the media giant as “terrific partners throughout.”
However, for any buyers out there whose interest has been piqued, linear broadcast rights to Toad & Friends are also still “broadly available” in those territories, as well as all rights outside of EMEA, as of the time of writing.
Some episodes are now complete and have received “very positive feedback” after being shown to broadcast partners, says Ellis, who confirms he will be treading La Croisette, with Hoho’s new riverbank friends in tow.