People often ask me where the idea for Alphablocks came from...
Well, I grew up soaked in Sesame Street and the books of Dr Seuss, and they were made with love and filled with wit and that stayed with me. I became a primary school teacher and after that I made learning games – and started wondering about a show that would help young children learn to read.
Modern phonics is, I think, a really clever thing – it creates a clear, simple path into the tricky English language (which, famously, has spellings like ‘ough’ and at least seven ways to pronounce them). Phonics starts with the basic idea that every letter makes a sound. Which is a simplification, but a good one – like when we’re taught that atoms hold hands to make molecules.
So I tried to imagine a world ruled by phonics and the characters in it. Who would care more than anyone else about making words? The alphabet! How would they make words? Hold hands - then sound out their letters and blend them together to make the word, just like in best-practice phonics teaching. And how would we make words the most exciting thing in the world? Bring them magically to life!!
And then I remembered a book I had read as a teenager: Flatland, written in 1884, which answers the question: What’s it like to be a square? (as in a four-sided shape, not the kind of person, like me, who might read books about them). The author, a mathematician called Edwin Abbott Abbott, had really, really, really thought it through.
What’s it like to be an A? I knew that, and twenty-five more like it, would take some serious thinking through - and the starting point was What sound do they make? I soon discovered that writing Alphablocks is a bit like making a crossword puzzle or speaking in verse. It takes some crafting.
The Alphabet from Z to J…
With a team of writers in place, we sat down to write the episodes - but only two-thirds of the alphabet turned up for work. The rest were hiding. Z was the first to report for duty. He claimed seniority over the rest of the alphabet but said he didn’t get out much – like a grandfatherly retired captain, perhaps – and then promptly fell asleep with a Zzzzzz….
The vowels soon followed – Aaaa! is the sound of someone falling over or being hit on the head by a falling apple, say, and so accident-prone A dropped in with a bump and a sticking plaster. E is the busiest letter, coordinating everything with his e-e-e! echoey loudhailer. Self-centred I announced her importance with an operatic i-i-i-i-i! And uh! had to be the moan of an older brother. Finally, O… we discovered that o! is a really versatile sound: it’s surprise, intrigue, sadness, joy and at least fifteen other things. Perhaps o! was all O ever needed to say…
J was the last character to come out of hiding. Historically, the letter J was an offshoot of the letter I: around Shakespeare’s time, the two unconnected habits of pronouncing first I’s differently and writing I’s with decorative flicks came together to create a new letter. Romeo’s fiancée was Iuliet in the first edition and got her J in later printings.
But that was all in the distant past, and J wasn’t really sure who she was. Her name sounded like a bird, but her sound was anything but birdsong: Jjjjj! is more like a foghorn or a dirge. We put her gently to one side until she (and we) were ready to find out who she was. And then it came, in one line: “I’m a jolly jaybird! Watch me fly and hear me sing! J-j-j-j-j-j!”, with bad singing and an inelegant crash-landing. J was someone who thought she was something else.
Then, when the first draft script came in – for the episode Party, in which the superhero Extraordinary X bursts onto the scene and says the immortal line “Stand back, Alphamortals!” – it was as if a cartoon lightbulb lit up. After years of blind faith, for the first time I knew that Alphablocks was going to work.