Feature: Tilly And Friends, an interview with writer Polly Dunbar

Date: 29.08.2012     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.00
Category: CBeebies
Tilly And Friends is a delightful new animation for CBeebies which examines the true value of friends and the essence of real love and relationships.

Made by JAM Media and Walker Productions, the series is based on the popular books by Polly Dunbar. We caught up with Polly to give us an insight into where the ideas and inspiration for the stories came from and to introduce us to Tilly’s world and the five best friends who she lives with in her little yellow house.

Polly, have you ever shared a house with friends and did you use any of those experiences in the series?

Soon after I graduated in illustration at Brighton University, I moved to London to live with a group of friends. We lived in the basement of a vicarage, it wasn't a straightforward flat with normal rooms, it had all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies. To be able to afford to live in central London, four of us shared one space with curtains dividing up our sleeping areas - it was very cosy!

It was during this time that I came up with the idea for Tilly’s little yellow house. I would frequent coffee shops for a bit of calm and quiet and to write. It was one of those days when I was sipping coffee that it occurred to me that if I put a group of very different characters together in a house it could be a lot of fun and ideas for stories started bubbling up.

Did you base the characters on your friends and if so, what do they think about the cast of Tilly And Friends!

At first the characters in the house were all animals, in the first ever house sketch I did there was a blue lion and a peacock. I realised early on that there needed to be a little girl character to help keep the peace and bring them all together. The lion ended up in another story and the peacock became Pru the chicken who thinks she is very beautiful. I thought somehow a vain chicken is funnier than a vain peacock.

Tilly and her friends aren't exactly the same as my friends, more like snippets of their characteristics went into the pot and came out as a rabbit or an elephant. I think that you have to go through that morphing process to come up with characters in their own right, (and to avoid offending people!).

Having said that, there was one of my pals who everybody went to with their troubles, she was very caring and looked after us all but never had time for herself; perhaps she is Tilly but I'm not sure that I did it consciously.

The very first idea for the first book was an elephant stealing a chicken's make-up, this struck me as fun, trunks are very good for stealing things with and beaks aren't much good for lipstick. This story is remarkably close to the incidents that went on in my house share days.

When did you first come up with the idea for the books and did you imagine they would become a TV series?

When I first wrote the Tilly stories I didn't dream that they would become walking talking cartoon characters. I was too busy trying to make them work as books, which seemed enough of a challenge at the time. It did become clear to me as I began to come up with stories that I had many more ideas than would fit into just six books. I had a lot of character development and scenarios that didn't end up being included. The thought that they could go on and have many more adventures was in the back of my mind and was filling up my sketchbooks.

I spent so much time getting to know these characters while writing the books, that they did begin to feel like my own friends. Some people thought I was going a bit peculiar and spending too much time on my own, so it is lovely now that they have become familiar to other people, especially to children, they are real after all... well almost!

Do you have a favourite character?

It's hard to pick a favourite character as I like them for different reasons. I'm very fond of Tiptoe the rabbit, he has an enigmatic quietness that I think works well with the rest of them being so rowdy. In the books he does speak a little bit but in the animation he expresses himself with magic twinkles instead. Tiptoe reminds me of a little boy I know who can't speak yet but somehow seems to know everything. Pru for me is the funniest character, she thinks she is so fabulous which makes it really enjoyable sending her up. Tumpty the elephant is the one I would most like to hug, he is so well meaning.

Is there a character that is most like you?

The question I often get asked by children and grown-ups is 'Are you Tilly?' It's a tricky one as I certainly didn't set out to base her on myself. I’m more bitey than Tilly - I definitely have my Doodle days! I didn't base the character on me as a child, but perhaps on my memories of being involved in the imaginary life of my toys and being in charge of them. Children spend so much time being looked after or told how to be and what to do, I wanted to give this role to a child and hopefully they would feel empowered by it. I found with Tilly there was a fine line to tread. I didn't want to be too bossy or too like a parent, she is still a child discovering the world. Tilly doesn't have all the answers, Pru's the one who thinks she knows best!

Can you tell us a little bit about the background to the series’ theme tune?

The theme tune is written by my good friend Tom Gray (from the band Gomez), we have been friends for a long while and started working together six years ago. My friend Katherine and I started up a company called Long Nose Puppets, we make stage adaptations of my books. We asked Tom to write us a song for our first show Shoe Baby... he went way and wrote us a whole soundtrack!

Tom is now composing music for our fourth show Arthur's Dream Boat, which will launch Christmas 2012. I really wanted to work with Tom on the Tilly And Friends animation as I knew he really understood what I was getting at with the characters. The very first Tilly book is dedicated to Tom and his wife Claire. Tom told me that he had written the melody of the theme tune for his son Bill when he was a baby to help get him get him to sleep.

How do you think toddlers will relate to the characters?

Hopefully toddlers will relate to Tilly and co as though they are friends. When I was creating the characters I had in mind that although they are animals they are also children, with all the same preoccupations as real children. One of the big lessons you have to learn when you are little is how to get on with other little people. The episodes of Tilly and her friends explore the difficulties in the everyday things that fill a child's life, they may seem small but to a child they can feel magnified and very important. Hopefully the series also celebrates the joy of very different characters doing their best to get along together.

Where did you get the idea for the Huff Tuffet from?

The Huff Tuffet started off as The Huff Tree. It was a place I invented for Hector the pig to go to when he was upset, a place for reflection. It’s not quite like 'the naughty step' as the characters never get sent there, they go on their own accord. It soon became apparent that a tree was a little bit awkward to scramble up and may even be a bit dangerous! So the Huff Tree became The Huff Tuffet, the name came about from a conversation with my mum, we were sitting in a park at the time. I liked the word tuffet as it has the history in nursery rhyme with Little Miss Muffet who of course sat on a tuffet. It soon became a very useful feature in the Tilly garden and is visited often! Every character sits on the Huff Tuffet at one time or another, though Hector still goes there the most, he's still the best at huffing!