Interview with Sarah Ann Kennedy

Animation academic and Peppa Pig voice actor reflects on her character Miss Rabbit and why we need more female characters in children’s TV

June 11, 2020
Sarah Ann Kennedy

Sarah Ann Kennedy is a writer, voice actor and course leader in animation at the University of Central Lancashire. She is better known as the voice of Miss Rabbit on the Bafta-winning TV series Peppa Pig and Nanny Plum in Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom, and as the creator of Crapston Villas for Channel 4. A recent documentary she made for Sky, British Animation Women Breaking the Mold, profiles female animators in the UK television industry.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in Perivale, Middlesex, but my parents moved to Stratford-upon-Avon when I was two.

How has this shaped who you are?
My mum was very keen on Shakespeare and used to work at Shakespeare’s Birthplace [a restored house in Stratford and visitor attraction]. We used to get first dibs on theatre tickets so I saw many plays at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was encouraged to focus on the “sensible” subjects like science, but really I just wanted to do art. Luckily, I managed to build up a good portfolio of work that got me into art school.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I went to Newcastle Polytechnic because, at the time, the polytechnics were more radical and exciting places to study fine art. I’d been really naughty at school, but I worked really hard at art school because I loved what I was doing.

What’s your most memorable moment at university?
When I arrived at Royal College of Art to study an MA in animation, I felt like my life had truly started. My tutors gave me so much freedom and I started making short animations. I was taught by Bob Godfrey, who did Henry’s Cat and Roobarb and Custard, and Richard Taylor (Crystal Tipps and Alistair). Even though my work was a bit rough, they could see that I had enthusiasm and ideas – they seemed to love it, which I couldn’t believe. It’s something I bear in mind with my own students. Those coming from other disciplines might not have all the technical skills, but if they have ideas, they can be taught the rest.

Tell us about someone you’ve always admired.
I met Candy Guard, the creator of Pond Life [a Channel 4 adult animation series], when I was at Newcastle and she has been my biggest influence. She is talented, funny and very single-minded about what she wants. But there are many great female British animators like Joy Batchelor, who made Animal Farm [Britain's first feature-length animation] and Joanna Quinn.

What keeps you awake at night?
Work or staying up too late watching a good boxset like Breaking Bad.

What do you do for fun?
Play my ukulele. I’ve got a nice eight-string that I like to play when we go camping.

You wrote and voiced some early episodes of Peppa Pig, which is now a franchise worth £1 billion a year. Did you imagine it would become so popular?
I don’t think anyone suspected what it would become. After we wrapped the first series, I moved to Preston to begin teaching at the university, so I certainly didn’t think I’d still be doing the voices 16 years on.

Why does Peppa Pig have such universal appeal?
One big reason is it is about family. There were lots of shows when we started where people worked in teams, like Bob the Builder, but not shows about families. Peppa also explores lots of little issues that children face, such as falling out with your best friend, and kids recognise those situations. It also has very gentle humour and it’s well written – it’s a very nice world to be part of.

Librarian, cashier, helicopter rescue pilot. Your character Miss Rabbit is known for having many jobs. Should we celebrate her ability to multitask or question whether she is overworked?
I think she’s a great role model. She’s always willing to turn her hand to new jobs, even if she’s sometimes not very good at them.

Nanny Plum from Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom is another popular character that you play. Is she similar in character to you?
Mark Baker and Neville Astley [creators of both Peppa Pig and Ben and Holly’s Little Kingdom] wrote the part for me, so I was very lucky. They wanted her to be a bit cheekier than other characters I’d played. She is a bit like me, but heightened – maybe she gets to say things I’d like to.

Apart from your own programmes, which animation show would you recommend?
I prefer shows like Sarah and Duck, created by Sarah Gomes Harris and Tim O’Sullivan, which have a singular, distinctive vision and create their own very full and detailed universe. That show depicts a really sweet, quite surreal world. Hey Duggee by Grant Orchard has a similar feel. I like that sensibility more than shows like Octonauts, which feels less distinctive.

Bing, Octonauts, Hey Duggee, PAW Patrol. Why are so many children’s shows dominated by a male protagonist?
It’s often to do with money and finance. For instance, boys’ toys are more expensive on average as they are perceived as higher value, so these economic reasons can drive commissioning decisions, rather than whether a show is good enough to get made. As a public broadcaster, the BBC is addressing this imbalance and many commissioners of shows are women, but even they struggle with these invisible pressures at work. But it is important that women get to tell stories from a female perspective.

There are more than 12,000 PAW Patrol merchandise items and the show often seems like a vehicle to sell these items. Has children’s TV become too commercially driven?
Children’s TV shows are very difficult to get made as you need to invest a lot of money in them. You need to ask if you have a 360-degree idea: will it work on the internet, on TV, can you have a game or merchandise? All these things help your show get made. We encourage students to be realistic about the industry. In the current climate investors are nervous of taking financial risks so it’s sometimes not enough to have a nice show if it doesn’t work in other ways.

Jack Grove


Appointments

Julia Gillard has been named as the next chair of Wellcome. The former prime minister of Australia will take up her new role at the international health research funder in April 2021 when Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller steps down. Ms Gillard also serves as the chair of Global Partnership for Education and Beyond Blue, Australia’s leading mental health awareness body. In 2018, she was appointed inaugural chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London. Ms Gillard said it was “a dream come true to have the opportunity to chair Wellcome. I will relish supporting and speaking up for scientific research into key health challenges.”

Dame Nancy Rothwell has been appointed the chair of the Russell Group and will succeed Sir Anton Muscatelli in September. Dame Nancy has been president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester since 2010. She is also professor of physiology and her current research focuses on the role of inflammation in brain disease. She is currently co-chair of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology and a deputy lieutenant for Greater Manchester. Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said that the “ideas, skills and talent that flow out of our universities will be at the heart of [the pandemic] recovery and I look forward to working with Professor Rothwell to champion our universities and the transformative impact of higher education overall”.

Scott Brady has been announced as the University of Stirling’s first entrepreneur-in-residence, to support students, alumni and staff to achieve their start-up business ambitions. He is currently managing director of ecos and SB Global HR and Legal LLP.

Morris Mthombeni has been appointed the interim dean of the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. He is currently director of faculty and senior lecturer at the institute.

Densil Williams has been named as pro vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the West Indies, Five Islands Campus, located in Antigua and Barbuda.

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