Oxford Times Profile: Lucinda Whiteley - Transforming Horrid Henry

Gill Oliver talks to an Emmy and BAFTA-winning television producer based in North Oxford

Lucinda Whiteley spends a lot of time thinking about naughty children. Fortunately, the mischievous schoolboy in question is fictitious and answers to the name of Horrid Henry.

The stuff of most parents’ and teachers’ nightmares, Henry was created by author Francesca Simon but it is Emmy and BAFTA-winning producer and writer Ms Whiteley who has transformed him into a star of TV, film and stage.

Through Summertown-based Novel Entertainment, which she runs with husband Mike Watts, Ms Whiteley has produced around 150 Horrid Henry TV episodes, making it one of ITV’s most popular children’s series.

Before starting Novel Entertainment 12 years ago, the 51-year-old mother-of-two chalked up an extremely impressive career in television, including a stint as commissioning editor for children’s programmes at Channel 4 where she launched Hollyoaks and before that, head of children’s and family programming at Polygram Universal.

Barely weeks after setting up their business, she and Mr Watts beat 80 other production companies to be chosen by the BBC to develop 200 episodes of a pre-school series called The Fimbles for CBeebies.

This was quickly followed by a spin-off show Roly Me, also for the Beeb and then came the lucrative link-up with Horrid Henry.

As well as masses of licensed products such as toys, games, DVDs and video games, there has even been a Horrid Henry stage show.

As a producer and script writer, Ms Whiteley says she is equally comfortable in both roles. “I love writing, particularly when you know your characters really well. “The producing side, which I have done for many years, is also very satisfying because it is about managing a project and there are so many different factors involved in bringing it in on budget and on time.

“It is about making sure you come out with something that is the best possible product for the money and the time available. “Working with the talent is fantastic, especially on something like Henry, where we have done 156 episodes so far and may well do more. “We have put together such a good team now. If you look at a lot of really successful series in television and film, people tend to work with those they feel comfortable with and that is what produces really good work.”

At the moment, she is busy putting the finishing touches to the script for a Horrid Henry movie, which is a sequel to one released in 2011.

The live-action, 3D romp starred Anjelica Huston as Henry’s scary teacher Miss Battle-Axe, with Richard E Grant and The Thick of It actress Rebecca Front also in the frame.

Although the critics were not particularly kind, it was well received by its target audience and took a respectable £7m at the box office.

How did it feel to read some of those less charitable reviews?

She sighed: “We were really pleased with how it did. British films can be quite difficult because you are up against all this big American money.

“The movie was not designed to appeal to, dare I say it, middle-aged film critics. “Kids loved it, so from our point of view it hit the target audience. “The great thing nowadays is that you are not solely reliant on what appears in newspaper reviews and if you look online, there was a very good reaction.

“I am a bit of a perfectionist, so I could look at the finished film and think ‘Hmm, as and when we do another, we are going to do some things differently’, and you have to be aware there is always room for improvement.”

An interesting insight was discovering how differently writers are viewed in film, compared to television.

She explained: “It was my first experience of film-making, so that was fascinating. “It is not like making a TV show, where I write a script and what comes out at the end is pretty much what was in my head, because I work really closely with the director, the voice artist and we have a shared vision. “With film, it is a very different process where the script is treated as a starting point. “It is a little like as though you build a car, then someone takes it to pieces and builds another one.”

What about working with those A-list actors? Were there any clashing egos?

“I think if people believe in and really like a project, they work together and that was our experience with the film. “We had a fantastic cast and a really good moment for me was when Anjelica Huston said she had read the script and it made her laugh, which was why she wanted to do it. “Perhaps we have been very fortunate, in that we haven’t had the egos. “We have people who want to get it right but I sympathise with that because I am the same.”

Home is Boars Hill, where the family moved eight years ago.

“As Londoners, that was the country to us because there are no street lights, just darkness. “You open the door and there is grass and country and that was a bit scary for the first few years but we love it now.”

Her children have proved useful sounding boards for testing out story ideas and the target age of the company’s productions has grown with her daughters, Luisa, 15 and Bella 13.

“They were the inspiration for The Fimbles and although I wouldn’t like to say either of them were the inspiration for Horrid Henry, a lot of stories I have heard from them have helped with writing the new TV episodes.”

So is she tempted make an attempt at cracking the notoriously difficult teenage television or film sector?

“My impression, from talking to my daughters and their friends, is that there is a lot of teenage fiction out there but much of it is end-of-the-world, dystopian or vampire stuff and I am conscious there is not something for them that is a bit more uplifting, without wanting to sound too happy-clappy. “It would be nice, really great in fact, to do something. “It has got me thinking about when Horrid Henry becomes a teenager, what sort of teenager will he be? “So, I think that is definitely on the cards and I had better get a move on before my daughters are too old to offer me feedback.”

 


Posted on 4th Jul 2013