by Jonathan Johnson
Television shows for toddlers and young children are created to entertain, educate and allow children to explore their imagination in the real world. In March 2020 CBeebies introduced Jo Jo and Gran Gran, a unique animated and live action programme that showcases the many adventures of a young 4-year-old child with her Grandmother.
Based on the children’s book by author Laura Henry-Allain. Jo Jo is a curious 4 year old that learns the world through discovery with her Gran Gran who guides her through many activities. From visiting the museum and petting farm to celebrating Carnival and posting pictures to great Gran Gran in St Lucia, the show introduces families to a diverse world.
This is the first British animation focused on a Black British family. I had the privilege of interviewing the creator Laura and series producer Tom Cousins about the show’s essence, its success and the new Autumn episodes.
Jonathan Johnson: Jo Jo and Gran Gran is adapted from a book. The animation is a bit different from the television programme. Can you talk me through the process from the book to the animation and its key themes.
Laura Henry: I’ve been delighted from the book adaption CBeebies have done with it in terms of Tom and the wider team. I do prefer the changes the team have made to bring it to screen. The most important thing for me was that the warmth was still there within that. That was more important than the visuals. Even though the visuals are fantastic in terms of how Jo Jo and Gran Gran look and the addition of the supporting characters. Jared, Great Gran Gran, Cynthia, Terrence etc. [these are new characters created for the series that were not in the book].
Tom Cousin: In terms of the process of development, the show was originally called ‘It’s About Time’ and there was a much more overt focus on helping children understand time-related concepts. Like counting the days of the week or finding out what the day after tomorrow is. This is actually where the idea of setting the show across the seasons came from, because seasonal change is a time-related concept.
The show has clearly evolved from this original premise but the production team worked hard to keep that warmth that Laura mentioned. From the animation studio in Bristol to the writers, voice cast, composers, consultants and in-house team in Manchester. The heart of JoJo & Gran Gran has always been the special relationship between these two characters and I think that’s what families relate to when they watch the episodes.
In terms of the animation looking different to the book, this was done in order to better reflect the London setting. Laura and I are both Londoners, so why not make the animated series feel like contemporary London?
We spent a cold winter Saturday walking around Paddington Rec near where Laura grew up taking lots of reference photos and the animation studio were skilfully able to use these photos as they started to create the world of JoJo & Gran Gran. And I think that is another reason the show resonates with the audience – because it feels real.
JJ: I’m a huge fan of Jo Jo and Gran Gran as I watch it with my 3 year old daughter. From your perspective can you tell me what you think children get from Jo Jo and Gran Gran?
LH I think what’s central to the theme is the love. I think that just jumps out to their relationship. The relationship is really powerful between Jo Jo and Gran Gran. That’s what I think Tom and his team has taken that onboard passionately. For me, I think children learning about relationships, they’re seeing the positiveness of having a Black British family. Just showing modern family life in a variety of different situations. There are many takeaway learning in terms of extension activities for young children watching the show.
TC: I agree with Laura. The central theme of the show is love and that incredibly special relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild. The live action activities that follow each story have all been designed to inspire real world play, which is incredibly powerful.
JJ: Laura, you mentioned that you are an Educational consultant in early years. What are the key themes that you are trying to show or portray in Jo Jo and Gran Gran?
LH: We have a fantastic consultant we are working with us called Claire Sealy. She has been amazing and ensured that every single episode has an element of science. For example the cooking of Banana bread includes the mixing and cooking of raw materials. We’ve got the autumn kicking leaves one. Every single episode has many extension activities.
What I think the beauty of the show is, that we don’t say go and make this with your child. Children are doing this spontaneously. Actually, other consultants in the early years education world are saying to me that we are watching this with our children in the classroom. Because there are so many learning outcomes, it has a massive impact on children’s learning and development. Even if it weren’t something that I was involved in, I would 100% watch and endorse the show!
JJ: I’ve got some fan theories and I am interested in your thoughts on them. I asked my daughter what I should ask in this interview. She wanted to know What is Jo Jo and Gran’s favourite television programme?
LH: Captain Chloe? <I should have seen that coming doh!!>
TC: Captain Chloe is our show within a show so that would definitely be JoJo’s favourite television programme. Or another pirate themed show on CBeebies – like Swashbuckle!
JJ Fans on twitter have great adoration of Gran Gran’s décor in. Is Gran Gran an Ikea person or makes her own Cushions?
TC: I think Gran Gran would buy her furnishings what do you think Laura?
LH: I think it’s a mixture of both and from a personal viewpoint. My grandmother was a seamstress, and I would say a mixture of both. My Gran had the old fashion singer sewing machines and I sit on this doyley in the back of my chair which she crocheted. She could look at a dress and copy it so Vivienne Westwood step aside. She was super creative so I keep this so she’s with me. So I would say she is a mixture of both.
JJ: Is Gran Gran a regular Notting Hill carnival goer and if so what day does she go?
LH: I think that she’d be there on a Sunday with Jo Jo. And I think on a Monday she’ll be there. And her friends with Cynthia and Jared Boogieing on down and whining up her waist and everything.
JJ: At MFF we have s been showcasing our Black British heroes? Who are yours and how have they inspired?
LH: There is probably quite a lot to come through. For me I would say there were two people, Sir Lenny Henry and Floella Benjamin. As a play school baby, I think everything she’d done from being a Dame, from being a Baroness and her most recent book coming to England. I listened to her dessert Island Discs a few weeks ago. I got so emotional about everything she would say. Mainly because both them in terms of black British heroes are involved in television. Floella most skilled teaches children like what we are doing now. But if I had to choose one it would have to be Floella benjamin.
TC: Someone who’s inspired me is a children’s author called Trish Cooke . She’s known as a children’s author because she wrote the book ‘So Much’. The reason why she inspired me was because she was a presenter on playdays. I vividly remember being four or five years old sitting between my grandparents watching this show. And they had these little stops on the play-bus. They had Dave Benson Phillips on the playground stop and a Peggy patch at the Whye bird stop. But there was one stop called the Tent Stop that was presented by Trish Cooke.
In that stop they used to make up stories. And I put on plays and they would use boxes and turn it into a car. And I thought that it was the most amazing thing. I honestly believe that she instilled in me a lifelong love of theatre and storytelling. The fact that I now do that for a living is amazing to me. She actually wrote an episode on Jo Jo and Gran Gran. But I didn’t actually get the opportunity to meet her. I would have been so star struck.
Jo Jo and Gran Gran is currently being played every day at 17:25 with new Autumn episodes available on BBC I-player. Winter episodes will also be Televised in December.