Martin Baynton's charmed life

16:00, Dec 07 2012
Martin Baynton
MARTIN BAYNTON: "You’re training [children] up to enjoy life and to be critical consumers. If you don’t start in children’s TV, where do you start?"

Once upon a time there was a little boy called Martin Baynton who wanted to write and illustrate books. His family lived in a cramped flat in post-war London with only cold water to wash and no meat on the table.

For a time, Martin forgot his dream. He tried to learn to paint, but his teachers just wanted to paint themselves. So he gave up and went off on adventures, smuggling drugs into Mexico, climbing the Pyramids at night, taking mystical journeys with Mexican Indians and their magical mushrooms. Amazed by the possibilities of the mind, he learned to use his brain to make one hand hot and one hand cold. He worked at a hospital and took sick kids to Peter Pan park, where he rediscovered his dream of writing and illustrating books for children.

When he had his own family, he moved to the farthest edge of the world so his children could wear sandals to school and have goats to feed. And everything he touched turned to gold. When he wanted to act, he got a part on Shortland Street. When he wanted to make children's TV, he sat down with Sir Richard Taylor, and they dreamed up beautiful characters that sold all over the world. As time went by, Martin's long golden ringlets silvered and everyone thought he would soon give up work. But he just wanted to carry on doing cool stuff.

SpottyWot and DottyWot starred in The WotWots, produced by Pukeko Pictures.

So goes the fairytale of Martin Baynton's life. The illustrated version - probably by Wind in the Willows illustrator E H Shepard - would include drawings of traveller Martin sketching David at Florence's Uffizi Gallery; of writer Martin debating the relative importance of words and images with Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy; of food-hating Martin at home in his bedsit eating baked beans, frozen peas and cottage cheese.

British-born Baynton is probably best known as the creator of animated television programmes Jane and the Dragon and The WotWots, as the sidekick beside Weta Workshop boss Sir Richard Taylor, as the guy with the startling blue eyes and the mellifluous tones of an old storyteller.

But he's much more than just a sidekick. He's co-owner of production company Pukeko Pictures, author of more than 30 books, illustrator, scriptwriter, playwright, actor and neurophysiologist. And he's working on a project that, if successful, could provide the answer to levelling the damaging spikes and troughs of Wellington's film industry.


Martin Baynton
Martin Baynton, left, and Weta Workshop’s Richard Taylor with the character Jane from Jane and the Dragon.

Baynton doesn't do profile interviews. Doesn't see the point. Celebrity doesn't sell children's television or books, as he found out on his first illustrating assignment, with actress Ava Gardner. They would meet in Knightsbridge to walk the story's subject - her corgi Morgan. The book was never published.

So, why now? Because there's so much going on. Baynton is in charge of developing The WotWots brand in China. (Pukeko is collaborating with the Beijing Film Academy's animation school and this week signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Chinese media partner Grand Entertainment, to work on a new animated series, Apple Dog's Adventure). And he's spent the past six months on perhaps the company's most ambitious project yet.

Pukeko has teamed up with international distribution company FremantleMedia to develop a prime-time scripted drama of the scale of Game of Thrones. While we can't do New York cop dramas, Wellington could easily produce a location-based show, Baynton argues.

Fremantle has optioned two major titles (an announcement is expected this month) and he's working with Los Angeles producer Adam Fratto to make them happen. If it comes off, work could begin next year.

Sound scary? "I'm 60 next year, I'm not scared of anything," Baynton counters. "I'm not scared about what we're trying to achieve. My fears are the same as anyone's. I fear for the direction we take as a country. I fear for the direction we take as a civilisation. To me if I can participate alongside other creatives in empowering stories to be a way of shaping who we are as a generation, that's not scary. You can't imagine a more humbling endeavour."

Baynton's collaboration with Taylor and wife Tania, which led to Pukeko Pictures, was born out of frustration at the depressingly dreadful television available to son Theo and daughter Terri.

It was 2000. Baynton had developed carpal tunnel so could no longer illustrate. Children's TV seemed the perfect next step. He went to industry fair MIPCOM to understand the business of children's television, bought back the rights to his illustrated children's books Jane and the Dragon and Fifty the Tractor and asked Weta Workshop to make it.

"I came down and just had a conversation with Richard and Tania," is his summation of the meeting.

Bear in mind that, at the time, Baynton was living the "dippy hippy" life with his

family on their 12-acre Whangamata lifestyle block.

As Taylor remembers it, after the Lord of the Rings he and Tania were contemplating their long-standing aspiration to make children's television. A week later a bloke from Whangamata cold-called.

"We sat for one hour around our picnic table in the courtyard, had a cup of tea, and the next seven years was mapped out making his television show. We had ideas of our own but his Jane and the Dragon was so compelling, so exactly the sort of show we aspired to do - empowering, educational, entertainment television - that was it."

One thing they shared was a passion for excellence, Baynton says.

"We both had the view that children are art connoisseurs. You're training them up to enjoy life and to be critical consumers. If you don't start in children's TV, where do you start?"

Jane took 100 top technical staff and "many, many millions to make". The year it came out, 2006, it won a BANFF World Television Award and was a finalist at the 2007 Annie Awards for animated television.

Spurred by its success, Taylor and Baynton launched Pukeko Pictures and embarked on Baynton's idea for a preschool programme crossing cultural boundaries - no humans, no houses, no clothes, "just beautiful alien creatures".

Baynton wrote the first script and "the bible" defining how the show worked and Weta Workshop designer Greg Broadmore fulfilled the spaceship brief: a cross between the most beautiful Faberge egg, a perfect Italian espresso coffee machine and a steam punk glass and brass train. "Inside it's got to feel like the coollest treehouse any child could live in".

So the WotWots were born in 2009 and now screen in more than 90 countries. Baynton also voices SpottyWot and narrates the show.

Baynton's 59 years have been as riotously colourful as his WotWots, despite grim beginnings.

Born in post-war London, he was the second of three sons of a returned serviceman. The family moved to healthier Buckinghamshire, and later to Hereford to ease Baynton's troublesome asthma.

At 7, Baynton won a copy of The Wind in the Willows for a composition about his dream of writing and illustrating books. At 16, he went to art college.

"It was 1969. I absolutely loathed it, because it was the Andy Warhol period of art. Instead of actually drawing the model, some dickhead in leotard trousers would come in and paint the model and roll her against the wall and we'd all sit around talking about the marks she made. It was a time of real intellectual masturbation about art. For a 16-year-old who wanted to do little black and white E H Shepard drawings of teddy bears, where everyone else is smoking dope and getting into rock bands and talking about art, it wasn't a comfortable place to be."

So he bought a van, and learned the art and business of painting. He would go into Florence's Uffizi Gallery, do four or five ink drawings of David, then set up in the piazza outside and draw to gather a crowd.

"You actually learnt marketing and commerce, because if you didn't, you didn't eat."

Travel was a constant. Baynton's favourite dinner party yarn is about running drugs across the Mexican border, in the early 70s. He watches the appalled reactions, then explains he was smuggling soon-to-be-binned medications into Mexico to treat poor populations.

In 1980, Baynton hitchhiked on Nile boats from Alexandria to Luxor, then on military vehicles across the desert (and got arrested for climbing the Pyramids).

But it was a 1971 sojourn with the Yacai Indians in Mexico that helped shape his future. Baynton became fascinated by transcendental experiences and, at a traveller's book exchange, swapped Lord of the Rings for a book by neurophysiologist and artificial intelligence expert William Grey Walter.

He was so gripped by the work, he returned immediately to London to study neurophysiology at London University. He joined a fledgling biofeedback unit at St Bart's Hospital, investigating "technological yoga", the kind of mind-bending used by Tibetan monks enabling the brain to control processes usually thought to be automatic, such as shunting blood to outer blood vessels, allowing you to make one hand hot and the other cold.

After qualifying in 1977, Baynton worked at Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital, which adjoins a park accessible only with children. Baynton would lunch at the park, reading to sick kids borrowed from the wards. "It was my first real exposure to lots of children, and how important the mythology of storytelling is for children looking for solace or reasons to go on."

He hooked up with Walker Books and began illustrating children's stories. Then, when eldest son Theo became obsessed with tractors, he wrote and illustrated the series Fifty the Tractor.

"That's when I left the hospital. I couldn't keep the two careers going at the same time."

When daughter Terri was born, the family moved to Whangamata in search of the relaxed upbringing Baynton's Australian wife Diane had enjoyed. They lived the "dippy, hippy" lifestyle: pigs, goats, horses and a vege garden.

Family looms large in Baynton's story. Terri (now a writer herself) was the inspiration for Jane and the Dragon.

Fairy stories for girls were so awful. "Without exception, it's about teaching girls to know their place. If you behave really well, some handsome guy will come along and marry you. That's not the message I wanted for my daughter. I wanted to tell a fairy story with contemporary values. A girl actually dreams her own dreams."

Terri was Baynton's editorial assistant on the Pukeko production of Jane and Theo is the company's art director. Taylor insists there is never an ill familial word.

When Baynton moved to Whangamata, his British publisher warned he was committing professional suicide. But New Zealand's children's writing community embraced him, and invited him to their annual gatherings at Joy Cowley's Marlborough Sounds home, where they discussed the relative merits of pictures versus words.

Despite the growing influence of technology, Baynton doesn't believe children have really changed in his 30 years of writing. Children's books, he says, are like a well-crafted poem that helps children understand society.

"Great children's books repackage the truth for each new generation."

At 59, Baynton must be thinking about retiring. Well, no. That would be the conventional approach, and Baynton is anything but.

He thinks eating is a waste of time so survives on cottage cheese, baked beans, frozen peas, energy bars and cereal with protein powder. At business dinners, he eats the cheese course as a main followed by dessert.

Next year, Baynton plans to walk New Zealand to promote his newest children's book, about family violence. Wife Diane is presently farm-sitting in Australia. They catch up across the Tasman or at the Taupo property where they run the family horses.

"When we phone each other at night I'm hearing about what she's been doing and she's hearing about what I've been doing and actually it's a much more exciting and vibrant relationship than holding hands and waiting for the grandchildren, which is not to be disparaging of those people.

"What's happened with my generation is we don't ever think we'll retire. We think we're indestructible and we'll go on having fun until we drop dead in the road one day.

"I just want to go on having fun and doing cool stuff."

The Dominion Post