Taking famous menace to task

HE'S Dennis the Menace – definitely – but look closely, for this Dennis is not quite as generations of Beano readers might know him.

The familiar red and black stripes are there, so is the mischievous look and the general air of having been up to no good.

But this is one of our best known comic characters gently revamped and modernised for a new generation of fans.

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For when a Leith-based animation company's production of Dennis the Menace hits television screens next year, it will be an all-together more politically correct updated 21st century version of the 58-year-old comic strip character than ever before seen.

Gone will be the risky jibes at Dennis's favourite victim, the effeminate Walter, replaced by much more subtle style of mickey-taking.

And "Beanotown" – created in the 1950s when the face of Britain had a more Caucasian look – will be a fairer reflection of today's multicultural society.

Even Dennis's trusty catapult – typically seen dangling from the back pocket of his shorts – has been sidelined for that more current symbol of today's youth, a skateboard, while his gap toothed grin is filled in with a dazzling set of perfectly straight pearly white teeth.

It's the result, admits Ken Anderson, director of film company Red Kite, of detailed talks with Dennis's publishers, Dundee-based DC Thompson, aimed at bringing Dennis and his trusty sidekick Gnasher to 2D life in a new series of children's cartoons planned for 2009. While Dennis remains as mischievous as ever, wreaking havoc and mayhem in every episode, he's now a much fairer – if still naughty – reflection of modern life.

Tinkering with an iconic character involved detailed discussions with the Beano's publishers before the modernised Dennis could be unveiled to a new generation, he explains.

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"We have had to work very closely with DC Thomson and draw on the experiences of staff there to get an insight as to who Dennis was and is," he says. "We went right back to basics with the character and at the same time brought our experience of international TV market to bear.

"First of all 'Beanotown' has been largely white and we know the international audience doesn't expect a white town, they expect to see a multicultural town. And some things that happened in Beano of old are just unacceptable in children's television now," he adds. "The way that things are portrayed, language, attitudes, you have to be very careful.

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"We wanted to bring him back to being a mischievous boy who is buoyant with life. Not 'Asbo kid' but just an over-enthusiastic little boy who gets likes a lot of fun and is full of life which is why kids love him.

"Like Dennis, they get in trouble all the time too, they don't know where the line is, they want to have fun and they pursue it religiously. And Dennis is just an exaggeration of all of that."

With five children under his roof – his youngest are twins Alexander and Mackenzie, just six months old – Ken has hands-on knowledge of what makes young children tick. Perhaps even more than some dads, for the tragic death of his wife Wendy just two days after they had celebrated the twins' birth – she suffered a massive haemorrhage – thrust the animation company boss into a nightmare scenario of raising them alone.

Today he says he is coping with the situation, juggling caring for their daughter Una, four, and sharing the care of Wendy's two sons Jock, nine and Hamish, five,

A new chapter in life filled with twists and turns

with her ex-husband. "The effect on the business has been minimal. I've had great support from my management team, who have taken a lot of the pressure of work away from me," he stresses. "Plus I've had enormous support from friends and family.

"Sadly it's one of those things that happens. You have to get on with it and sort it out."

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Wendy was a high-flying City businesswoman who had quit her job in international finance to focus on raising her family with Ken at their Stockbridge home. The twins were born at the Simpson's maternity unit at the city's Royal Infirmary, however she fell ill and died at the high dependency unit at the Western General two days later.

For Ken, only six months on and still grieving the loss of his wife, there is at least comfort from his young family.

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"All the kids are great," he continues, "they are all lovely. The twins are now six months old, they have started to eat solids, they are smiling and they are interacting.

"My daughter is four-and-a-half, great fun.

"They are all different stages, they are life enhancing and also exhausting."

It's a new chapter in a life which has already taken its share of unlikely twists and turns. For while Ken is now a Bafta award-winning boss of a pioneering Scottish animation company – Red Kite Productions scooped the award for its 64 Zoo Lane children's cartoon – it's a world away from his first job in banking.

He was born in Bathgate, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, schooled in Selkirk and, despite a love for art, culture, film and theatre he went on to take the "sensible" route to work and completed a business degree at Heriot-Watt University. He headed for London and a job with the Hong Kong Bank, where he became a high-flying international executive officer jetting to the Far East, India and Taiwan, heading financial deals and overseeing multi-million-pound transactions.

"But it wasn't my life path," he says. "I was 24 years old and I was heading for this 'golden handcuffs' situation of being in a job that was going to be difficult to leave. I gave myself a year to get a job in film or television and if it didn't work I'd go back to the rat race."

He snared a job as a production assistant – making the tea – on the first ever Jack Dee television show, but turned down the chance to be director's assistant on Packet of Three, Frank Skinner's first show on television, in favour of carving a route into production. By 1997 he had answered a call to return north from artist and director Ruth Bevan Baker who was seeking support for a new animation company – and Red Kite was born.

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Today the business operates from Leith with a core staff of around 12 but a creative pool that stretches around the world. Ruth Bevan Baker has moved on – she now works as a teacher in Craigmillar – but Red Kite has evolved into a key player in the UK scene developing, producing and financing all kinds of animation for television and film, for child and adult audiences.

While Dennis the Menace might be its most instantly recognisable character, Red Kite has also developed the film versions of the Beano's Marvo the Wonder Chicken, Scottish story book character Katie Morag, and joined forces with Lego to develop its Bionicle characters.

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Its work has also extended into the community – Red Kite runs a series of animation workshops for children and adults with learning difficulties – and it has also entered into a string of international film and television projects with partners around the world, including an Australian company for the new Dennis and Gnasher cartoons.

Among Ken's favourite work at the moment, however, is a series of 65 one-minute animated short films featuring the antics of The Imp, a devilish little demon dedicated to spreading evil around the globe despite being completely useless at it.

It's all a long way from the world of high finance and international banking, and, not surprisingly, Red Kite director Ken has no intention of ever going back there.

"I came back to Scotland because of devolution, I wanted to be part of that change. And we've been pioneers in what we've done here," he smiles.

"Besides, who'd be a banker these days?"

Find out more about Red Kite at www.redkite-animation.com