Hats off to a writing team that credits its viewers with dialogue far above their reading age; it’s a sign of true respect for an audience.
Take the following scene for example: “I have to perform three tasks at once?” exclaims the number 12 as he is seen rocketing through a futuristic trench of an intergalactic HQ.
“I can do it [character close up] If I use the fours.”
This sly wink to an audience of adults is just one scene of many from a series three episode – the one titled Block Star – of the wildly popular pre-school animation, Numberblocks. It’s also just one example of many of the fun that animators Blue Zoo and creator Joe Elliot are currently having in delivering a series based on teaching maths in an accessible way.
The whole episode plays out along the lines of a popular sci-fi franchise, and it’s not the only episode in the Numberblocks series that pastiches popular film or fiction, the show is practically littered with nods and winks of this kind.
“Another example of us paying homage to popular culture is in an episode that plays out very much like a Batman story,” explains Elliot. “Our number Eight is a very Adam West-y kind of character.”
At first glance, it may seem like an odd concept. Numberblocks follows a cast of characters, all of which are numbers with their own characteristics and personalities. One is small, she initiates things and is the first one to have an idea, two is company, and three is a show-off and an entertainer, because three, after all, is a crowd.
“We looked to psychology, culture and maths to come up with each number’s character traits,” continues Elliot, a former teacher-turned-interactive game creator-turned-BBC commissioned series creator. “We applied the same process as we did with Alphablocks, by thinking each character through thoroughly, just like we asked ‘who would the letter A be?’ in Alphablocks, we applied the same to the cast of Numberblocks.”
The result is not just one animated series in Numberblocks, but a second in Alphablocks (the first of Elliot’s CBeebies projects) that find themselves resonating with UK audiences via CBeebies and those all over the world via YouTube, as they aim to introduce pre-schoolers to mathematical and literacy concepts before they’ve even started school.
“We’re hearing feedback along the lines of ‘you’ve changed my child’s life,’ and that’s fantastic for us to hear,” beams Elliot. “We wanted to deliver something that highlights the magic of numbers and letters, the fun of words and inspires the desire to learn in children by showing them the stories that numbers and letters can tell.”
Story and character is therefore central to both Numberblocks and Alphablocks. As a concept, neither would get away with anything less. There’s no hiding a lack of substance behind the big doe eyes of a cute character, here. Instead, the show’s success is very much a product of the effort that Elliot, its team of writers, composers and animators in Blue Zoo pour into each and every episode.
“It was all inspired by something I read as a teenager,” Elliot goes on to explain. “It was a strange book called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, written in 1884 by a mathematician called Edward Abbott Abott.
“It was the life story of a square who lived in a flat space. Abbott Abott had really thought it through – and it turns out it was a satirical take on contemporary Victorian Britain – but also the square gets visited by a sphere who tries to explain what three dimensions are like.
“Abbott had really thought through what it was like to be a square. So when I was wondering about how to bring the letters of the alphabet to life, or the numbers we use, the first thing I had to do was really, really think it through.”
By his own admission, Elliot was no ordinary teenager. His was a youth spent enthralled by mathematics that went on to inform a career path in not only teaching, but latterly, interactive game development – a path chosen for “having spent so much time coming up with my own interactive lessons for class.”
In fact, wherever Elliot’s career path has taken him, the compulsion to aid and educate has never been far away. Today, Elliot’s role as the lead creative on Numberblocks and Alphablocks sees him as close to the educational sector as he has ever been. It’s thanks to the accessibility of the subject that Numberblocks presents, in fact, that Elliot and the team now find themselves working alongside the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCTEM) who is currently working to overhaul the curriculum to introduce children to the concept of mastery maths.
“It’s about visualising mathematics, using block maths to teach children about squares from a younger age,” explains Elliot, sensing that he would need to. “Teachers have expressed how much better equipped for reading and numbers children are, having watched Numberblocks. As a result, there is now talk about changing the curriculum to get kids started earlier in schools; that’s directly because of the show we make.”
Elliot wears this like a badge of honour. But while learning forms the foundations of what both Numberblocks and Alphablocks are about, he insists that it’s not the show’s intention, or indeed tone, to force education upon the millions of kids that watch his shows.
“We just want to open children’s minds to the fun of numbers and words, offer them the reassurance that, as they start out on this journey of discovery, the water is fine and that they should join in the enjoyment,” he says. It’s definitely struck a chord. Both Numberblocks and Alphablocks are now the subject of a growing licensing roster, overseen by Larkshead Media, that has so far taken the property into books, magazines and home entertainment with DVDs.
The latest announcement was the naming of Sweet Cherry as the properties’ master publishing partner, while apparel is in development with a well-known UK nightwear and underwear firm.
“Toys will be next, we are just in the final stages of conversations,” says Clare Piggott of Larkshead Media. “And there’s a fantastic style guide that really epitomises what the Numberblocks and Alphablocks are about.”
“There’s a real demand from the audience,” adds Elliot. “We teamed with Immediate Media for Numberblocks magazines, with a covermount featuring characters One to Five. It turned out that audiences wanted Six to Ten as well. This became the largest and most expensive covermount seen in the UK. Now audiences are wanting the next run of characters.”
There’s an authenticity to Elliot that’s rare in scenarios such as this. Talk of licensing and merchandising doesn’t seem to interest him much, while prompts and provocations at anything else that deviates from talk about just what Numberblocks and Alphablocks are looking to achieve in the children’s development space, fall – pretty much – on deaf ears.
“Yes, we have several apps in development,” Elliot offers up, “because both Numberblocks and Alphablocks are so deeply rooted in interactive entertainment, anyway. Blue Zoo Productions is working with us on making those apps, and the idea of those is to, again, present the magic and fun that numbers and letters have to offer.
“We want these aspects, the interactive aspect to reflect the episodes that children and parents watch. It’s about making memorable adventures with memorable characters, each of them a surprise that could go off in any direction with whatever words they make, or numbers used.”
It’s clear that Elliot’s main concern is providing a service to the audience.
Within the Alphablocks universe, there’s ultimately a finite cast of characters to build stories around, given each of the 26 letters of the alphabet a personality associated with the phonic they represent. That’s why ‘A’ is accident prone, always saying ‘Ahh’, while ‘B’ plays the bass guitar in a band, Elliot takes delight in explaining to me. But how far the Numberblocks lore can be taken is another question entirely, given the infinite nature of the numerical system.
“We actually had one little boy, a fan of the show, draw us characters all the way up to 84, giving them each a back story,” he continues. “We didn’t have the heart to tell him that the characteristics weren’t quite what we envisaged, but it goes to show not only the potential for this world, but the depth of engagement from the fans, too.
“We have got so much planned for Series Four, things I can’t tell you about yet, but these are going to be big moments.”
Sat across from Ellliot in a room within Blue Zoo’s London headquarters, there’s such excitement and anticipation around the teased reveal, that I could just as easily be sat in a room with the writers of Game of Thrones. And given the creator’s enjoyment of bringing iconic scenes of the pop culture space into his own work, the question is, just how long is it until we find ice-breathing dragons pop up in Numberblocks? A Battle of the Last Thirds, episode perhaps?
Elliot laughs: “You joke, but it’s cropped up in conversation.”