He’s lazy, inept and out of shape. He’s also the most famous father on British TV (if you’re under five or over 40). Does Peppa Pig’s “silly Daddy” resonate with toddlers and their parents because modern dads really are rubbish?
Or is it — like map reading and DIY — a lot more complicated than that? A fellow father considers the facts.
It starts with the very first sound of the day, a rising whine that slices through the fog of sleep before clarifying itself as a mantra. Kicking off the duvet, I head numbly towards its source. To do so I am required to step over snap cards and books with stiff cardboard pages, both decorated with pictures of simple but stylised anthropomorphic pigs.
There’s also a tiny pram and a collapsible fabric play tent to negotiate, similarly adorned with images of the same one-dimensional porcine family. A small pink rucksack lies gaping at the tent’s entrance, contents spilled to create a landslide of figurines of varying sizes. Among them are more of the smiling porkers with their stick-like arms and legs sprouting from smocks of red and blue.
Hanging on one end of the cot is a plastic bag containing a child’s vanity case. Both are in shades of lurid pink; both are covered in images of a small, female pig with both eyes on one side of her head. And there, holding onto the rail as she jumps up and down, is my two-year-old daughter. It is a little after six in the morning and she is chanting: “More Peppa, more Peppa, more Peppa.” It was one of the first things she learned to say.
She is wearing a pink nightdress bearing, needless to say, a portrait of her idol. I pick her up and take her into our room where my wife, who knows the drill, has flipped open the laptop and is cueing up an episode from the DVD. It is the only thing that will allow us a few more minutes of precious sleep. I slide my daughter under the covers, grope beside the bed for the pink plastic headphones (with a pig on each “can”, naturally) and plug her in.
Silence reigns, save for the tinny tinkling of the theme tune, which sounds like an early Nokia ringtone. We feel like bad parents but two five-minute episodes perform the same function as the snooze button once did.
We will all be downstairs soon in any case. A pig-branded bib will be placed around our daughter’s neck. Slices of Marmite toast will be dropped onto a pig-branded plate and her pig-branded feeding cup will be filled with water. And as the morning countdown continues on Milkshake! (Channel 5’s children’s strand), we will be reassuring her that she doesn’t have long to wait before the back-to-back episodes begin. “More Peppa, more Peppa, more Peppa.”
Before becoming a father, I was vaguely aware of the phenomenon that is Peppa Pig. I knew that it was catnip for pre-school children in the same way that Teletubbies had been; a show with the power to transform and transfix bawling infants via some strange alchemy of primary colours and simple tales with a message. I had a basic grasp, too, that Peppa, a five-year-old female pig who lives with her parents and her two-year-old brother, George, was a slightly annoying, occasionally bossy character.
As my daughter reached the age where she became interested in more than the lights and voices coming out of the box in the living room, I was gradually immersed in the world of contemporary children’s television.
Much of it I hated.
Postman Pat: the biggest waste of resources in the history of the Royal Mail, a man who has been given a helicopter and a garage of vehicles yet cannot be guaranteed to deliver the post on time in a village of no more than 10 people. Mike the Knight: precocious little shit. Bob the Builder: hangs out with talking vehicles and a truly horrific scarecrow. Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends: dubious on the basis of The Fat Controller alone.
Peppa Pig was different and I was totally unprepared for the role it would come to play in my day-to-day existence. Its intrinsic value in the successful management of family life, specifically in the mornings and at bedtime, is only one part of it. More interesting is the fact I genuinely look forward to it. I laugh at its knowing gags and have been known to dissect episodes with fathers of children of a similar age with all the enthusiasm others might reserve for Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones or True Detective.
The biggest surprise, though, was that one of its supporting cast of characters, the corpulent, unshaved and generally inept Daddy Pig, would speak more eloquently about modern fathers, and how we are portrayed and perceived, than David Beckham, Jamie Oliver or any of the more celebrated paternal paragons of our age.
For the uninitiated, Daddy Pig is, perhaps not surprisingly, Peppa’s father. He is married to Mummy Pig (neither would appear to have a Christian name; in the show, the world is seen through the eyes of five-year-old Peppa). Daddy Pig is a bespectacled pink blob with a booming voice and bum-fluff whiskers.
An unqualified disaster when it comes to map reading, DIY and barbecues, three of the skills men might traditionally expect to possess, his favourite pastimes are lying on the sofa watching television, sitting in the sun reading a newspaper and eating vast quantities of chocolate cake.
His gluttony, and subsequent weight problem, sees him constantly teased about his “big tummy”, as Peppa likes to describe it. He is variously seen failing to squeeze into the tent on a family camping holiday and a tree house built for his children by Grandpa Pig. It also explains why the parents of Peppa’s animal friends are so insistent that he attempts a sponsored fun run, and so keen to watch.
In one episode, he walks into the front room to find Mummy Pig doing keep-fit exercises. “Thank goodness I don’t have to exercise,” he laughs. “I’m naturally fit.” After being challenged to touch his toes, and failing, he concedes that maybe he should do some form of training. “And I will start,” he announces, collapsing into his armchair, “tomorrow.”
Pressed further, Daddy Pig manages two press-ups and seems quite pleased. But Peppa wants him to do 100, and leaves him in the front room to get on with it. From the kitchen, where Peppa and George help Mummy prepare lunch, Daddy Pig can be heard counting off the press-ups. Worried that he is overdoing it, Mummy sends Peppa in to check on him, whereupon she finds her father lying on the sofa with remote control in hand, counting out loud while channel surfing.
Mummy Pig’s subsequent suggestion that he tries her old exercise bike is enthusiastically received, as it means he can work out while watching television. The squeaking from the pedals proves to be a major drawback, however: “It’s impossible, this bike is too noisy,” Daddy Pig moans. “I can’t hear the TV.”
In another episode, Mummy Pig wants a picture of the children hung. “Leave it to me,” Daddy Pig boasts. “I am the DIY expert of the house.” Mummy Pig goes out, having first pleaded with him not to make a mess. After marking an “X” on the wall and telling Peppa and George to “stand back and watch a craftsman at work,” Daddy Pig takes a wild swing with his hammer and proceeds to crack the plaster. His attempt to rectify his mistake then sees him ripping out a great chunk of brickwork.
The rest of the episode is spent fixing the damage in time for Mummy’s return. This he achieves, all save for hanging the picture, a failure that Mummy Pig admonishes him for before completing the task with the minimum of fuss.
Then there is the episode in which Mummy Pig goes out to a “Mummies’ fire engine practice” at the local fire station. Daddy Pig scoffs that it is an excuse for them to sit around drinking tea and chatting. “I’ve got a very important meeting with the daddies’ football team,” he announces before, right on cue, the doorbell rings. Waiting outside, in matching white football kits, are Mr Bull, Mr Rabbit, Mr Pony and Mr Zebra.
They are clutching barbecue accoutrements. “Trust me, Mummy Pig, we daddies know all about barbecues,” Daddy Pig says, charging off down the hill and into the garden.
As Peppa and George are shown around the fire station, puffs of smoke begin to appear on the horizon. Daddy Pig is scolded for calling Mummy Pig on the number reserved for emergencies, more so when it transpires he has only called to enquire where she has put the tomato sauce.
Later, as the plumes of smoke increase in size and frequency, a second call comes through. “Fire, fire!” shouts Daddy Pig down the line, before we jump-cut to the hapless dads hopping in panic as the barbecue blazes wildly. “Mummies to the rescue,” chorus Mummy Pig, Miss Rabbit, Mummy Pony and Mummy Sheep, as they slide down the pole, board the fire engine and set off to put out the flames.
These are just three examples of Daddy Pig’s incompetence; there are a great many more in the 208 episodes of Peppa Pig made over the last 10 years. And if this all sounds like I watch far too much Peppa Pig, that would be a fair assessment, but in doing so, I have come to recognise in Daddy Pig many of my own failings as a man.
There are differences between us beyond our species: rather than chuckling merrily at my own failures, the mirror’s tale of middle-age spread sends me into prolonged bouts of self-loathing, while the pain inflicted by my doomed attempts to get fit, fix even the simplest cupboard door or successfully barbecue a humble sausage leads to bursts of high-volume bad language. And as someone who was in his forties by the time he started a family, the “Sports Day” episode, in which Peppa turns to her father before the parents’ race and says, “But Daddy, you’re not very good at running,” feels like a window onto the certainty of future humiliation.
What’s also evident from these beautifully crafted, consistently amusing five-minute vignettes of everyday family life (if you’re a talking pig, that is) is that the well-worn cliché of male uselessness is alive and well. Daddy Pig, some argue, is just the latest in a long line of bumbling cartoon fathers, a lineage dating back to Fred Flintstone that includes Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin of Family Guy. What makes this myopic swine different, though, is he appears in a format aimed squarely at children aged between two and five.
Why should this be significant? During a debate about whether Peppa’s occasionally brattish behaviour was setting a bad example to children, Dr Aric Sigman told The Daily Mail, “Some 80 per cent of brain development is between birth and three years old, so if [small children] spend a lot of time watching the TV, they will copy the forms of behaviours that they see on the TV.” What the psychologist could have added is the influence Peppa Pig has in creating a negative and formative stereotype of fathers.
Last summer, a survey undertaken by the website Netmums threw up some interesting results. Of the 2,150 respondents, 93 per cent claimed children’s shows did not represent real-life dads, with 46 per cent criticising books, adverts and television shows like Peppa Pig “for portraying fathers as lazy or stupid.” More than a quarter agreed this amounted to a “subtle form of discrimination against dads” while almost one-in-five believed it made children believe dads are inherently “useless”.
They maintained that it would cause an “outcry” if the same humour were aimed at mothers.
“It’s never been harder to be a father,” said Netmums founder Siobhan Freegard, “but good dads have never been more needed by their families. It seems perverse we are telling men to step up and be involved, while running them down in the media. The type of jokes aimed at dads would be banned if they were aimed at women, ethnic minorities or religious groups. Some people claim it’s ‘just a joke’, but there’s nothing amusing about taking away good role models for young boys.”
In the same week, research by the Centre for Social Justice reported that one million children in the UK are effectively fatherless. This statistic is all the more worrying when considered in the light of a 2006 Oxford University study on the role of father involvement in children’s later mental health. Having followed 17,000 children since 1958, it demonstrated that the presence of an engaged and involved father makes children far less likely to break the law or suffer from mental health problems in later life, and far more likely to do well at school.
So why is it that fathers specifically, and men in general, are routinely depicted as lazy, feckless and stupid? And does Daddy Pig bear his share of the blame?
Neville Astley is not a father, but he is half of the animation duo that devised and writes Peppa Pig, and one-third of the partnership, Astley Baker Davies Ltd (alongside Mark Baker and producer Phil Davies), that makes each episode and owns 50 per cent of an empire now worth nearly £390m a year in licensing and merchandise alone.
The latest range of Daddy Pig merchandise, I am told, sold out unusually fast, which might explain why none of it — as yet — is owned by my daughter. I ask Astley what it is about Daddy Pig that makes him so popular. “I don’t know,” he says. “Is there really that popularity? From who, the children or from the dads?”
Probably both, I tell him.
He mulls it over for a moment, before giving a more considered answer. “He is the funniest one. Kids love to laugh at adults. We decided not to have the children as comedy characters because it can be hurtful. But dads can handle it. Of course, a lot of people complain it’s really horrible to all men, that we put men down and that they need a bit of a helping hand. Sometimes, we’ve actually put the humour onto Mummy, but we find it harder, especially because most of the writers are men.”
“We’re much more comfortable taking the piss out of the men because that’s us,” chimes in Phil Davies, who met his future colleagues while running Middlesex Polytechnic’s Animation Department in the late Eighties.
“Men can handle it,” Astley agrees. “We all come up with our own examples of how useless we are. And the thing is, [Daddy Pig] is a bumbling fool, but then when it comes to it, he’s also a tower of strength as well.”
“And very thoughtful,” Davies adds.
We are sitting in their office, known as “The Elf Factory” (a reference to the elf and fairy protagonists of their other hit children’s TV show, Ben & Holly’s Little Kingdom), on London’s Regent Street. I have told them about the role they play in my life, and now want to know their thoughts on the Netmums survey and its claims of the “casual contempt” for men propagated by shows such as theirs.
“Hopefully, we balance it out,” Astley counters. “[Daddy Pig] isn’t a complete idiot and buffoon, he turns it around. He does equally have good qualities as well.”
“All the characters in Peppa Pig are fallible,” Davies says. “Peppa isn’t super-sweet. She can be bossy. Daddy Pig isn’t very good at reading a map or putting up a shelf but he is very good at other things. It is quite obvious that he has been to college.”
This much is evident from the episode “Daddy Pig’s Office”, in which Peppa and George are shown the day-to-day reality of their father’s job as a structural engineer. After watching how Mr Rabbit (a Welsh rabbit, no less) rubber-stamps “very important pieces of paper”, and Mrs Cat “draws shapes on the computer”, Daddy Pig stands before a whiteboard and says, “My job is quite complicated. I take big numbers, transmute them and calculate their load-bearing tangents.” Peppa and George look perplexed. “Daddy Pig’s job is very important,” intones the voice-over.
It is a scene that encapsulates the rare skill of a show that is now shown in over 190 countries: although seen through the eyes of a small child, it succeeds in appealing to the adults that watch with them; adults like me, and the fathers of small children I know. It might otherwise be known as the “Pixar effect”. Astley admits the show is written as a comedy and is based firmly on what the three of them like rather than any research, or what child psychologists might have recommended.
“He is a real character,” Davies says of Daddy Pig. “He is not a weird construct of a perfect human being which you often find in issue-based children’s programmes.”
“Kids like nothing more than seeing an adult fall over,” Astley continues. “It’s been the same since I was a kid with [performers] like [Fifties’ bumbling clown] Mr Pastry or the Chuckle Brothers. It’s adults acting like children. Kids love seeing that. They don’t want to see other kids being the fall guy but they love seeing their dads do it.”
Daddy Pig might be rubbish at many things, but it’s true that he embodies the hands-on role many modern fathers now have in their children’s lives: he works hard but he always makes time for his kids. Does that make him a product of his time; a time in which research collated by the Fatherhood Institute shows men have assumed a greater responsibility for home life?
“That’s a tough one because we don’t really think of it like that,” answers Davies, who has two grown up children. “I hardly ever saw my dad because he was out at work the whole time. And I was the only dad in the playground when I was taking my kids to school. I think that’s now changed a lot. Daddy Pig is the sort of dad who would take Peppa in to school. He’s a modern man in that sense.”
Richard Ridings, the actor who supplies the extraordinary sub-bass voice for Daddy Pig, admits it is rare for a day to pass in which he is not approached by parents on account of his distinctive, and now extremely famous, dulcet tones. He agrees that his character’s strengths as a father significantly outweigh the flaws that make him, well, human.
“He adores his children and his family,” Ridings says. “There’s a warmth and a kindness to him and even though he’s pompous and maybe overestimates his abilities at times, underneath it all, there’s a kindliness. But also, for children, he’s reassuringly large and approachable. He gets things wrong, but I think that’s good for children to see, especially in this day and age when there’s such a pressure to get everything right the first time. That ability to see a parent make a bit of a mistake but still be able to laugh about it afterwards, I think it’s really important actually.”
Executive producer of The Simpsons, Al Jean, makes no apologies for Homer, describing him as “the father that no one will admit to being, but that many fathers are. He loves his kids, but there are a lot of times when he’d rather just go out for a beer.” Daddy Pig is a different beast, literally, but like Springfield’s most famous paterfamilias, he strikes a chord.
When asked to draw a picture of a vegetable to take in to playgroup, Peppa sketches her father in his armchair watching television. But, as Richard Ridings is at pains to stress, she is constantly surprised by her father’s array of skills: limbo dancing, diving, calculus, jumping in muddy puddles.
“I’ve never seen him as a loser because as a dad, he’s a winner,” Ridings says. “He’s bringing up really healthy kids and he is a positive role model. It’s hard because he’s also a bit of a slob, a bit lazy, but it’s that willingness to have a go and the humour in that it doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s the idea that you are there having a go and trying to be a role model for your children. That’s very important.”
The outraged of Netmums can say what they want. I am perfectly comfortable with what Peppa Pig teaches my daughter about family, and Daddy Pig’s place in it. I might wish his shortcomings did not so neatly match my own, and that his girth were not so prodigious, but as Neville Astley reveals, it could have been worse: “Originally, before it got banned, it was going to be Daddy’s big bottom. Channel 5 wouldn’t let us do that so we did big tummy instead.”
Ultimately, though, my daughter recognises that Daddy Pig, “silly Daddy”, loves Peppa. While he might not be perfect, while he might not be able to touch his toes or run more than a few yards, he would do anything for her. Hopefully, my little girl will grow up feeling the same of me.
And in my case, doing anything means even allowing another man — another pig, no less — to put my daughter to bed. Richard Ridings, as he has done for parents and fans on countless occasions over the last 10 years, was kind enough to record a message for her in which he tells her that it’s time to close her eyes and soon she will be asleep. I have the message stored on my phone, and once I’ve pushed aside the Peppa Pig pram, put the Peppa Pig nightdress on her and read her the Peppa Pig books, the very last thing my daughter wants is for me to ring Daddy Pig so that he can bid her goodnight. It works every time.