“A fox should not be on the jury at a goose's trial”Thomas Fuller I don’t think any one would want a fox on the jury if they were on trial, because as the myth purports the fox is a crafty, greedy and dishonest animal. Well that is the fictional characteristic of the fox that we have learnt from our childhood , from the likes of Aesop’s fables to charming stories such as The Sly Fox and the Little Red Hen, tales that have entertained countless generations. Moreover the fox has crossed over from the novel, to the silver screen and TV, from Disney’s Robin Hood, where the hero was a fox to the present with Nelson the Fox from the BBC 3 series Mongrels, and all different interpretations of the traditional cunning fox persona.Mongrels’ first hit the UK TV screens in the summer of 2010 on BBC 3, and now has been commissioned for a second series. The show itself is an adult and anthropomorphic puppet show set in The Lord Nelson Pub (A real pub) on the Isle of The Dogs, and it’s surrounding. Centering on Nelson the Fox, a well educated urban fox with good intentions with characters such as Destiny, the landlords pet- a self obsessed and bitchy Afghan hound; Kali, the human hating pigeon; Marion the cat; Nelson’s best but rather dim friend and cousin Vince, the aggressive swearing fox. But they are cute and funny living in a madcap world where anything can happen with five highly different and strong personalities against the background of modern living, Mongrels is a brutal comedy with a cuddly touch.Each week, the characters will embark on a number of adventures, from escaping the clutches of a psychopath chicken to trying to blow up The Lord Nelson pub, with engaging sub plots, sharp dialogue, witty comments, amusing cutbacks, a musical number and cameos from the likes of Clive James to Paul Ross, happy to send themselves up in the name of comedy. The humour can be dark, and near the bone, yet since the birth of comedy, there has always been that fine line between humour and offence. Yet Mongrels has been well received, and with Series two upon us, it looks like it will grow from strength to strength. Behind every great puppet is a great man, and none more so then the creator of Mongrels, Adam Miller. Like his creations, there is a certainly an engaging enigma about him, Miller doesn’t seem hungry for the limelight, he just wants his puppets to do the talking, and who can argue with that? He and his team have done a sterling job in bringing his vision to live. Yet as fans of Mongrels, ZANI wanted to know more about Adam Miller and how the show came to life. So we decided to catch up with Adam to discuss all thing Mongrels and beyond over a frothy coffee in East London café. ZANI - I bet you are pleased with the overall success of series one, I guess series two wasn’t a guarantee until the first season had finished airing on BBC 3? Adam Miller -
I think that is pretty much always the way with shows these days, they wait and see if the first series is a success, and quite often things take a while to bed down anyway. So it’s been a joy to be offered a second series and it’s nice for the BBC to give us a vote of confidence. ZANI - Any talks about pushing Mongrels from BBC3 to BBC 2 as happened with the success of Gavin and Stacey or is that too early to say ? Adam Miller -
I think Mongrels would appeal to the BBC 2 audience. But we are delightfully happy on BBC 3, but strangely there are really annoying things which make a different. ZANI – Such as? Adam Miller –
Repeat fees mainly, because puppeteer’s fees are different then an artist’s, in fact they are higher, this makes Mongrels quite an expensive show to repeat. So bizarrely that is what is against us, but there have been talks of us going onto BBC 2, Whether or not, we move, I don’t know. ZANI -.Did you experiment with the characters and the plots more, or keep the same successful formula from series one? Adam Miller -
Well I think you always learn, an adult puppet show that tries not to be smutty, hasn’t really been done. I think we are just getting more confidence, we felt that Kali and Destiny needed a little bit more work, and I think they work better in the second series. And we are now absolutely sure who Nelson is and who Marion is, once we had defined that, I think the new series is a lot smoother than the first series. ZANI – That’s good to hear. It has been well documented that the concept of Mongrels came to you whilst working on the ITV children’s Ripley and Scuff, and you wanted to produce a puppet show-is that true? Adam Miller -
That is not strictly correct, I was working on Ripley and Scuff, it was my first director’s gig, actually, and Andy Heath (Mongrels’ puppeteer) was working on the show as well.
While working on Ripley and Scuff a couple of things occurred to me; number one adults loved the puppets and number two that the hand held camera work was brilliant. But I didn’t really think too much about it, and I went away from that idea for two years. But then I decided I wanted to get into comedy, so I started making some low budget pilots and in one of these pilots, we were using puppets in quite a small way and I loved what they bought to the table, so I did another pilot again, using the puppets again but at that stage I fell out with the guy I was working with, for one reason and another. ZANI – It happens in life. Adam Miller -
Exactly, but I was left thinking I have no one else to work with using these puppets, so I gave Andy a ring. And he was amazing, we drew these sketches using the puppets, and it dawned on me, that it is like watching the Muppets and I could see the difference between an amateur and a professional puppeteer. That pilot didn’t go anywhere but I thought fuck it; why not push this idea further.
So what I had done was a sketch about a fox, it was a bad joke about urban fox hunting. Basically people on mopeds chasing after a fox- parallel to what happens in the country; it was a bad gag, but I liked the idea of an urban fox that was a bit metrosexual. So then we came up with this idea about a documentary called The Unnatural World which had a documentary crew following a fox and a dog around London, on a hand held camera.
We had a cat saying to the fox basically “You are not a fox, why don’t you go out and catch a rabbit?” One thing led to another, and we shot about 20 minutes. I took it to BBC 3 producer Stephen McCrum, and he said you know what, turn that this into an ordinary comedy, and lose the documentary feel, that is really how Mongrels really begun. ZANI - Then you brought on Jon Brown and later on Danny Peak as script writers? Adam Miller -
It was me, Jon and Stephen at the beginning, and we had been working for ages, about three to four years on the concept of Mongrels. I originally wanted to write it, but Jon was so good he became the main script writer; it just took a while, for us to get the break with the BBC. ZANI – I agree, and it does seem harder these days, to get new ideas off the ground-overnight success seems a thing of the past. After four years of hard work and getting the show commissioned, which is no mean feat, I presume amongst the three of you, the hunger is still very much there? Adam Miller -
Well actually its seven years, nearly coming to eight, every now and then I think fucking hell I would like to do something else… but we are so close. But it seems that ninety nine per cent of the British Population doesn’t know that the show exists, and I do want to reach out to a bigger audience. So yes the hunger is still there. ZANI – Mongrels certainly does deserve to be a household name. TV companies like the BBC and ITV should allow shows like situation comedies to develop, the BBC nearly scrapped Fools and Horses after the third series, all this instant success is bullshit, they have to allow the writers to develop the plot and the characters. In fact as you may know Family Guy was originally dropped by Fox TV and it was recommission due to outstanding DVD sales. Adam Miller -
I know. ZANI – I mean the central character Nelson, is the right pedigree to become a classic British comedy icon like Del Boy. Adam Miller –
That would be nice. ZANI - Speaking about puppets, Jim Henson and The Muppets were big inspirations for you, and so was your early pilot that you showed to the BBC inspired by the Muppet’s Pilot? Adam Miller -
Yes, but it wasn’t the pilot, it was the actual teaser of the show. A friend of mine suggested I looked at the original teaser of the Muppets, which I did and yes, I was inspired by it. ZANI – I do like your teaser; you have Nelson the Fox at the end, delivering an amazing monologue, very patriotic like Tim Brooke Taylor in The Goodies. Speaking of character development, I noticed Nelson the Fox seemed more like Vince, his foul mouthed cousin, in the teaser. Adam Miller -
Yes he was, when I did the original documentary pilot, he was very metrosexual, but Nelson the Fox has been through many renovations but it has been a slow learning progress. But for the teaser, not the original pilot he was very much like Vince, he was tough, then we came back with the metrosexual element, and Rufus helped a lot with that, when we heard his voice, that helped us so much in development of the character of Nelson. ZANI – Rufus’s voice is brilliant, why did you decide to use a fox as a central character? Adam Miller -
It was just the urban fox, just seemed that was the hook and everything was about urban, and it was back in at the start of the century. It just to seemed make sense to make him a fox, if you are a bloke in Britain you are not a real bloke anymore, you go to work and hide behind your PC all day, and it struck me that must be the same for foxes. They spend their days wriggling about bins and not going out and hunting for their food anymore and there seemed to be a nice parallel. ZANI – I do like that and understand what you mean, the alpha male may be a dying breed… Mongrels, certainly has the ingredients of a situation comedy, and in fact at times it reminds me of The Young Ones, I mean that as a compliment Adam Miller -
Thank you that is a nice comparison. ZANI –
And The Young Ones sometimes had puppets, especially Vivien’s pet hamster SPG, he was a loon. Adam Miller -
I haven’t watched The Young Ones in years, will check them again. ZANI – Please do, it’s anarchic yet you do develop empathy for the key characters, similar to Mongrels. Another nice element is that you get people like Eamon Holmes, Clive Anderson and Chris Packham having minor cameos on the show. Adam Miller -
Well bless them, you see things like that on The Simpsons and it struck me with Mongrels there was an opportunity to do what The Simpsons do. The result is, you end up with people who had seen the show, read the script and are a good laugh, happy to have the piss taken out of them by us whilst they are there- it’s been a joy. ZANI – It’s a nice piss take, and they seem to have enjoyed themselves. Adam Miller -
I think they have, and they were surprised by it, like Eamon Holmes ZANI – I loved the Eamon Holmes clip with Nelson The Fox presenting This Morning, he was brilliant and took the piss out of himself. Adam Miller -
He sure did. ZANI - Most people these days, do associate puppet shows as a cute concept , yet the most popular and well known puppet show across the world, well certainly the western world , is Punch and Judy, which is sinister, as Adam Miller, the school boy were you into Punch and Judy ? Adam Miller -
I like Punch and Judy, but I wasn’t massively into it when I was a kid. But the puppeteer that does Destiny, Richard Coombes is a massive fan, and does an extraordinary Punch and Judy show, that is contemporary, and the way he does it is mind blowing, I will have to remember where it is. But you are right, Punch and Judy is quite sinister. ZANI – I would to see that, some of the humour in Punch and Judy is dark and not PC, such as Punch turning his baby into sausages, getting hanged and meeting the devil… And some of the humour in Mongrels, as been near the bone like Harold Shipman and Anne Frank references, how do does these ideas come about ? Adam Miller -
From the writing room, from the brains of Jon, Danny and the rest of the writing team, I think it is a tricky thing to have a puppet show that is going to be adult and there are two ways of doing that, one is to make everything about sex and the other is to be clever about it-the result is you have to go a little darker. I think in the first series, we pushed too far, you mentioned Harold Shipman, and I just think we went too far. But like with the rest of the history of Mongrels, we experimented with the gags. ZANI – Fair enough. Adam Miller -
Absolutely, some of that stuff works brilliantly I adore it, and I wouldn’t swap it for the world, but every now and then we hit a nerve. But comedy is meant to push the line, you have to find out where that line is, and you can’t always get the line right. Also if you are not challenging people then what is the point? ZANI – Let’s talk about the characters, Nelson and Marion are certainly the tragic heroes of comedy , like Laurel and Hardy, their intentions are good, they don’t mean any harm to anyone, but everything always seems to go wrong for them, was that the aim? Adam Miller -
I wonder if it’s the same with every show, but the characters like Nelson and Marion just developed, they became like that over a period of time. We thought for ages and wondered what Marion is going to be like and what was funny about him?
I think the key thing is about the whole learning progress of the characters, what is funny about his character well you gradually find that, and things suddenly come alive. It’s from hearing the actor’s voice, seeing the puppets in action. It’s very difficult to develop characters like Marion and Nelson, until you see them in action. If you are writing for someone like Ben Stiller, you know straight away, what Ben Stiller is like and what his voice is like, you know what he can do.
With Mongrels, it was like an open blackboard, where you could write anything you wanted, but really it was about developing and learning at the same time. I guess that is a long winded answer to your question, we didn’t necessary want Laurel and Hardy, we just wanted funny. ZANI – They are two tragic heroes and they are adorable. Destiny, as you describe her, is an Essex girl and Wag, and her funniest feature is her selfishness, have you meet Destiny type characters in your life? Adam Miller -
Yes I have and again she has grown a lot in this series, we weren’t sure we nailed her in the last series. It’s the utterly selfishness of her that makes her funny, I don’t think she thinks she is a bad person; in fact, she thinks she is a great person. ZANI – Male or female I have certainly had a few Destiny’s in my life, but she is not all bad because she did take a stroke for Marion and Nelson when they were prisoners in a children’s zoo. Adam Miller -
She did indeed, I think perhaps we have pushed her to be more selfish in the second series. I don’t think she would take a stroke for them now. ZANI – Oh so she’s real bitch now? I understand you have a zoological background, is that from a hobby or as a career? Adam Miller -
It was something I studied at University, I wanted to be David Attenborough. Then I after I graduated I thought I should get into Television and combine the two. So I am sort of doing television with animals but in a very different way from David Attenborough. ZANI – Ok what about Kali, how did the concept of an evil genius human hating pigeon come about? Because she certainly is a Bond type villain Adam Miller -
We love the idea of that, and also that the fact pigeons are so ineffectual to be a Bond type villain, we have also slightly pushed the teenager aspect of her in this series, she bursts into tears a lot. But yes she is working really well in the new series, and Katy Brand has got such a great voice. ZANI - Vince, now that is a character, an alpha male all the way, with his swearing and aggressive, I understand Jon Brown or was it you that based him on Tim Roth’s character in ‘This is England’ -is that right? Adam Miller -
Yes that was a very early concept for Vince, but he was come a long way since then. You could say look that is the starting point, but Vince is so much more about Paul Kaye. Have you seen the sketch on line with Paul Kaye, where he is teaching in what looks like a martial arts with a set of car keys. Look it up- when we saw that, we thought that is just genius, it’s got to be Paul for Vince. ZANI – Did Paul Kaye take much persuading to join the cast of Mongrels? Adam Miller -
He has been from the start, well when I mean the start, the first time we actually went and shot the teaser, and Paul Kaye is the voice of the fox. When we moved away from Nelson being such a horrible fox to a nicer fox, we didn’t want to lose Pete, so that was the driving force in creating Vince. ZANI – My favourite scene with Vince and Nelson is when Nelson throws a surprise Birthday party for him on the roof. Adam Miller -
There’s a lot more like that in the new series. ZANI – And the other classic scene, is when Vince wakes up from his coma, and starts swearing at Destiny. Adam Miller –
That’s one of our favourites as well, Vince and Destiny work well together. ZANI – That is because they are opposites Adam Miller -
Exactly ZANI - Is Vince gay? Because in series one, there were strong hints that he was. Adam Miller -
It’s difficult to describe, he is defiantly not gay, but only in the sort of way that he would bum you to death. ZANI - So he would literally bum you to death, as a form of total control and abuse? Adam Miller -
Yes, I encourage you to watch episode three of this coming series, but I can’t give too much away. ZANI – No please don’t, I look forward to watching it. Another part of the magic is the voice talents of Rufus Jones, Lucy Montgomery, Katy Brand, Dan Tetsell as well Paul Kaye as we have mentioned. These are seasoned performers who have certainly added a depth to Mongrels. Was it purely through the audition process that you got these talented people onboard ? Adam Miller -
They all went through the audition process, Rufus and I had worked before on Katy Brand's Big Ass Show. And as we know Katy does Kalia’s voice, I remember working with Katy on Chitty Bang Bang, where I heard her do a voice which in time would become Kalia’s voice. So we tried her out and she fitted really perfectly.
Rufus was in the first round of auditions, myself and Mickey Pyle one of the casting directors loved what he did with it, it was so rich but Stephen at that stage, wanted it to be more local, if it was going to be based in East London, he wanted an East London accent. We went round the houses for ages for the right voice for Nelson, and eventually we turned round to Stephen, and said for God sake let’s just get the funny one.
Lucy is brilliant as Destiny, she is so versatile and the energy she has bought to the character, a real winner. The one we had real trouble was Marion, he is actually a different artist in the pilot, and it just didn’t quite work, no disrespect meant to him, but we tried out Dan Tetsell and all of a sudden Marion was alive, that was a rather joyous moment, but it just shows you have got to try everyone. ZANI – Like you said it’s a learning curve, you are not afraid to develop plots and characters, and its working. Adam Miller -
Fingers crossed, I am dammed sure if we manage to get a third series it will be better then the second series, but I think they was so much to learn in series one of Mongrels, and still so much to learn this time round, because it is not just about the characters, it’s everything else about the show, how we shoot it and use the sets. ZANI - Any plans to bring out merchandise of Mongrels, I know we have the DVD’s, but a Nelson or a Vince soft toy would be a winner, or Vince the Fox Birthday cards Adam Miller -
It’s been talked about, but it is a large financial comment for merchandise , the BBC want to be sure that the show is going to be around for a while before they start advertising it. But everyone can see the possibility there. We just have to be more a long standing prospect before they start; but I mean who wouldn’t want a swearing Vince for Christmas ? ZANI - Outside of Mongrels what other interests and hobbies do you have? Adam Miller -
Oh god, Mongrel has taken over my entire life. ZANI – I bet it has, final question, if Mongrels could be a theme park ride, what would it be? Adam Miller -
I’ve got a picture in my head of Mongrels the Ghost train ride. And who wouldn’t pay a few pounds to go on Mongrels the ghost train ride? If the show is anything to go by, it certainly would be a ride of a lifetime. The potential for Mongrels to grow is vast, and the show is much more than a merchandiser’s dream, it is a situation comedy that is challenging, funny, brave and highly entertaining. A mixture of the razor-sharp US hit cartoon shows, like Family Guy and The Simpsons, with a hint of classic British chaotic comedies like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Father Ted. And from the energy and enthusiasm Adam and his colleagues have put into Mongrels, the show should reach the dizzy heights of success far more then Miller first expected. Miller remains humble, and eager to learn, with a vision to make Mongrels a number one show, and he certainly seems on the right path. At ZANI we wish him and Nelson well and are sure that the reputation of this most unusual Fox and his cohorts wins the viewers hearts once mor
e.© Words – Matteo Sedazzari/ZANI Media