Josh Weinstein is the co-creator and show runner of Strange Hill High, an interesting case of an American industry veteran steering a British production. Many will remember Weinstein working with Bill Oakley to run what is seen by many as the final leg of the ‘golden age’ of The Simpsons. Airing on CBBC (who seem to be about the only mainstream channel still bothering to invest in children’s entertainment and education), the series focuses on a trio of friends at the titular school where just about anything can happen. I wouldn’t say it’s new ground to have a dark conspiracy at the heart of a school that the current students need to unravel, but unlike most other shows with that premise, Strange Hill is aimed squarely at being a comedy.
Our central protagonists are Mitchell (a streetwise, smart mouthed transfer student), Becky (a minor moral crusader using her righteousness to hide her own insecurities), and Templeton (a bespectacled nerd who isn’t completely in touch with reality). They make for a good ensemble, helped by the fact they and their classmates benefit from the writers having a fairly good grasp of how modern kids act. Each episode seem them running afoul of some kind of mystical threat within the school including a demonic toilet, a boring book that literally sucks, and a deranged abandoned student. They also have to contend with the soul-crushing, judgemental school faculty.
Some of these ideas might sound hokey on paper but the episodes really breeze by. It’s clear Weinstein and the writers are aiming to make something that bit deeper than certain other modern kids shows which take refuge in toilet humour and poorly composed snark. There are even some quick gags sprinkled in for older kids and adults (such as hearing a ‘Mr Nostradamus’ was fired for ‘being too unpredictable’)
The animation style is another factor that makes the show stand out. Termed ‘hypervynorama’, in what appears to be a respectful nod to the late Gerry Anderson, the show uses a combination of vinyl puppets, stop-motion and CGI to bring the visuals to life. Filming mostly relies on traditional stick articulated puppetry (clearly visible in a subtle gag motif), with stop-motion being used for more complex motions and CGI being used to animate eyes and mouths. The combination is really impressive and stands out far more than being just yet another modern CGI show. There’s also the fact that stop-motion and puppetry add an air of horror, which is ideal for the show’s premise. I remember being freaked out by several examples in my own childhood, and it rings as true here. The consistent layer of comedy stops it from being anything too intense for kids but there is at least one decent jump scare to be had.
Joining writing and visuals to make the trifecta is the brilliant vocal cast. The three leads (played by Doc Brown, Emma Kennedy, and Richard Ayoade, respectively) are all on fine form, with Brown even getting to flex his rapping skills by performing the title song and an episode specific rap over the various end credits. Other vocal work is performed by a mix of big names such as Caroline Aherne and legends of the UK voice acting industry such as Marc Silk.
Despite having a show runner, continuity between the seven episodes on the disc is minimal. Characters will briefly refer to earlier episodes and a few characters are suddenly given twist importance after being window dressing prior, but there’s seemingly no bigger arc here. You can jump on with any episode and grasp the characters and premise.
Similar to Fremantle’s releases of Power Rangers Super Samurai, there are no extras. An animated menu which loops the opening theme song gives you the option to Play All, pick one of the seven episodes or toggle subtitles. Also similar to their Power Rangers releases is the superb video quality. I still insist other DVD producers could learn from Fremantle’s example on this front as their releases look superb on a modern HD setup.
Strange Hill High is one of those rare shows that aims for a child audience but does so with obvious care and craft. With the summer holidays nearly upon us, this will probably be the only school children will welcome spending time at in the next few weeks.
Strange Hill High is available to purchase on DVD from Amazon UK.