A cartoon of New Testament stories has overtaken Disney's 'Pocahontas' to become the best-selling video in the US. Martin Whittaker speaks to the series' author about its worldwide success
The Reverend Brian Brown's telephone has just rung for the third time in half an hour. This time it was his manager, he explains. "I also have an agent. I never dreamed I would have someone like that; one of the top London agencies looks after everything for me. I even have to phone them when I'm on holiday." He pauses, then laughs. "And I'm just a Methodist minister."
Despite this assertion, The Rev Brown is not just a Methodist minister. He is also the creator and executive producer of a religious cartoon which has proved an unexpected worldwide hit.
When The Storykeepers was first broadcast on UK television in January last year, it pulled in 1.4 million viewers - respectable ratings for a Sunday morning programme. HTV, which put out the series, was inundated with letters of congratulation. "We only normally get people writing in to complain," says a spokeswoman.
The series was sold to around 50 countries and shot up the American video chart, dislodging Disney's Pocahontas from the top slot. Now another three series have been commissioned. There are books and teachers' guides, and Brian Brown is on the verge of signing a deal for The Storykeepers to go out on US network and cable television.
At home in Oxford, he talks of all this with the glee of someone just about to yell, "Told you so!" to his critics. "A number of people thought we were crazy. Others were less polite than that," he says. "What The Storykeepers has done is prove everybody wrong. It has proved that it is possible to create entertaining material with a religious content for children."
Brian Brown, 62, is genial and softly spoken. He and his wife, Pearl, a former deputy head, live in a modern detached house on the outskirts of Oxford. He insists the success of The Storykeepers hasn't made him wealthy; while getting the series made, he remortgaged his house three times. "I make no secret of the fact that we have had 10 years of struggle. Were it not for people in the church, some weeks we wouldn't have survived."
He has seen more of the media and entertainment industry than most clergymen. Ordained into the Methodist church in 1962, he became chaplain to Liverpool's Cavern Club, working with bands such as The Merseybeats and Freddie and the Dreamers (he just missed The Beatles).
From 1966 he lectured in religious studies at Dudley College of Education in the West Midlands. That year his superior, the Rev Alan Dale, published New World, a children's book that put the New Testament into plain English. It is now out of print, but back then it had an enormous influence on Brian Brown. "I learned a great deal from Alan. What he succeeded in doing was making the Gospel stories accessible to children, in good language but in language related to their reading ages. It wasn't all 'thee' and 'thou'."
A further influence came years later. In 1980 he became head of the television research unit at what was then Oxford Polytechnic, and was an adviser to the BBC and ITV on religious and children's broadcasting. From his research he became convinced that children were learning more from television than from reading, and so came the idea for a cartoon version of the Bible stories.
In 1986 he took early retirement after having heart surgery. "One of my friends at the BBC said, 'You have been telling us to do this for the past five years. Why don't you do it yourself?' " So he did. He set up a production company, Shepherd Ltd, and travelled far and wide to gain the blessing of the various churches, including the Pope's advisers in Rome and US evangelists. Dissatisfied with a number of scripts, he teamed up with his son-in-law, Dr Andrew Mulrose, and they wrote their own. But getting financial backing was a problem. Finally, he won it from Zondervan Publishing House, a Christian publisher and division of HarperCollins, and work began on the pound;6 million series.
Suddenly Brian was jetting off to work with a team of Hollywood writers, and found himself fighting to retain the integrity of his idea. He recalls how they wanted to end one episode with Santa dishing out presents to the children. He had to remind them that Santa wasn't around in 64AD.
The Storykeepers depicts the Christian underground movement surviving persecution to keep the stories of Jesus alive. There is a Disney feel to much of the animation, and its main character, the storyteller, is called Ben the Baker. Each episode tells different stories of Christ and the disciples.
Brian Brown believes his series - which went out at traditional church-going time and was aimed at six to 11-year-olds - is succeeding where the church is failing. "There's a group of theologians now looking at the implications of this," he says. "It's a troubling question. How do you account for the fact that 1.4 million people watched a television programme to hear the stories of Jesus, but didn't go to church to hear it?" Some might say it's because children love cartoons - of any kind. So perhaps The Storykeepers is just religious indoctrination in a child-friendly format. Chris Rowland, professor of New Testament studies at Oxford, believes not. "Compared with some of the brainwashing that goes on in religious productions, this stands in a much better position than most.
"I'm not an expert on child pedagogy, but it seems to me, as somebody who has spent his life looking at Biblical studies, that it is an effective way of getting the message across, and one which has taken account of the way in which stories might have been used in the first century. So there's quite a nod in the direction of 100 years of Biblical scholarship.
"The general point is one which sociologists have often made - that the stories of Jesus attract enormous interest among people, whereas churchgoing doesn't."