A conversation with Seyi (Part 1)


Seyi Odusanya is a London based screenwriter as well as OBV alumnus with experience in developing and writing programmes for the BBC in animation and live-action television. Having worked as a screenwriter in the production of JoJo and Gran Gran, we decided to sit down with Seyi and learn more about his experience working on the show, in the industry and about his goals and aspirations moving forward as well as any advice he had for other emerging black creatives.

This was the conversation between Seyi and Mayowa.

So you were one of the screenwriters on the show appearing in episode 10. You are a screenwriter but for those who don't know, what does the process involve and how was it working on the show?

The show had been in development for nearly 2 years and I was brought onto the show early in the development process back in November 2018. I was invited into a writer’s retreat where the executive producer, the current head of programming for CBBCs, the creator of the show had gathered a bunch of us writers. We came together so we could start developing it. It began as a series of Children’s books that she had written, as kind of like an ode to her Grandmother who is from St. Lucia and from there, she got into contact with the BBC who wanted to turn it into an animated series.

From that initial residential back in November we were developing the show, moulding it from beyond the book into a TV Show. We discussed the characters as well and from there the show itself began to take shape. I've written 2 episodes, one which will be broadcast later this year in Autumn In the second 11 episode block. The show is segmented into 11 episode blocks covering spring, summer, autumn, and winter.

During that residential, I pitched the episodes I wanted to write. I pitched the storylines and they were based on what Laura had told us about her original ideas. She gave us the background about what inspired her to create the original idea; about what was essentially at the heart of the story she wanted to tell.

She wanted to tell it about St Lucian culture, give people a different impression about black people and what they might think especially about Grandmothers because when we tend to think about Grandmother's we think they're old, quite frail women but a lot of Grandmother's are quite active especially with their Grandchildren who they'll look after. So she wanted to portray Grandmothers and that relationship in a different light that hadn't been done before, just to make them seem much more..... normal.

The woman behind the tale: A photo of Marie Helena, affectionately known as 'Mama.'

One of the things she said is that she’d learn a lot of things about St. Lucia and her family from her Grandmother. So there was this idea of legacy and inheritance being ingrained into the story which informed my episode about JoJo seeing some pictures of her Gran Gran’s old photos when she was young – it was that idea about passing things down on to the next generation.

M: That was probably my favourite episode.

S: Thanks!

I just came up with that idea because that was what I picked up on when Laura was explaining how she had been inspired by the show. Just the need to pass something the same way her grandmother had done for her and her to her son's. That sense of family ties and bonds through generations was what I was looking to reflect. So as you can tell it’s been a lengthy process

M: I can imagine. It sounds like it

S: Yeah definitely, a year and a half. Remember it's a BBC original animation and that includes the production that's animated. The senior producer Tom Cousins was overseeing the entire process. Things like determining the art style of the show because when I went to that first residential the visual for the show was very different from what we see today. So they had to develop that tone, that warm, very solid bound visual aspect for it and all that took a long time to develop.

And of course, as I write on the show, I had my initial pitch which was two, three paragraphs and I had to develop that pitch into an outline for the episode and that was achieved by writing several drafts of the script itself. Going back and forth just to make sure that the tone was consistent across the board because as a writer we each have our individual episodes so you have to ensure consistency across the board.

To the show itself, I'm assuming you were able to have some acquaintance with the author. What was that like?

I first met her during the residential. When I was brought onto the show I was invited to a three-day residential where the whole team got to know each other for a couple of days which was very nice. She got to explaining to us how she came up with the idea for JoJo and GranGran and what inspired her to make it, so I got to know her fairly well during that short amount of time, but I didn’t know her beforehand. The person I knew was the executive producer at Cbeebies and she was the woman who approached Laura in the first place. She had basically formed a relationship with Laura where I suppose she saw the initial idea when it was just a book and she wanted to turn it into a TV show.

And were you able to interact with the source material ahead of time or was it a case of meeting it as you came?

I hadn’t read any of the books prior to the residential. But I was given an information pack of the ideas behind the cartoon. But hearing Laura talk about her ideas was much better because I got to hear it from the Author's own words. I thought that was a really good way of introducing us to what it meant to her.

The original JoJo and GranGran books

It's a really nice dynamic that the show creates between the two. From your perspective having worked on it, was there anything in particular that resonated with you having watched it back?

Yeah, there was. During the residential one of the things that I know that Tom was keen on was just representing the black family and these sort of black relationships as normal. We really just wanted to make sure that their experience, which was very unique, was depicted but also just wanted to emphasize how it was very relatable so even if you're not from St. Lucia the core relationship of the Grandmother and the Grandchild would be something that you can relate to. The fact that they were from St. Lucia was a part of their identity that they wanted to come across.

I'm not St. Lucian; my culture and heritage are Nigerian, but that Afro-Caribbean identity and how it mixes with British identity was something I was glad to see, and when you watch you'll occasionally see reference to it. For instance, when they went to the bus stop a woman is wearing an African dress and it's something that's completely normal because I see women wear African dresses all the time and it's nothing weird to me, but for other people, they might think that's a bit strange so we wanted to make that kind of sight normal.

M: Watching it myself that scene in one of the early episodes where they take the bus that was the one scene that stuck out to me. You had the woman on the bus - she was elderly but with the white afro, you had the woman in native clothing, you had the black woman driving the bus. Watching it kind of dawned on me that a lot of the good things about the show are things which go unsaid, it’s just clever placement of subtle ideas handled in a really careful way

The scene from series one episode three

What's been your reaction to how well it's been received?

It was very astonishing to me because working on the show from my end this is work that goes back to October during my time with OBV, because I’d be working on my episodes in the office when Ashok and Simon were busy! But it was really good to see people able to watch it for real. I got invited to the screening at the television centre in White City. The St. Lucian ambassador was there and Laura as well. I also got to meet the girl that voices JoJo, and her family. The reaction to it was really nice.

Seeing the animation for the first time was very good for me because it’s very weird to see something that I, with the voice actors and with the animators helped to bring to life - that’s still something that's astonishing to see as well as talking to people afterwards and hearing what they liked about it.

I also spoke to Leroy Logan (former head of the metropolitan police) about the episode of Gran-Gran showing JoJo the old photos and he started saying I should start doing that with my kids - showing them photos from back in the day when I was younger, so it was nice to see that people really got involved in that familiar relationship and were able to relate to it to their own experiences as well.

Also, the voice actor for the character Jared and his kid were there. We watched about 3 episodes, at essentially a premiere, and his kid was just being a little kid wondering about. When it got to my episode and the characters went to get ice cream they paid full attention and all I knew instantly was that yeah, I got the kid! So yeah that was something worth remembering, just seeing how it all came together.

JoJo and Gran Gran is a Cbeebies animated production scheduled on weekdays at 17:30. It is also available on BBC IPlayer