The race to become No.1 choice for pre-schoolers is about to hot up with the arrival of Fifi And The FLowertots, from the man who invented Bob The Builder. Viv Hardwick talks to Keith Chapman about Fifi and why it means so much to create those lucrative TV spin-off sales.

IN merchandising alone, Neil Morrissey-voiced Bob The Builder is currently worth a cool £1.5 billion. Now the man who invented Bob has the next "big thing" a ten-inch flowertot called Fifi.

Keith Chapman - a former employee of Jim Henson's Muppet company - saw his first big idea of Bob construct a cash mountain after starting a TV career back in 1999.

Having been forced to give away most of the rights to Bob, Chapman has now come up with the construction king's alter ego... a gardening, cooking, arts and crafts, music and fashion conscious feisty female voiced by Jane Horrocks.

His London-based company raised the £3.5 million and more required to put all Fifi's petals in place by selling the project's worldwide potential to hard-headed city business types. On May 2 at 8am on five's Milkshake pre-school programme, the most in-demand girl's gift of Christmas 2005 is likely to grow from a ten-minute episode.

Chapman argues that Fifi isn't exclusively for a female audience and says: "Fifi is the reversal of Bob and it came from mothers' saying 'why don't you do something which appeals to little girls because there's nothing out there in the pre-school market?'. So that's what got me thinking. So I reversed the psychology of Bob because there are a lot of shows for boys like Fireman Sam and Thomas The Tank Engine etc. I got some girls to write down all the things they wanted to see in a show, but I was aware that a TV station won't buy a series that's exclusive to girls. It had to appeal to both boys and girls, so I built in equal number of characters to the show."

The 'boy' appeal centres on Stingo the Wasp and Slugsy The Slug who are an Abbot and Costello-style slapstick double act. Watch out for "bingo stingo" and "wiggly worms", Stingo and Slugsy's catchphrases, dominating playgroup banter.

And for those who rage about the blatant commercialism involved, Chapman simply points out that the TV fee from five and Nickelodeon wouldn't cover the price of producing Fifi.

He explains: "Only 20 per cent of Fifi is covered by the TV funds, so it has to have merchandising potential to make it viable. The budgets run at the £3.5m mark for the 52 episodes and, to be honest, most of the backers jumped at the idea. We've covered the costs and the costs of the next show and pilots for a couple of ideas.

All the toy companies around the world want Fifi because they can see the potential and the trick is to get this project on TV. On the strength of one three-minute pilot, our TV partners Target are selling the programme around the world... 23 in total are interested including France, Germany, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand."

The man who signed away all but the royalties to Bob, who is being revamped by HIT Entertainment for the under-fives market this summer, believes bricks and flowerbuds can survive side by side. Chapman says: "I've kept my copyright and royalties on Bob, who was my first idea, but you have to take what you can get and I took a deal. Bob opened a lot of doors for me, but this one I've kept all the rights to and everyone after Fifi will be owned by us.

"Fifi doesn't really step on Bob's toes in a way. The BBC was fantastic for Bob and, in fact, we did take Fifi in her early stages to the BBC and at that time it was inundated with pre-school projects. It will be nice to think that they see Fifi and kick themselves, but I think we have lots of new ideas coming forward although we are enjoying working with five."

Casting the right celeb is also important. Fifi was aimed at Jane Horrocks - who voices Fifi and a Mrs Bucket-style flowertot called Primrose - almost from the start because "mums know her and she's very talented and quirky and the perfect personality".

Animation by Cosgrove Hall has created ten-inch-tall £8,000 individual characters which are armatured with skeletons - "a little like terminator" jokes Chapman - covered with foam and silicon and hand-made clothes where every single joint and finger moves. The Fifi books were recently launched at Bologna's Book Fair by HarperCollins as 18 months of investment in Fifi finally reaches full blossom. Just to ensure poor parents gain maximum pester power, Fifi's TV adventures are being released in two bursts. Twenty-six in May to establish her identity on TV and then 26 more in October-November in time for Christmas.

The toys start going out in July-August and the range extends from the figures to a big Wendy House-style home, clothing, DVDs and books. Next year sees the stationery range, bedspreads, wallpaper and pillowcases etc.

At 46, Chapman says he doesn't find growing older a problem, even though his three sons, 16, 14 and 11, have moved on to violent action hero computer games: "I don't think it's difficult for me in the world of two to four-year-olds. I can put myself in the mind of a small child and I just feel when something is a winner. It's just something I've had since I was young myself.

"If you can get through those first five years and then another five years you can have a character with legs who becomes a classic."

* Fifi And The Flowertots, five, 8am, Monday, May 2.

Published: 21/04/2005