Why Leonardo is the best children’s TV drama in years
Words: John Newman

There are some things that tend to be overlooked about TV drama made for children. One is that it is written by adults. Secondly, it has so many more restrictions- both artistic and financial- than adult TV drama. Thirdly being able to produce something that will captivate lively minds is a challenge that requires a special skill. A programme produced within such confines is therefore liable to be of a high quality.

This spring, CBBC debuted Leonardo, produced by Kindle Entertainment. Running for 13 episodes, Leonardo is set in 1467and imagines a Florence where the young Leonardo da Vinci (Jonathan Bailey) is working as an artist’s apprentice but is also an inventor. His best friend is Mac, real name  Machiavelli (Akemnji Ndifornyen), who is streetwise and devious. Then there’s Lorenzo (Colin Ryan) heir to the powerful Medici dynasty but secretly mates with Leo and Mac, sneaking away from his pampered life. The first episode `Anything is Possible` introduces Lisa (Flora Spencer-Longhurst) into the group. Though she is destined to one day be the subject of the most famous painting in the world when we meet her she is desperately trying to become an apprentice by disguising herself as a boy called Tomaso. Even then she still needs a letter of recommendation which Lorenzo’s father Piero de Medici (Alastair McGowan) is ready to give her, providing she steals Leonardo’s notebook which contains plans for a number of his inventions.  De Medici has ambitions of power unknown to his son.

The series was shot on location in Johannesburg, South Africa between October 2010 and February 2011 utilsing a huge hangar from a disused car factory for the interior sets including the workshops and the Medici’s home as well as underground catacombs.. Outside, a large to scale set was constructed to provide the alley ways and piazzas around which the action takes place. This impressive set is shown off  during several chase sequences.  While this space provides an authentic looking setting, the heat sometimes caused problems with all the cast mentioning temperatures reaching 45 degrees- and they were all wearing thick costumes. As for the art, the cast attended a painting workshop shortly after arriving in South Africa though in scenes where they appear to be painting they are only filling in already drawn templates.

The show’s style is an appealing mixture of the historical and modern. Speaking with just the occasional Italian word chucked in (“presto”,  “maestro”, “fantastico”) the young leads are easily identifiable to their audience. Only the adult characters resort to a more formal form of dialogue. Modern music adds a soundtrack though not as intrusively as on some shows. Visually the appeal of the vast sets and the South African Sun add much while direction is pacy and, when it needs to, brings out the tension of confrontations.   The series possesses a joi de vivre that surely appeals to more than the target audience and is never patronising to the viewer. While many aspects aim to be historically accurate,  the main narrative’s idea that De Vinci has all his creative thoughts as a teenager is of course highly speculative yet it provides some of the show’s enduring sequences including the first ever bicycle, Leonardo flying with a large pair of wings he’s constructed and the `Lightning Box`. In part 13 we also have a  fearsome armour clad `demon` that Piero has had built from the stolen plans.

(from left) Mac, Lisa, Leo and Lorenzo get ready to sing

The scenario initially seems charming enough but limiting. Yet the writers certainly show skill in utilising these limitations by focussing on the bonds between the characters which are tested as the season progresses. Rather than offer a US style moral lesson and group hug at the end of each week, Leonardo keeps its characters fresh leaving some gripes and resentments simmering yet you can see the friendships are there. Showing a mastery of episodic thrills and longer arc plots, the writers deliver consistently high quality. They are also prepared to develop the storyline so that the key secrets- that De Medici’s son  Lorenzo is friends with the gang and also that Tomaso is really a girl are both known to De Medici before the end of the season. In fact the latter is a cut above the sort of villain you’d expect being one step ahead of our heroes each time and challenging their resourcefulness.  The writing works just as effectively in the slow burn elements- the way Lisa is clearly love struck by Leonardo but he can’t see it; when he does fall for a woman she looks so disappointed. Mostly, he just treats Lisa as a boy except, that is, for one moment in `Angels and Cherubs` where he uses Lisa as a model for a painting. There’s also the fact that Mac seems to like Lisa but realises he can’t have her;  in several episodes his silent disappointment of this played out solely by Akemnji Ndifornyen’s wounded expressions in the background.

Careful to place the adventures within the reach of the possible- but perhaps not always plausible- Leonardo’s writers do not have either the magic of Merlin or the temporal trickery of Doctor Who to fall back on but the show borrows- consciously or otherwise- both the warmth and inventiveness of both series. Leonardo’s ingenious methods of escaping a trap or defeating one of De Medici’s schemes are always rooted in reality. He doesn’t carry weapons, utilising whatever’s around and always does the right thing, at whatever cost to himself. In fact, watching Jonathan Bailey in some episodes you can easily see how he might one day be cast as the Time Lord (in one episode he even gets a speech about “the key to time”!). His Leonardo is full of vigour, charm and humour but when he has to stand up to injustice he does so.  Equally adept at the tongue twisting science bits as he is at leaping about in the action scenes, Bailey delivers a great young hero on screen, as good as Matt Smith or Colin Morgan.

First impressions? He's a bit evil isn't he?

Flora Spencer- Longhurst tackles the tricky role of a girl pretending to be a boy with a natural air. Modern viewers will of course see through the deception right away but 15th century folk might well not and it works well. Luckily the plots are not obsessed with her true identity being exposed every week so when it is used it is more effective.  Akemnji Ndifornyen is sometimes underused as Mac remains an enigmatic character but when he takes centre stage does so commandingly. Colin Ryan’s comic timing comes to the fore as Lorenzo juggles the starch life at home with the more rambunctious existence beyond. He seems to be present mostly as comic relief and a way of getting Leo and co in and out of his house but later in the series when the friends fall out over Leonardo’s accusations as to the senior Medici’s ambitions, Ryan makes the character convincingly hurt and bemused by the turn of events. Alastair McGowan has a ball as the scheming Piero; in essence he is doing a sort of composite impression of every slippery historical villain mixed with a bit of James Bond villainry. The risk of a recurring antogonist is that he or she becomes ineffective but the writers develop his plans and in the episode `Fireball` pull off a wonderful twist that dents even Leonardo’s confidence and concludes the best episode of the series. Its worth noting, too, that the scenes between McGowan and Ryan are well played father / son pieces that add to our appreciation of Lorenzo’s dilemma in the last few episodes.

The series debuted on 11th April with the first two episodes shown together and gained 365,000 viewers, a strong figure for CBBC. It received some attention from the wider media despite its children’s slot but has yet to generate the buzz that surrounded MI High or The Sarah Jane Adventures, a shame as it is ultimately as good as either. Perhaps if it had also been shown, as they were, on BBC1 things would be different. Possibly it proved too tricky a series to market- it was titled `Young Leonardo` initially, a more descriptive moniker though perhaps suggesting a more juvenile series. There’s no news yet on a second series but there is plenty of scope for one as the last episode shows a dramatic confrontation between Leonardo and Piero which promises much more. Let’s hope we get to see it!
What the cast said (quotes from the BBC press pack):

Alastair McGowan on playing the villain
: “It is fun. Piero isn't just mean and threatening though; he also has a lot of cleverness and wit. We also see his fatherly side with his son, Lorenzo. So, he was a really enjoyably well-rounded character to play”

Jonathan Bailey on pretending to be a brilliant painter: 
I draw a mean flower! But anything else non-floral, I really, really struggle with. I am in awe of friends who have the talent to translate an image they can see in their head, or one they can see in front of them, on to a page with correct perspective.  When I found out I had got the part of Leonardo da Vinci I ordered a painting-by-numbers edition of the Mona Lisa but when it arrived it was tiny, three inches by three inches, with only three colours to fill about 10 different blocks! Needless to say I completed it in record time and the famous "enigmatic smile" had become a fluorescent pink blob amidst a background of black and brown triangles... Leonardo would be turning in his grave!”

Flora Spencer – Longhurst on the challenges of playing a girl pretending to be a boy – “I suppose the biggest challenge was thinking about my voice. Beryl the director and I decided that it wasn't right to put on a "boy voice" as such, but I did have to keep my voice grounded and ensure that I didn't get too high-pitched. This was particularly difficult when Lisa/Tomaso gets excited as I would naturally get higher. I also had to think about my physicality and how Lisa was different when dressed as a girl, from when she was Tomaso and dressed as a boy.”

 Akemnji Ndifornyen on Machiavelli: “Mac is like the Del Boy of the gang. He's got his fingers in various pies – some legitimate, others not so much. He's the cause of a lot of the trouble they get into, but he also gets them out of trouble. He's cunning, conniving, calculating but he's also very loyal and will go out of his way for a good friend.”

Flora Spencer Longhurst on what Lisa would have made of women today; “Lisa's very forward thinking, she exists in a very male-dominated world, so I think she would be really impressed and happy that women and men are much more equal in society today. Also, she would appreciate that women today have many more opportunities then they did in 15th century Florence.”

Jonathan Bailey on his favourite memories of filming:  Teasing Flora about her wig, Colin's trousers splitting at the groin mid-scene, trying to ride the wooden bike with Colin on the back without crashing into the extras (mighty tricky), filming in the catacombs with open flames and awesome props... It has all merged into a bizarre but phenomenal dream! I do remember handling the birds and them pooing on me during every take without fail – but that was definitely more funny for the rest of the cast and crew!”

Jonathan Bailey on the opening sequence of Leonardo on his prototype bicycle: “Filming the opening sequence (a combination of me and a stunt double) was a young lad's dream – I had one take being followed by the camera at speed, jumping over people/walls/chickens, and relished it. It was in the same vein as free running or "parkour".

Flora Spencer Longhurst on her artistic background: “I love art and always have. I am lucky in that my parents are very arty – my mum used to run a contemporary art gallery and my dad is an art historian – so I have been brought up with art!


1 comment:

  1. i luv Jonathan bailey him and flora spencer r a good married couple