Hey Duggee's Toothbrushing Song Has A Totally Brilliant Backstory

Plus, other amazing show trivia – like the fact there's a database of every woof Hey Duggee has ever voiced. "A-Woof!"
Hey Duggee's The Tooth Brushing Song
Hey Duggee's The Tooth Brushing Song

In just five years, Hey Duggee has gone from a cute but small deal – a cartoon about a charmingly monosyllabic dog looking after five cheerful young animals – to a pre-school phenomenon, populated with umpteen supporting characters, trips through time and space, deceptively detailed blink-and-you-miss-them gags, and an iron grip on the attention spans of children – and their parents.

Hey Duggee apps have been downloaded 3.6 million times. In 2018, its merch sales increased a mindblowing 1600%. The show has won six BAFTAs and just been nominated for two more. And it’s the first pre-school programme to be given an exhibition at the Design Museum – a pretty impressive accolade.

Arguably more impressive on a household-by-household basis is the way its standout tune, The Tooth Brushing Song, has ingrained itself into family life.

A two-minute real-time demonstration of how to, well, brush your teeth, this mildly hypnotic mega-hit has been adopted by parents across the UK as a theme song to this twice daily ritual – much to the delight of dentists.

In fact, it was a dentist who suggested it, the show’s creator, Grant Orchard, tells HuffPost UK.

“I didn’t want to do it initially,” says Orchard. ”How do you do a tooth-brushing episode and not make it preachy, onerous and overly worthy?”

The aforementioned tooth doctor emailed in to suggest a whole episode on the topic. “She thought we could really get the message across – and immediately when I hear something like that I shudder a bit,” says Orchard.

Despite his initial misgivings, something about the idea appealed to the animator, who cut his teeth, groan groan, on an Oscar-nominated short, A Morning Stroll. “If it’s a good idea, I don’t dismiss it – it’s just very hard to shoehorn anything like that into a seven-minute preschool narrative without it being a clunky gear change from what’s usually expected from the show.”

What lifted things, says Orchard, was the voice performance of the smelly-breathed lion, Alain L’Odeur, provided by Tom Read Wilson, otherwise known as the receptionist on Celebs Go Dating. Now that is some acting range!

Studio AKA, the animators who make Hey Duggee, are mindful that little people make parents sit through episode after episode of the CBeebies show, again and again, and wanted to make the experience enjoyable rather than a chore.

This starts in the studio. “For life-saving reasons, we wanted it to be enjoyable to make, too, so we put a lot of stuff in for adults that would make us laugh,” says Orchard. “We feel like parents are going to have to sit through this a lot, and the more we can put in for them, the less they’ll resent that.”

Designing Duggee exhibition at the Design Museum, London.
Ed Reeve
Designing Duggee exhibition at the Design Museum, London.

Just as the animation disguises complex ideas in seemingly simple guises, Duggee himself is an enigma in a big cuddly body. His catchphrase of “A-woof”, is voiced by the show’s animation director turned co-director, Sander Jones, which began as a temporary solution, says Orchard – much like Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles, voicing Edna Mode in the Pixar film franchise.

“Animators and directors will do guide voices and sometimes everyone ends up liking them,” says Orchard of the production process. “Sander initially just went “A-woof” into the microphone on a desktop computer, and we all went, ‘Well, that sounds good! Let’s not get someone famous to do it!’ And he’s very versatile with his woofs.”

Given Jones’ skill in the woofing department, the studio is now building a searchable database of every woof he’s ever voiced, so some deep-cut, archive woofs can be reused. “He can do a rough woof, and it can search and drag out a woof from the past that matches it,” says Orchard. “Like, if the scene calls for a woof delivered with a particularly woody timbre, we can find that.”

What can we expect from the next series? Some absurdly-detailed gags, for starters, that still feel visually clear and comprehensible and make the dozenth viewing, well, less maddening than with a lot of shows.

Watch out for the Future Badge episode, in which Squirrel Club shows up in a variety of different historical eras, hilariously-rendered. Says Orchard: “There’s a bit where you can see three portraits of Duggee – and they’re all tributes to different artist’s oeuvres.” They’ve also made a gleefully messed-up variation of a classic Ray Bradbury story from the 1950s.

And as well as the joy of slipping sci-fi references into pre-school television, Orchard is simply happy that Hey Duggee now passes what he calls ‘the wedding test’. “If you meet someone at a wedding and they ask what you do, if you say ‘I work on Hey Duggee’, they might have heard of it now.”

Designing Duggee is free at the Design Museum, London until 6 January.