Toddler TV Hero

You may not have heard of Keith Chapman, but the chances are that you’ve come across his creations. Known and loved by millions worldwide (admittedly, many of them under 5 years old), the characters from Chapman’s TV series have become international cultural icons in their own right. Yes, Bob the Builder and Paw Patrol are among the best known children’s animated TV shows of all time, and the man I was sent to photograph by German weekly business magazine Wirtschaftswoche, invented them both.

Double page spread of German magazine WirtschaftsWoche, showing text, photography and animation
“The Master of Patience”, Keith Chapman

Putting the Port in Portrait

It had been arranged that the photographer would take Chapman’s portrait in the port of Cap d’Ail. Although officially situated in France, the port’s access road straddles the Monaco border. As the port is only spitting distance away from the principality’s heliport and its high rise buildings, plenty of über-size superyachts rock up here to berth, while their inhabitants get whisked away in smokey-windowed vehicles to sample the delights of Monte Carlo. I’ve arrived here this way more than once, as photographer on assignment with Monaco bound VIPs (you can read a story about one such trip during the Cannes Film Festival here) and I know that Monaco-style photographer restrictions are practiced.

However, for various reasons, the magazine’s photo editor had not applied for authorisation for me to shoot in the harbour, so, while I arrived early with assistant Alex to scope a good spot for the portrait, we didn’t set up immediately. A studio flash, light stand and person-sized reflector give away a professional photographer instantly. I wanted to buy time, anticipating the intervention of port authorities at some point.

Fortunately, the rendez-vous had been set for the end of the afternoon. Harbours, especially in the sunny South of France, can be tricky places for portraits. While a blue sky and superyacht background was what the magazine wanted, to show Chapman’s successful status in fiscal paradise, powerful sunshine will invariably reflect off all the floating white palaces, not to mention the water, and subjects will be blinded into squinting, unflattering submission. From my point of view as photographer, a sun low in the sky (creating more shade in which to place the subject and reducing the light’s intensity) would be a very good thing.

An Englishman in Monaco

Monaco’s tax haven status, convenient location in Europe and its balmy French Riviera climate, make it a base for more than its fair share of celebrated sportspeople, big business bosses and super-yacht brokers. As photographer, I’ve met a few of them. But taking a portrait of a hotshot in the children’s entertainment industry was a first for me here.

Norfolk-born Keith Chapman has certainly earned his place in Monaco. From working at a London ad agency in the 1980s and sketching children’s book characters at home in the evenings, when his own kids had gone to bed, he’s come a long way. His two TV series, Bob the Builder and Paw Patrol, together grossed $10 million, and while he explained that distributors, broadcasters and other intermediaries take many slices of that pie, I reckon he earns enough to keep himself in fresh baguettes. 350 episodes of Bob the Builder have been broadcast in 175 countries. Paw Patrol characters are blazoned over T-shirts, cereal packets and backpacks, worldwide. Even the Bob the Builder theme tune was a million-selling number one hit in the UK (a song with which even I am familiar, courtesy of my Bob-the-Builder-hero-worshipping godsons).

Photographer not welcome

Portrait photograph of Keith Chapman, leaning against a railing outdoors on an empty seafront terrace
Clouds gathering fast at A’trego

Keith arrived bang on time. Trim in powder blue and clean white, sporting a solid South of France tan and with immaculately combed hair, he was wearing his 60 years well.

After a couple of lighting adjustments, the portrait session got off to a great start. I worked fast, to ensure that I had the variety of pictures and formats that the magazine would need, before anything (or anyone) could prevent me from continuing. Sure enough, barely 10 minutes into the shoot, a little scooter appeared, with a grim-faced, portly official aboard. “Photographers need written permission from the port authority to take photos here.” I half-heartedly tried to appeal to his generous side to win a couple of extra minutes and be able to finish what I’d started, but tolerance didn’t appear to be in great supply. “I don’t care. You must pack up and leave immediately.

While only one portrait would be published with the article, magazines generally like their photographers to provide a couple of set-ups. I had chatted to the owner of a little café on the quay earlier and had permission to shoot there, but Keith had a better idea. A’trego, a Philippe Starck-designed restaurant the other side of the port, offers shabby beach chic and a low-key meal for Monegasques (or a luxury, once-in-a-lifetime lunch, depending on your point of view and your wallet). As a regular there, Chapman was pretty sure the management would welcome our shoot – and they did. Gin & tonics and a plate of appetizers were brought to ‘set the scene’, and the decking, sea and blue sky offered a passable French Riviera portrait alternative.

Gin With the Wind

iPhone selfie of photographer and Keith Chapman
A windswept (I speak for myself) selfie for my godsons

As it was, though, this part of the shoot was to be stopped prematurely too – yet not for lack of photographer permissions this time. While the sky was blue on arrival, a sudden Mediterranean wind was getting up, and dark clouds appeared menacingly out of nowhere. We set up the lights again and I managed to take a few frames, but just as I decided to call it a day and take one last shot, a huge gust of wind hit the terrace. The sandbag weighing my light-stand down counted for nothing, and neither Alex nor I could move fast enough to prevent umbrella, flash and stand being tossed aside in the gathering storm’s path. Miraculously, the flash unit and bulb were unbroken, but the umbrella itself wouldn’t be seeing any more pictures that day (or any other day).

This time, we called it quits. There was only one thing left to do: settle down and consume the props…

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