Neil Buchanan of Art Attack: ‘If China can nurture their children’s creativity, why can’t Britain?’

The creator of Art Attack, which began 30 years ago, talks about life in a metal band, being mobbed in China and the 'elitist' BBC

Art Attack ran for 18 years and over 500 episodes
Art Attack ran for 18 years and over 500 episodes Credit: ITV

Neil Buchanan recalls the day when he knew that Art Attack must end. It was 2007, and his ITV series, showing children the rudiments of art, was 18 years and more than 500 episodes old. “It was being repeated everywhere,” he tells me on the phone. “All over the world, all the time.

“And I began to think, ‘I’ve drawn more dinosaurs, sharks and ballerinas than you care to mention.’” He hadn’t painted for himself in years; he hadn’t found the time. And that was it. Those 20-minute whirls of scarlet jumpers, PVA glue, huge outdoor mosaics of Her Majesty’s face – no more.

I used to watch Art Attack. It was anarchic but homely. Presented by Buchanan in his scarlet jumper, flying solo – his only friend was The Head, a sentient bust – the series, which began 30 summers ago, was partially born of his discontent with existing TV. By this, he means the BBC. 

“We didn’t want to be in any way elitist,” he remembers. “When the BBC were doing their shows, it was all, ‘Go and buy a spray-paint brush.’ No! What’s in your dustbin? What’s at the bottom of your wardrobe? What’s in that waste-paper basket?

“But the blueprint was Auntie BBC. She was your lovely Auntie” – he feigns an upper-class syrup – “‘Oh, hello children!’ And I didn’t want to talk like that. I made Art Attack for me, for little Neil. How would he feel, the scally from round the corner?”

That “scally” was born in Liverpool, where he attended the predecessor to Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts. “The place Paul McCartney went,” Buchanan says. “It was legendary. A run-down, ramshackle Victorian pile. We were all growing our hair long and joining bands. Most of the classrooms were band-rehearsal halls by the end. The Government had forgotten about the school, so it had gone to rack and ruin.”

But Buchanan was soon obliged to choose: pursue music, or visual art? At first, he went the former way, creating the hard-rock band Marseille. Buchanan, “a long-haired git with leather kecks”, played lead guitar. It was 1976, and Marseille were good – surprisingly so. 

“We won the first ever Battle of the Bands. You could say it was the first X Factor. It was nationwide, but we only entered it to prove we were the best band in Liverpool. We wanted to beat our rivals – I think their name was Thunderboots. 

“We won that, then we won the Northern heats, then the Northern-half-of-England heats, and we ended up at Earl’s Court. And we won that. We went off with a record deal.”

He remembers it fondly. “We were whisked around the world, told that we’d be superstars. We rode around in Learjets, played to 30,000 people a night in the biggest stadiums in America. You have to remember, in those days, even going to America was – ‘Wow! In an airplane? From Liverpool?’” 

But the story, and Marseille, went the classic way. “We were screwed by the management. Everything went wrong. One minute I was swanning around in limos in LA, living the life of Riley – the next minute I was back on the dole in Liverpool. 

“I walked around wearing a duffel-coat with the hood up, because I was so ashamed.” And Liverpool, I suggest, wasn’t the sunniest place to be in the Thatcher years. “Not in the slightest. And I was just one of the ‘burdens’, going to the dole office.”

But with two gifts for entertainment, drawing and guitar, Buchanan wasn’t lost for long. No man was better suited for variety TV. After answering an advert in the Melody Maker – ‘Have you ever had breakfast with a gorilla?’ – he auditioned for a slot on a new Saturday morning show. (The standard then was Tiswas, which he remembers finding “cool”.) 

That show was No 73, which started in 1982. At first, Buchanan missed out on a leading role, beaten by a young Sandi Toksvig, but he joined as a caricaturist for the second series, and his TV career had begun.

By the time he launched Art Attack in 1990, he’d realised that he didn’t need co-presenters, or even much patter, to keep the viewer engrossed. He wrote the odd skit to run between mini-tutorials – a very English slapstick – but the rest was just watching him draw or cut or stick, all viewed from behind and above. 

“That was my philosophy. The star of Art Attack wasn’t me, it was the pencil-tip. The art pulls you in, and then you’ve got the dulcet tones of a Scouser!” He laughs. “The next day, I wanted kids to be a playground hero. To go in, pick up a bus ticket, scribble on the back, and say, ‘Look at this trick –  I learned it yesterday from Art Attack.’”

The series was an immediate fixture of Children’s ITV (a strand that became CITV in 1993). Buchanan was forever being accosted by people in the street, adults and children both. (He still is today, and he still doesn’t mind.) 

“People would come up to me,” he remembers, “and say, ‘Oi, I’ve got a bone to pick with you! My kid’s been raiding the laundry bin again!’ And when they’d approach me, I knew what was coming. They’d have a twinkle in their eye.

“One kid came up and said, ‘I’ve got a good idea for you. Why don’t you snap a lolly stick in half and dip it in ink, and use it like a nib to do some calligraphy?’ I said, ‘Really good idea! Where’d you get it from?’, and they said, ‘My teacher showed me.’ That teacher had got it from Art Attack!”

Buchanan’s memory of making the show is mainly a sensory one: “Hot.” The lighting was searingly bright, to make his artistic process clear, and because the set was white, like a giant tabula rasa, he was dazzled all the time. While making the first series, he suffered headaches constantly. “In rehearsals,” he remembers, “I kept shades on permanently. We’d have the countdown – ‘five, four’ – and I’d whip them off.”

Buchanan's enthusiasm sustained Art Attack for almost two decades Credit: Shutterstock

The set was unusually large, but the team was limited, and Buchanan chose them all. “I didn’t take anyone from TV. I took them all from Maidstone Art College. And I wanted better artists than myself. When I was a kid, I was a red-hot Liverpool fan, and I always remember Bill Shankly saying, ‘A team is only as good as its worst player.’ So, I thought, if I’m the worst player in the team, we’re going to be s--- hot!”

The show’s tutorials were zany, but often useful. You could make photo frames from kitchen sponges, or a “Rackosaurus” to store your CDs. These were all Buchanan, but he needed help with the “Big Art Attacks”, done outdoors and viewed from above. (They were shot from a crane; no drones back then. “Can you imagine how much easier it would have been? And how much sexier?”) He could take a bundle of sheeting in sickly shades, and make a huge tiger, two fencers, a cowgirl. But the final pose was always the same: outstretched arms, the picture of an enthusiast.

“We shot them in a day,” he recalls. “The enemy was usually the weather. If it started to chuck down with rain, we had these big tarpaulins we could pull across it all. The other enemy was shadows. If you had a tall building nearby, and the sun went behind it, you’d have a big black line going right across the picture. By the end of the first series, we became experts in those two things.”

Art Attack was broadcast or dubbed in dozens of countries around the world. Buchanan created it, wrote it and presented it, but even he lost track of where it was on. “Eighteen months ago, I was asked to go to China. They were opening the equivalent of the Southbank Centre by the Yangtze in Shanghai. They were having a massive festival for it, and they wanted me to direct a big event. And I said, ‘Why me? Art Attack hasn’t gone out over here.’ And they replied, ‘Oh yes it has.’

He laughs. “Bless them, our little friends over there – they don’t respect intellectual property rights at all. I don’t want to use the word ‘rip-off’, but… if they want to do it, they do it.” 

So Buchanan went over to see what China thought of the man with the PVA. When he landed in Shanghai, four news crews had been sent to greet him. He’s still baffled. “It was like Beatlemania.” Everywhere he went, he was mobbed by children shouting “shū shu Neil!” – “uncle”, an honorific for the elders of society.

He was asked to go on the six o’clock news. “I went on with two reporters. I said, ‘How long do you want? Four or five minutes?’ The one who spoke English said, ‘What? You’re on for two hours!’ It was just surreal. All because of Art Attack.”

But while he was in Shanghai, he noticed that in situations where Western children would play unsupervised, their Chinese peers were attended to. “They were being nurtured by true creative professionals,” he says. In a shopping centre, for instance, the first thing he saw was “a creative centre”. 

“In Britain,” he says in a gently acid way, “we have plastic ballparks that we throw the kids into. In China they have creative centres into which young people can go while the parents do the boring shopping.”

This is a “bugbear” of his: that in Britain we neglect our children’s creativity. Art Attack was supposed to counter that. But today, Buchanan complains, Art is an afterthought in our schools. At one point, he mentions “Art teachers”, then quickly adds, “In brackets – no such thing any more. It’s usually the Maths teacher or the Geography teacher doubling up. 

“That’s wrong. We’re not all engineers, we’re not all train drivers – lots of us are creative people. It’d be great if the Government could look at this seriously. In China, they support creativity – big-time. I get off an airplane there, and it’s all ‘uncle Neil!’ If they support it over there, why can’t we?”

Buchanan still looks fondly on his days in the famous scarlet jumper Credit: Neil Buchanan

For now, Buchanan is working out how to continue his own career as a painter, to which he returned after quitting Art Attack 13 years ago. (He was approached for the Disney reboot, which began in 2011, but declined to be involved. As with his own work, he can do what he wants; he and his two partners sold their production company in 2000 for £14 million, and Art Attack’s lucrative syndication will last for years.) 

Since lockdown arrived, he has had five exhibitions nixed. The central one is called The Hat Collection; it’s a series of portraits of women, who are wearing impressive hats.

“I thought I’d launch a series to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Art Attack. But I couldn’t work out what to paint. Well, my uber-favourite artist is Toulouse-Lautrec.” (The others are Norman Rockwell and Jack Vettriano.)

Buchanan tells me how he took a picture of his daughter wearing “a preposterous hat”, and thought, “This is my Toulouse.” He painted that, then painted some more. “My family thought I was going nuts, researching flamboyant hats.”

(He adds: “I almost called the series Girls Just Wanna Have Hats. But I thought, I’m not going to turn that stone over. Don’t want to open that can of worms.”)

Lazy Sundae, a painting from Buchanan's new Hat Collection Credit: Neil Buchanan

In his own work, he avoids being self-conscious or grandiose. He looks askew at the world of contemporary art. “With my small photography club,” he says, “we collect what we call ‘gallery b------s’. We photograph the text on the walls next to some paintings.

“Some of it is complete and utter nonsense. And I quite liked the idea of doing a series no-one can write b------s about. 

“I don’t mean critiques,” he adds. “They make us richer. It’s more when you go into a gallery and read, ‘The temporal and visceral qualities that expand…’ It’s priceless, that stuff. One day, the art business in this world will come tumbling down. The whole hierarchy.”

He laughs, again, a thousandth time. “Anyway, fingers crossed. I need someone to walk up to me in the street and say, ‘Saw your painting the other day of the funny Mona Lisa – loved it.’ Now that would be the really cool thing.”