*** DEBUG END ***

Interview: Pete James, teaching assistant, creative director, Cheeky Pandas

30 June 2023

‘I love arriving at a blank piece of paper and finding a melody and some lyrics’

The Cheeky Pandas are CJ, Milo, Rory, Lulu, and Benji. They live in a tree house, which is also a recording studio. With Mr Narrator, they have adventures and get into scrapes that lead them to learn something from the Bible.

We have an animated series with BSL versions,
and music videos with actions and lyrics that can be used in churches, schools, and homes. We’re about to bring out a live-action buddy series, with crafts and silly sketches, which reinforces the message of the animated episode. Every episode comes with free downloadable activity packs, assembly plans, and widget packs for neurodivergent kids. Everything is free, because we want as many people to be able to access God through the Cheeky Pandas as possible.

Then there’s books, live shows, and other related merchandise, and toys;
so it’s a whole package to help children play, learn, and grow in their faith.

It really started as one song about the armour of God that I wrote with a friend.
We made a music video that cost us £20, but the song gained traction quite quickly, and was picked up in a lot of different countries around the world.

Initially, I thought of “Cheeky Pandas” as a name to hide behind,
like Daft Punk or Gorillaz. But, as we made more songs and videos, I began to wonder what would happen if we brought the pandas to life and gave them characters — faith-based, animated characters. My wife and I began working on this vision, and, when we got some funding just as lockdown hit, because we couldn’t travel or film, we experimented with animation.

Our first series was created for Thy Kingdom Come,
initiated by the Archbishop of Canterbury [News, 5 March 2021]. It’s grown faster than we could have imagined. God’s had his hand on it, and we’re so excited about all the families who’ve responded to it, learning about Jesus. It’s an amazing product with some of the best professionals in the industry involved. Thy Kingdom Come promoted and used it as their resource to develop children in their faith.

Music for children should be inspirational, educational, fun,
and not second-rate in any way. I’m privileged to work with two incredible producers, making them the highest quality we can.

Most of the Cheeky Pandas songs have been thematic,
written to the storyline of the episode. The second and third series, for example, are about the fruit of the Spirit. I try to approach each song looking at it from a different angle. For example, with prayer, it’s like a conversation, but you don’t need to phone or Zoom call: you can talk to God any time. “I don’t need to Facetime just to see — all I need is faith time to believe.”

Large amounts of money and
resources get put into creating children’s products and projects, yet often we end up just giving children colouring sheets. Cheeky Pandas has animation, which is obviously hugely expensive, but also resources that can be used in homes, schools, and churches that are free or very cheap. We’re aiming at ages five to 11, but some teenagers learn the songs and dance routines to use in worship, and younger children are fascinated by the panda videos. I lead worship a couple of times a month in our local church, and we use a Cheeky Pandas video almost every week.

I’ve done many jobs, including youth work and summer camps,
and worked in a nursery school. I loved working full-time in music, travelling widely, playing in Europe and North America, but sometimes you can find yourself on a treadmill of playing, producing, and writing.

Covid erased all music bookings,
and I wanted to be more present with my children. The balance wasn’t there, and I wasn’t happy, and I didn’t know how to get out of it; but I was curious to see if working in the rhythm of the school day, being around children and teenagers, would give me a better equilibrium. At the moment, I’m working as a teaching assistant for children with special needs, and coaching basketball, and it’s brought me so much more even than I anticipated.

Children need a cause, something to live for.
Life can feel it’s about me and getting what I want. The life of Jesus models something far more fulfilling and contrary to all that.

Life as a parent can be very busy,
and the demands are getting greater and greater, but, sometimes, time is the greatest gift you can give a child.

I’ve been a worship pastor in two churches over 14 years.
I was very aware that my role wasn’t just to deliver content for grown-ups: I wanted to make sure that the worship of everyone, from the youngest to the oldest, was catered for in some way.

My children came home with songs from their nursery,
but in church they were mostly left on their own with a bunch of broken toys. It really troubled me that there wasn’t anything formative or educational going on. Nurseries train children in motor, sensory, and literacy skills, but it didn’t seem that churches were inviting children to step up.

Music lessons are incredibly expensive,
and churches have an incredible opportunity to train children in singing and playing instruments from a young age. It was my church giving me opportunities to lead my peers which led to me do what I’m doing today.

My dad, who helped with the children’s work, took us to a music event with Ishmael when I was about six.
I remember Ishmael had a red electric guitar, and being pretty stunned by this. Hitting my teens, I loved going to gigs and festivals with a more creative scene for Christian music than church worship songs: bands like Eden Burning and Split Level, and then Cutting Edge, that became Delirious?.

Seeing Kevin Prosch lead worship, and Matt Redman at Soul Survivor, was very formative,
but also my brother constantly playing Top 40 records — Abba and Human League and the Pet Shop Boys — in the room next door, when I was sat playing Lego.

I write worship songs for wider church use, like “King Forevermore”, recorded by Keith Getty.
I’ve recently started writing a collection of songs for youth, yet to be published; but this age bracket is central for me right now as we help young people find something to live for.

“Throwback Kid” is the name I work under when I play outside church,
upholding God’s values: caring for the environment and homeless people, justice, and loving your family. I’ll play gigs on Eastbourne bandstand this summer to connect with an entirely unchurched audience.

I love basketball, skateboarding, and snowboarding.
I really enjoy surfing and water sports, too. I’m trying to get some coaching qualifications.

I love arriving at a blank piece of paper and finding a melody and some lyrics,
and taking that through the whole journey from demo, to producer, to studio, and eventually live, and then putting into the hands of people for worship.

My childhood was in Reading, where we went to a large free church with an incredible youth group.
I began reading the Bible and praying, and my relationship with Jesus grew from a fairly young age. It’s always been the most important part of life.

Nicky and I have been married for 20 years,
and we have two beautiful girls, Summer and Olivia.

Sometimes, the inspiration needs a large amount of perspiration.
My phone had nearly 2000 voice-clips on it at one point, and a lot of them turn into songs. Being married to Nicky has taught me how to order my ideas and know which to follow through.

We’re privileged to live within minutes of the sea front,
and we can see the ocean and the South Downs from my school. I can’t go more than a day without being by the sea.

I pray for family, friends, and colleagues, and the world.
And what if God was to do something radical with this set of Cheeky Pandas songs and toys and merchandise, and that all this stuff could lead to hundreds of thousands of people turning into Christ?

I’d love to talk with Bob Marley about his world,
and ask if he came to Christ at the end of his life. That’s the rumour. I’d love to make music and pen some songs with him.

Pete James was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.



Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)