Sooty firm snaps up 'Art Attack'makers for £14m

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Neil Buchanan, the co-presenter and creator of the hit ITV show Art Attack, admits that his job is to spend "eight hours a day doodling and coming up with new children's characters". Yesterday, his scribblings turned him into a multi-millionaire.

Art Attack, ZZZAP! and a number of other children's programmes created by Mr Buchanan and his two partners are to be sold to Britt Allcroft, the owner of Thomas the Tank Engine, for £14m.

The size of the deal reflects an exploding market for children's toys, films, books and other merchandise that has made Disney more powerful than many national governments and the Teletubbies a global force.

Art Attack and its stablemates at Buchanan's company, Media Merchants, are to join a portfolio that also includes Captain Pugwash, bought up for £1.5m in 1997, and Sooty, the50-year-old glove puppet. A half-share in Sooty, bought last year, valued him at £4.5m.

The latest deal is designed to add new creations to a selection of characters which are, for the most part, decades old. However, Britt Allcroft said its plans for Thomas remain ambitious. His first feature film, Thomas and the Magic Railroad, starring Alec Baldwin and Peter Fonda, will be in cinemas this summer - and distribution deals have been done around the world, including one in Japan which has a thriving ThomasLand theme park.

The expansion of Britt Allcroft is seen as an attempt by the company to become a world player as a "mini-Disney" after a £224m takeover bid from Hit Entertainment, the owner of Bob the Builder, failed last month.

Britt Allcroft's next efforts at building a global business are expected to focus on children's feature films. The company has already invested in two - What Katy Did and Virtual Mom. "We have a further eight family movie projects in development and plan to put two or three of these into production over the next year," said the company's managing director, William Harris.

Sooty and Captain Pugwash can also expect a year of hard work. Sooty is to feature in another 13 episodes of Sooty Heights, the ITV hit which achieved 42 per cent of the4 to 9-year-old audience, and merchandising is to be stepped up. "We are optimistic about the potential for merchandising revenue given the strength and appeal of the character and the high circulation of the Sooty magazine, which regularly sells more than 30,000 copies," the company said.

On the back of Captain Pugwash's 26-episode run on ITV, a new set of books will be published by Random House in May. Britt Allcroft is also trying to market him in France and South Africa.