The North West is a centre of excellence for children’s drama: CBBC is based at MediaCity in Salford and northern indies make the successful shows Wolf Blood, Hank Zipzer, The Evermore Chronicles and the eagerly anticipated The Worst Witch.
An RTS North West event at the Lowry Theatre, Salford at the end of October – “Children’s drama: from concept to screen” – looked at how the best shows are put together.
On the panel assembled for the event were the executive producer of The Worst Witch, Marcus Wilson; senior drama producer, CBBC Independents, Amy Buscombe; Lime Pictures drama chief Rebecca Hodgson; and Hank Zipzer producer Jim Poyser. The panel was chaired by head of CBBC production Helen Bullough.
“Relatability”, suggested the panel, is crucial to making a successful kid’s drama because children want to see their lives reflected on screen. Even if it is at one step removed from reality through magic, aliens or witches, a story can still explore universal themes and make it possible to deal with tough subjects.
A common thread and a sense of mystery that keeps the audience coming back each week are key ingredients. Disney Channel’s The Evermore Chronicles, which is made by Lime Pictures, is a good example, and features a different “baddie” in each episode.
Shows where the kids strive and win are also popular. They may experience trouble in their world, but instead of their parents sorting things out for them the kids take control.
Buscombe stressed the importance of the “kid’s eye-line”. She receives many pitches that have children in them but in which the story is not told from their view. Stories need to be related with their voice and children need to push the story forward.
Wilson made the point that all drama, whether for adults or children, is about telling a good story. Audiences want characters that they can identify with, invest in and take them into a world that they’re interested in.
Having worked extensively in adult comedy, Poyser explained that alongside the jokes, funniness and stupidity, there needs to be an emotional reality and characters that viewers care about for comedy to work. CBBC’s Hank Zipzer features a lot of custard pies but, at its heart, the programme is about how a boy deals with his problems at school.
Wilson added that there was a tendency to underestimate how much kids are willing to stick with a story and interrogate it. From his time on Doctor Who, Wilson recalled a maxim: “Make it simple enough for the adults but complicated enough for the kids.”
One of the big challenges with adapting books is making them accessible to a contemporary audience, said Wilson. Good writers should be able to distil the spirit of the original source material, and extrapolate and interpret it for a modern audience.
He added that it was important to work with authors when adapting their work. The author of The Worst Witch, Jill Murphy, was heavily involved throughout the development and production process from decisions on casting through to storylines. The new CBBC series is made by CBBC Productions.
Another challenge is to come up with programmes that feel fresh. Hodgson revealed the origins of the idea for the as-yet-untitled horse show she has just finished filming for Netflix. A teacher friend told a writer that she had overheard her female students discussing what sounded like their exotic boyfriends, but later realised they were talking about their horses. This was the genesis of the idea that was then developed into a show about the relationship between girls and their horses.
Buscombe added that ideas need to reflect UK audience’s lives but feel universal enough to travel and attract funding. A formula that has worked well for Lime Pictures is putting US characters in a British environment.
One of the biggest changes in children’s drama in recent years has been the rise of digital content and multi-platform storytelling. Buscombe discussed how CBBC extends the reach of its shows on YouTube and Facebook. Shows need to include material that’s not only going to work on TV but on the other CBBC platforms.
Digital content can also add to programmes. Wilson pointed to Wolfblood’s Jana Bites YouTube webisodes, a series of short dramas that acted as a prequel to the start of series three of the CBBC drama.
All photos by Claire Harrison