Won't Somebody Think Of The Children?
Besides designing our cover for this issue, Mr Biffo, AKA Paul Rose, gave us his take on children's television in the noughties, and explained just why he thinks a combination of Sarah Jane Smith and Joseph Stalin may well be the answer to all our childish woes.
Words: Keith Andrew
Children's television is in a crisis, with traditional prime-time slots now taken by a glut of cookery shows and loft-clearing auction house action. Even when the likes of CBBC and CITV do make an appearance, the press claims cheaper foreign imports squash any genuine investment in new home-grown series, leaving kids neglected for any entertainment catering to them, and not featuring American or Australian accents.
So is the entertainment of the younger generation in crisis? We spoke to Paul Rose - better known as Mr Biffo and a Teletext legend. The ex-Digitiser man's experience gained writing for the likes of My Parents Are Aliens, as well as his work on more adults shows such as EastEnders and Armstrong & Miller, means he's the most perfectly placed of all of us to either damn the industry with criticism or lick its collective face with unadulterated praise.
Children's television on terrestrial stations seems to be at a crossroads at the moment. On the one hand, the likes of CITV has almost completely retreated to its digital channel and CBBC similarly axed half of its presenters (and studio) this year. Then again, you have evidence of new blood, like The Sarah Jane Adventures, which pulled in around 1.5 million viewers an episode.
How well do you think the major broadcasters are handling their children's output at the moment?
To be honest, the only major broadcaster that really has any children's output is the BBC. ITV may still have the CITV channel, but it stopped commissioning new shows over a year ago – and there's no sign of that ever changing. Although, it remains to be seen for how long they can continue to recycle the same old repeats. Channel 4 hasn't really had a dedicated kids strand in ages, and what little Channel 5 does has been scaled back, and is being focused on pre-school shows. A couple of the non-terrestrial channels are investing in original programming – Genie in the House and Spy Family are two examples – but they're the exception rather than the rule. It's a wretched situation, but if I was a commercial broadcaster, I'd have probably done the same thing; you can't justify spending millions on shows which are watched by just a fraction of the audience, and don't generate significant advertising revenue. If I could wave a magic wand, I'd limit the number of dedicated children's channels, and impose public service commitments on those that remained. That said, the BBC is continuing to produce decent shows for kids – your MI-Highs, Sarah Janes, Ravens et al, even though the recent license fee settlement will see the corporation's children's department have 10% of its budget slashed. Again, it's sort of difficult to know who to blame, but it is the proliferation of digital channels that's at the heart of it all. Certainly, it's now reaching such a crisis point that the government is going to have to step in, before the current generation grows up speaking in trans-Atlantic accents, and thinking that everything that happens in life must result in some neat, sermonising, life-lesson. With hugging.
One of the accusations thrown around by the press when a kids show is successful is that it highlights just how poorly treated other series are. Do you think shows for CBBC or CITV are allocated big enough budgets, for instance, or is a series' success or failure ultimately down to the talent working on it?
TV budgets are never high enough, and kids TV is forced to chew on the rawest, most bitter end of that deal. As far as I'm concerned budget isn't necessarily an issue. You don't need a fortune to be creative – you just need passion and imagination. A decent artist will still be able to create something beautiful, even if he only has a pot of mustard and a twig to work with. I think people would be surprised by how low the budget is for a show like Doctor Who, but because it is Doctor Who the team pull out all the stops, and go the extra mile. It helps to love the show you're working on. Generally, there does seem to be more passion among people who work in children's telly.
A lot of tabloid attention has been focused on the 'rise of the cartoon' in children's TV output – most specifically, foreign imports. Do you think that's perhaps xenophobia on their part, or are quality dramas and entertainment being squashed out by cartoons?
I'd argue that there hasn't been enough tabloid attention. There is a genuine crisis in the British children's TV industry, and it has been interview entirely generated by foreign imports, and the number of cable and satellite channels showing nothing but foreign imports. I don't think people are sufficiently aware of the problem. If anyone reading this has any fond memories of watching British-made shows growing up, then I implore them to visit www.savekidstv.org.uk and sign the online petition. Xenophobia doesn't come into it: it's about ensuring that the current generation of British kids – regardless of creed or colour – grow up watching shows which say something about their lives, rather than the life of some precocious Disney-brat. Not that all American shows are worthless – indeed, on the whole they're polished, funny, and likeable. But they lack an identity that is uniquely our own. Also, imagine growing up in a world where you're unable to go into school the next day and discuss what you all watched on TV the night before, because everyone has watched different things? I'd rather grow up under Stalin.
On a slightly cheerier note, what children's TV shows stand out for you at the moment?
Sarah Jane, obviously. And MI-High is a lot of fun. To be honest, I don't get to watch a lot of kid's telly. I'm usually working when it's on. I'm fairly tuned into what is on, and what's being made, though. I do my best to keep up to speed with it. And, of course, that's much easier now there's less of it. Hmm.
You're in the esteemed position of having worked on some of the more recent examples of quality children's TV – specifically in the form of your work on My Parents Are Aliens. Do you find that people view your work writing for such shows differently to the other programmes you've written for, or your other writing work?
Oh, absolutely. There's real snobbery where children's telly is involved. Far too many people in 'grown-up' telly look down their noses if you say you've worked your way up through kids TV. The one exception to that rule does seem to be My Parents Are Aliens, which everyone seems to have watched, and loves. The guys who wrote Peep Show, and some of the writers of Green Wing, all got their break on it – and that totally came across on what was up on screen. I'm biased, I know, but I genuinely think it was one of the top 5 children's shows this country has ever produced. It's going to be interesting to see how the loss of job opportunities in children's TV affects the talent base for grown-up telly. Pretty much every top writer in TV today got their break in kid's TV.
Do you approach writing for children's television in a different way to the other programmes you've worked on?
Not really. Obviously, there are things you can't say on children's shows that you can in post-watershed telly – I remember having to take out a gag in My Parents Are Aliens, which involved someone sticking a battery up his bottom – but in terms of story-telling you can be just as sophisticated, if not more so in some ways, with kid's TV. Frankly, every show has its own format and tone, be it adult or children's, so you always have to adapt to a certain degree. Overall, though – and I know it's a cliché to say it – you never write down to kids. The minute they sense they're being patronised I guarantee they'll be reaching for the Xbox 360 controller.
What shows did you follow when you were growing up?
The Young Ones and Monty Python, closely followed by Doctor Who, were my favourites, by a long way. Though when I go back to watch those old episodes now, they're so painfully slow, and frequently make very little sense. God knows why so many of us remember it so fondly, but maybe we've been spoiled by the new one. I was also a big Swap Shop fan, in the days before Noel Edmond's was Public Enemy No.1. I've just read that the BBC is bringing it back, albeit hosted by Basil Brush. Bizarre. Grange Hill was a proper, gritty drama when I was a kid, and everyone was sort of required to watch it. It seems to be skewed a bit younger these days. Weird, isn't it? All these shows are around today still. All I need is for someone to bring back Rentaghost, and my life will be complete.
Do you think the current crop of kids TV will have much of a legacy? Will the kid's shows going out today inspire the writers of tomorrow?
What's changing is that there's more focus on family shows – Doctor Who, Robin Hood, Primeval et al. Both the BBC and ITV are developing more of this kind of Saturday teatime telly - lordy, even I've got such a show in development with the BBC. Doctor Who has been such a hit that there's no way it won't inspire that next generation. I think it's telling, though, that my daughter wants to make video games when she grows up.
Children's Saturday morning magazine shows – from Swap Shop to Live & Kicking– now appear to be a thing of the past, with both the BBC and ITV seemingly opting for the usual mix of cookery shows and 'are-there-antiques-in-your-loft?' packages. How much of a loss do you think that is?
I'm not sure, really. Though as I said already the BBC is bringing back Swap Shop - although I don't know if it'll be in its traditional Saturday morning slot. My gut feeling is that it is a loss, but that might just be me feeling nostalgic. There's no question that it's just another by-product of kid's telly being diminished overall. And that, obviously, is a bad thing. Besides, aren't kids all killing each other over Xbox Live, or chatting on MSN, on a Saturday morning now? I can't see it coming back in any big way.
A few years ago, family viewing on Saturday evenings suffered a similar crisis. Now families, with Doctor Who and alike, are spoilt for choice, with Saturday nights becoming a major ratings battleground again. Do you think there could be a similar renaissance for Saturday mornings in years to come?
I doubt it, sadly. Not unless the government steps in, and orders ITV to start showing new shows for children at that time. There are rumblings that some sort of official legislature is going to happen – the government has already fired a warning shot across the BBC's bows, telling it not to mess too much with its children's output – but whether it comes in time is another matter.
What do you think, or maybe hope, will happen in the future? Where will children's TV broadcasting go in the next few years?
It'll be cheaper and more cheerful overall. The money will be pumped into pre-school shows, or magazine shows for teens, and more kids' dramas and sitcoms will be co-productions with international broadcaster. But, I think, budgets are going to be more focused. There'll be less money to play with overall, but there's going to be more money put aside for the big, flagship shows; you'll see more Sarah Janes, but fewer scripted narrative shows overall.
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