Hi, I’m Joanne. I was in the BBC Writersroom's Comedy Room 2015. Since then I’ve written for CBeebies’ Kit and Pup, CBBC’s Class Dismissed, and had the chance to pitch for a bunch of other children’s shows.
Last week, I attended the CBeebies Residential – an assembly of an elite team of 8 writers at a beautiful ancestral home in the English countryside.
The group at Riber Hall - Writers and CBeebies production and development staff
This was to be our base of operations and would serve as a safe haven from the judgments of the outside writing world. Within its ancient stone walls, we’d be mentored by a team of experienced execs and producers, taught to control our writing powers, and use them only for good.
There was Jean with her telepathic powers, Scott with his energy ray eyes, Beast with his intellect and sexy, sexy blue hair, and me with my adamantium –
Wait. Wrong residential.
So there weren’t any super-powered mutants at the CBeebies Residential, but we did get to hang out with some amazing people from BBC Children’s who taught us about writing for different age groups, structuring stories for kids, and gave us the inside scoop on the process of getting a children’s idea commissioned and made. We also had the chance to pitch episode ideas for an exciting new CBeebies show in the works and had one-to-one sessions to discuss our ideas and get feedback.
I know. I’m jealous of myself for getting this opportunity!
Right. Gorgeous setting aside, here’s what I learned about writing for CBeebies:
- 1) Jump right in.
Kids are like Fox Mulder. They want to believe. With their rich imaginations, kids buy into things quickly. This means you can dive right into your story and cut out a lot of set up.
- 2) Flog that dead horse.
Just do it specifically. Like every other genre, there are some common ideas that children’s producers will get from writers: surprise parties, hiccups, hide and seek, etc. It’s not that you can’t pitch stories about these subjects, but if you do, it should be a story that only works with the characters you’re pitching them for. How do you make that story specific to that show?
- 3) No pairs of pears.
In general, CBeebies audiences don’t laugh at puns or appreciate complex word play.
- 4) Slapstick.
CBeebies audiences are, however, a fan of slapstick. Maybe it’s the element of surprise, maybe it’s the exaggeration of a norm, or maybe it’s because children are cruel, blood thirsty creatures who thrive on the humiliation of others. Who knows? (TOTALLY THE LATTER) Who can say? (DEFINITELY OPTION 3) Maybe we’ll never know, (LET’S ALL EARN OUR PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE BADGE, SQUIRRELS) but aren’t they adorable?
- 5) No whole grapes.
Imitative behaviour is a biggie for kids TV. Children will imitate things they see, so be mindful. Any CBeebies producer will help you with this though, so don’t let it get in the way of a good idea. (Side note: Adults indulge in imitative behaviour too, but usually this just results in the regrettable purchase of a pink tulle dress and an unhealthy obsession with the MI5 agent tracking you down.)
- 6) Keep it simple.
This is surprisingly difficult. Basically, you just have to tell one story with no subplots. If you’re pitching a story about a dog closing a suitcase, you don’t have time to get into why he’s packing, how he got next-door’s poodle’s hair on him, or why he came in reeking of milk bones and gravy at 2AM. Just concentrate on whether he’ll close the suitcase.
- 7) Repetition.
The first rule of writing for CBeebies is that kids love repetition. The second rule of writing for CBeebies is that kids love… you get the idea.
- 8) Rejection
We were stunned to learn that the show we were pitching ideas for had been in the works for years before it was commissioned. In fact, it’d been rejected by the channel once already, but the producer loved the characters so much she just wouldn’t give up until she found an original way to use them. It took three years but it paid off! So, don’t give up on your idea even if it’s been rejected. Maybe it just needs a tiny change to get past that final hurdle. Follow your dreams!
Anyhow, there was so much more, but those were the main things I took away.
Well, those and the fear that BBC Writersroom and CBeebies will see this blog and be like,
“What residential? Where? Why, that house has been empty for YEARS! Didn’t you hear about the TERRIBLE MURDERS?!”
And then my brain would play a quick flashback montage and I’d realise I’d just been sitting in a derelict room talking about writing for pre-schoolers for the past week with this painting …