Primary colours in grey Newcastle

Bright colours, repetition, a strong sense of right and wrong and a title sequence which tells the audience what the show is about are all important elements when it comes to making television for an audience of four- to six-year-olds.

Those are some of the things I learned when the College and CBeebies Production collaborated on a writing workshop in Newcastle earlier in the month.

The workshop combined in-depth exploration of three successful shows with the seven writers devising, developing and refining individual ideas for a live-action comedy series, which they presented at the end of the week to Kay Benbow, the Controller of CBeebies.

The main lesson I took away, though, is how difficult it is to make successful television for this particular audience, and how rewarding it must be to get it right. Unlike CBBC - where comedy is essentially a scaled-down, broad-brush, sillier version of adult shows allowing writers to unleash their inner child - CBeebies demands a recognition of the developmental stage of the audience.

It's an audience that needs clear signposts, logic, uncomplicated story-telling and a pace that allows for understanding. So writing isn't about talking down. Rather, it should meet the audience where the audience is.

Michael Towner, who produces the Justin Fletcher sketch show Gigglebiz, and who ran a session at the workshop, described two screenings of the pilot. The first was for three- and four-year-olds. They watched in silence, then at the end erupted, repeating lines and acting out the sketches. The five- and six-year-olds laughed and interacted with the show as it was being screened. Both enjoyed it, but approached it in ways which reflected their age.

ZingZillas is a hybrid show involving music, comedy and narrative, with the educational goal of introducing children to different forms of music and different instruments through human guests in each episode - the ZingZillas themselves are monkeys who live on an island which also features the megalithic Moaning Stones.

According to the series producer, Tony Reed, in initial development each episode featured an interwoven A story and B story, a plan which was jettisoned in favour of a single plot with clear signposts. The climax of each week's episode is 'The Big Zing', when the monkey band plays with the human guest, and there is an element of jeopardy each week - will the plot allow the ZingZillas to sort it out in time for their big number? Fortunately, it does.

The third show to be examined in depth was Grandpa in My Pocket, in essence a sitcom, in which James Bolam as a mischievous grandfather has a shrinking cap which allows him to wreak havoc, seen only by his grandson, Jason Mason.

Its co-creator and co-producer Mellie Buse, says the key to the show's success is that at its heart it has a true, touching and recognisable relationship, albeit one with an unusual twist. If a show has reality at its heart, then it's possible to build 'bonkersness' around it, Mellie said, something as true of Father Ted as it is of Grandpa.

Our three case studies, as well as the wisdom of colleagues from the children's area - Barry Quinn and Katie Simmons - provided a great deal of advice for writers wanting to explore the pre-school area, but while the advice appears perfectly straightforward, the reality of getting things right for the audience seems rather less so.

So adding to the first paragraph, I also learned that catch-phrases are good if they come from character; that familiarity is important; that reading something you've written to a child in the target audience can be very illuminating; that there is always another audience to take into account - that of parents and adults; that there can be antagonists, as long as they receive a comic come-uppance; that shows should be educational in a broad sense; that characters should regularly remind the audience what the story is about; that the world should be a world that children would like to live in; that a show should have a theme; and that structure is as important in writing for children as it is in writing for adults.

Of course, a number of these are rules that span any age-group, but some aren't, and it was a week where I learned a lot and the world was full of primary colours.

Saturday sees the end of the All Mixed-Up sitcom competition, with a showcase which I'll write about next week.


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