Big plans for little viewers

The BBC's new children's drama controller tells Meg Carter how youngsters can learn from storylines about terrorism and immigration
Click to follow
The Independent Online

ilent Witness, Bodies and The Vice aren't exactly the sort of directing credits you'd expect to find on the CV of a children's drama controller. Small wonder, then, that Jon East coyly admits the call from former CBBC controller Alison Sharman came "a bit out of the blue".

Four months on, the CBBC drama head is in his element with a pint-sized Spooks and a drama-documentary about the London bombings among the new projects up his sleeve.

"Having a child puts all your thinking under the spotlight," he says of the impact the arrival of his daughter, now seven, has had on his approach to programme-making. "You re-examine your values and the purpose of what you do as you watch your child consume TV and realise the effect this had on her mind. I came to the conclusion that a lot of what's on offer just isn't particularly nourishing."

He's not talking about the BBC's recent children's output, of course. Having spent some months before taking up his new role last autumn swotting up on past CBBC dramas, East lauds his department's award-winning track record. Singled out for praise are Tracy Beaker, a drama about a girl in a care home, now in its fifth series; Feather Boy, about a bullied boy; and Johnny and the Bomb, an adaptation of Terry Pratchett's novel made by the team behind the award-winning Stig of the Dump.

That said, he quickly identified what should be his priority. If there was a weakness in the department it was in addressing the need to deal with a fundamental challenge of the digital TV era: how to stand out from the crowd. "Today's children have enormous choice. Leaving aside mobile devices, PSP, blogging and the web, just in TV terms they have two pages of kids' channels on the EPG - and with ITV's new children's channel, more to come," he explains. "We want to make an impact, but before we can we must cut through. To achieve that we must focus on high-concept shows with a very clear audience proposition."

The BBC spends £100m a year on children's programming - all of which comes under the CBBC umbrella which straddles children's output on BBC1, BBC2 and digital channels CBBC and CBeebies. East's drama department, broadly serving a six- to 12-year-old audience, is allocated £20m of this, making the BBC one of the few British broadcasters committed to investing in original children's drama. "It's a very healthy sum," East admits. "But even £120m would make little difference if the ambition behind that drama wasn't right."

He says he is committed to raising production values further and makes no bones about the fact this is likely to result in fewer dramas produced. "We don't want to make glossy, ephemeral, fast-food TV with little impact on the audience," he insists. "What we do make should be inherently richer. Successful shows like Tracy Beaker demonstrate our strengths: storytelling, character and emotional drama. That must be our benchmark."

East talks repeatedly about the need for children's drama to "nourish" its audience - by which he means it should engage, entertain, be fun and educate. It's the only justifiable starting point, he says, for a public servant whose programmes are funded by the parents of the children he's trying to reach.

"When you consume a piece of drama it has an emotional effect on you and an effect on your view of the world. As an adult you can identify that and accept it or reject it," he says. "But you can never take your hand off the helm and say this is pure escapism for children and has no impact on their consciousness. Not every show will change a child's entire view, but all are part of a drip-drip effect. As a public servant I see that even in the most fun and escapist ideas we are developing. Pure escapism suggests an abnegation of responsibility."

To prove his point, East turns to his latest commissions. Young Dracula is a 15-part comedy drama about a single dad who moves to modern-day London from Transylvania with his teenage children Ingrid and Vlad. "It's fun, and with its storyline about single parenthood and migrants from Eastern Europe it inevitably touches on territory that's real for many children," he says.

Desperados is a 10-part drama about an aspiring David Beckham who ends up in a wheelchair. Roman Mysteries is five one-hour adaptations of a successful adventure series of novels by Caroline Lawrence. I Spy is a junior version of Spooks by the same producer, Kudos, complete with lots of gadgets and characteristic high camp - although al-Qa'ida terrorists and deep-fat fryers won't feature.

"It's spy japes, really," East says. "But it also explores what it's like to work co-operatively in a team where not everyone sees eye to eye." A pet project is a two-part drama about the progressive school Summerhill set against its recent fight with Ofsted to remain open. "It's a remarkable story that hasn't been told," he enthuses. "It also challenges the model of how we should think about children."

Also high on East's agenda is the development of a drama-documentary about the London bombings last July; it's "a challenging project with a capital C", he readily admits. But he has does have past experience of tackling adult issues for a diverse audience, including children: he executive produced Beaten, a Robson Green drama about domestic violence.

"How our environment has been transfigured by that tragic day is one of the most pressing issues we now face," he says. "But you tend to forget sometimes how children's outlook on the world was transformed through what they saw in the media. It felt fitting to create a drama to address that - not to focus on, for want of a better expression, the spectacle but its implications."

It's clear East's strategy is to set rather than respond to other channels' agendas. "Obviously it's a competitive market," he concedes. "But I don't look at the rest of the market as a threat. It's important we know what we're about. I don't like the idea of defining our output in terms of what's like someone else's. We have to cultivate a vision that's right for us, and that's what must drive us forward."