Media: You can't beat a good children's show: What is the secret of making a prize-winning programme with disabled youngsters? Maggie Brown meets the man who knows

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AT the Emmy awards in New York last month, Drop the Dead Donkey, voted top comedy, dominated the coverage. But the most surprising and heartening award went to Luke Jeans, a little-known but innovative British producer/ director, aged 42. His pioneering and carefully crafted Channel 4 series Beat That, which features handicapped children rising to extraordinary challenges, was voted the best international children's programme in a strong field.

'When you make a programme like that you just hope it gets transmitted,' Mr Jeans says. 'I never expected to win an Emmy. I can't believe it has happened.'

The award is all the more significant because of the climate of concern over how to depict disabled people on television without patronising them. There is also anxiety in Britain about how to preserve high-quality children's television as broadcasting is deregulated; when, as The Big Breakfast or the satellite Children's Channel demonstrate, you can screen cartoons for a fraction of the cost and the risk of original programmes and still have children mesmerised.

Today the Broadcasting Standards Council publishes a study of trends in children's programmes over the past decade and notes that the expansion of hours devoted to children over that period has brought mixed results. But Luke Jeans' experience shows that good new ideas can triumph. An independent producer/director and partner in the Soho-based Tiny Epic editing company, he devised Beat That three years ago as a format that would integrate disabled children, mostly under the age of 10, into mainstream television by creating watchable programmes which all children could enjoy.

The Emmy award-winning programme showed a group of children from a special school in Brighton learning to be hairdressers in three days. 'I love all those kids. The first thing I did after coming back from New York was to take the Emmy down there to show them,' says Mr Jeans.

Earlier this year another episode of Beat That was awarded the Prix Jeunesse, Europe's top prize for a children's programme. This showed a group, some in wheelchairs, building a camp on an island in a river. Another programme showed children starting up a restaurant and taking lessons from top chefs. In another they enter a crab-catching competition - using bacon on hooks - in Walberswick, Suffolk.

There can be some mad scenes, Mr Jeans says. In one programme, where a group of children set out to redecorate a house in Birmingham, a child with cerebral palsy determinedly helps to wallpaper a room, even though the paste flies everywhere.

'That one sequence proves what we are about,' says Mr Jeans. The trick, he says, is to ensure during the editing that at no point is the audience laughing at a child's efforts. 'There is a very fine line between laughing at kids, and with them.'

He visits schools to select children, looking for the natural, interesting characters. In one school (for a programme in which the children were to stage a medieval banquet) he deliberately picked a thuggish boy in a wheelchair he spotted beating up others in the playground. 'We got arguments, positive interaction. If the kids are too passive, it doesn't work. I encourage them to be natural, even outrageous.'

When Michael Grade became chief executive of Channel 4 nearly five years ago, he was criticised for ending the commissioning of original children's programming. But, in a little-noticed move, the channel did concentrate its resources on programmes serving special needs. This has resulted in another mainstream Channel 4 success, If Wishes Were Horses, a series devoted to horse-riding that features some children who are disabled, but in such a matter-of-fact way that it seems odd even to point it out.

Mr Jeans says: 'I have always found Channel 4 extremely reasonable to deal with. They do understand that my programmes have strange budgetary items: hire of an ambulance, paying for supply teachers while we do the shooting.

'My programmes are very high risk. We did one with a team of eight, they were to create a garden. But four went sick at once, and we had to abandon it.'

Mr Jeans says he thinks, contrary to the pessimists, that there are some good British children's programmes about, but that they are too few in number, and they tend to be a low priority, used to fill gaps. As an example of a success, he cites Art Attack, an ITV programme encouraging children to make things. 'It's fabulous, it uses music, is fast but simple, and has moved with the times.' He is less enamoured of Blue Peter, the BBC's flagship children's programme, which he thinks has not moved with the times.

'It is incredibly difficult to get a new children's programme off the ground,' Mr Jeans says. He has plans, with Yorkshire Television, for an adolescent's 'problem page' programme, but this is awaiting the appointment of a central commissioner. He has also tried to interest the BBC in a science series.

The programmes are likely to be repeated by Channel 4, but there are no plans for a new Beat That series. Mr Jeans says this is because the programmes are totally exhausting to mount, and he wants to move on.

Instead, he has sold Channel 4 a new series starting next September: a fun sports show, which includes masterclasses with athletes, some of whom are disabled.

But immediately after winning the Emmy, he was contacted by the PBS channel, a public service broadcaster, in the United States. He was told that children's programming was a priority for the channel; it had to catch its future viewers when young. So the Beat That formula may well be transplanted across the Atlantic. 'I'm in discussion with them,' says a cheery Mr Jeans.

(Photographs omitted)