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Monday, March 10, 2014

Interview with Mellie Buse - Grandpa in My Pocket

The odd thing about having a blog is, very occasionally someone will read it. Even more occasionally, someone will actually get in touch to say that they've read it. Usually this person just wants to know what I look like naked. Sometimes I tell them. But occasionally, a really interesting conversation is started.

After my recent blog on the topic of sexism in CBeebies, Mellie Buse, the writer and producer of Grandpa in My Pocket got in touch, and has been delightfully patient in answering a multitude of questions I had about gender and children's TV.

Thank you for taking the trouble to get in touch Mellie - it's great to get an insider's view.

I was interested to read your blog and I think it's important, when someone writes something along those lines, that they hear the perspective from the coal face, so to speak. 

Over the past five years, we've had about four complaints about sexism in Grandpa - four that have hit our radar, that is. I was braced for more. Everything gets researched and analysed and things aren't done on a whim in this business. There are child psychologists and educationalists crawling all over what we do. But we think it's important to address any concerns or gripes people have about issues and it makes us think which is a good thing. Gender representation is really important and it’s great that the industry and parents are getting stuck in to discussing it.

What are your thoughts regarding the myth of boys not wanting to watch shows with a female lead?

Dora the Explorer
 First up - it isn't a myth. Sadly. It is the experience of  the industry that a lot of girls will watch "boy-skewed" content but few boys will watch "girl-skewed" content. None of us like this much but it is a fact that influences every commercial decision relating to children. Having said that, there are certain pieces of very recent research claiming that boys will watch girl-skewed material if it is an action-orientated show with a strong girl lead. Boys will watch Dora the Explorer, for instance. This doesn't surprise me at all because that is not a narrative-driven show with an emotional hub. It’s basically a “puzzle.” The kids at home help Dora (who is really more of a presenter) solve a puzzle. This would traditionally appeal to boys. This is new research and, if it is indeed credible, it hasn't yet filtered through to the people with the power – i.e. the distributors. Watch this space. I like developing shows that are gender neutral but broadcasters will often ask for one or the other. 

In the case of Grandpa, the brief was for a boy-skewed situation comedy. As it turns out, this has gratifyingly proved to be a gender-neutral show. All the stats show that there's an equal split between boy and girl viewers. The reason why we introduced the sister, Jemima, was so that a girl was represented in the core cast. However, to let that character (regardless of its gender) "in" on the magic secret would have diluted the stories and weakened the Grandpa/Grandchild relationship which is at the heart of the series. I know this may sound odd but in story structure terms, we were playing by the rules and they are rules that work. Now, if we'd made that central character a girl, we almost certainly wouldn't have got the show commissioned. 

Why do you think that would be?

Grandpa was the first live-action comedy commission on any pre-school channel anywhere in the world. So I kind of understand why the commissioner wanted to "play safe" with a boy-skewed property. Having said that, we felt when developing the show, that the lead sat more comfortably with a boy character within the creative environs of the idea and we only wanted one kid to know the secret – much stronger, emotionally. Equally, it may interest you to know that the licence fee paid by the BBC does not cover the cost of making the show. So we have to get investment. Investors need to recoup. The way to recoup is via international sales of your show and merchandise. So you see where I'm going with this. There is suddenly a commercial imperative because boy-skewed shows are an easier sell. The new research may show that it’s an outdated prejudice but it’s a prejudice of the distributor and merchandiser based on their previous experience, not a prejudice of the programme maker or necessarily the broadcaster.

So the licence fee covers a proportion, and it needs "topping up" with private investment?

The licence fee needs topping up, yes. The BBC no longer fully fund independent productions. 

Independent producers have to get investment from private individuals, distributors or organisations and they often have to do co-productions with other countries - Canada, France, Ireland, South Africa in order to make up the budget. This involvement will influence the content of your show because you will need to skew it to satisfy the sensibilities of an overseas broadcaster. Mostly shows in the UK are written with an American sensibility because the "holy grail" is a sale to a U.S. broadcaster. I have some relatively big reservations with this particular ideology and Grandpa will never sell to the US because it has too much jeopardy and too many antagonists. But nearly every animated pre-school show that you see, albeit with British accents, is written “the American way.”  An independent animated show commissioned by the BBC though has to gain even more commercial investment than we had to – for them it’s up to 75% of their total budget.

I have watched the first two episodes of the new series, and I have to say I think it is a big improvement. I love the fact that Josh and Elsie (the new co-leads) seem to take it in turns to narrate an episode.

Grandpa with new leads, Elsie and Josh
I'll be perfectly honest with you, that my colleague, Jan Page and I have always been uncomfortable about the fact that Jemima didn't see Grandpa for exactly the reasons you state. So, when we were commissioned to make a Series 4, it was our opportunity to deal with this. Now that we could introduce more kids - by necessity because Jason and Jemima are now 14 and 16, we felt that we should have two kids be in on the secret - one girl, one boy. Now that the series was so well established we thought that two kids would work. It was important to have just the one at the beginning of the life of the brand because the relationship is far more potent with just one child/one Grandpa. But for Series 4 we had to move it on and this was definitely the way to go. So you'll see that we now have Elsie who is a spirited little girl full of ideas and Jemima has grown into a very confident young woman. 

Do you think we should be portraying realism to kids (Bob the Builder doesn't know any women who work in the industry and will probably rip you off) or idealism? Should we be representing the world around us or putting it through the lens of what we would like to see?

Can he swindle? Yes he can!
I think you have a good point here. I come down more on the side of representing the world around us but in an aspirational way than writing about a world that we'd like to see but that isn't real. I alluded earlier about pre-school in the U.S. where the ideology is very different.  You are not really allowed to show any kind of "negative behaviours" - everyone has to be positive, there are no "baddies"  - or if they are a bit bad it's actually just that they're a little misguided or have made a mistake.  It's all Pollyanna time.  I think this is a curious way to prepare young children for school or for the outside world. It was ever thus that, through story, kids learn to process fears and situations that they will later come across in the school playground. I'm not saying we should scare the hell out of them, of course not.  But I am saying that using “proper” story  - i.e. story with some identifiable conflict is more nourishing, lasting and aspirational. If kids trot through the school gate thinking that everyone is always lovely all the time then we aren't doing them a great service.

CBeebies has a very committed team of people doing amazing work on tiny budgets. Nobody is going to like all the shows but on the whole they are trying their best to make sure that there is fair representation in all areas. It could be argued, however, that the BBC should not need to be as ratings driven as they are. They’re a public service broadcaster and, what's more, they have virtually no competition in the UK. So it would be good to see them take more risks  - not specifically on the gender related front  - but in terms of the tone of shows. But, independent producers, because they need to raise additional funds, can only get shows off the ground by involving investors.The first thing investors want to know is "How much licensing potential?"  In other words - how many toys? And in order to get the licences from publishers, toy people, pyjama makers, you have to have the ratings.  And in order to get the ratings people play safe - not just with gender but with everything. If the BBC were to be able to fully finance these shows, it wouldn't matter whether there was licensing potential.  We wouldn’t have to pander to that.  We could just make shows that the kids love – and a real variety of shows – shows that are properly girl skewed as well as the ones that use a strong heroine to attract the boys to the party.But it’s worth seeing it from the point of view of the BBC kids’ channels. In order to get their budgets for the channels they presumably have to prove how successful the channel is and success is judged by ratings. So it’s a vicious circle. They also get more programmes made and not rely so heavily on repeats if they don’t have to provide all the budget.

The bottom line here is that BBC Children’s simply does not get given enough money by the Corporation and CBBC gets appreciably more than CBeebies. You could look at it very simplistically -  0-12 year-olds make up 14% of the UK population so you could argue that they should get 14% of the BBC budget. Currently they get about 3%. So finance models have an awful lot to do with every area of content and editorial choice.


I was really impressed with Mellie's willingness to engage and debate an issue that's genuinely close to my heart. The biggest surprise to me was how commercially driven the BBC is, with a need to pander to international markets and sensibilities. I still believe there is work to be done, and in some cases, braver choices to be made, but it is a fascinating insight into how CBeebies programmes are brought to life. Find out more about Mellie's work at http://www.adastracreative.com/


Anonymous said...

What do you think about this?


Laura said...

I have just written a Plog about that exact topic!

Great minds...

L x