Michelle Lipton

Michelle Lipton

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CBBC Masterclass

August 19, 2009 ,

We interrupt our scheduled programme to bring you this:

The wonderfully talented Kulvinder Gill, who was shortlisted for the recent CBBC Masterclass, has generously written up his notes and offered to share them with those of you looking to hear more about what happened next…



The CBBC Masterclass officially kicked off midday on Tuesday 28th July but for the 18 participants, it really began a week earlier when we were asked to complete a writing exercise to a strict deadline.

We were given a half page brief setting out the premise for a possible new CBBC series, with short two-line character biographies of a pair of protagonists and asked to write a scene showing them meeting for the first time. We could create one additional character of our own but were only allowed a maximum of two pages to write “the most inventive scene possible”.

A week to write a two-page scene may not sound that difficult – but speaking personally, the context of the drama and the specific character requirements made it hugely challenging.


The writers at the Masterclass came from a wide age range – early twenties to late forties – and with a varied creative background:  there were some scriptwriters but also novelists, playwrights, an illustrator and at least one actor-performer.

The Writersroom were out in force – led by Kate Rowland (Creative Director, New Writing), Paul Ashton (Development Manager) and Katherine Beacon (Project Manager at BBC Writersroom North). From CBBC, there was Anne Gilchrist, (the outgoing controller of CBBC), Steven Andrew (CBBC’s head of drama and acquisitions) and Sarah Muller (Head of Development).

We were later joined by Jo Ho, the creator and writer of the new CBBC series BO AND THE SPIRIT WORLD.

The Masterclass began with a sandwich lunch and introductions, during which I managed to speak to Paul Ashton. He mentioned that the Writersrooom had received more entries for the CBBC competition than the Sharps competition the previous year, which surprised him as the Sharps brief was a lot more open. 


After the food, Kate Rowland moderated a brainstorming session on children’s television. She started off by asking each of us to chose our favourite kids show and explain why.

This was followed by a more general discussion on what kids shows need. Some of the suggestions we came up included: imagination, fear, surprise, irreverence, lack of adult supervision, villains, wish fulfilment etc.

We then broke up into smaller groups to choose 3 shows that define children’s drama with the reasons that made them classics. The results were all pooled together at the end – some shows like DOCTOR WHO, were chosen by more than one group.

The earlier list of requirements for a good children’s drama grew to include strong characters, emotional range, action packed, realistic issues – and even the inclusion of a good theme song! Finally, we attempted to relate all these “factors” to current children’s TV output. 


After the brainstorming session, Sarah Muller spoke about the growing importance of pitching. As part of the commissioning process, shortlisted producers and writers will be called in for a pitch meeting and Sarah outlined what CBBC look for in a short 5 minute pitch:

  • What  is your story about
  • Story Arc
  • Characters
  • Who is it for e.g. 6-12 age-group
  • Genre
  • Anything personal that connects you to that world is good.

We all then had a go at pitching our story in 30 seconds – although a lot of us did over-run.

The key lesson from this session was that being able to describe the idea – what the story is about – in one sentence, 30 seconds, is an essential skill that all writers need to master.


After the pitching session, we separated into smaller groups again, to receive feedback on our submitted scripts. One advantage of receiving individual feedback in a small group setting is that it allowed for common issues to become readily apparent.

For example, all the scripts in our group were guilty of having too many characters. Another common mistake was not allowing the kids to drive the action – they need to be at the centre.

The importance of the first ten pages was emphasised again – scripts need to hit the ground running, in terms of both action and being emotionally bold.

The advice to “be bold” was mentioned more than once.


The feedback groups all merged again to listen to screenwriter Jo Ho talk about her experiences of getting BO AND THE SPIRIT WORLD commissioned and produced by CBBC. The series is about Bo, a modern day British Chinese girl who is transported to the magical spirit world of ancient Chinese myths and legends, where she embarks on a quest to save her grandmother – and indeed the universe!

Jo started out as a writer-director of short films – and she believes it’s easier to get money for shorts if you are a hyphenate writer-director. Jo also said she taught herself to write by obsessively studying episodes of THE WEST WING and BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

BO AND THE SPIRIT WORLD was commissioned from a one-pager – and was originally pitched as a CBBC version of HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, a high concept which chimed with what the CBBC were looking for at the time.

The subsequent development process involved expanding the one-pager to a treatment, then a bible and a pilot episode. Jo mentioned that her original draft of the bible was so detailed it was like a novel, but with the help of CBBC development staff, it was reduced to a smaller, more commercial document of approximately 25 pages.

Each episode has a mystery or story of the week along with serial elements that feed into an overall story arc. But Jo said that that the most important thing was that audiences had to care about the characters.

BO AND THE SPIRIT WORLD was originally planned as a 13 episode series, but cutbacks reduced it to 10. It will be Jo Ho’s first broadcast credit – she wrote 3 episodes out of 10 plus dialogue polishes on all.

Jo praised CBBC as being a very progressive and ambitious department.


The final session was a CBBC talk by Anne Gilchrist and Steven Andrew.

Anne started by saying that there were advantages for writers partnering up with a producer and director. She then listed the key points that CBBC look for when presented with series proposals through the e-commissioning system. (CBBC commissions 3-5 new shows each year.)

  • A4 sheet – CBBC initially look for the series idea presented on one page.
  • Relevance – the idea needs to be relevant to the target audience i.e. 6-12 for CBBC. The 6-12 audience age, does not mean that the characters have to be between 6-12 but there has to be a young sensibility. The idea can be multi-layered but has to look at the world through children’s eyes – not stereotypes, but recognisable types
  • Affordability – think about the size of cast, where it’s set, and any SFX.
  • Characters – realism, not 2D characters, e.g. if the story has a bully, make them an atypical bully i.e. still recognisable but also interesting. Children need to be at the centre of the idea. CBBC are looking for ideas with substance and that are empowering.
  • Complementary – for example, if CBBC already have a TRACY BEAKER, they will not be looking for another series set in a care home. Look analytically at the schedule and try to work out what is missing.
  • Talent – if you have someone famous, performing or writing talent, mention it on the initial A4 sheet.
  • Humour – necessary to give light and shade to the work and also useful as punctuation. CBBC can take the audience to the edge of their seats – but not over them – hence no killing. CBBC can’t make people watching uncomfortable – despite the myth of families watching together, kids usually watch alone.
  • Episodes and series arcs – you must assume the audience will not be loyal and watch all the episodes. Therefore, you need self-contained episodes but with some serial elements.
  • Editorial guidelines – there are rules on what children can see. Be aware and careful of imitative behaviour
  • Story – make the story really clear. It doesn’t have to be worthy but has to have a point. CBBC are not looking for stories about relationships.


Steven Andrew began his talk by reiterating a distinction he made at the CBBC Q&A back in June – namely that there are two sorts of writers: those who will write anything in order to get on to television – and those who genuinely have something to say. It’s the second type that producers are always looking for.

With this in mind, Steven asked the writers at the workshop to consider some questions:

  • What is your script really about?
  • Can that only happen in this story or any other stories?
  • What is it you really want to explore?

Steven Andrew stressed the importance of writers being passionate about their work.

Steven also presented a PowerPoint slide with a declaration of the CBBC goals – a sort of mission statement.

CBBC wants to:

  • Expand the imagination of the next generation.
  • Aspire to create unmissable storytelling
  • Promise shows that are as magical as fresh snow, as thrilling as a ride at Alton towers and as exciting as the anticipation of Christmas.
  • Leave a legacy of magical memories to carry forward into adult life

Steven’s advice to writers wanting to write for children was to:

  • Start late – make it exciting
  • Put children at the heart of the story; make them the main protagonist.
  • Surprise
  • Push the story – so that audience asks questions
  • Get the audience to desire what happens next

Steven illustrated this with clips from an episode from a CITV show called THE WARD (formerly known as CHLDREN’S WARD) created by Paul Abbott and Kay Mellor.

The clips were from a 1996 episode written by Russell T. Davies that went on to win a BAFTA Children’s Award for Best Drama. Steven said that although the episode was over a decade old, he thought it could still be broadcast today without it appearing dated.

The storyline dealt with the subject of internet grooming in chatrooms – a boy was being lured to a meeting in a park (in order to buy a rare comic) by a man pretending to be another schoolboy .

Steven asked us all to guess how the episode ended – and I don’t think anyone got it right. Although the boy escapes – just – so does the man, and the bleak final shot has him in the park, walking another child he has lured, back to his car. That’s a hard-hitting ending for TV drama in general, let alone  a children’s drama.

To sum up: for me, the single most important piece of advice during the day was to BE BOLD!


Thanks Kulvinder!  And congratulations on being shortlisted!

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That’s a really good write up – thanks for taking the time to do it Kulvinder. And thanks for sharing it Michelle!

John Soanes

August 20, 2009

Seconded – really good write up, and very helpful – thanks for sharing chaps.

Paul McIntyre

August 20, 2009

Thanks for sharing your notes, Kulvinder. The CBBC seminar bulletpoints were particularly useful.


August 20, 2009

Brilliant write up! Many thanks Kulvinder and Michelle.

P.S. If I’d known there was going to be free food at the Masterclass I would have spent more time on my script!!! ;)

Stephen Woodcock

August 20, 2009

Excellent write-up Kulvinder and best of luck for the next round.

And fist-bump to Michelle for sharing!


August 21, 2009

Many thanks for taking the time to write this Kulvinder, and post it Michelle. It’s a really comprehensive report. I’ve put a link to this post on htp://ukwriters.ning.com as well so that others can read it.

Jo Smeldey

August 21, 2009

Hi, well done and best of luck. This gives a great insight into writing process.

Nick Fletcher

August 24, 2009

1 notes

  1. CBBC Masterclass Report - Front Page News - NewsSpotz reblogged this and added:

    […] You can read his account of the day on Michelle Lipton's blog. […]


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