Why CBBC is my desert island channel

Imagine if your television developed a weird fault. Whatever channel you tuned to next would be the only one it would ever receive again. Which one would you choose?

I’d find the temptation to stick with one of the more mainstream channels, such as BBC1 or ITV1, hard to resist. I might try and select a channel with a bit of culture in it – BBC2 would serve well in that regard (and would satisfy my QI cravings) or BBC4 (ditto, Only Connect).

But honestly, I think the channel with the widest range of enjoyable programmes at the moment is CBBC, the Corporation’s channel for children. It regularly produces output that is lively, engaging, challenging and fun.

A case in point is a series which finished this week. Wolfblood is a new take on the werewolf genre created by Debbie Moon. Young Maddy is a 14-year-old girl from a reclusive family ‘pack’ of wolfbloods (the series rejects the term ‘werewolf’). Her parents lock themselves away every full moon rather than risk roaming in the woods – partly to ensure the safety of the locals, but mostly to ensure that their family secret is not discovered.

In contrast, Maddy (Aimee Kelly) – who at the start of the series is not quite old enough to experience her ‘time of the month’ – is constantly tempted to share the burden of her secret with her friends, especially when the new foster kid at school, Rhydian (Bobby Lockwood), also turns out to be a wolfblood. And when he discovers that he has a family who live wild rather than Maddy’s domesticated parents, further conflicts arise.

Every drama thrives on friction, and there is plenty here. Intrinsic to the school setting are the usual kids-versus-teachers, geeks-versus-fashionistas setups. But the best conflicts for us as viewers are those that build up between friends and family. Maddy’s best friend Shannon (Louisa Connolly-Burnham) has been convinced for years that there are werewolves on the local moors. Maddy’s need to keep her family secret while also wanting Shannon to know that her theories are correct forms one of the biggest drivers to the whole series. And the more serious side to Shannon’s obsession isn’t shied away from – in one episode, she reveals that her parents are sending her to counselling because of her determined belief in supernatural beasts. In a couple of lines, we see that the series has at its heart a heroine who, by keeping a secret she knows she must not divulge, is risking her best friend’s mental health.

Wolfblood finished its first 13-part series on Monday, and CBBC celebrated by repeating the first 12 episodes back-to-back in the run up to the final episode’s premiere. It’s still on iPlayer for the next couple of days: download it now and savour it at leisure. There are a couple of dodgy moments (I recommend watching the being-a-wolfblood-makes-you-an-awesome-streetdancer episode through your fingers), but a second series has received a well-deserved commission.

Heading up to the midpoint of its own second series is Leonardo. Set in renaissance Florence, this drama imagines a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s life while he was apprenticed to Andrea del Verrochio. I say imagined, because in this fictional Florence, Leonardo’s best friends are Niccolo Macchiavelli (a streetwise wheeler-dealer rather than the son of Florentine nobility), Lisa Gherardini (eventually immortalised by Leonardo as the Mona Lisa, but currently posing as a boy, Tomaso, so she can work as an apprentice artist) and Lorenzo de’Medici, son of the city-state’s ruling family.

Back when I had the time to preview TV every week for The Stage, I wrote back in May 2011:

On a day where there’s precious little drama at primetime from the major UK channels, a chance to highlight a gem of the BBC’s children’s output.

This series, featuring a young Leonardo da Vinci (Jonathan Bailey, aka Flatpack from recent Channel 4 comedy Campus) and his friends, shouldn’t work. The costumes are anachronistic (as is Leonardo’s wooden, but very BMX-style, bicycle), diplomat and philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli has been transformed into a street thief, and the language is very twenty-first century English apart from the occasional exclamations of “Fantastico!”

Despite that all, though, it’s great fun — sorry, it’s Molto bene! — and now half way through its 13-part series it’s got the confidence to set its four main young cast against one another in completely believable ways, as worked to great effect in last week’s episode.

The four lead actors – Jonathan Bailey, Colin Ryan, Flora Spencer-Longhurst and Akemnji Ndifornyen – haven’t really had the opportunity to spark together during this series. In part that’s because at the end of season 1, some incredibly deep divisions broke the group apart, as Lorenzo chose loyalty to his father over Leonardo’s claims that Piero was a scheming evil-doer. Such schisms shouldn’t be healed in the space of a single episode, and they’ve not been. But the first episodes of this second series have felt a little bit ‘off’ to me, as a result. The last couple of weeks have seen a big improvement, though. The series is also benefiting from a significant recasting: principal villain Piero de’Medici is now played with sneering menace by James Clyde rather than Alistair McGowan. The latter displayed a sinister side to his persona during the first series that we’re not used to seeing, and that helped with the ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-evil’ storyline in that series. Now that we truly know that Piero is a scheming, calculating, ne’er-do-well, though, Clyde is far more suited to the role.

With the promise of war between Florence and Milan coming up, there is a risk that the interplay between the four young principals won’t have the space to dominate once again. But even if it doesn’t, Leonardo remains a highly enjoyable drama.

It’s eminently possible that my reservations about Leonardo would have dissipated far more quickly if, like, Wolfblood, it was shown two days a week instead of just one. Neither series is necessarily designed for that sort of schedule, though, unlike Wizards vs Aliens, which airs a series of two-part episodes on Mondays and Tuesdays, starting tomorrow.

Devised by Russell T Davies and Phil Ford, who worked on The Sarah Jane Adventures together, Wizards vs Aliens was originally devised as a short run series that the SJA crew could work on while that show took a break in order for its star, Elisabeth Sladen, to recover from cancer. Once she was well enough to work again, it was presumed, the Cardiff production team would be able to work on SJA for half the year, and WvA for the other half, providing year-round employment.

Of course, sadly Lis never did recover, which brought to an end the series that had probably done more than most to revitalise interest in children’s drama. But the idea of Wizards v Aliens survived, and the series starts this week. I saw an omnibus version of the first two-episode story at the NFT a few weeks ago, and it’s great fun.

The conceit of the series is that magic is real and exists on Earth – a very different proposition to that ever suggested by the Doctor Who universe, of which Sarah Jane was a part. A race of aliens, the Nekross, uses magic as a food source – and, having consumed all magic elsewhere in the universe, sets their sights on Earth.

The opening story establishes the central characters, young wizard Tom (Scott Haran) and his science-obsessed friend Benny (Percelle Ascott). Tom comes from a family of wizards, although his mother is dead and his father has no powers. The matriarch of the family is grandmother Ursula (Annette Badland), who is by turns extremely powerful, wise – and a bit of a klutz.

With elements of slapstick and comedy that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched The Sarah Jane Adventures (there’s a typical gunge-filled scene within the first few minutes of the first episode), I think WvA will probably appeal to a slightly younger audience than either Wolfblood or Leonardo. The sight of the Nekross King (voiced with his usual understatement by Brian Blessed) in episode 2 probably feeds into that, too.

But those moments aside, there is much for older children (and big kids like me) to enjoy, too. The visual effects are astounding – from the CGI spaceships and magic spells, to Neill Gorton’s wonderful Nekross prosthetics. The acting isn’t half bad, either – Badland in particular is on great form, able to turn from camp humour to wistful melancholy on a sixpence.

The young people in the NFT audience were clearly enraptured (one asked to see it again straight away, which is a good sign). How the series expands from the alien-attack-of-the-week into a long-running series will be key – but a couple of shrewdly vague answers from Phil Ford during the preview Q&A suggests that he and Davies already have that side of the series worked out…

There’s more to CBBC than just drama (although I haven’t even mentioned the ongoing evolution of the Tracy Beaker series, which is due to return as The Dumping Ground), of course. Comedies like Roy (which is complex enough to have been nominated in the Best Drama category for the Children’s BAFTA awards) and Horrible Histories also go down well.

I’ve also been really impressed with documentary series VIP People, which looks at the various ancillary careers that make high profile “celebrity” jobs work. The first five shows in the series included backstage work in television, dance and musical theatre, as well as looking at politics and professional football. And while Steve Backshall’s natural history series Deadly 60 suffered slightly from being overstretched, his enthusiasm and wonder for the animal kingdom will surely have inspired as many budding naturalists as Jonny Morris and Terry Nutkins did on Animal Magic when I was a boy.

The weekday afternoon slot on the main terrestrial channels for children’s television is now a thing of the past. For those who grew up with a pre-Neighbours diet of kid’s telly on BBC1, that’s a sad thing – but now that analogue television has been switched off across the whole UK, every household has access to CBBC from morning until early evening. And, as Russell T Davies pointed out in his interview on Graham Norton’s Radio 2 show yesterday, at its height The Sarah Jane Adventures was getting more viewers for its premiere on the CBBC channel than it did on its BBC1 showing.

Children accept that CBBC is now the place to go for high quality, thought-provoking and inspirational drama, comedy and factual programming. And if a few more grown-ups appreciated it too, that couldn’t hurt.

Author: Scott Matthewman

Formerly Online Editor and Digital Project Manager for The Stage, creator of the award-winning The Gay Vote politics blog, now a full-time software developer specialising in Ruby, Objective-C and Swift, as well as a part-time critic for Musical Theatre Review, The Reviews Hub and others.

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