When I discovered my friend and fellow copywriter James Walsh had been commissioned to write an episode of a kids’ TV show for the BBC, I was ecstatic.
Partly for him, but mostly for myself, because I intended to steal all his secrets and divulge them here. The operation was a success and I can now share with you the interview I lured him to Starbucks for. Before I do, a little bit of context:
So far he’s written an 11-minute episode of Dennis and Gnasher Unleashed!, which is a pre-school (under 4s) show for the BBC. It’s on BBC iPlayer and everything! Now he’s working on his first script for Hey Duggee, another BBC pre-school show, which, honestly, might just be the greatest show in existence.
If you ever met James you’d probably think, I bet this dude writes for kids’ TV. He has that youthful exuberance and frantic nature you’d expect, and it’s not at all surprising that his favourite kind of copywriting work is writing about what makes a jellyfish interesting to a seven year old.
Below, you’ll learn:
- How James broke into kids’ TV writing in the first place
- What it’s like writing for the BBC
- The whole process from pitching ideas to being commissioned
- What it takes to get commissioned
- What a kids’ TV script looks like
- How much you can get paid to do this
- Other useful stuff to know about writing for kids’ TV
- James’s best advice on breaking into kids’ TV writing yourself
Okay, let’s go!
How did you break into kids’ TV writing?
I took a screenwriting course in 2008, then I started writing film scripts. I did that for five or so years. Mostly I worked on my own ideas, but sometimes I worked to commission for producers – pay wasn’t great, though, and none of them were ever made.
I got that initial paying work through a tangled web of connections. There’s no fixed way of getting into this when you start out – you just have do the work, get to know people, and cross your fingers. The key is building up as many contacts as you can.
I stopped writing features when I got some bad feedback and wasn’t ready for it. A couple of years later, again through that tangled web of connections, a producer approached me about a new Dennis the Menace show he was working on and invited me to submit a sample script. He was like, ‘I know you haven’t worked in kids’ TV but we’ve worked together before and I think you’d be good at it. Why don’t you have a go?’
So I wrote a sample episode, which was quite a lot of work. They sent me a character list and a rough series bible, which is a big document that’s almost like the branding guidelines you’d get in-house at a copywriting agency. I used it to learn what the show was all about, who the characters were and what they were motivated by.
I spent 2–3 days on the sample, coming up with an idea and writing the script – all for free. But it was a big chance for me and I wanted to do it. I wrote a 12-page episode with as many jokes and visual gags as I could fit.
They can fix most things down the line, so it doesn’t matter if you make little mistakes in character or story development. But they want to see if you get it – if you have good ideas and the right energy and whether you’ll be able to write things in the way they expect it to be done.
Turns out, I did, and I was invited down to London to pitch ideas in a writers’ room.
What was it like working on your first show?
Dennis and Gnasher was my first taste of how writing for kids’ TV works, so I don’t know if their process is industry standard, but I’m starting to think it is.
They were making 52 episodes of 11 minutes each. They built a team of 15 writers, and most of them already had experience. A lot of kids’ TV writers will do the circuit, so they’ll write for Postman Pat and The Clangers and things. But every show likes to develop one or two new writers.
Step one: the pitches
The first step is to get everyone pitching ideas. They have zero episodes and no ideas. For Dennis, we did this in person – we all got in a room together and sat round a table. Each show will normally have a head writer or a story editor who’s responsible for overseeing all the episodes, and they’ll develop those in tandem with a producer. So the writers pitch the ideas to the head writer and the producers.
I didn’t even know I was meant to be pitching anything. So when the head writer sat down and said, ‘Right! We’re going to go round the room—’ I immediately went, ‘Ohhh, Jesus’ in my head. I ended up being third, and the first two people had really good ideas, really fleshed out, so I was absolutely shitting a brick. I had one idea so I frantically scribbled it down.
How it works is: you pitch your idea and the head writer goes, ‘I like that, I think it could be this, this and this, but I think your idea of taking it this way doesn’t quite work. Let’s make it more of an action adventure rather than a murder mystery, but take the same premise.’ Then everyone else chips in with their thoughts. We spent about 5–10 minutes on each idea and we went round the table twice. That was a full day, including the time we spent talking about the show and the characters and stuff.
My ideas from that meeting didn’t get picked up, but I had another chance a couple of months later at another meeting. One of those ideas did get picked up. There are another three stages before you actually write the script.
Step two: the one-pager
The next stage is to write what’s called a one-pager, which they’ll ask you to do if they like your idea. This happened to me in the second meeting. So you take your idea – which is called a premise and is a paragraph long – and you develop it into a page of A4, expanding it to get a few more beats of the story in there. You’ll get notes back on that from the head writer.
You still haven’t actually been commissioned to write the episode by this point, so you’re still not getting paid. But if they’re happy with the one-pager and it gets signed off, that’s when you get commissioned. That’s been my experience, anyway.
Step three: the beat sheet
After the one-pager comes the beat sheet, which is about 3 pages. In that, you outline every actual beat in the story. Every conversation and scene. You include a bit more dialogue, show some of the character dynamics. You get notes back on that, too.
Step four: the full outline
Then you go onto a full outline, which is normally about 7 pages. More notes! You should basically just expect to get a lot of notes on your work if you go into this.
Step five: the script!
So it’s pitch, paragraph, one page – get commissioned, hopefully – three pages, seven pages, and then you write the first draft of the script. You’ll probably write 2–3 drafts before you get to the final script.
Most of this is done remotely. I only had to be there in person for the initial meetings, and for some shows you can do everything over the phone and email. You can send in four or five premises over email, and they might circle one and ask you to turn it into a one-pager. And if that goes well, they might commission you.
The whole process from my first meeting to getting commissioned took a few months, though I obviously wasn’t working on it every single day. After commission, it was probably 3–4 weeks until they signed off on my script and I was done. There was stuff that appeared in my episode of Dennis and Gnasher that I didn’t even do, and I was perfectly fine with that. They were tiny little tweaks and it was easier for them to just do it.
How did you get work on your second show?
Hey Duggee is my favourite pre-school show. My son, Findlay, is two and he’s obsessed with it. He devours it, knows all the character names. First thing in the morning he’ll be like, ‘HEEEEEY DUGGGEEEEE!!!!’ and I’m just like, it’s 6.30 in the morning, how are you this excited?
Emailing the creator out of the blue
I emailed the creator and I felt confident doing so because I love that fucking show so much. I actually like it more than Findlay does. I took the classic approach of making my email personal, telling him why I love it. You can’t be a douche, like ‘Dear Sir/Madam, please may I write for you?’ I bloody love the show, so I told him that. I told him which episodes were my favourites. I also told him I’d worked on Dennis and Gnasher, and it was amazing being able to do that. If I hadn’t already worked on that, I would’ve approached Hey Duggee very differently – more grovelling, probably.
He emailed me back quite quickly, saying they were always looking for new writers, and that he was glad I liked those episodes, because they’re his favourites too and no one ever mentions them. Straight away I felt a sense of success. I asked him to pass my name on to the person on his team who deals with writers, but I never heard back, so I followed up a couple of weeks later. Turns out it had just slipped through the cracks, so he CC’d in his assistant and we went from there. That’s why you follow up. It’s so important. Because sometimes they’re not ignoring you, but you’ll never know unless you ask.
Writing for free, again
It was the roughly the same process as Dennis and Gnasher. I was given a warning up front: ‘We do take on new writers and we’re interested in nurturing new talent, but we do ask people to do a little bit for free beforehand. Would you mind sending us a few ideas?’ I was asked to send in a few premises for the Cheese Badge.
In every episode, the characters go on these weird and wonderful adventures, and at the end of it they get a new badge, like in the Scouts. I spent half a day having the time of my life, coming up with the stupidest possible ideas for madcap cheese-related adventures they could go on. And that’s my kind of work. That’s my sweet spot. It’s a funny sweet spot, but that’s my sweet spot.
I sent in four premises, three of which were rejected. Two of them were similar to something they already had in the pipeline, which is good, really. Another one had too many puns, which doesn’t translate well to other languages, so that’s a big no-no.
I wrote up a one-pager for the remaining idea – also for free. Because I’d already been through the process before with the BBC, I didn’t feel bad about doing that work for free. The more you do it, the more you figure out what’s industry practice. After that one-pager, I was commissioned to write the script, and that’s what I’m working on right now.
Hey Duggee is a short show – the episodes are only 7 minutes. That means the beats I hit will be different, and the amount I can get into the story will be different. However long the episode you’re writing, you have to lean back on the basics of storytelling and structure. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end, and your inciting incident needs to come about 15% of the way through. In a 7-minute episode, that’s about 70-seconds in. Pretty fast.
Now I can tell people I’ve written for Dennis and Gnasher and Hey Duggee. They’re both award-winning shows, and certain TV shows want to be friends with them. So someone you pitch might be like, ‘Oh, great! We want to get Hey Duggee writers.’ That’s what I’m hoping will happen in the future.
What does a kids’ TV script even look like?
Every screenplay is broken up into scene headings, action and dialogue. So:
Karen and James are sitting over a table from each other, having a coffee, talking into an iPhone.
(shouting over music)
I’m going to punch you in the face.
KAREN leans over the table and punches JAMES in the face.
In kids’ TV there’s a ton of dialogue. It’s roughly a page per minute, but some shows have a naturally quick tone, so the dialogue will be said very quickly and you might end up with slightly more pages.
You’ll be told how many pages you need to do, though, and then you might get asked to make it even shorter. Someone might to turn around and say, ‘We can’t do that. We can’t fit it all in. We’ve tried to storyboard it and it’s too long.’ So you’ll be told things like, you need to shave a minute and a half off this, this scene could be tighter, cut this joke out. But that’s also your job as a writer – you need to understand story structure and how to tighten things up.
What’s your work process like?
I write fast, but only if I feel the pressure. And I’m driven a lot by guilt and fear. If I feel like I’m going to let someone down or miss a deadline, that’s a huge motivator. TV writing is good for me, because it’s little tasks that I have a short time to do.
I have a ton of ideas and I use Evernote to collect them all. I used to hate myself for not being able to finish stuff, but then I realised that if I tried to finish everything I started I’d never sleep. It’s about picking and choosing, juggling a few different things and figuring out what it’s okay to drop.
To summarise, no. Zero process. I sit down at my desk and stuff comes out of my brain.
Any other useful info to share?
Learn how to judge serious prospects
A while ago, a company that made animated YouTube videos got in touch with me. I quite liked the tone of them – silent slapstick, some furry little animals running around a room, getting into japes, falling of shelves and things like that. And they dangled the potential in front of me: ‘We need writers and we love what you do.’
I got stars in my eyes and went, ‘Ohh! That’d be great! I really want to write more scripts for animated stuff, so of course I’ll do some stuff for free.’ As soon as I started writing, I got that sinking feeling – you feel it in your gut. I basically gave them loads of ideas for free and didn’t get hired and now I keep checking their YouTube page to see if they’re using them. You have to learn how to judge it. If word ever got out that, say, the BBC stole your ideas, that would reflect really badly on them. An operation like that isn’t going to risk it. You also know they have the money to pay writers.
Weird facts about animation
Weird little fact: within a certain budget water is an absolute no-go. Water and hair are really hard to animate. That’s why you see a lot of kids’ TV characters with rock-solid hair. My first pitch for Dennis and Gnasher was set on a lake, and the head writer was like, ‘That’s great, but no one can fall into the lake and no one can pick up any water out of the lake. You can show someone falling out of the boat, but the splash has to be off-camera, then we have to cut to them in the water. There’s no way we can make water look like water. It’ll look like jelly. You’ll just have these big blobs of shit flying around everywhere.’
Someone pitched a yeti in their idea, and I was like, ‘How are you gonna do that? There’s going to be loads of hair knocking about.’ She was just like, ‘No, it’s going to look like a pile of mashed potato with a face.’ Dennis the Menace has rock-hard hair. So does Gnasher. And every girl will have her hair in a bun. It’s weird, you learn these little things.
Kids’ animation is more respected than it used to be
Kids’ TV animation has had a massive boost thanks to the likes of Pixar. Animation used to be voiced by people you didn’t know, but since Aladdin used Robin Williams, everyone has followed suit. Now a lot of prominent actors voice things for kids’ TV. So the quality has gone up and the money going into it has gone up and it’s become more respected.
How much do you get paid to write for kids’ TV?
It’s pretty industry-standard. You don’t set your rates – you get told. For my Dennis and Gnasher episode, I got £2,500 for a 14-page script. For my Hey Duggee episode it’s a bit less, but there’s less work, so it works out about the same.
If one episode takes a month or two from start to finish, and you do two or three at a time, you’re still only getting to £28–30k a year. It won’t make you rich. For me, that’s not the important thing. Getting to work in kids’ television is.
What’s next for your career in kids’ TV writing?
I’m ‘on the team’ now for Hey Duggee, so they’ll have me keep pitching ideas and writing episodes for them until one of us decides to call it a day. They said I might end up working on two ideas simultaneously, but probably not more than that. I’m also hoping the next series of Dennis and Gnasher will come around and they’ll get back in touch.
On top of that, I plan to approach more shows I like. I’ve never been good at that. It’s a big achilles heel of mine, actively going out and emailing people. I think me emailing someone and them saying, ‘Yeah, great, come write for us’ is going to be a rare experience. Most people will say, ‘No, we’re fine, thanks.’ It depends on the churn, the timing, how many shows you’re trying to reach, who the right people are.
I’m going to a kids’ TV conference in the summer, too. There’s going to be producers and other writers there. Connections are really important – referrals are a big thing. So you’ve got to get to know people. You can’t do it alone.
What are your dream goals in your work?
I’d love to have my own kids’ show one day – to have that ‘created by’ would be really, really lovely. And to be a part of that community and feel like I deserve to be there.
I also want to go back to feature films. I’d love to see my name on a film, even just one. And I’d like to run a video shop like Blockbusters, put together soundtracks for films, and become an official crisp taster.
Any advice for people who want to break into kids’ TV writing?
Just email people – it’s allowed
With kids’ TV, it’s a bit of an open market. You can email people and say, ‘I really love your show. Can I write for you?’ That’s an okay thing. It feels wrong, but it’s okay. You don’t have to have worked on a show before. Ask if you can send them a sample script. Make sure you do your research, though: know who’s making what, how long the episodes are, how they’re structured, how the jokes work, what the tone of the show is.
Practice, practice, practice – pitch, pitch, pitch
If you’re fresh off the boat and haven’t written an episode of anything before, have a go at it. Watch a bit of kids’ TV, find a show you like, and write an episode of your own. If you don’t think it’s any good, write another one.
Write an episode that demonstrates you could write well for that kind of show, and then email people. Get used to sending people work and them telling you they don’t like it. That’s the hardest part of the process.
Find places suitable for new writers
There are certain places that will actively want to nurture you as a new script writer – not just in kids’ TV, either. Look for places that don’t have big budgets and can’t afford to pay senior writers. BBC Three, BBC Four, YouTube channels – radio! There’s a reason lots of people get their breaks in theatre and radio and, sometimes, kids’ TV. There are many more entry-level opportunities.
Netflix and Amazon are making tons of content now, too. If you can find the people who are working with them, you might find someone who can give you that opportunity. And if they can’t, ask them who can. Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I really appreciate the response. It’s a shame we can’t work together. Do you know anyone who’s looking for writers like me?’
Someone might say check out this opening or enter this competition or go to this event. Consider this course, speak to this producer. Whatever they tell you to do – it’s good to hoover up that information. I wish I’d done more of that so I could’ve been doing this four or five years ago.
Just finish something
I think the most important thing you can possibly do is finish something. Don’t worry about how good it is. Just finish it. You don’t have to show your first draft to anyone. Your first draft could be absolute gobbledygook, but you’ve done it and you’ve got it out of your brain.
You’ll be scared you’re not going to have good ideas. The problem is you’ve got a ton of bad ideas at the front of your brain, and you have to do something, anything, to get those out of your brain, because the stuff at the back that’s going to come out afterwards will be better. It’s like running a tap. It starts off cold, but if you keep running it, eventually the hot water comes out.
Know why you want to do it
And finally, think about why you want to do it, because it’s going to be a job. You’re going to have to jump through hoops and you might have to do some work for free to get your career off the ground.