Executive Producer (Series 1-4)
Head of BBC Children’s Television (1986 -1997)
Other than in name, it is rare to see Anna Home on screen, however her contribution to Children’s Television throughout the past 50+ years is unrivalled. Starting as a researcher for Playschool, she co-developed Jackanory, before reviving production of children’s drama at the BBC, eventually becoming an Executive Producer. It was in this role that she commissioned Grange Hill, which she oversaw in that role for the first four series and beginning of the fifth. After some time away from the BBC, in 1986, Anna became Head of BBC Children’s Television, responsible for over 900 hours of programming every year, until retiring from the post in 1997. As Grange Hill celebrates its 40th anniversary, we interview Anna, without whom, Grange Hill and children’s television as a whole, would never have existed as we knew it!
What lead to you working in television?
It was happenstance really. I thought it would be quite interesting to work for the BBC and I tried to get into the senior management training and didn’t. I went into the BBC as a graduate trainee but as a studio manager in radio. We all applied for jobs in different kinds of way, but then when BBC Two started there were mass adverts for people to work in television, so we, all my generation were applying. I was turned down as being ‘unsuitable for television’ – nobody could ever tell me what that meant!
A few weeks later there were adverts for researchers on a then unnamed programme, which turned into Playschool and that’s how I got into TV.
You’ve always been a champion for children’s drama ; why do you feel that’s important?
I think story-telling is important; I think narrative is important and through drama you can widen a child’s, or a young person’s experience. You can do books, which a lot of kids don’t do books (even fewer now). I think doing it through drama is a great way of broadening children’s experience.
What do you remember of your first meeting with Phil Redmond?
We were already looking for a school based drama. Phil came to see me as a comedy writer; that was what he did in those days. I said that at that stage I had plenty of comedy and wasn’t interested in more, but I was looking for a realistic, up to date school drama. The school things that had been done before were things like Jennings and Billy Bunter and I hadn’t seen anything that was contemporary at all. That’s what I was after. Phil found that very interesting as he was one of the first generation products of a Secondary Modern school or Comprehensive; I can’t remember which. He was fascinated by that idea and said could he have a go.
Were you expecting Grange Hill to be quite a controversial as it ended up being?
Probably not. If you look at the early ones, there was a lot of humour in. But even in the beginning there were issues in it as well. Phil was very keen that it should have both elements in it, and so was I. We didn’t deliberately sit down and say we were going to do a show that would shock people, but I did want to do a show that would reflect real life.
What was it about Grange Hill that appealed to the audience?
Exactly that ; it reflected the lives of today’s youth; even if you weren’t at a Secondary Modern or a Comprehensive. I remember talking to children in public schools who recognized exactly the same things in a completely different environment.
When you returned to the BBC in 1986, Grange Hill was just starting the drugs storyline with Zammo. What did you think of this storyline and the reaction to it?
It was obviously a very strong storyline and something that needed to be done. The reaction to it was pretty typical I think. My only concern about it was keeping a balance between realism and public service education. I was very concerned that Grange Hill should not turn into government propaganda. There wasn’t really pressure, but there were often unspoken voices in the background!
Do you feel that storyline still has impact?
I think things that kids see, around 11 or 12, do stay with them. If you talk to adults, their memories of what they watched as kids seems to be very, very strong. Whether it has an impact on how they live their lives I wouldn’t like to say.
Do you feel a children’s drama series is an appropriate place for strong storylines (eg drug addiction)?
Yes I do, but the general public won’t accept it any longer. The climate of opinion has changed radically and so has the nature of the audience. It’s much more difficult to do that sort of thing nowadays. In my day, the target audience was up to 15 and probably a bit beyond. The target audience now is up to 12, but really catering for 9 year olds. That changes what you can do. Attitudes have changed; you wouldn’t expect it, but parents are much more frightened of these things being exposed to their kids. If you look at the BBC’s output, there is very little that is as strong as that. They can’t do it; it doesn’t work.
What was it that made Grange Hill so successful?
I think it’s always a combination of the characters and the storylines, and if it all gels it gels. There’s not a magic formula. If it happens, it happens.
Were there any times you had to step in to tone Grange Hill down?
It was me that was having to be toned down, certainly in the early days. There was a huge amount of controversy and it was only because the then head of Children’s, Monica Simms, stood very, very firmly behind it that it continued. There was a lot of pressure at a high level about it; MPs asking questions about it, all that kind of stuff. It was always like that and it always had to be defended. The way that the BBC worked then was that there was a very sensible system of referral upwards. The producers, executive producers would always highlight anything that they thought I ought to know about, but otherwise I just let them get on with it.
Did you foresee Grange Hill lasting 30 years?
No, never. We started with just six episodes and we thought that might be it. In the early stages it was never planned as a long running saga.
What do you think about the fact that Grange Hill is no longer on television?
I think everything has its day, but I think it’s a pity that there isn’t a contemporary equivalent.
What are your thoughts on the current state of children’s television?
First of all, it’s changed a lot. It’s much more competitive. You have 39 kids channels and the BBC is the only organization in reality that does any home-made children’s drama. The BBC’s money is reducing all the time and the pressure is on it with the charter renewal and licence fee discussions. The audience has changed ; it’s younger. You’re looking at it from a different context to how it was. But, given all that, it does a pretty good job. I always say I’d like to see more drama and they get very tired of me saying that. I’d like them to be more risky; I think they would too, but with the climate we are in, they can’t.
What is your role in the Children’s Media Foundation?
Before the Children’s Media Foundation, there was an organization called Save Kids TV which was started when ITV first reneged on its obligation to make children’s TV. It was a pressure group and I chaired that. When that fell to pieces, I thought there was a need for an ongoing organisation that focused on children’s media; not just television, so that when crisis’s happened there was already an organisation to respond. There was an awful lot of misconception in the press and in the public view about the impact of media on kids, so we needed an organisation that the press and public could refer to, to know more about what was going on, to be able to access research and to conserve the archive. What I hope it will become eventually is a focal point for all things to do with children’s media. We’re funded at the moment to also run the Children’s Film and Television Foundation, which no longer runs, but did have a certain amount of assets. Those are being rolled into CMF. But really we depend on membership and members support.
If you were back in your role at the BBC, what would you change?
I wouldn’t change a lot. I would extend the amount of drama and documentaries, which would mean investing more money which we never had! I would look at trying to cater for 12-15s, because they are not catered for anywhere. Channel 4, which really ought to, doesn’t and nor does the BBC. The Trust and the BBC Executives will say ‘They watch Eastenders etc and that’s good enough’ but it isn’t.
I suppose the main issues the CMF bang on about is that lost age group, across all channels, the lack of indigenous programming and kids movies of any quality, and the same thing with animation; more live action and realistic live action. What we would like to see is funding for children’s media set aside and ring fenced, as happens in Scandinavia and some other European countries.
What are you most proud of in your career to date?
That’s an impossible question to answer; I don’t like to single any out. I just think I was incredibly lucky to be working in the BBC and in ITV, at a time when, mostly, it was expansionist. It was confident, people were willing to take risks and I was able to do things that my successors never had the chance to do. I think I was really lucky.
Thanks to Anna Home
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