We’re concentrating on the two-legged animals in this post – those lovely, cute, unpredictable, regulated children! And who better to set the scene than the former Senior Advisor to the BBC on Working with Children – Alison Cresswell. Alison is founder of ACE (Children), a consultancy that provides advice and training to productions that are planning shows involving those under the age of 18.
Tell us about the sort of difficult situations you can find yourself in while working with children.
One thing when working with children is that you have to expect the unexpected.The child who was vibrant at auditions may be the first to get stage fright. The quiet boy at the back of the class may have lots to say but not know how to put himself forward. And parents don’t always know the best thing for their child in a media situation. You have to be able to deal with anything thrown at you where children are involved.
One of the hardest but most rewarding situations I have been in was working for Comic Relief. Instead of the normal celebrity appeal films they make, they decided to chose some children from the UK to go over to Kenya to meet children like them. I became involved from the very first conversations, helping the team formulate processes for auditioning to get the right sort of child who would not only be good on camera but emotionally robust to be able to deal with whatever they might encounter. While a parent came along with each child, my role was to act as an independent eye to ensure that everything was done correctly.
We asked our children to meet and talk to Kenyan children in very difficult circumstances. They were a 9 year old girl living and caring for her elderly grandmother as her parents and other relatives were dead and two 11 year old boys who were living rough on the streets of Kisumu collecting plastic bottles to try and survive. Both stories were harrowing in different ways and all the children needed to have our care and attention. I had to stand apart to ensure that happened and while emotions ran high, I had to keep a professional distance thus ensuring we stayed within acceptable parameters. And when everyone else was in tears, I had to remain calm for the children’s sake.
As we worked as a team, we came away with two powerful films and changed not only the lives of the 5 children involved but hundreds of other children who benefitted from the money raised by Comic Relief. Often the most difficult things are the most worthwhile
Children are not little adults so don’t treat them as such. They are all unique so remember that. And don’t be scared of them or what you believe you can or can’t do. Get the facts right by getting advice. If I had a £1 for everything I have heard ‘You can’t touch a child’ or ‘You have to have child only toilets!’ I would be a wealthy woman. There will be situations where neither of these is appropriate but it’s not carte blanche! There are many hoops to jump through and things to put in place when working with children so give yourself time. Get advice and surround yourself with people who know how to work with children and have a proven track record. A good chaperone for example is worth their weight in gold
Guidelines are there for a reason; to protect the children you are working with and to protect you. Not to make your life difficult. Some are legally binding and some are just common sense but having a framework in place to cover off all issues, gives you the space to be creative and get the best results possible. Get things wrong and it can be disastrous.
What was Your Route into TV?
I trained at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow in Technical Stage Management and Television Production and after a number of years working in Scottish Theatre, I sort of fell into Television. I was lucky enough to offer my services to BBC Scotland when they were looking for a Production Secretary to work on ‘Edinburgh Nights’, a programme featuring shows from the Edinburgh Festival. This meant I was able to use my theatrical knowledge to good effect. After this I went back to theatre but kept sending my CV out and was called in for an interview at STV for a new children’s show called ‘Wemyss Bay 902101’. Apparently I got the job because I knew the theme tune to the cartoon they were intending to feature and sang it in the interview! No knowledge ever goes to waste. It soon became clear that childrens programming was where I meant to be, with and ever changing, inspiring and entertaining audience. I must be one of the few people who has ever got jobs from the Media Guardian as from STV, I went to Tyne Tees to work on Saturday morning TV on ‘Gimme 5’ and with a slight detour via Granada working on quiz shows which I hated, I eventually ended up at the BBC. My initial job was in Children’s Presentation where you had to be across everything that our audience might be interested in and after that working on flagship shows such as ‘Live and Kicking’ and ‘Blue Peter’ before finally becoming a live studio producer on ‘Xchange’ the show that launched the CBBC channel
Senior Advisor role at the BBC
After a number of years as a Producer, I decided to make a change and was asked to project manage the development of an online course around child protection in order to raise awareness of BBC policy. I took an HND in Child Protection to ensure that I was suitably informed to advise how to make this emotive subject accessible to BBC personnel. During the development period, it became apparent that productions were unsure who to speak to with regards to general issues around working with children such as legislation, good practice and general advice on getting things right. I therefore became the ‘go to’ person and the role was developed around my skills. As the role grew, my remit became quite broad working across the BBC to provide support to anyone working with under 18s dealing with licensing issues, editorial advice, training, day-to-day problems and often pre-emptive advice trying to prevent issues from arising. Using years of experience meant that I was able to speak with knowledge and understanding and if something wasn’t possible for whatever reason, to find a viable alternative.
I can give you 30 years of experience in both theatre and television. I can help you set up all the protocols and legal requirements for working with under 18s. I can work to help develop ideas and plan for any issues whether you project is a 5 min film, a 30 min documentary or a 3 day festival. I can provide bespoke training for your company and help your teams work through scenarios and preparations. I can visit your productions to ensure nothing has been or is being missed. Ultimately I can help you get the very best out of the children and young people and provide the very best experience for everyone. Check out my website at workingwithchildren.co.uk. and you can find me on Twitter @ChildreninMedia.
Best things about working with children
They are inspirational. Each has a view on the world that is unique and their voices deserve to be heard. They can be exasperating and difficult but also provide golden moments of laughter and pure joy. Each child is special and it is our job to bring that out so that other children can see what is possible. And they keep us on our toes. Their ability to learn and adapt means that we have to be able to do that too. The truly are the best group to work with.