‘If young children do not like something on TV they’ll walk away’

The Nutcracker CBeebies panto at the Crucible. Picture: Andrew Roe
The Nutcracker CBeebies panto at the Crucible. Picture: Andrew Roe
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City-born CBeebies controller loves how kids tell it like they see it!

The most fearsome critic sending shivers through luvvie land with every swoosh of the pen has nothing on a toddler, says the Sheffield-born woman in charge of CBeebies.

CBeebies presented Justin Fletcher is performing in the CBeebies panto at the Crucible. Picture: Andrew Roe

CBeebies presented Justin Fletcher is performing in the CBeebies panto at the Crucible. Picture: Andrew Roe

The channel’s controller, Kay Benbow, insists the pre-school children it caters for are the most honest critics because if they don’t like something ‘they will just get up and walk away’.

For many people this would be a terrifying prospect, worse than any jeering heckler or savage reviewer – but not for Kay, who finds such frankness one of the most appealing qualities of her young audience members.

“With young children you can see instantly what works and what doesn’t. If they don’t like something they will just get up and walk away,” she says.

“They’re a very honest audience. I love watching their reactions. They might be seeing or hearing something for the first time, and it’s that joy and wonder which is so marvellous to witness.”

It’s about tryingto empower our audience and make them happy, tolerant and resilient children

Kay, who has been top dog at CBeebies since 2010, has little to worry about when it comes to critics, young or old.

CBeebies was this year voted BAFTA Children’s Channel of the Year, following wins in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

But perhaps more telling were the record 257,000 applications in a public ballot to watch this year’s CBeebies Christmas show being recorded at The Crucible Theatre, in Sheffield, last month, and the thousands who failed to get a ticket but still queued outside to meet stars including Mister Maker and the Go Jetters.

The adaptation of classic festive ballet The Nutcracker, featuring CBeebies favourites like Justin Fletcher and Cat Sandion, aired for the first time on CBeebies on Friday and is due to be shown on BBC One on Christmas Day at 9am.

Kay Benbow (BBC)

Kay Benbow (BBC)

“It was really, really special. People want to be able to touch CBeebies and meet the characters in the flesh. You can’t overestimate how special that is for a small child. It was magical,” says Kay. “What makes the show so moving are the shots of the children when someone appears on stage and they recognise the character and their little faces light up.”

Kay was born in Sheffield and, although she only lived in the city for two years before moving to Derby, she remembers visiting family friends here as a child and says it has a special place in her heart.

The Nutcracker may sound like an ambitious sell for under-sixes, but the CBeebies crew are not afraid to tackle highbrow works.

They have already adapted Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and staged their own Prom this year at the Royal Albert Hall – which sold out faster than any other Proms concert.

“It’s all about pushing boundaries. People thought I was a bit mad when I said I was going to drama for pre-school children, but we proved you should never underestimate a young audience,” Kay says.

“If you make it engaging, they will go with it. It’s a real privilege opening up their world for them and taking them on a voyage of discovery.”

Kay studied theology at Oxford University and, after beginning her career with BBC World and Domestic Services, has spent nearly 30 years working on children’s TV. She has been involved in one way or another with some of the most famous children’s shows and characters during that time, from Edd the Duck and Bodger and Badger to the Tweenies and In The Night Garden.

She describes her job as ‘the best’, and says the last year has been the most rewarding, with astronaut Tim Peake reading the CBeebies Bedtime Story from space being one of her personal highlights.

For all the industry awards and gushing parents, Kay says hearing from the young viewers themselves gives her the biggest buzz.

One of her favourite stories is of a young boy who wrote in to ask for Go Jetters to be rescheduled so he didn’t miss his favourite show.

Norman Benbow as captain of the rugby team at Sheffield University

Norman Benbow as captain of the rugby team at Sheffield University

By a happy coincidence, the programme was already being moved to a new time slot, so staff at CBeebies were able to reply that his wish was being granted.

“His mum sent a photo of him with our letter, saying he was so chuffed, which was lovely to receive,” says Kay.

As a young girl herself, Kay fondly recalls tuning into shows like Blue Peter, Jackanory and Grange Hill, but it was Play School which first captivated her and sowed the seed for her future career.

“I very clearly remember watching the original Play School in black and white,” she says.

“I felt that programme was talking to me and not my parents. I will never forget that moment.”

It is a message she still holds dear, and which continues to inform her simple mantra when it comes to producing and commissioning TV for tots. “It’s about trying to empower our audience and make them happy, tolerant and resilient children,” she says.

“My late dad would be so proud of my honorary doctorate”

Kay Benbow says her late father would be ‘very proud’ to know she was getting an honorary doctorate by the university he attended as a young man.

The CBeebies controller, whose dad Norman died last year, is due to be recognised by Sheffield University on January 11 for her work on children’s TV.

“My mum Jean died when I was a teenager and dad brought up my sister and me and did a brilliant job,” she said.

“He wanted us to be able to do anything we wanted. He worked very hard to make sure that happened, and he would have been very proud to know about the honorary doctorate.”

Kay was nominated for the honour by Professor Jackie Marsh, in the university’s School of Education.

The pair have collaborated on the science behind children’s TV, with Kay calling the university’s research ‘invaluable’.

That science is about fostering children’s development and is underpinned by a simple formula: educate without being ‘preachy’.

As well as working with university experts, that means connecting with the consumers by visiting schools, welcoming young viewers to the BBC’s Media Centre in Manchester or meeting them at events like the Christmas Show recording in Sheffield.

As she points out, the most subtle change can make all the difference in creating a ‘spellbinding’ experience.

For the hit show Topsy and Tim, that involved placing the cameras at a child’s eye level, which she said had made it ‘special’ for the programme’s legion of fans.