As head of children’s acquisitions and co-productions for BBC Television and BBC Worldwide, Theresa Plummer-Andrews is without doubt one of the most influential figures in kids television. Her role in feeding shows through to the BBC1 and BBC2 schedules, coupled with her job of digging up prospects for the commercial distribution arm BBC Worldwide, means she is better-placed than most to greenlight shows.
This fact is not lost on the international production community, which swamps Plummer-Andrews and her deputy Michael Carrington with endless story proposals. It’s no wonder she has developed an unparalleled reputation for quick decision-making.
Most of her peers praise her instinctive feel for what makes a good kids show-and her willingness to back ideas ’200%.’ In an organization notorious for its bureaucracy, Plummer-Andrews is renowned for cutting through the red tape. Her typical response to ideas she wants is a gleeful: ‘Gosh, I love this. I’ll `ave it.’
Career path: From Sri Lanka to the BBC
Plummer-Andrews, or ‘Plum’ to her friends, started out as a theatrical agent working with movie legends like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. She still possesses the flamboyance associated with the movie biz.
One producer colleague warns that ‘she can’t stand boring people. She has a very lively sense of humor, which makes her a stimulating lunch or dinner guest.’ Another observes that she is ‘generous and considerate to her friends, but is capable of taking against someone she doesn’t like.’
Her first foray into television came in the 1970s, when she was invited by a young producer, James Gatwood, to work on live-action kids series Elephant Boy.
‘We ended up in the Sri Lankan jungle for two years running,’ recalls Plummer-Andrews. ‘The show was scripted here, shot in Sri Lanka and Singapore before being post-produced in Australia. That was my introduction to the co-production business.’
For the next few years, Plummer-Andrews stayed closer to home, but continued working with international clients like TVNZ, Australia’s ABC network and the same country’s newly launched multicultural channel Special Broadcasting Service.
Then in 1981, Gatwood resurfaced as head of TVS-the newly licensed ITV regional broadcaster for southern England. ‘He called me up and said: `Come on Plum. You’ve got to join us and do overseas things!”
At that time, ‘overseas things’ covered both sales and acquisitions. ‘But I wasn’t doing much kids stuff. I was more likely to be buying semi-pornographic, late-night movies or episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H.’
This continued until ‘a woman called Anna Home (then head of kids at TVS) floated into my office and asked my opinion on some cassettes. I said they were crap, and from then on she had me handling children’s acquisitions for her.’
TVS was an important nursery slope for British kids talent. Aside from Plummer-Andrews and Home (until recently head of BBC Children’s), Nick UK managing director Janie Grace and ITV kids controller Nigel Pickard both graduated from the station. (So, for that matter, did the BBC’s director-general designate Greg Dyke.)
This hothouse must have had an impact on Plummer-Andrews, who shifted more towards kids programming during her five years at the broadcaster. By 1986, ‘TVS had joined the ITV children’s network committee, and I was asked to acquire kids stuff for the whole network.’ At this stage, co-production was still a relatively unknown concept for U.K. producers.
Plummer-Andrews’ transformation into a kids specialist was confirmed when she joined BBC Children’s in 1986 as executive producer, acquisitions. The move reunited her with Home, who had joined the corporation as head of kids a year before.
A tale of two remits
During her 13 years at the BBC, Plummer-Andrews’ influence has expanded considerably. ‘[At the start,] my main role was to buy three or four big U.S. series a year. Then as the air time available to kids’ shows expanded, I did some prebuys’
To a large extent, the growth of Plummer-Andrews’ remit reflected her own uncanny knack of spotting hits. In addition to homegrown hits like Noddy and Spider, she was quick to snap up shows like Rugrats and Pingu for the BBC.
However, her ascendancy also underlined the way in which the kids business has become increasingly reliant on international funding-and a potent source of ancillary income. In the early 1990s, the BBC acknowledged this trend with the formation of BBC Children’s International, a stand-alone unit within its commercial arm BBC Enterprises (the forerunner of today’s BBC Worldwide).
Set up by Tony Greenwood and Mike Diprose with a view to exploiting children’s properties globally, BBC Children’s International was ‘ahead of its time,’ claims Plummer-Andrews. ‘We realized there was a global market before anyone else. We felt there was potential to market ancillary rights, but until BBC CI came along, there was no sense of the corporation getting it together.’
The emergence of an outward-facing commercial arm alongside the domestic public service channels introduced a new sensitivity to Plummer-Andrews’ position. To this day, she has two contracts. The first obliges her to select the best possible product for the BBC’s domestic channels, while the second requires her to alert Worldwide of emerging commercial opportunities.
As part of her Worldwide remit, she executive produces the operation’s fully funded shows. She is also responsible to Worldwide for developing, monitoring and approving ancillary activities such as book and video publishing.
According to Plummer-Andrews, this cross-fertilization has created tangible benefits for the BBC. ‘Working with the commercial guys allows me to get programs I want for the BBC, but don’t have a budget for.’
By taking a portfolio approach, it has also been possible to secure commercial funding for the sort of classic dramas that Home, in particular, championed, but which were not guaranteed to travel well. ‘The quid pro quo was that we would get Enterprises/Worldwide shows that could make money-like Noddy-and in return, they would support flagship dramas such as The Borrowers.’
For Plummer-Andrews, the distinction between the public/commercial roles has been vital. ‘We didn’t want to be in a position where someone on the commercial side could say to me `We want this toy introduced as a character in that episode.’ I see projects from all over the world where the starting point is a desire to make mone, but I always start by asking what will work for the kids.’
That said, the licensing side of the BBC’s activities, particularly after Noddy and Teletubbies, is huge. It has ‘also changed people’s perception of the children’s department,’ says Plummer-Andrews. ‘I’m constantly having meetings with merchant bankers who want a piece of the action. I always tell them that kids licensing and merchandising is a fickle, risky business where you’ll get one hit in a hundred. . . if you’re lucky.’
Although the commercial side of the BBC has undergone a series of facelifts, a steady stream of shows have benefited from Plummer-Andrews’ involvement. Aside from Cosgrove Hall’s Noddy, which is now going to a second series, Hibbert Ralph’s Spider and Albert the Fifth Musketeer are early shows that have demonstrated a long shelf-life either on TV or video. Pingu, First Snow of Winter and Brambly Hedge are other award-winning shows that have earned Plum’s vote of approval throughout the years.
Some of her most significant achievements have been European Broadcasting Union (EBU) showcase co-productions like Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah’s Island. In both cases, Plummer-Andrews was one of two executive producers marshalling 18 broadcasters from 16 countries.
As co-executive producer on Farthing Wood, for example, Plummer-Andrews split responsibility for the management of the show with WDR in Cologne. The series was produced by Telemagination in the U.K. and Praxinos in France, both of which comment positively on her hands-on style. Scripts and voices were done in the U.K., and the musical score was created in Germany.
In addition to representing the EBU, however, Plummer-Andrews was acting on behalf of the BBC1 channel controller and BBC Worldwide, which had pitched successfully for the exploitation rights to Farthing Wood. When production was well underway, Plummer-Andrews was still approving every image from 140 partworks ‘so nothing rubbishy would get out.’
During production on both series, faxes flew across the continent as each of the participating broadcasters made observations on the scripts. More than anything, says Plummer-Andrews, finding a narrative pacing that suited every audience was a key concern: ‘Bloody good scripts are the key to any successful co-production, and the sources of the major arguments. Once you have a good story and interesting characters, then you have to make a judgement about the competence of your partners.’
Despite a high success rate, ‘it can be a nightmare,’ she says. ‘We have been hugely stung on a co-production (Prince of Atlantis) that didn’t work out. Then you are on the phone all night trying to sort it out knowing that people’s careers are at stake.’
To date, the EBU partnerships have worked well. After 39 half hours of both Farthing Wood and Noah’s Island, Plummer-Andrews is one of three executive producers on the tentatively titled Zeppy and Zenior, which will be made by France Animation and Italy’s Lanterna Magica. New co-pro partners means ‘reinventing the wheel’ she admits.
Characteristically, Plummer-Andrews puts a lot of time into the EBU projects, explaining that: ‘The BBC is committed to European broadcasting and feels it should be involved. It also benefits from high-quality shows for the schedule.’
Letting down the
There are no hard-and-fast rules about the way Plummer-Andrews works. She has an ongoing dialogue with BBC kids scheduling chief Roy Thompson about forthcoming shows that might fit the schedule, and also deals directly with BBC Worldwide’s Mark Johnstone on a rolling basis.
Apart from those ideas that come in to her, she views MIP-TV, MIPCOM, NATPE and Cartoon Forum as vital listening posts. Her globetrotting is a running joke-undoubtedly making her one of Airmiles’ best customers.
Upon joining the BBC, Plummer-Andrews recalls that ‘a major criticism was that people could never get in to see anyone. So my major objective was to open the doors.’
This she has done-in the process providing significant financial support to the U.K. indie sector. ‘If the U.K. broadcasters don’t back our independent producers, we will lose such a lot of their art to other countries. It is expensive to make animation here, but we’ve got such talent that we can’t give up the heart of our business.’
After so long in the same job, where next? ‘Well now that Greg’s beaten me to the DG’s job, I suppose I’ll stay here,’ she jokes. ‘It’s great fun.’
One colleague believes her unflagging energy is rooted in ‘an anarchic spirit that gives her an insight into what kids want to watch.’ And Plum herself confirms that: ‘My great joy is finding projects and getting them on the road. Because my role is so diversified, I don’t get bored.’ And if she does, you can be sure she’ll soon let you know about it.
Former head of BBC Kids and now head of SDN’s Nursery Channel
‘Theresa has got a very clear idea of what works in the U.K. market. She has a great editorial sense and a fantastic network of international contacts. We were a great team [for 12 years] and worked well together because we wanted the same things. She is a great fun person and loyal to her friends.’
Managing director, Nick UK
‘A lot of people don’t know just how professional she is. She is incredibly thorough and dedicated. Sometimes I suspect the BBC underestimates the enormous contribution she has made. Animation has really blossomed under her. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of what has been around, and is also a little bit anarchic-which helps her spot things kids will like. She was the first person in the U.K. to recognize the potential of Rugrats.’
Managing director, Cinar Europe
‘You know where you stand with Theresa. She never leaves you in any doubt about whether she likes something or not, and if she likes it, she will move heaven and earth to support it.
‘I worked with her at the BBC years ago, but more recently she has acquired some Cinar shows like Arthur and Mona the Vampire. Although they are straight acquisitions, she comments on every script, which is rare for a broadcaster and good from the BBC’s point of view. From my own experience, I know how hard it can be to get things done in the BBC, but she rises to the challenge. When she is pushed, she will always push back.’
Founder and managing director of Cosgrove Hall
‘Theresa is totally focused. She gives prompt decisions and is unstinting in her desire to back creatives. My affectionate name for her is `Cut the Crap Plum’ because of her no-nonsense manner. Her judgment is instinctive and usually right. I can remember
situations where her instinct was better than my long-term judgment, and I should have listened to her in the first place. Theresa gives producers like myself confidence because I know if something gets past me, it won’t get past her.’
Managing director, Telemagination
‘She’s probably the most dedicated and committed person we have had the pleasure of working with (on projects like Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah’s Island). I know of no one who is more sensitive to the needs of independent producers. She is capable of coming home from a challenging day at the office and going through a VHS at midnight because it needs urgent approval.
‘She is very well connected and has her finger on the pulse. She also has an instinctive feel for what will play well on BBC TV. She is not frightened to give an opinion when others will hedge their bets.
‘She drives through the co-production doublespeak by asking very directly: `Will the kids like it?”
Group president, CTW
‘She’s one of those people who explains why I am in the kids business. I met her in the mid-1980s and found her to be straightforward and kind. She tells the truth, and is remarkably supportive, enthusiastic and very welcoming.’
Head of children’s and family, Zenith Productions
‘Theresa and I go back a long way as friends and colleagues. I remember in 1993, I was producing a brand new BBC1 Saturday morning magazine show called Parallel 9 when a huge problem came up at the last minute. The production team had to work all through the night on the day before broadcast to put it right. It wasn’t one of Theresa’s shows, but she turned up at 6:30 a.m. the next day and drove us from Pinewood to London. She then said `I know you are exhausted, but I insist on buying you lunch before you go to sleep.’ She was so instinctively understanding of what we were going through.
‘I’m sure she could have made her job a softer option if she wanted to, but she works at it tirelessly. Her friends are always telling her to slow down. And she isn’t afraid to argue with top management for something she believes in.’
Career at a glance
1960s: Worked as a theatrical agent with the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Charlie Drake and Rolf Harris.
1971: Lured away to Sri Lanka by James Gatwood for the production of kids series Elephant Boy.
Mid to late 1970s: Worked for Portman Productions’ distribution arm, Global Television. Clients included ABC Australia, TVNZ and Scottish TV.
1981: Joined TVS to head up international activities. Took on overall buying responsibility for ITV kids shows. Met Anna Home, with whom she would later work closely at BBC Kids.
1986: Joined BBC as executive producer, acquisitions. Over the next few years, she was primarily responsible for buying three to four animation series a year.
1990: With the creation of BBC Children’s International, Plummer-Andrews got more involved in co-production. Key animation hits include Hibbert Ralph’s Spider and Cosgrove Hall’s Noddy.
1990s: Took a leading role in EBU co-productions of Animals of Farthing Wood and Noah’s Island. Acquired hit shows like Rugrats and Pingu.
1998: Hibbert Ralph special First Snow of Winter won a Royal Television Society award for Best Children’s Entertainment.
1998-99: Emerges intact from the shake-up that followed Anna Home’s departure from the BBC. Slate continues to grow as BBC kids air time expands. Current batch of projects includes Angelmouse and Yo, ho, ahoy!