CBBC matriarch marches into KidScreen’s Hall of Fame

Tracing Trees’ roots Say the name Theresa Plummer-Andrews in conversation and you will inevitably get a strong reaction. Whether it’s her brutal honesty, her unerring ability to know what kids will ...
February 1, 2004

Tracing Trees’ roots

Say the name Theresa Plummer-Andrews in conversation and you will inevitably get a strong reaction. Whether it’s her brutal honesty, her unerring ability to know what kids will like, or her strange predilection for dancing on tables, Plummer-Andrews has come to embody the anti-suit – the exact opposite of what you would expect a high-powered TV exec to be.

She’s dynamic, she’s irreverent, and most of all, she’s fun. And as she prepares to step down as CBBC head of acquisitions and co-productions after an 18-year run at the broadcaster, KidScreen takes an opportunity to look back at her illustrious career in television – a pursuit, explains Plummer-Andrews, that began with the lofty goal of ‘just earning some money.’

Plummer-Andrews got her big break in show business in the ’60s, when she joined London-based talent agency Lom Management as a switchboard operator. But it wasn’t long before she jumped from answering the phones to working as an assistant to then-managing director Herbert Lom, ‘doing lots of bookings and looking after lots of people,’ as she describes it. (Notable among said ‘people’ were clients Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.)

In 1971, Plummer-Andrews got an offer that would have a long-reaching impact on her career: ‘One of the directors we looked after [James Gatward] said to me one day: ‘We’re going off to India to do some filming, Plum. Do you want to come?’ And I thought, well that sounds interesting – and it will never happen. It did, in fact, and off we went doing Elephant Boy in the jungles of Sri Lanka.’

Elephant Boy was a 26 x 25-minute live-action kids adventure series that Gatward executive-produced for STV-Global. It was scripted in the U.K. and shot in both Sri Lanka and Singapore before being posted in Australia, and it was Plummer-Andrews’ intro to production – the first of many international kids co-pros to dot her resumé. ‘I loved the whole production experience,’ she recalls. ‘I loved being on location in Sri Lanka. I loved the whole making of the thing – you know, never in front of the cameras, always behind. It was hard work. It was difficult. But it was just great fun.’

Although the issue of elephant memory is still up for debate among scientific circles, there’s no doubt that Plummer-Andrews’ pachyderm project had a long-term effect on her career. When Elephant Boy wrapped, she and Gatward went on to do two 30-minute episodes of Castaway in Australia for Elephant Boy producer Portman Productions. And in 1975, she took a position at Portman’s Aussie distribution company, Global Television, working with international clients such as ABC Australia, TVNZ and Scottish Television.

While at Global, Plummer-Andrews was also the European account executive for a new Australian multicultural channel called The Special Broadcasting Service, which was ramping up for launch at the time. Although the net was allotted a scant nine months to go from business plan to reality, Plummer-Andrews took on the responsibility of stocking the channel with original-language programming from all over Europe. The outlet continues to thrive today – in spite of the many nay-sayers who predicted its doom at the time – and it still stands as an achievement of which Plummer-Andrews is especially proud.

In 1981, James Gatward took over the reins as head of TVS, the brand-new ITV regional feed for southern England, and he invited Plummer-Andrews to manage the channel’s overseas sales and acquisitions. She accepted the position on the condition that she could continue to supply SBS with Euro programming.

It was while at TVS that Plummer-Andrews first wandered through the looking glass into the world of kids programming. At the request of Anna Home, who was TVS’s head of kids at the time (and later became Plummer-Andrews’ boss at the BBC), she took on a children’s acquisitions remit in addition to her other responsibilities. By 1986, Plummer-Andrews was acquiring kids programming for the entire ITV network through the Children’s Network Committee.

Although the final line on her current resumé shows a jump to the Beeb in 1986, Plummer-Andrews’ role has changed significantly since she first arrived at CBBC as executive producer, acquisitions. While she began her run at the public broadcaster cherry-picking two or three big American series a year to import to the U.K., Plummer-Andrews’ remit grew in prominence as children’s programming became more of an imperative for the broadcaster.

In the early ’90s, for example, the BBC realized that the kids television industry was taking on global dimensions. To acknowledge this market shift, BBC Children’s International was formed in order to exploit the Beeb’s kids properties globally. (The unit was originally part of BBC Enterprises, which would later morph into BBC Worldwide.) As the newly installed head of acquisitions and creative development, Plummer-Andrews found herself with a two-part remit – minding the channel’s kids content as executive producer with one eye, and watching for ancillary opportunities that the BBC’s commercial arm could develop with the other.

That dual mandate ended in 2001 with the launch of the Beeb’s two new digital channels CBBC and Cbeebies, and Plummer-Andrews returned to CBBC on a full-time basis. As head of acquisitions and co-productions, Plummer-Andrews has laid aside her commercial responsibilities – although she prides herself on having been able to always keep the two remits separate. ‘Basically, I was there to make sure that the BBC’s editorial guidelines were stuck to,’ she says, ‘and that no commercial influence was put on any of the series we were dealing with. No one could turn around and say to me: ‘Well, we want a toy coming into play in that episode,’ because they knew they would be told to bugger off.’

Although it’s difficult to whittle an incumbency that’s lasted nearly two decades down to a just a few of the most salient moments (‘there have been lots of highlights… I’ve been here so bloody long,’ notes Plummer-Andrews), she is most proud of the range of programming the Beeb has been able to offer its younger audiences under her reign. Whether those viewers were still in diapers or prepping for their teen years, hit shows like Teletubbies (Ragdoll), Bob the Builder (HIT Entertainment), Super-Duper Sumos (DIC Entertainment), Metalheads (TV-Loonland), Jackie Chan Adventures (Sony Pictures Entertainment) and Mona the Vampire (Cinar) have kept them tuned in.

With partners in 16 countries speaking a total of 18 different languages, The Animals of Farthing Wood, an EBU project that Plummer-Andrews helped executive-produce in the late ’80s, stands out as a monumental achievement in international co-production. Notable too, she says, was Shakespeare: The Animated Tales, a 13 x 30-minute 2-D/stop-frame series of the famous bard’s work for kids, co-produced in 1992/93 with S4C and HIT Entertainment. Recalls Plummer-Andrews of the project, ‘We recorded the voices in Cardiff, and all the animation was done in Russia. We were in and out of there before and during the [Berlin] Wall coming down. It was incredible. I woke up one morning to hear on the radio that Gorbachev had been kidnapped and there was an insurgency going on, and my first thought was: ‘Oh God, my animators!’ Never mind that the country was in revolution – what about the animators?’

Although she’s had a richly memorable 18 years at the Beeb, Plummer-Andrews knows it’s time to move on. ‘[The position] needs fresh blood, and I need to be nearer to a shopping center. I’ve been here a long, long time… It’s been lovely fun because every program that you work on is new, so you never get bored. But I still feel it’s time for somebody younger and fresher to take over.’

But don’t expect her to join the lawn-bowling set just yet. Plummer-Andrews has been fielding offers since announcing her retirement from the Beeb, although she will continue on with CBBC in a part-time consulting role. ‘If I wanted to, I could work nine days a week,’ she admits. ‘That’s not quite the point of the exercise. But you know, I’ve been made some really flattering and exciting offers, so we’ll see what happens.’

Telling it like it is

Not known to keep her views on the state of the industry to herself, Theresa indulges us with one last sound-off about issues affecting the kids entertainment community and what she’s learned from being part of it.

How has the BBC changed during your tenure?

‘When I first joined, BBC Children’s bought about two or three series a year, and we now buy hundreds of hours. We have longer runs, and we go across four different channels. [But] the corporation itself isn’t as corporate as it used to be. When I first joined, somebody sent me a memo that said: ‘To Theresa Plummer-Andrews, from HCPTel.’ I walked into my boss [Anna Home's] office and said, ‘Who the bloody hell is HCPTel?’ And she said, ‘It’s me, you silly bitch. It’s Head of Children’s Programs, Television.’ Now it’s more normal.’

How difficult is it to find a happy medium between content and commercial considerations?

‘Very hard. You see scripts coming through and you think, ‘God, you might as well place an advertisement on the screen.’ You have to make sure that doesn’t happen, much to the annoyance of outside producers. I understand their point of view. They have to make their money back, and it’s really tough out there. And so much attention is being put on kids programs making money that it’s hard for them not to be commercial. But we have to ensure that we’re creating good television.’

Can good children’s TV also be very commercial?

‘It happens once every 10 years. We made Bob the Builder with HIT thinking that it was just going to be a really nice little preschool series. It became huge, and that just happens sometimes. The same thing happened with Teletubbies. You make programs thinking that they’re going to be popular, but you have no idea whether they are really going to take off or not.’

Have you become more adept at predicting hits?

‘No. If I did, I’d be sitting on a boat in the Caribbean with cigars, saying: ‘Give me a million, and that one’s going to make it.’ Unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. You have a pretty good idea of what’s going to make a good television series, but you have absolutely no idea how children are going to change in the 18 months you spend making it. CBBC always does very well in the ratings, but if a property hits on the commercial side, I just consider that a bonus.’

As you look back at all the pitches you’ve seen, is there ‘one that got away?’

‘I can’t mention them [by name], but there were two things that make me think, ‘Oh gosh, I wish I could have had those.’ But I couldn’t because we were the BBC. And in the end, I was glad that we didn’t. We’d have gotten slaughtered for showing them. I even went in to see the person in Editorial Policy and said, ‘Look, these are highly commercial, and kids will love them. They’ll rate like mad, but we’ll get slaughtered if we buy them.’ And he said, ‘Yes, you’re right. We can’t.’ It’s hard. On both occasions CiTV picked them up (because they can) and did really, really well with them.’

What do you think of the kids broadcast landscape in the U.K. right now?

‘We’ve got too many channels. We have 24 dedicated kids channels now, and that is a lot of television. I don’t know how some of them pay with their advertising. But I do know that sooner or later, there has got to be a bit of a shakedown.’

What’s the biggest challenge facing the kids production industry in the U.K.?

‘It’s got to get some proper funding. Because of the split in all the channels and because advertising revenue is going down, nobody is getting any more money through television sales. In fact, it seems to me they are getting less. To keep this industry alive, it needs an injection of money. French animators get help through the CNC. The Germans get some help. Canada does too. Our U.K. people get nada. No help. No subsidies. No nothing. Pact’s animation people are currently lobbying the government, and I sincerely hope something comes back.’

How can CBBC help the independent production community?

‘We try and spread what little money we have in Acquisitions around to as many U.K. and European producers as possible. We do try as hard as we can to have animation made in England because we’ve got great animators, great technicians and brilliant voice artists, and why not use them if you can? We are often saying no to things we would like to have simply because we don’t have the money and there is only so much air time. Even though we’ve got lots of funding, much of it is taken up by in-house productions.’

Has consolidation had an impact on what you’re seeing from producers?

‘You sort of lose your variety of house styles a bit, and a lot of people also lose their jobs. Then that small company has to become part of a huge corporate thing, and a lot of them just don’t know quite how to handle that, [so] they bugger off out again.’

Is it difficult to work with American partners?

‘Their broadcasters… Well, one of them said to me one day: ‘Our children just don’t understand your English.’ Truly. We are inclined to buy things ready-made from America (like Stuart Little, Astro Boy, some of the Warner Bros. stuff) rather than getting involved with them at an early stage.’

What have you learned to find out about potential co-producers?

‘I get their banks checked… Well, no. You can’t. You just have to trust. It’s like getting married. Until you’re actually in bed with the production, you don’t know what you’re getting into. Most of the ones that we have done recently have been with people we’ve dealt with before. So they know our faults and good points, and we know theirs, and we just have the odd scream at each other.’

Are there enough good ideas out there?

‘We’re swamped with them. There is still a glut of preschool. Even though some concepts are very charming, there are only so many slots for preschool material in the universe. We’ve been saying that for two years, but we are still seeing huge amounts because that’s where people see themselves making money.’

Do producers know how to approach you?

‘A lot of them don’t. A lot of them have no idea what we show or how we show it. They have no understanding of our editorial compliance guidelines and our time slots. We get stuff for kids ages 15, 16 and 17. But we stop at 11. I just think it is a lack of knowledge because a lot of the ideas that come in are for projects that are too similar to what we have already got on screen. I often say to people, ‘Look, we don’t do that age range. We don’t do this. We don’t do that. Watch some kids telly. Just sit down for an afternoon and watch what we do.”

Do you often get frustrated enough to contemplate head-butting a producer?

[Laughs] ‘It’s when the project comes back for the seventh time that you think ‘Oh, not again.”

What drives you crazy when you’re being pitched?

‘What I find very difficult is when people phone up and say: ‘We want to come over for a meeting because we want to pitch you this show.’ And then they turn up with two scripts and this, that and the other. And I say, ‘You know, I can’t read these scripts with you sitting here.’ So they have to go away and give us time to read all of this stuff.

‘It would also be better if producers knew which bloody age range they were going for. You say to people: ‘Well, who are you aiming this at?’ ‘Kids of all ages.’ And you say: ‘No. We do specific slots: preschool, middle age and older age range.’ They need to get it sorted out. Some people say: ‘This is a drama, but there is a bit of comedy,’ and on and on. Just get it straight in your mind and then we will know what to do with it.’

What’s the most important part of a show for you?

‘Great characters and brilliant scripts. God, I just read two that were excruciatingly boring. I e-mailed the producers and started off by saying: ‘I don’t know what to say about these.’ It’s really hard, but we have some really good scriptwriters in the U.K. who understand their audience and understand our different age ranges. I find sometimes that scriptwriters from overseas are writing for themselves rather than for kids.’

What happens when you get a great script or reel?

‘Oh, it’s a joy. I think, ‘It’s a comedy, and it’s actually made me laugh!’ I read scripts at odd times of day and night. If it makes me laugh at 6 a.m., then it’s a winner. Anything that makes me laugh at 6 a.m. is a winner.’

What’s the hot new kids programming genre?

‘Everybody seems to be going nuts for semi-educational stuff – as long as it doesn’t get too educational and boring. There is this mad desire to have sub-text of a bit of education or social learning in shows. Arthur has got it brilliantly. Mona the Vampire has got it brilliantly. These shows are fun and entertaining, but they still have core social values in them.’

What do you like most about markets?

‘You get a wider idea of what’s going around. And we’ve picked up a number of really good things just by bumping into people in the corridor. Being able to sit down and talk them through what we’re looking for and not looking for, what we like and don’t like, is really helpful.’

How will the BBC handle the loss of both you and CBBC head Nigel Pickard in less than a year?

‘Dorothy Prior, the new head of children’s, worked with Nigel for two years while he was here, so she knows the department and was with us when we expanded like crazy for the two digital channels. So it wasn’t like a stranger came in and was suddenly lumbered with 530 kids producers. And Michael Carrington used to work for me, so he knows where the tea bar and the gents’ loo are. Seriously, he knows the department, and I think he has learned a lot from being an independent in this hard world.’

What advice would you give Michael?

‘Never believe your own publicity. You know, if it wasn’t for the job, I wouldn’t be in the position I am. And also, you have to treat independent producers with great respect, because without their talent we wouldn’t have a job.’

Words from the heir apparent

by Michael Carrington

I know her as ‘Trees,’ others call her ‘Plum,’ but everyone knows her as Theresa Plummer-Andrews; the singing, dancing, smoking and deep-voiced matriarch of CBBC Acquisitions. Trees came into my life almost 14 years ago, and I’m delighted to say she’s still an important part of it.

Within minutes of our first meeting in May 1990, she had me rolling with laughter, and I knew I was going to like her. Many people will have had the same experience, as she is bright and quick-witted, with a wonderfully dry sense of humor. How many TV execs do you know who dance on top of tables?

Combined with all the fun stuff, her business acumen is top-rate and people can certainly take Theresa at her word; she is always honest and forthright in her dealings. But she is probably best known for her ability to focus on the job at hand and for her tenacity. These are perhaps her strongest qualities, and even though she is so upfront, Theresa is a popular figure in the TV business. I know colleagues rely on Theresa to tell it how it is (particularly at BBC Away Days), and producers do appreciate her candid wisdom.

Actually, I have heard that some people might be scared of her, but I suspect that’s only because Theresa speaks straight and doesn’t like pretense or pushiness. (The female TV exec who cornered Trees in the ladies loo of the Martinez in Cannes at 2:30 a.m. is still alive – barely!)

In reality, Theresa has little trouble getting along with others. Indeed, she finds it very easy to be helpful with people in need. Perhaps that’s why she’s been so successful in her career. From arranging Bengal tigers to be shipped to a set in Sri Lanka, to helping Anna Home with her hat and gloves for the Queen’s Honors ceremony at Buckingham Palace, I’ve found that Theresa’s colleagues and friends can always depend on her.

Not surprisingly, Theresa has a modern approach to life and moves with the times. Her daughter, Michelle, will attest that their family lives resemble those of Eddy and Saffy from Absolutely Fabulous. Guess who’s who? Perhaps that’s why Theresa has acquired or executive-produced some of the most popular programs on British television – The Animals of Farthing Wood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Spider-Man, Arthur, Rugrats, The Girl From Tomorrow, Round the Twist, and so on!

It’s important not to forget that Theresa’s creative skills are wide-ranging and, most would say, spot-on. From script-editing to voice-casting and music approval, you can’t help but benefit from her experience. She’s the one who suggested characters with lip-sync in Bob the Builder. And she didn’t hesitate to advise a top Hollywood executive to stop over-analyzing Woody Woodpecker’s motivation in life and just remake the series based on the original character. ‘Woody is Woody is Woody!’

I’m obviously a great fan, but Theresa Plummer-Andrews has made a major contribution to the whole of the children’s business. In particular, I think Theresa has achieved a great deal at the BBC through her ability to persevere. She never leaves anything unfinished. She built the CBBC Acquisitions unit into a world-renowned operation. From its humble beginnings as a ‘one-man band’ that acquired a few stop-frame animation shorts, to a department supplying both animation and live-action programming to two dedicated CBBC channels and blocks on BBC1 and BBC2.

Without a doubt, Theresa opened the doors at CBBC for animation producers and program distributors. Of course, that’s her job, but Theresa gave more of herself than was ever required. She has a passion for children’s programming and should be applauded for her sustained skill in stretching a small public service acquisitions budget to fill an enormous amount of air time; thanked for giving a lot of people the opportunity to do what they love best, which is making programs for children; and most importantly, praised for bringing thousands of hours of entertainment to hundreds of thousands of kids over the years.

Theresa leaves me with a huge challenge and a determination to follow and build on her legacy. Thankfully, she’ll still be bringing her unyielding energy to the ‘kids biz’ as a freelancer. Long may she reign!

Trees’ World

Number of years in the kids programming business: 22

Average number of pitches CBBC gets each week: 30 to 40

Percentage of these that are on target: 10%

Percentage that get green-lit in an average year: 5%

E-mail philosophy: ‘They’re a pain in the backside, but they’re here to stay and have to be responded to as soon as possible.’

Number of murder mystery novels Theresa reads in an average month:

Four to five (‘More if I have long plane rides!’)

Nicknames: Plum. Trees. Plumtrees. Plumsie.

Looking forward to most about retirement? ‘Not having to travel from my home to glorious Shepherds Bush on a daily basis. Whichever way I go, by public transport or by car, it takes forever and uses up precious hours of the day.’

Cartoon character soulmate: Penny from The Koala Brothers. ‘She’s stroppy, stubborn and opens her mouth before engaging her brain – but she loves her friends and can be very kind when the mood takes her!’

Craziest MIPCOM memory: ‘Walking back from the Martinez to the Gray d’Albion having spent all night in La Chunga singing… and then showering, changing and going to an 8:30 a.m. breakfast

meeting. Those were the days!’

Favorite hangover cure: Lots of water and Vitamin C

Favorite TV show: A Touch of Frost

Favorite childhood toy: ‘It was a big book of fairies…but I can’t remember the name of it.’

Favorite cigarette brand: Cartier

Favorite bevvie: Decent wine – white or red

Fave London lunch spot: Julie’s in Portland Road

Favorite Cannes dinner spot: Premiere Peirrot. ‘Good food, and they are always pleased to see us.’

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