Children’s TV writer Denise Cassar has many people’s dream career. Dotty Winters chatted with her about dead dogs, pitching snot and why her job is every bit as brilliant as it looks.
Denise Cassar works as a television scriptwriter, specialising in children’s TV. She’s worked on Postman Pat, Bottersnikes & Gumbles, Waybuloo, Driver Dan’s Story Train, Let’s Play, Thomas and Friends, Topsy and Tim, ZingZillas and Bing among many more. She’s currently working on a reboot of Dennis the Menace.
That sound like a pretty dream job for a lot of people. What are your favourite bits?
Bottersnikes and Gumbles was fabulous to work on, a real labour of love. It was my first venture out of preschool telly, and the first time I could finally pitch an episode based around snot.
Honestly, kids’ TV is an amazing place. They are a fucking wonderful bunch. It’s a great corner of the industry, full of people who genuinely seem to want to make the world better. It’s a really nurturing, positive, supportive sector.
I love shows that are devised around story, rather than about merchandise. I want to write stories, not adverts. My favourite stories are the ones that feel authentic, shows that are relatable for the audience. It’s amazing to work with stories that have a strong message but are centred on the things that make kids tick.
I’ve always assumed that the people behind kids’ TV draw from their own experiences as children. At the risk of sounding like a therapist, tell me a bit about your childhood.
My dad was in the toy business, which was amazing for us as kids. I was born in the UK but we moved to South Africa when my father was in the middle of one of his midlife crises. Some guy in a pub offered him a job, so we all moved.
The job was kind of a disaster, so after a while he put an advert in the farmers’ press saying that he and Mum were available to run a game farm. Mum didn’t know he’d put the advert in. They had almost no experience with animals (we’d had a goldfish and a dog). They were drafted into this five-star game lodge for a while.
OK, so far this all sounds like a storyline…
I suppose so, but you don’t really think about it at the time. I didn’t really think about the kind of person Dad was until I spoke at his funeral. I’d always thought of my parents as being just like everyone else’s parents, I think we do.
He always hankered after excitement and I definitely have itchy feet. I think I get that from him. I get excited when I so much as drive past an airport. The most amazing work I’ve ever done has been when I’ve been paid to travel – it’s the most perfect thing.
“I won a Writer’s Guild award for an episode of Bing, which started being about a burst balloon but ended up being about death and letting go. Children’s TV doesn’t, and shouldn’t, shy away from big issues.”
What is your typical work day like?
A writing day starts with walking the dog for an hour so he’ll leave me alone to work. As I walk, I’m busy listening to a book, or ordering my thoughts, or trying to encourage my dog not to eat other dogs. If I’ve got lots of deadlines, I work well; if I have medium-range deadlines I drink more coffee and spend more time on Facebook. I’m a terrible procrastinator.
I beg to differ; it sounds like you are pretty good at it.
Very true. I’m not an organised writer. My desk is an absolute state, I’m not organised but ideas eventually filter to the surface. I don’t know how.
Over the years some kids’ TV shows have covered some strong emotional topics. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from Topsy and Tim’s grandma’s dog dying. How do you decide what to cover in an episode?
A lot of the decisions come from the broadcasters, so it depends a bit on how brave they are. The death episode of Topsy and Tim made sense to me. It’s sort of a live action soap opera for kids, so it makes sense for it to cover real-life things that affect kids. Generally, broadcasters are much more concerned about avoiding imitable behaviour and bad role modelling than thorny issues.
A lot of the time it’s about how you cover it. I won a Writer’s Guild award for an episode of Bing, which started being about a burst balloon but ended up being about death and letting go. Children’s TV doesn’t, and shouldn’t, shy away from big issues.
Does the way you write reflect your feminism?
I’m not necessarily as vocal as some people about being a feminist. It’s a strange word in some ways. I hear it being used as a weapon. I don’t race up and down the road with my fist in the air but I contribute through how I write.
Day to day I worry less about the word and more about actions. I want women and girls to be strong and to have a place in the world. When I write I know I am in a powerful position. We can create strong female characters. I’m working on a new show aimed at girls and focused on STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. We’ve reached crisis point in this country around women in STEM.
I’ve changed a lot as I’ve aged. Recently I found an old magazine interview from 14 or 15 years ago. It was the MOST embarrassing thing. The article was called “What have we changed for our partners?” In it I talked about how I had learned all the English league football teams. At the time I must have thought that was OK. It’s mortifying now; I was so horrified when I found it.
What do you think are the next boundaries for kids’ TV?
Toddler worlds are small, their experiences are limited but the universal issues they relate to don’t change; learning to share, learning about fear and bravery, learning to be confident. We change the context and put it in different settings and show different families. It matters to me that we represent different contexts.
Kids’ TV has been a bit too middle-class. I worry sometimes about a culture where we tell kids they can do anything and be anything. That is quite a privileged viewpoint. There are barriers that are real for lots of kids that aren’t necessarily reflected in kids’ TV.
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Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.