Since writing for her first CBBC show The Story of Tracy Beaker, Emma Reeves has recently adapted Jacqueline Wilson’s My Mum Tracy Beaker, which was released on CBBC earlier this year, and with the show setting the record as CBBC’s most successful programme launch, it also had a release on BBC One. Amongst her extensive screen writing credits, Emma brought The Demon Headmaster back in 2019, which featured the Original Headmaster Terrence Hardiman in a cameo, and she co-created award-winning show Eve with David Chikwe which ran for three series. After writing the first series of The Worst Witch and episodes of Hetty Feather, Emma also wrote the stage versions of each with both having a run at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End as well as Hetty Feather touring the UK. In 2018, Emma took part in the BAFTA Elevate scheme and she is also involved with the Embracing Arts charity. Chatting with Emma, we found out about the recent release of My Mum Tracy Beaker, bringing The Demon Headmaster back to screens and adapting The Worst Witch and Hetty Feather for stage.
How was it adapting Jacqueline Wilson’s novel My Mum Tracy Beaker for screen, which was released earlier this year, and seeing the response to the show?
It was an enormous privilege, of course. As soon as I learned that Jacqueline was writing this sequel I was desperate to read it; then, of course, when I read it I was desperate to adapt it for screen. I have a lot of friends in their twenties and thirties who are huge fans, so, from the beginning, I was aware that the show would be watched by a large audience of adults as well as children. I hoped that they would enjoy it as much as I enjoyed working on it.
After writing episodes of The Story of Tracy Beaker and Tracy Beaker Returns, what was it like bringing the character back to CBBC?
I always knew that I couldn’t get it perfectly right for everyone. The novels and TV show diverge at times, and My Mum Tracy Beaker (the novel) appears to take Tracy in a different direction to that of Tracy Beaker Returns – however, Jacqueline does mention that Tracy worked in a children’s home, and if you imagine that Tracy Beaker Returns ends with Tracy aged twenty, she could then have had Jess shortly afterwards. Tracy recently made a cameo appearance in The Dumping Ground and didn’t mention Jess, but that could easily be explained away. But it was incredibly exciting to be entrusted with introducing Jess and bringing Tracy back!
Your first CBBC writing credit was The Story of Tracy Beaker, how did you find the experience working on your first CBBC show?
I was very lucky; the original The Story of Tracy Beaker episodes were fifteen minutes long and many new writers got a break that way. I think it’s good for new TV writers to write on a show which is already successful – although of course there’s a certain pressure to keep up standards, it’s much easier to write for a show which is confident about its identity, knows its characters and its audience. The original The Story of Tracy Beaker television show was adapted by Elly Brewer, and steered through development by CBBC exec Sue Nott, who saw the potential of Jacqueline’s novel when everyone around her was worrying that it would be too gritty for CBBC. Both of these brilliant women have been amazingly kind friends and mentors to me. More luck!
Another series you brought back to screen was The Demon Headmaster, what was this like to do?
This felt like something I was born to do. I loved the original books (by Gillian Cross) and the 90s TV series (adapted by Helen Cresswell). I think the plot (about a Head Teacher who hypnotises students, teachers and parents into doing his evil bidding) would be hard to persuade CBBC to do if it wasn’t based on a modern classic! Gillian wrote another book about the Headmaster in 2017, updating the story to show the Headmaster operating within the modern Academy system. The brilliant Nicholas Gleaves played the new Headmaster and we managed to bring back Terrence Hardiman to play the Original Headmaster, too. That was an amazing day on set.
Last year it was announced you were working on Series 2, how is it seeing the characters develop over time and what do you enjoy most about writing this show?
Although a five-episode Series 2 was scripted, it has been shelved due to COVID disruption and lack of money. I’m absolutely devastated as we were very excited about continuing the characters’ story, but there is still hope that we will make another series in the future.
What was the first series of The Worst Witch like to write and how was it seeing the show return for another generation to enjoy?
Working with Jill Murphy was wonderful. I’d read her books as a child, and it makes me so happy to see how popular her world still is. The books were written more than twenty years before Harry Potter, and Jill had to work hard to persuade publishers that a story about a school for witches was suitable for young people – she forced open the door so that J.K. Rowling could stride through it!
You also wrote the Olivier Award-winning stage version of The Worst Witch, how different was it writing this to the series?
It was very different for several reasons. It was conceived as a single, two-hour story rather than a series which could run and run. As the books have never been out of print, and there are two different TV versions and a movie version for the audience to enjoy at any time, I wanted to make the stage version as immediate as I could. The audience can interact with the actors in character, and the setting is a theatre. I wanted it to be an exciting, surprising story in which the audience could feel completely immersed. And of course there was the music, written by Luke Potter, which was fantastic.
In 2014, your stage adaptation of Hetty Feather toured and had a West End run at Vaudeville, can you tell us more about this and about writing for the TV series?
The stage version tells the story of the first Hetty Feather book and uses movement, circus skills and music. This show was devised with a group of adult actors and director Sally Cookson. It was an absolute joy to work on, a true collaboration.
You co-created award-winning children’s series Eve with David Chikwe, how did this come about and what was it like seeing your co-creation come to screens for the first time?
It was a stressful time. Steering your own project through development takes years and inevitably there will be people you don’t see eye to eye with. It was tough going but I’m glad I stuck at it, I’m very proud of the thirty-six episodes we made and I’m very fond of David, and we had the most wonderful cast.
What do you enjoy most about writing shows for CBBC and do you have a writing process you typically follow?
I enjoy the sense of adventure, the fact that there are so many different genres, the engagement of the audience. I don’t really have a writing process I follow, when I’m busy I sometimes just have to sit at my computer all day. I have learned that when you’re struggling with a story problem or a scene, the best thing to do is go away and do something else, or, best of all, have a sleep, but that’s not always possible when you’re doing last minute rewrites. It can be very stop-start in TV – you can wait for months for a green light then suddenly you’ve got a filming date and you’ve got to write every script except the pilot.
What would you say are some of your highlights from your writing career so far?
The Demon Headmaster, definitely – I wish we’d had much more time and money but I loved the subversive spirit of it. Eve, of course, I felt it asked important questions about what it means to be human, and Poppy Lee Friar was amazing in the lead role. It’s hard to choose between Hetty Feather and The Worst Witch, but I loved the stage shows in particular. Seeing families enjoying theatre together was such a warm, happy feeling.
In 2018, you were selected for the BAFTA Elevate scheme, can you say more about this?
It was a scheme to promote writers from under-represented groups. I applied on the basis that women writers are still under-represented in high end drama. It was a great experience and I met a wonderful diverse group of writers.
Can you tell us about being Script Advisor for Embracing Arts and more about the company?
Embracing Arts started life over ten years ago as Christmas for Kids. A friend of mine, Sue Appleby, a very accomplished West End actor, singer and teacher, had the idea of taking shows into children’s hospices, for free. We started out as a small group of volunteers, putting little shows on with our own money. Now it’s a much bigger company; in normal years we tour with several different teams, presenting a multisensory show to life-limited children, their families, friends and carers. Because of COVID-19, we have had to put our shows online for the last couple of years but the charity is expanding to include a wider range of activities. I haven’t been actively involved in writing for the charity for a few years but I’m still a trustee and supporter.
Where does your love of writing come from and how did you first get into it?
Like many writers, I always wrote short stories and poems when I was young. I was obsessed with acting, and was an actor for a few years, so it seemed natural to start with writing stage plays. I got into TV when I sent some work to BBC Wales, they were running a writers’ development group at the time and The Story of Tracy Beaker was filmed there; that was my first TV job.
Do you have any advice for a screenwriter starting out in the industry?
Write what you’re passionate about. Listen to advice to try to make your writing better, but don’t listen to blanket dismissals like “nobody would ever make a show about X subject”. Those sorts of ideas will make your work stand out. Find a way to tell a story that nobody but you could tell.
Which children’s shows did you watch when growing up and what TV shows and films do you enjoy watching now?
I was a huge Doctor Who fan, and still am. I loved comedies like Rentaghost, Red Dwarf and Blackadder. Recently I thought Russell T Davies’ Years and Years and It’s A Sin were both brilliant.
Are you currently writing any projects you are able to tell us about and have you got any due for release in the near future?
I am currently writing a sequel to My Mum Tracy Beaker, based on Jacqueline’s We Are The Beaker Girls. We hope to film this summer.
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