by Deborah Wain
In an age of unprecedented competition for children’s attention, the BBC is enjoying considerable success with its latest social-care set drama aimed at six to 12-year-olds.
Launched in 2012, The Dumping Ground focuses on the lives of children in Elm Tree House, the fictional care home created by children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, which featured in its predecessors Tracy Beaker and Tracy Beaker Returns.
From in-house team CBBC Productions, the show is currently in production for its fifth series. Episodes of its third series, broadcast in 2015, were requested a total of 24 million times on BBC iPlayer.
It has already won a string of awards – the latest, one of the region’s 2016 Royal Television Society’s best drama awards. Judges pointed to the ‘courage and sensitivity’ shown in tackling difficult subjects.
The fifth series, to be broadcast in 2017, will again see its young characters face challenges posed by troubled family backgrounds and life in care. Issues being explored in the latest series include homelessness and crime.
So how much attention is given to ensuring that The Dumping Ground accurately and fairly reflects the real care system and the staff who work in it?
Bev Costello, a children’s advocate who works in the North West, is involved in production as an adviser. She attends the initial story conference when writers pitch and develop ideas for plots.
Costello is then available at every subsequent stage to offer anything from general advice about current trends and issues within the care system, to the minutiae of procedure within a children’s home.
She says the programme’s writers are receptive and sensitive to the young people they are writing about and, by and large, there have been “no battles, although I’ve had to put to put my point across quite strongly”. Writers have been into one of the children’s homes where Costello works to talk to children. The children’s views of the show are regularly fed back to the production team.
Children at the centre
Youngsters enjoy The Dumping Ground’s camaraderie and like to see young characters triumph over the adults, although they are less impressed with its title.
The programme calls for children to be at the centre of the drama, either making decisions with consequences, or experiencing the inability to have control over situations. To this end, care and social workers are not in the picture as much as they would be in real life.
However Costello comments: “What does come across is the commitment of the staff and the attachments they form with the children and that’s heartening.”
Jonathan Phillips, executive producer of The Dumping Ground, says his team always strive to reflect the care system realistically.
He comments: “This is particularly complex, in a sense, due to the target audience for the show – which, broadly, is six to 12-years-old – so there is only so much we can see of the circumstances which have brought some of the kids into the care system in the first place.
“Some stories would just be too sensitive for us to show for this audience. However we pride ourselves on being ambitious about what kinds of stories we can tell and our aim with the care and social worker characters is to see them grappling with issues and dilemmas which are rooted in reality,” Phillips says.
He adds: “Our adviser certainly helps us to see a wider context and climate which we might sometimes become less attuned to in our pursuit of the greatest drama or tension within a particular situation. It’s incredibly useful having Bev there to help us avoid making mistakes in terms of how we portray procedure within the home.”
On the challenge of handling the balance between fiction and fact, Phillips adds: “The key thing is to make sure that stories do not become too skewed in any particular direction. If one character within a story voices a certain opinion, particularly when it is a more contentious view, then for the sake of realism, editorial integrity, and balance, we would always want to make sure that there is another character or characters involved who can voice the counter-argument. This formula lies at the heart of what makes the storytelling within the show satisfying and believable to the audience.”