Doctor Who writer Russell T Davies laments decline of children's TV

Writer claims the creators of classic shows have been marginalised and fears the genre is endangered

Award-winning television writer Russell T Davies, best known for resurrecting Doctor Who in 2005, has told the Observer that children's programming is an "endangered species". He said he was shocked that ITV no longer makes children's shows and added that writers of hits such as Teletubbies should be ranked alongside acclaimed dramatists such as Tom Stoppard and Samuel Beckett.

Davies, who started his TV career working on Granada's Children's Ward for ITV in the 1990s, said: "I am passionate about children's television, but it is, as ever, an endangered species, under threat.

"The most shocking thing I have seen is that, apparently unnoticed, five years ago ITV dropped children's programmes. There is now the complete absence of children's programmes made by ITV on CITV. It is amazing to me, when I contrast it with all those people who were furious about cuts to BBC local radio, and they were immediately reversed."

The Welsh-born writer and producer added: "I am also amazed that people don't recognise the talent, genius, of children's writers, for example, Andrew Davenport. The creator behind Teletubbies and In the Night Garden is up there, in my opinion, with Tom Stoppard, Samuel Beckett, but no one puts him there. It's the same with Jacqueline Wilson, whose books have led to the wonderful Tracy Beaker dramas."

The failure of society to recognise the talent of children's writers "allows us to diminish and marginalise their work" and the importance of children's television, he said.

An ITV spokesman countered Davies's view, saying: "We are supportive of the UK children's production industry. We have premiered seven commissions from producers in the past 12 months on the CITV channels, including Fort Boyard: Ultimate Challenge, Sooty, and the third series of Horrid Henry."

Davies's heart lies with children's television. His latest project, Aliens Vs Wizards, is being talked about as one of the biggest new dramas for children to come out of Britain. It combines medieval wizardry with alien fantasy – think Harry Potter meets Doctor Who – and will be screened by the BBC this autumn.

Davies, who first gained recognition writing the Channel 4 adult series Queer as Folk, stepped down as executive producer of Doctor Who in 2009 and moved to Los Angeles, where he oversaw production of Doctor Who spin-offs, Torchwood: Miracle Day and The Sarah Jane Adventures. He returned to his Manchester home at the end of last year after his partner was diagnosed with brain cancer. Davies embarked on Aliens Vs Wizards a year ago when it became clear that The Sarah Jane Adventures, which was the most popular show on CBBC last year, would be forced to end with series five following the death of its star, Elisabeth Sladen. Torchwood also seemed to be at an end, with no new orders.

Davies arranged to meet his close collaborator on Doctor Who, the writer Phil Ford, for dinner in a Los Angeles restaurant to talk about new ventures. "When you try like that, usually you never have an idea," he said. But by the time the two men had finished their main course they both knew they had come up with a "really geeky idea, the cleverest of the lot", which taps into the latest film and TV craze, mashing up different genres – as seen in the film Cowboys & Aliens, starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, released last year.

They decided to focus the new drama on two 16-year-olds, Tom and Benny, one secretly in possession of magical powers, the other a super-bright scientific brain, who does not believe in magic. They combine their skills to battle a tribe of aliens, called the Nekross, to save the world.

From the dark side of the moon, the Nekross set up a base to scan the earth, looking for magical skills to buttress their power and, naturally, destroying anything that stands in their way.The idea was quickly turned into a first script, then an order for 26 episodes.

Davies said: "Magic and science fiction are never combined. For example, the only thing that could make Harry Potter better, in my view, would be if a big spaceship arrives at the door of Hogwarts, but it never does. It does in ours, in episode one."

At the core is an ideological clash as the two boys argue over the separate worlds of magic and science, such as the existence of spells versus, say, laser technology.

Davies added that the trick was to create a drama based on ordinary life, as in The Sarah Jane Adventures, set in Ealing, west London, into which fantasy intrudes. "Remember, I spent my whole childhood waiting for the Daleks to arrive in my school playground," said Davies. The wizard teenager is descended from a family of wizards, but he keeps this a secret and attends a comprehensive school. Aliens Vs Wizards will also feature lots of prosthetic monsters, as in Doctor Who, and not just computer generated imagery.

The lavish multimillion-pound series, which starts filming in the Cardiff drama studios of BBC Wales in March, is being financially backed by FremantleMedia Enterprises (FME), to supplement CBBC budgets. In return for the investment, Fremantle, not the BBC, has global sales rights, as well as rights to DVDs, merchandising and book publishing.

Sander Schwartz, president of Children and Family Entertainment at FME, and based in Hollywood, said: "It [Aliens Vs Wizards] does something which is very hard to do, successfully, mashing together two disparate genres. We have already had great success with My Babysitter's a Vampire [a global hit on the Disney channels], a mix of comedy and horror, because it does something different."

There are dangers in creating mash-ups. Cowboys & Aliens told the story of a mystery traveller trying to save townsfolk abducted by aliens. It received mixed reviews and slender payback. But Aliens Vs Wizards is expected to receive the close attention of Davies. His current challenge is the stuff of every fan's dreams: he is pondering what colour to make his Nekross aliens.

Lost gems: ITV children's classics

MAGPIE (1968-80)

Envisaged as a rival to the BBC's Blue Peter, Magpie became its hipper, older brother. Originally hosted by Radio 1 DJ Pete Brady, Tony Bastablecorrect and actress Susan Stranks, it featured pop stars of the day alongside the latest pop culture trends and, of course, charity appeals.

WORZEL GUMMIDGE (1979-81)

This tale of a mischievous scarecrow who would come to life stared former Doctor Who actor Jon Pertwee and became a firm family favourite thanks to its daft storylines, crazy use of language and hilarious cameo appearances from stars including Barbara Windsor and Billy Connolly.

MY PARENTS ARE ALIENS (1999-2006)

A sitcom about an eccentric family following the lives of three orphaned children, Mel, Josh and Lucy Barker, and their new foster parents, Brian and Sophie Johnson. It was frequently voted favourite children's show in the UK, while older viewers also enjoyed its surreal and gently subversive humour.

Contributor

Maggie Brown

The GuardianTramp

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