Thinking, inside the box

BBC Four aims to touch parts of the brain other channels do not reach. Matthew Reisz speaks to Richard Klein, its controller, who says that academics, together with their passions, have key roles to play in the channel's programming

October 7, 2010

Anyone tuning into BBC Four for the start of the new season of Mad Men last month may have caught the end of a programme called The North on a Plate.

It was presented by Andrew Hussey, the cultural historian and dean of the University of London Institute in Paris. Long fascinated by the French notion of terroir, the rootedness of certain foods in specific regions, he decided to see how it applied to the dishes he had grown up with in the North West of England. The result was an investigation, both personal and scholarly, of tripe, fish and chips, Wigan pies and the thick meat-and-potato stew known as lobscouse.

The North on a Plate formed part of BBC Four's Planet North season, which also included a drama about the creation of Coronation Street and a documentary about Eddie Waring, the rugby league commentator. It is a striking example of the kind of opportunities the channel can offer academics to share their expertise with the public. And Richard Klein, who became BBC Four's controller at the end of 2008, is always on the lookout for new ideas.

"We appeal to viewers who have curious minds, and we reach parts of their brains other channels don't reach," he says. "We are always interested in covering mainstream subjects, but we go in deep. One of the natural places to look for people who have a credible, authoritative position and who can argue a strong view of the world is in the academy."

He and his team recruit suitable academics in a number of different ways. Some are already well known via their books, public appearances and the media. During BBC Four's autumn/winter season, Robin Lane Fox, reader in ancient history at the University of Oxford, will present a bold new interpretation of the origins of Greek mythology in Greek Myths - Tales of Travelling Heroes. Lisa Jardine, centenary professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary, University of London, will be examining the ethics of science through the archives of her father, Jacob Bronowski, in My Father, the Bomb and Me.

But you emphatically don't need to be famous to get a slot on BBC Four. "Some academics are completely invisible", stresses Klein, "until someone from the in-house team suggests them or an idea comes in from an independent production company with an academic attached as a presenter." Janina Ramirez, a lecturer and researcher at Oxford's department for continuing education, was certainly not a household name when she was brought in for Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons earlier this year.

There was even one occasion, Klein recalls, when "the students of a particular faculty sent me a note saying: 'We think this chap is terrific. You should look at him and consider him for television.'" This led the channel to commission James Fox, a research Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, to write and present a documentary on The Art of Cornwall.

This programme, Klein notes, will develop the striking and contentious thesis that "there was a brief moment when the modern art of Cornwall - and particularly St Ives - rivalled that of Paris and New York".

This gives some good pointers about what BBC Four does - and does not - require of its academic presenters. It isn't all about being the new Brian Cox, nor even "how naturally good someone is on television", Klein says. "We are not particularly looking for telegenic ability, although it's nice to have. We're looking to see if you've got something to say.

"Academics shouldn't worry too much about the presenting. It's quite easy and doesn't really matter. You don't have to be someone like Graham Norton, who's been doing it all his life."

What academics do need to understand, however, is what television can and can't do.

"Our audience is looking for entertainment and information," Klein points out, "but they like the information to be given to them through a story that they are interacting with intellectually while the programme is going out. By the end you may adopt the entire thesis, discard it all or accept some of it - but you won't forget it because it empowers you to rethink the world. Our style of presentation is not unlike a really entertaining, really invigorating lecture."

He adds: "Where academics and others may need help is in remembering that messages have to be delivered lightly. You have to have narrative and an overall arc. You can stray from that arc, but you need to ensure that there is one. That's where producers come in to give guidance.

"Television is very good for delivering big messages, but it's not very good at delivering a lot of small messages. Although we absolutely champion complexity, we have to shape that complexity and decide what to leave out."

An hour-long documentary may take three months to make, but will contain much less text than a one-hour lecture - and audiences may watch it only once. Although passion is crucial, Klein and his team inevitably "have to shape that passion, which some academics feel amounts to simplifying or dumbing down". Those who can't survive without the comfort blanket of phrases such as "on the other hand" probably need to seek alternative outlets.

Klein is committed to the idea that his channel should offer "a range of ideas and tones and feelings and pleasures", with "the academic voice" being one of them. This is often reflected in the way seasons are put together. The forthcoming Germany season will include: journalist Andrew Graham-Dixon's three-part series on The Art of Germany; Julia Bradbury's "in the footsteps" documentary on German Wanderlust; and "Pub Landlord" Al Murray's German Adventure. It will also give Christopher Clark, professor of modern European history at the University of Cambridge, an opportunity to offer his interpretation of Frederick the Great and the Enigma of Prussia.

So what should an academic with a good idea do if he or she wants to get on BBC Four?

It's quite simple, Klein responds. "Drop me a line - either me personally or someone in the commissioning team. I have no problem with that and make a point of clearing all my emails before I leave the office for the day. We are an open and transparent organisation, and welcome ideas from any source - and I'm not just saying that. I'm very happy to engage with the academic world.

"There is a difference, however, between a good subject and a proper idea for a programme. I get lots of treatments that are just Wikipedia-like groupings of interesting stuff. That's not the same as saying: 'I've got an idea about something, so let's shape it this way and make it entertaining.' How do you engage people? It's often about saying: 'You've never thought about it this way, but come along with me.'

"In your opening salvo, you need to reduce the pitch to its principal idea or go away and think again. It's always possible. Othello is a pretty complicated play, but in essence it's a tragedy about obsession and love."

This isn't about dumbing down, Klein emphasises. "You need to turn the complicated into the simple and then go on to explain what is complicated about it. We are all about depth and complexity, but in the first instance I want to know what is so amazing about the subject. Beyond that, I don't care how long and elaborate the rest of the pitch is."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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