Why I......wanted to get little-known academics onto television

December 10, 1999

Henrietta Foster Producer of the Channel 4 series Millennium Minds, a discussion of some of the world's most influential thinkers

When I was first asked to put together a proposal for Millennium Minds, I felt strongly that we did not want the obvious voices.

I recently went to a debate where six eminent historians sat around a table talking about the end of the world. They were all of the same generation. They were all garlanded in academic and media praise. They were all men. And I guessed they were all invited to Melvyn Bragg's Christmas party. We did not want that for our series.

In the end, we talked to about 100 academics, writers or thinkers - here and abroad - and chose those we thought were the freshest people, who were interested in debate and ideas, who responded to the notion of a millennium mind and had a clear idea of what they wanted to say. Some were easy to reject - those who were eager to be on television or who can talk about anything on demand. In the end, I chose 25 people who had not done much television work.

We wanted people of different ages, we wanted as many women and as many people from different cultures as possible. In the first programme we had only two people whose first language was English.

The fact that each programme was to be 90 minutes long attracted a lot of academic interest. They could see the subjects were being taken seriously and that they were being given time to develop their arguments - a tremendous luxury on television these days.

Before we taped each programme we had a long discussion. Every guest had been sent drafts of what the others were going to say about their chosen thinker. There was a long involvement with the project: it was not the typical situation where someone is thrown into a studio and they have to make great pronouncements.

I believe we need to get back to this kind of television. It is something we in Britain are good at, but have forgotten. People are interested in ideas. They may be a minority, but it is still an audience.


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