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Janice Hadlow on making BBC2 matter

27 April 2010

What are the five things that define BBC2? No, this isn’t a media studies exam question. But it’s something that BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow has clearly put a lot of thought into.

At a Broadcasting Press Guild lunch today, she gave a talk about the five things that make BBC2 what it is. It was a good insight into how Hadlow sees the channel, and provided a useful frame of reference to understand how her commissioning decisions are made.

Here are the five points she outlined:

1. Intelligence, intelligence, intelligence. Hadlow defined BBC2 as, first and foremost, the home of intelligent thinking in terrestrial television, a place where big minds and big ideas come together. It’s for an audience that “relishes the opportunity to brain up rather than dumb down,” she said. Unsurprisingly, she pointed to Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System as a good example and said that BBC2 would soon see historians Mary Beard and Amanda Vickery front a pair of new factual series on BBC2. She named Andrew Marr, Simon Schama, Michael Moseley, Dan Snow and Alice Roberts as key BBC2 faces, arguing that they are “engaging, articulate proselytisers for what they know…they have genuine, unimpeachable, real knowledge." Hadlow added: “I think there is a bull market on cleverness out there if we have the will to grasp it."

2. Curious about the world. Hadlow reckons that BBC2 is a good place to make sense of great events. As an example she cited The Love of Money, last year’s series about the financial crisis. BBC2 can also open up hidden worlds. She’s a fan of Welcome to Lagos, calling it “ a truly conscious-altering observational documentary…it shows that BBC2 is about challenging our picture of how the world works as well as seeking to explain it.” Hadlow added that Lambing Live is perhaps the show she’s most proud of, arguing that it opened up a dimension of British life that doesn’t often a look in on TV.

3. Culturally engaged. Hadlow wants to showcase arts docs and feature “confident expressions of expertise across a heady variety of subjects” on the channel. Citing last year’s poetry season with Simon Schama on John Donne and Armando Iannucci on John Milton, she said there was an upcoming season of opera programmes as well as a series on literature presented by Sebastian Faulks called The Secret Life of The Novel. Meanwhile, Melvyn Bragg is working on a series about culture and class that will air in a couple of years. Music seems to be a particular priority. “I’m keen to find ways of giving documentaries about popular music a more confident presence on the channel.” Above all, she’s after “grown up, witty interrogation of popular culture.”

4. The importance of being mainstream. BBC2, reckons Hadlow, is about a mixed economy of programmes that can intelligently entertain and authoritatively inform. Popular formats like Victorian Farm can “become something of real substance” on BBC2. She thinks the old dichotomy between high and low brow is much less apparent now, pointing out that the same person can effortlessly move between Masterchef and the documentary Great Ormond Street.

5. Entertaining. “A big channel cannot live by factual programming alone,” said Hadlow. “Audiences want a channel to have a heart as well as a head. That’s why comedy and drama are so important to BBC2.” Comedy is key to Hadlow, although she thinks it’s been marginalised recently. Recent highlights included The Thick of It and Miranda, with the latter in the tradition of the good-hearted 1970s classic The Good Life. Meanwhile, single drama will continue to be important to BBC2 but she wants a greater presence for series and serials. Here Hadlow cited Our Friends in the North as an example of the kind of “thoughtful, ambitious stories that reflect modern experience” that she is after. She also plans to open up the market for literary adaptations, looking beyond 19th Century classics of English literature to French and Russian novels as well as contemporary British novels. But it doesn’t have to be high literature - it could mean genre fiction such as clever thrillers or thoughtful sci-fi.

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