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Q&A: Andrew Jackson, NHU

12 January 2011

Here’s a Q and A interview that Televisual has just done with Andrew Jackson, head of the BBC’s Natural History Unit and former md of indie Tigress Productions. Just over a year into the job, he talks about making the transition from an indie to the BBC, upcoming NHU projects and the climate for natural programme making.

How have you found the transition from indie producer to head of a big BBC department?
Like a rollercoaster ride – love and hate! I’ve loved it because there’s a simplicity of ambition in the NHU – to make the greatest, most creative natural history shows in the world. The BBC’s unique funding puts us in an exceptionally privileged position, we can chase creativity and creativity alone; profit, at least for us, is not the incentive. Of course we must, like any business, be financially prudent, even more aware of our responsibilities to deliver value for money but in the end it’s the enjoyment and intrigue our programmes bring, not the profit.

What do you see are the challenges facing the NHU?
To keep doing what we’ve always done best – innovate and stay ahead. Our contract with the audience is to be consistently better, and that’s a challenge as the speed of change in the TV landscape gets faster and faster. Sometimes I think we have to be the world’s best fortune-tellers as well as the greatest programme makers!

And the opportunities?

The opportunities are enormous, not only because we are publicly funded but also because of our strong relationships with BBC Worldwide and our valuable co-producers. This gives us an extraordinary platform to be as ambitious and inventive as the Unit has ever been. Our challenge is to make shows that live up to that opportunity.

How is NHU changing under your leadership – what are you doing differently?
I’m not sure what I’m doing differently – I wasn’t here before – probably not that much. We continue to vigorously pursue creativity; I’m driving that as hard as I can. It’s fun and scary at the same time. It’s fun because everyone loves being creative – we’re all kids at heart – and scary because when you’re being truly creative, you don’t know what you’re doing, as by definition it’s never been done before.

Give us an example of some programmes that the NHU is making?
Too many to mention but one of the most exciting is a massive undertaking to bring Africa to life. Not only have we ramped up the ambition to show this ancient and much filmed continent in a new light (for BBC One for 2012) but we’re also producing a 3D feature film under the BBC Earth banner, thanks to our colleagues at BBC Worldwide. This will be the first major 3D project from the NHU.

What is it like raising the funding for these programmes?
I often wonder when asked this question, has it ever been easy? I don’t think it’s any harder now than before. If the idea’s good and it’ll cut through, then the money will be there. It’s true that as the market has splintered you have to work harder to cut through but that’s about being more creative not about it being harder to raise the money. There are some magnificent programmes being made around the globe and some amazing numbers being paid. We certainly intend to stay at the party.

Have the blue-chip docs crowded out the mid-budget wildlife programmes? Is it getting harder?
I’m not sure they’re related. If “mid-budget” wildlife is going down, I’d guess it’s because it’s not growing up, rather than being crowded out. The market will buy what the market wants; good programmes will always sell.

What kind of shows are proving popular with viewers?
Good question. For kids you can’t beat our Deadly 60 and it’s live adaptation, Live ‘n’ Deadly with Steve Backshall and Naomi Wilkinson. These shows rate off the scale for us and are an amazing introduction for a new audience. They capture the excitement of the wild, encourage kids to get out and because of their remarkable production values, portray a sense that anything can happen. The same is true of our other live shows, Springwatch and Autumnwatch. At their best, these are shows “where nature writes the script”. I sense audiences love the reality in the true sense of the word, something that’s here and now. And then of course, there’s the magical, escapist, never seen before footage that we’ll be treated to in Frozen Planet this year. Like all of these epics, they take us to a world we’ve probably never seen and never will see. It’s all, ‘must watch TV’.

What natural history film would you like to make if they weren’t running the NHU?

That’s a hard one! And actually I have no idea what I’d do. But thinking about it, High Society is one of my all time favourite films – there’s not been many natural history musicals! Probably for very good reason. I’ll just stick with the day job and leave the ideas to the people who know what they’re doing!

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