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Interview: Ralph Lee, C4's head of factual

As the dust settles after a few months of hiring, firing and resigning at Channel 4, new factual boss Ralph Lee tells Jon Creamer about his plans for docs and specialist factual

The last few months have seen a headspinning round of arrivals and departures within C4’s commissioning team.

Among those through the revolving doors at Horseferry Road following Jay Hunt's restructure have been head of factual and features Sue Murphy who left for Optomen, head of daytime Helen Warner who went off to be a writer and CBBC's Damian Kavanagh who took over both their responsibilities. Both Camilla Campbell and Robert Wulff-Cochrane exited the drama department and Darren Smith and Dominique Walker left the entertainment department.

There have been entries and exits within the specialist factual and documentary teams too. The merger of the two departments saw docs head Hamish Mykura leave for Nat Geo and Ralph Lee ensconced as the head of a new factual department, looking after both specialist factual and documentaries.

One of the drivers of those changes is to break down barriers between departments and genres, says Lee. And it's bringing creative benefits. "It used to be the case that there was quite a lot of delineation between departments and now we're trying to work together in creating more cross genre programming." He points to a "specialist factual/entertainment/adventure hybrid" he's working on with entertainment head, Justin Gorman. He's also recently ordered an historical clip show/comedy panel show from Twofour.

To this end, former specialist factual commissioner David Glover has been given a new remit "to look for events and specials, invent new hybrids and go on adventures right across the factual department," says Lee. "That could be Werner Herzog's new documentary about death row inmates, it could be an experimental documentary format which he's just commissioned, and it could be Drugs Live - all different forms of telly."

The race is on to find genre busting shows of real scale, he says. "What we get too little of are ideas that are game changing for a broadcaster. That's The Apprentice and Big Brother but also The 1900 House. What indies find hardest to do is to generate ideas that are broadcaster size rather than indie size and they're the most exciting things for us."

For much of the last decade, Lee has been a specialist factual commissioner (apart from a brief sojourn at Channel 5 as head of factual), so will looking after the C4's docs output be a stretch? "There's obviously a big crossover between specialist factual and documentaries. It's a creative challenge to try to understand the slightly different culture that exists in the documentary world but there’s still a lot of suppliers, directors and talent in common so it's not like a complete switch of genre."

He says he's happy with the direction Channel 4's docs are taking. "Documentaries is going through a really exciting boom at the moment," he says. And that's largely been driven by technology on rig shows like One Born Every Minute and Educating Essex. "There's a unifying tone of voice that those documentaries find - it's contemporary, accessible, entertaining." He's keen to stress though that he's not just about rig shows. "They've been a great technological innovation and allowed us to tell different stories in familiar places but we're not asking 'where do we put the rig next?' We're asking what do we want to say next and what's the best way of capturing it."

He'll be assisted in that by Wonderland series editor Nick Mirsky who joins as deputy head of factual this month and who'll have an overall view of the docs output. The documentary strands remain but may shift subtly. "When Nick joins he'll bring a new thinking to all the strands and will work with the strand commissioners to keep them fighting fit." A minimum of 10 True Stories a year will run on Channel 4 and new director strand First Cut stays. "Cutting Edge remains a key part of our plan and I'm working with Emma [Cooper] and Nick on how more clearly to define what Cutting Edge is, but people pitching documentaries shouldn't preoccupy themselves too much with that. We'll brand them as Cutting Edge if we think they live up to the brand."

The other big push, as always, is for talent. "In specialist factual that's progressing really well this year," he says. Jimmy Docherty, Guy Martin, Hugh Hunt and Mark Evans are, or will soon be, faces of the channel. "Jill Fullerton Smith has commissioned three talent driven science things in the last month. There's real momentum."

And he wants that momentum to continue in docs. Katie Piper and Sharon Horgan are two documentary faces that have emerged recently and "it would be interesting to see more. One of the misconceptions people have about the documentary team is all they want is a rig show or a Cutting Edge. But we've commissioned three new formats already this year. Let's not forget this is the place where Wife Swap, Supernanny and Faking It emerged. People don't often think of it as a space where you can book around talent but if you do find a doc talent, that's of huge value to the channel."

C4 Factual department structure

Head of factual Ralph Lee
Deputy head of factual Nick Mirsky
Arts Tabitha Jackson
History Julia Harrington
Science Jill Fullerton Smith
Talent, adventure, 8pm spec fact Sara Ramsden
Factual events David Glover
Doc series Mark Raphael
First Cut, doc series tbc
Cutting Edge Emma Cooper
True Stories Anna Miralis
Seasons, 4thought Lina Prestwood
Cross platform Kate Quilton
Docs editor Madonna Benjamin


- this article first appeared in Televisual's April issue

Posted 19 April 2012 by Jon Creamer
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