Speaking exclusively to Televisual for the History and Science report in the next issue of Televisual, Jack Bootle, the BBC Head of Specialist Factual, shared his thoughts on the increased demand for contemporary history, the shapes of science programming on the BBC, a new focus on presenters and the return of the single. 

For the Televisual report, see the new Summer issue of Televisual, out next week.

Interview with Jack Bootle, BBC Head of Specialist Factual Commissioning

Contemporary history

“The appetite for contemporary history, archive driven, testimony-led contemporary history has never been bigger… we’ve seen that at the BBC with the extraordinary critical success of Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, which technically is actually a Doc’s commission, but it is a fantastic history piece too, and also the huge love and admiration that was directed at The Space Shuttle that Fell to Earth which was a real critical success. Definitely a growth area for BBC History. We will see more singles and series

I sense a hunger for three key things within this particular form, within contemporary history, and that is access, Britishness and innovation.

Deep access

“With contemporary history series, f they don’t have access to the people at the heart of the story, I think they can very easily feel throw away and optional…You see that with a series that we have in the edit, from 72 filmsilms. It’s called the Zelensky show. And it’s a series about the extraordinary life and career of President Vladimir Zelensky, the President of Ukraine. I’ve watched hundreds of hours of news about Zelensky insky and I’ve read 1000s of column inches, but I’ve never truly got a sense of the man in the way this series delivers it. What it does is at the center of the series, there is an extraordinary interview with the President himself a very frank and revealing interview with him, which was very hard won actually, you know, very hard to get that interview. Alongside that hey have some very frank, very funny, very revealing interviews with his inner circle, the people closest to him: his wife, his closest aides and allies within government but also his former comedy colleagues. You get this incredible 360, very intimate picture of this man who sits right at the heart of this hinge moment of history.

When I talk about access, that’s the level of access that I’m talking about.

“My note of caution as I look across the industry…As everyone’s commissioning budgets get smaller, not just for the BBC, but the streamers too, I think we will see a greater and greater reliance on international co-pro. I love co-pro, we do it lot. It’s a really brilliant way of bringing big, ambitious series to life. But inevitably, global stories and American stories are going to rise to the top of the pile. simply because it’s easier to globally fund the big global story than it is a kind of odd, little British story.

I referenced the Space shuttle that fell to earth that was a co pro with CNN a bit American story. With the Zelensky Show it was quite easy to bring international funding to that.

All of this is fine, but where we’ve got to be really laser-focused on the BBC, is making sure that British history doesn’t fall through the cracks and British stories are given the same level of respects as we accord global history. They need to have big budgets, they need to have the same ambitions.

For a country to succeed we need to keep describing and discussing and explaining and analysing and learning from our recent history. Where we do that most powerfully? I think we do that on television. So I need to make sure that we’re serving the viewer, meeting British histories alongside the big global.”

“We’ve got a big series coming up in ‘25, about 7/7. It’s made by Adam Wishart, who brought us Inside the President’s War Room. It’s a four part series on BBC One, about the events of 7/7 and we go inside the police response. We have access to all of the key players from that response. It’s a minute by minute exploration of what happened over the course of those three very horrible weeks in July. That’s an example of a story that you really want British people to be telling you. You don’t want that story to be told to you by American journalists, right?

The third index is innovation. The archive-driven, testimony-led series is in many ways quite a traditional form, it’s quite classic. We have to make sure it doesn’t become stuffy and cliched. We need to make it feel electric and alive. We’ve got to keep finding ways to re-energize and reanimate the form. Probably what I think of as the last great innovation in the field of history docs was the 72 Films’ technique where they tie a historical person very closely to one expert interviewer. I first saw it in Elizabeth 1’s Secret Agents, you see very clearly in Rise of the Nazis for example and it’s the closest thing to having that figure speak to you directly without entering the realms of very dodgy drama. I think that was a real shot in the arm for history.

But the next big wave of innovation is here and it’s lip-synching. Wall to Wall did it with really dazzling effect on the series that went out a couple of Summers ago called AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

“We’ve the same trick with D-Day: The Unheard Tapes. It’s terrific. Wall to Wall went into the bowels of all these museums all over the world – in the States, in Germany and France, all over the UK. They found cassette after cassette of audio interviews that had been recorded with the survivors of the day. Some in the direct aftermath of the invasion, others some time after. The challenge with D-Day, while it’s a perennially interesting subject, is how do you say something new?

They’ve got new testimony that no one’s ever heard before. It’s everything you want from testimony. It’s really in the moment, very frank, it’s moving, weird in some places, and it talks you through the events of the day in blow by blow detail. But there’s a big problem, which is it’s just audio. Traditionally you’d say that’s useless for TV, but the lip-synching technique creates testimony where it didn’t exist. Also the thing that’s incredibly helpful is when you are also then creating the drama recon, you’re using the same actor who lip-synchs the voice. Everything comes together in quite a beautiful, cohesive, artistic, whole. It feels like you’re watching a new kind of history show when you watch that series. It’s a way of opening up new testimony.

Old for young

“Sometimes there’s a fear that history is an old person’s genre, it’s fundamentally a BBC 2 genre that’s for people over the age of 50 and it doesn’t really speak to those young viewers that we spend all our time worrying about. But when you look at the numbers, it’s really striking how a big, traditionally heartland subject can speak to young viewers really effectively. So, the Netflix series about World War Two which was on recently, from 72 Films, a huge young audience came to that. And, similarly, our Pompeii series from Lion – Pompeii: The New Dig is one of our highest rating factual series of the year and a huge number of those viewers are young viewers, it really over index for young viewers. So I think it goes to show those big, heartland subjects, there’s actually a young audience there who want to be told those stories, because they’re still fresh to them.

Presenters are in demand

I think there was maybe a moment about three, four years ago, where the industry thought the presenter was kind of over, a thing of the past… I think that was partly a response to the surge in quality documentaries on Netflix, that were always presenter-less and briefly the fashion was to ape that. The chorus of voices needed refreshing, but I now feel the need for excellent expert presenters more acutely than I’ve ever felt, I’m I want someone I can trust to tell me a story that I believe.

We have some amazing names who we want to continue working with David Olusoga being one of the foremost, just a superlative broadcaster… Lucy Worsley, Mary Beard….

Over the next two years you will see, not just on the BBC but on other broadcasters too, a renewed interest in unearthing those new faces. One of the reasons why this is so important right now is partly a response to the excess of content out there. A presenter can condense and fillet information for you in a really useful way. It’s partly a response to a social media landscape that is crawling in misinformation and people who have no idea what they’re talking about. I want someone who I trust to tell me a story that I believe. It’s also partly a response to the kind of creeping globalization of factual and the feeling that we’re getting served more and more American content. Having a British presenter who can filter the story through a British sensibility for us that feels really valuable to British viewers. So I think you’re going to see a Renaissance of presenter-led in history over the next few years.


In a world when everyone’s slates are crunching not just the BBC but across the whole industry, why not resurface the brilliant film that is still there. Events are important and we will still continue to commission around anniversaries and big events, but I would say we’re not shackled to them in a way that perhaps I might have felt five years ago.

Blue chip science

The really notable story of the last two years on the BBC has been the quite astonishing success of blue-chip, landmark science – big series that are very clearly science shows often quite hard science. They’re presenter lead and crucially, they’re very visually sophisticated. They have big budgets, big creative ambitions, they probably use a lot of high level vis effects.

In 2021, we had Universe, presented by Brian Cox, which was a huge iPlayer success story and did incredibly well, extremely well with young viewers.

Last summer we transmitted a series called Earth, which was presented by Chris Packham. It told the story of our planet in five chapters, the story of five moments of crisis and change. And look, it was if I’m completely honest, I was slightly anxious about how that series might perform because it was quite chewy, quite hard, intellectually challenging science. It was a series about geology. I worried that nobody would watch it, but actually it attracted a really big audience. It was one of the best performing factual titles on BBC2 last year.

Obviously science is something the BBC is committed to doing. But it is a genre that when you get it right there is a big audience out there who are hungry for proper science content, and will come to it in big numbers.

One big science landmark each year

We’re realigning the science slate so that we have one major science landmark on BBC2 every year. This year, we have another Brian Cox series, Solar System, in which Brian tells you what is happening right now up there on the planets and moons and asteroids of our solar system. Because we currently have 29 active probes in the solar system, meaning we can document what’s happening on the surface of our sister worlds in unprecedented detail.

Next year, we have another big science series coming up called Human – a co production with PBS that’s presented by a presenter who I’m really really excited by called Ella Al Shamahi. She’s a really terrific paleoanthropologists whose expertise is the deep history of humanity. The series is all about the story of ancient humanity. So, when we emerged in Africa to 250,000 years ago, we were just one of many hominin species. How do we go from being one of many to being the most dominant form of life on Earth?

It’s such a brilliant subject now because there are a number of amazing new digs that are rethinking how we think about ancient humans. The thing that has really evolved our understanding of ancient humanity is DNA science. We do things that seem to my eyes like magic. It’s now really clear that we interbred with other humanoid species in a really major way.

Medical shows

I do think of medical content as science, people are fascinated by it. Surgeons At the Edge of Life is a very important returning brand on the science slate. And that’s an extremely high rated series.

Where I think there is room to grow is at the moment, we don’t really have a series that has a huge amount of consumer-facing, medical content in it. A show which you can watch where you can get tips and tricks about your own health. That’s something that science can give us the viewers really want.

Again, I think in in an era of mad social media, in which my Instagram feed is telling me all sorts of frankly deranged health tips, there’s a hole that public service TV can step into there. We’re going to tell you stuff that’s true and accurate, that you can trust, that’s been verified, that’s going to guide you through this wilderness. I do think that’s a space we’ll be seeing more growth in the next couple of years.

The science single is undergoing a renaissance.

As we’ve commissioned for iPlayer there’s been a focus on series and formats, because there was a belief, founded on very good evidence that series performed better on iPlayer. They’re more cost effective to promote. It’s really hard to generate a head of steam around a single 60 minute film. It’s very easy for single films to disappear without a trace on iPlayer. And if you want content that is designed to encourage people to watch more iPlayer, then a series makes sense, they will drive you through to watch more episodes. So series and returning brands became a priority. And I think that was the right thing to do. But you learn as you go.

What we’ve realized in the last 18 months is that singles are an incredibly valuable part of a mixed ecosystem. Because of course, they give a slate range and they give it diversity. There are extraordinary science stories out there, which will just never fit into a format or a big blue-chip series. It allows you to make films that are provocative and troublemaking which respond to current events and you can turn around more quickly.

In a world where AI is changing the planet at warp speed, where our understanding of health and disease is changing really rapidly. I think single films have never been so important. Recently we had on BBC1 Better Off Dead with Liz Carr, which was a polemic about assisted dying. It’s a provocative, quite funny, mischieveous, film in which Liz challenges what she sees as the Orthodox idea that assisted dying should be legalized in the UK. Her great fear is that it will lead to disabled people essentially being euthanized. She wouldn’t describe it in quite that way. But you would never make a series about that. As a sort of statement film that responds to current events, I think it is really incredibly useful and it helps the BBC feel like it’s plugged in to what’s going on out there in the in the wider world.


Read more about science and history commissioning at the BBC in the new Summer edition of Televisual, out next week.


Pippa Considine

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