The BBC is after a bit more rough and ready in natural history, as it sets out to inject more drama into series to keep the iPlayer audience on board.

Jack Bootle, BBC head of specialist factual commissioning and Sreya Biswas, head of natural history shared their vision for the genre on the BBC.

The pair outlined what they’re looking for in four key areas: blue chip series, single films, environmental films, series and formats.

First, blue chip, landmark series. Bootle described the new normal, with audiences building on iPlayer. Perfect Planet transmitted in January 2021 and was the highest rated factual series on British TV last year. Green Planet can make that claim in 2022, but is about to be overtaken by Frozen Planet 2. Natural history on the BBC is in “rude health” said Bootle. “If I had a criticism, it’s that it can be dangerously samey. There’s a terrible danger we end up circling round the same species, the same habitats.”

So, the BBC is after new subject matter, alongside different ways of story-telling and new technological approaches.

Green Planet took on the under-exploited world of plants. Next year will see Silverback’s Wild Isles (w/t) which applies blue chip production values and story-telling techniques to creatures in the British Isles. The subject is fresh for blue chip. The form is traditional, closed episodes.

“We’ve got to find a way of breaking out of the strait-jacket of closed episodes. We want content that is truly bingeable,” says Bootle. His team has been charting the non-linear data and seen that natural history performs differently to drama. “Viewership declines more steeply than drama, there’s a more precipitous drop-off, very obviously there’s no compelling reason to continue watching.”

BBC Studios NHU is working on six-parter Kingdom that’s taking a different approach. Scheduled for delivery in 2025, the series follows four animal dynasties – the battles within and between – with narrative arcs shared across the series. Bootle dubbed it “House of the Dragon for animal megafauna… It’s entirely true and accurate – it’s not Disney – but it’s going to feel like a drama. There will be cliffhangers: will characters live or die?”

Bootle is keen for any other ideas to break the strait-jacket.

New technology is always one way forward. “Think about new subjects, new story-telling and new technology and always think about how your series will perform on iPlayer,” says Bootle.

Head of natural history Sreya Biswas shared the BBC’s direction of travel for single films, which can be either hours or feature length. She focused on archive-based ideas; human and animal relationships; and ‘human in place’ ideas.

Firstly, archive. “We’re looking at innovative ways of using archive in natural history” she said. One way that works is “a mix of archive led natural history footage, but also in-depth interviews, like a history series. it’s a great way of showing how a habitat or group of animals have fared over a number of years.” She cited the recently released documentary Lion: The Rise and Fall of the Marsh Pride, directed by Pamela Gordon, through BBCStudios NHU. The idea was pitched as being as exciting as any true crime, with murder, death, and betrayal. Plus there had been audience love for the original films, including Big Cat Diaries. It was treated like a history documentary with in-depth interviews, with film-makers and local people, but with the narrative coming from the stories of the lions.

Second, human-led narrative stories. “It’s worth considering the film makers and ordinary people with close relationships – whether troubled or symbiotic. Something that gives you an in-depth look, not just at the animals, but the place they live in and the people around them.”

Biswas announced a new feature documentary My Gorilla Dream, by Off the Fence, with cinematographer Vianet Djenguet, which follows a family of Eastern Lowland gorillas in therarely accessed Kahuzi-Biega National Park. Djenguet’s own experience was growing up with a family that were terrified of the animals, which in turn gave him a fascination. For the series, he’s embedded in their home, alongside scientists and conservationists.

“It’s not just humans and animals,” says Biswas. “We’re also looking for people and place – people intrinsically connected to a location, it could be through an extreme outdoor sport or a remote population connected to the natural world where they live.”

Referencing Chris Terrill’s film The Last Mountain, about mountaineer Tom Ballard who died climbing in 2019, she said “It’s a really good example of mixing archive with present tense narrative – those sort of documentaries appeal to a wider audience.

“We want people to think about form and approach of single films.” How do you take a fresh approach to a well-known subject? She’s interested in finding humour, “they don’t need to be so serious.”

Turning to environmental films as a third key category, Bootle described how environmental messages can be ‘smuggled’ into a film that has appeal on other levels.

“Until relatively recently there was a lingering sense of duty around our environmental shows. What we realised over the last few years is that when you get these films right, they can really land and resonate with a big audience and a big young audience.” Extinction: The Facts landed in the autumn of 2020 and has been watched by 5.1m. “It’s not Frozen Planet 2, but it’s still a massive figure.”

Interestingly, the audience stayed in through the duration of the show. “I thought viewing figures would go off a cliff because the film was so relentlessly grim and frightening,” says Bootle. “But the opposite happened. People couldn’t tear themselves away.”

The BBC now has the annual instalment of Our Changing Planet and environmental reportage, led by its stable of natural history presenters, and big brand shows can engage. “how can we keep servicing this engaged, passionate audience?” asks Bootle.

He talks about “amazing, retrospective, narrative stories that don’t first and foremost read as environmental, but as you dive in they tip out other information.”

“Documentary and history and natural history can meet in exciting ways.” Rise of the Bolsanaros looks odd on the natural history slate until you see the tilt. Bootle describes it as a “political thriller,” but also “a way of understanding the deforestation in the Amazon.”

Currently in the edit is Rainbow Warrior: Murder in the Pacific, from OSF, about the bombing of Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Warrior in 1985. Bootle describes this as “a murder mystery set in the world of environmentalism.”

“We’re keen to find ideas which promise pleasure excitement or intrigue first, but go on to unlock environmental science.”

Biswas then took up the brief for series that are not landmark, that would traditionally sit on BBC Two, “where you can be a bit more experimental.”

“How do we reinvent the expedition space?” And then, “how do we bring a bit of roughness back into film making?” With the ‘making ofs’ at the end of big blue chips going down well with viewers, “can we bring back an observational way of looking at series?”

They’re looking for more research or science-based ideas, propelled by a personal passion. Also, using technology to see things from the animal’s POV, or to find another perspective.

Live programming is parked for now, as it’s counter-intuitive to non-linear. (The Watches being an exception.) But innovating with talent is definitely a way forward. She played a clip from upcoming single film with Gordon Buchanan, pursuing a personal ambition to drive a sledge with huskies. It’s a Scottish co-production, which also signals an increased push to work with regional bases.

Bootle ended by picking up the call to find a less impeccable tone: “Blue chip has become so shiny and perfect and amazing, we almost need to take a bit of sandpaper to the edges and rough it up a bit.”


Pippa Considine

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