Part Two

Jack Kibble-White takes on BBC2

First published August 2001

So where and how to begin?

It seemed to me that the five terrestrial channels all change their tone at the weekends. Thus, I felt concentrating on Saturday and Sunday as a kind of channel in itself, would allow me to start formulating my new BBC2 identity without having to think too hard at the beginning as to how this would play out across seven days a week. As an added bonus I could also start toying with the type of programmes broadcast during the week that would find a home for a quick repeat at the weekend. Having formulated my “ethos” and where I was going to start, there were a couple of other small matters that I knew I had to address. First of all, I had been informed that I had to accommodate three of the channel’s stars in vehicles suitable to their talents. However, Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen, Kathy Burke and Tony Garnett (for they were the three) could all sit the weekends out. I knew that the first two were going to cause me problems as neither now fitted comfortably with my vision for the channel, so I was not keen to try and embrace them until I had got into the swing of this thing. Garnett, of course as a drama producer could be deployed to mastermind whatever big drama I felt suitable for the autumn season. Having decided to postpone the delicate business of accommodating my precocious artistes, I felt duty bound to at least take a stab at our second mandatory task; namely, to devise a new slogan for our channel. I knew I wanted something that would encompass BBC2′s remit to add value to people’s lives, but at the same time I didn’t want it to sound as if it was to be a cultural ghetto. After just a little tinkering I settled on “Enriching Entertainment”, which I hoped would communicate the channel’s intention to provide programming that would be stimulating, but accessible.

You Are Here, my new Saturday morning vehicle was – I hoped – to be the weekend epitome of enriching entertainment. Besides I wanted to address the BBC1/ITV stranglehold on live Saturday morning entertainment that had existed for the last 20 years. The idea was to produce a television programme for those people who actually “do things” at the weekend. Thus, my John Inverdale and Tommy Boyd hosted live programme would provide a guide to the main events taking place that weekend. This done, the programme would then take on a pseudo-game show format, with our man Boyd engaging in the weekend’s sporting entertainment from the perspective of a weekly competition in which two teams would go head to head to predict the outcome of a number of that day’s sporting events. The seeds of this idea were planted after listening to Boyd’s Talk Sport radio show in which he invited listeners to ring in and speak to a bookmaker and a betting adviser. The resultant conversation proved more stimulating then the standard sport phone-in fare, as listeners’ desire to construct a viable bet often led to intriguing speculative conversations, such as the likelihood of Chelsea winning the first 10 games of the 2001-2 football season. This, for me, provided a refreshingly different perspective on the whole business of sports punditry that seldom looks beyond predicting the day’s results. Of course, I had to be wary of producing a Saturday morning programme that actively encouraged betting. I made a mental note to ensure that something else in the schedules would redress this.

I was conscious that Saturday mornings had become something of an intellectual waste ground, and was determined to fill my morning with popular, but stimulating programming. I was happy that Boyd was up to the job, and felt that with some re-engineering, one of BBC2′s overlooked gems could also find a home amongst this distinctive line-up. To pitch Hypotheticals as an “intellectual game show” was a deliberate attempt on my part to demonstrate that BBC2 was serious in its intention to bring intelligent programming to a wider audience. The inclusion of Jeremy Bowen as permanent presenter was – I thought – a stabilising move. Securing the services of Peter Mandleson for episode one was designed merely to garner the attention of both the press and the public. I wanted to carve out a challenging piece of television in this timeslot, and wanted as many people to know about it as possible. Robot Wars Live was to be another example of my desire to re-engineer current BBC2 property to ensure it adhered to our mission to provide “enriching entertainment”. Within the context of a highly popular programme we would be able to delve a little bit deeper into the process of actually constructing a robot. Sadly for me, Robot Wars Live was to prove one of my more contentious ideas and thus I was never given a sufficient opportunity to expand upon its function as another of BBC2′s lifestyle (albeit in this case not of the cooking or decorating variety) enhancing programmes.

After all this, I felt it impractical for BBC2 to deliver much more new, expensive, or indeed, live programming for most of the rest of the day. Also I felt the channel needed to be able to “take a breather” after its high profile start. Thus, the inclusion of repeats or old films, peppered with updates from Tommy Boyd provided – I thought a legitimate Saturday service. As did screenings for both The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle. Whilst conscious of the ever-present demand to minimise imported programmes, I felt these two were sufficiently superior fare to warrant a place, albeit as “fillers”, in my new schedules.

My Saturday evenings were to be a mixture of the best of the week, plus – again – “freshened up” versions of some of the channels better programmes. TOTP2 was a quick fix and an easy win. Replacing Steve Wright with Danny Baker would bring an extra element of appreciation to the programme (anything has to be better then the current anodyne commentary). Whilst I felt it was time for BBC2 to move away from the popular nostalgia of the I Love … series, here was a legitimate outlet for archive music. Similarly, I believed that the journalistic rigour of Reputations could be brought to bear on those people who have shaped so much of contemporary mainstream television. Saturday Reputations was another of my beacons of the new, inclusive but intellectual BBC2. Sandwiched between TOTP2 and my new series though was an unashamed return to the high-minded days of yore. Conscious of the fact that my colleagues at BBC1 and ITV would be unable to resist the challenge of addressing the thorny issue of traditional Saturday night entertainment, I felt that BBC2 had to provide a truly distinctive alternative. A new commitment to covering the arts at primetime Saturday would be a shot across the boughs of those who might seek to claim that BBC2 was becoming too trivial. Also, it struck me that there were cross-promotional opportunities, with the event in question receiving coverage on my Inverdale-Boyd vehicle earlier in the day. Bringing opera (back) to the (sports loving) masses seemed an honourable objective and exactly the type of thing BBC2 should be capable of.

More tinkering found a Late Review style programme minus Mark Lawson, and then I decided to conclude my Saturday on BBC2 with a decent film. I have to confess here that movies are one of my (many) blind spots, and thus they found only a limited home on BBC2. Wherever they did appear though, they were broadcast within the context of some kind of season (e.g. a series of films by David Mamet), thus the dedicated viewer was being given the opportunity to not only watch a good film, but also become something of a connoisseur of a particular cinematic sub-genre in the process. Enriching entertainment indeed!

With Saturday taken care of, my initial strategy with Sunday was more of the same. This time though, I stuck more closely to the present day BBC2 schedules. As such, there was still a place for children’s programmes on a Sunday morning, as well as The Simpsons (in all there were to be three separate episodes to be broadcast over my weekend). Top of the Pops – Plus was to welcome ex-Big Brother contestant, Andrew Davidson to its team of presenters, and then it was a series of repeats again to take us through to teatime. Of these, I was particularly pleased with the scheduling of Unplugged (nabbed from MTV) at 1pm. Perfect Sunday lunchtime viewing, I thought. However, I was less happy with my attempts at religious broadcasting. Struggling to come up with anything appropriately “BBC2″ I opted for Songs of Praise at 5pm. Later discussions with BBC1 would reveal that the mainstream channel also had its eye on the programme. However, at the time of going to press I didn’t know this, so in it stayed. Conversely, I did become alerted to the fact that two of my other Sunday night programmes had found homes elsewhere. It had been my intention to produce a third series of the family drama The Magician’s House at 5.30pm, however it was already in production for BBC1. In a fit of pique I decided instead upon a welcome repeat of the far superior Box of Delights. Thanks to some wheeler dealing with ITV, I had also mistakenly assumed that my deal to acquire Melvyn Bragg and The South Bank Show was in the bag. Consequently, Good Week Bad Week my political analysis programme was a hastily constructed replacement when I discovered I’d been mistaken. Whilst pleased with the presenting team of Clive Anderson and Sir David Frost, the format seemed a little unremarkable and the timing (10pm on a Sunday evening) somehow inappropriate.

Comedy had an uncertain future on BBC2, but I felt there was still a home for The League of Gentlemen. I hoped that providing the boys with a new format, might head off the creative weariness that had just started to creep into their work. Of all the recent BBC2 comedies, The League had been the most progressive, literary and amusing. They still had a home here.

With the weekends now taken care of I felt it was time to enter the deal-making fray that had broken out amongst the channel controllers. For me, there was little on offer to interest me, and in many cases I made moves to acquire programmes that would never be anything more than fillers in my schedule. From Channel 4 I acquired Will and Grace. I was aware that this series had been quite a hit in the USA and it looked to be a relatively witty series. Besides, I got it for nothing. Next for me was a failed attempt to acquire The South Bank Show from ITV. After some delay I was finally informed that my efforts had come to naught. Unfortunately, BBC2 had no programmes that fitted the ITV profile “apart from a couple of documentary formats we can easily rip off”. I could see ITV’s point, certainly there was nothing else from them that would sit comfortably within my schedules. Meanwhile BBC1 was offering Points of View and Kilroy. I snapped up both of these – again for free – and quickly filed them in my “rainy day” folder. So far I had acquired three programmes at no cost. Ironically, it was only when dealing with Channel 5 (surely the most antithetical channel to BBC2) that I found myself in pursuit of a format I was willing to offer goods for in return. Curiously, Channel 5 were after one of my most anonymous imports, and so it was that BBC2 bade farewell to the American series Seven Days, in return for the right to fix up Jailbreak and turn it into the innovative game show it should have always been.

Deals done – it was time to turn again to the business of sorting out my schedules. In addressing the weekdays I was conscious that BBC2 needed to develop a more coherent and consistent schedule. I was unhappy with the scatter-gun approach to lifestyle programmes throughout the daytime in particular. If our busy viewers were to stick with us, it seemed to me that it was vital that they knew where to find their favourite programmes. In addition, I also wanted to address the vacuum of programmes geared towards adults disinterested by lifestyle or news programmes. As a minority channel, I wanted BBC2 to address the needs of shift and night workers too, effectively providing them with an evening-type line-up at lunchtime. It would be difficult to justify large expenditure for such a small group of viewers, so I settled on providing a second chance to watch the programmes they would have likely missed whilst working. As such, I approached my colleague at BBC1 and secured the rights to screen again some of their most popular evening programmes at 1pm each day. This slot (mischievously titled BBC Choice) would be preceded by a repeat showing of one of BBC2′s best documentary series. The Family was a remarkable piece of television back in the ’70s and bears repeat viewing now, even if only as a piece of historical television. The five-day stripping would then continue with Working Lunch (moved back to 2pm to coincide with the opening of the New York Stock Exchange) and then Westminster Live. Old Chefs, New Tricks was to be yet another in my myriad attempts to smarten up some of BBC2′s age-old formats. This was to be like Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook but with greater emphasis on culinary creativity and less on amusing anecdotes.

The introduction of a soap opera into BBC2′s schedules seemed to me to be a contentious move. However, I felt the originality and quality of Springhill (first shown on Sky One, and later repeated on Channel 4) as well the scheduling (early enough to be a viable alternative as opposed to another in the litany of soaps) provided justification enough for its place twice a week on the channel. Anne Robinson and The Weakest Link proved a more difficult conundrum. On the one hand, it is the type of non-patronising, smart television that should be the hallmark of BBC2, but on the other it is imbued with the crass, crusading presence of Anne Robinson, now one of the BBC’s most hoary chestnuts. On this occasion, I felt it difficult to exclude the programme from the schedules, however with a bit of luck, Annie might refuse to make any more, thus then the programme could be scheduled out to die. In the meantime it would serve as a good ratings springboard into what, I was determined to be, an aggressive and intelligent early evening schedule.

I believe that Channel 4 and BBC2 currently capitulate the early evening and evening slots too readily. Both seem to save their big guns for transmission post-9pm. However, I felt that viewers had a right to expect good, entertaining and challenging programming before the watershed too. It had always been my intention to deploy Jon Ronson in my schedule, and I felt giving him an early evening “chat show” would prove to be the perfect vehicle for his gentle, but revealing exposes of ordinary people with idiosyncratic beliefs or lifestyles. Ronson and Theroux are the epitome of BBC2 to me. However, whilst Theroux’s disarming style is used to extract disclosures of personality or true intent from his subjects, Ronson instead has the skill to explore offbeat subjects with a note of good humour, but also genuine seriousness and inquisitiveness. Those who aspire to scheduling hold Michael Grade in high regard, and in recognition of the great man’s services to BBC1, Ronson’s Friends was consciously designed to be BBC2′s version of Wogan, only with a distinctly “BBC2″ spin to it. We would not seek to interview the celebrity of the day, rather people with interesting experiences or beliefs.

My ethos of retaining good programmes in a pre-watershed slot stretched to my determination to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer at 7pm, move Trouble at the Top to the earlier time of 7.30pm on Wednesdays and shunt Room 101 to 7pm on Fridays. The introduction of a drama anthology Story at 8pm was also designed to signify that challenging fiction could be produced in such a way that it could bear an early evening viewing, and here too would I find a home for my requisite Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen vehicle. From Kitsch to Kitchen would see the fop move outwith his current role of interior designer and allow him to espouse with some passion on the subject of design. I hoped that Llewellyn-Bowen would attract a range of viewers usually unstirred by the merits of a beautifully designed bath tap or post-box. This would prove to be a high-minded but accessible appreciation that would stimulate design enthusiasts and ordinary viewers alike, and furthermore it would keep Mr Llewellyn-Bowen gainfully employed.

Surveying BBC2′s current factual output, it became clear to me that amongst the most distinctive and notable successes had been those from the Thirkell canon. With this in mind, not only would Blood on the Carpet, Dangerous Company and Trouble at the Top still find a home, but so would other documentaries attempting to tell the human stories behind great business or political struggles. As such I devised a series of documentaries designed to look at the current state of public transport and British food scares. These are perfect fodder for the Thirkell treatment, and furthermore, would adhere to my mandate to contextualise current events in such a way that viewers could engage more fully in these debates as they unfolded around them. My evening schedules, as a result, were positively bursting with these types of documentaries (something in the order of three and a half hours a week all told), however I made no apology for this, as they represented one of the channel’s few major successes in the last five years. In addition there was still to be a place on BBC2 for both Horizon and Reputations: both fine strands and worthy of retention within my new look schedule.

Of all the changes that I sought to make, the return of signature drama was the one I felt strongest about. Not since Holding On had BBC2 transmitted a strong, contemporary drama serial. The success of This Life had sent the channel on a different course, attempting to produce strong, ensemble, character led pieces instead. Whilst both The Cops and Attachments would still be welcome I wanted to see more challenging programmes that dealt head on with important, contemporary issues. To that end, I felt that Tony Garnett’s obvious talents could be best employed in producing a dramatic work to reflect the current spate of racial violence in British cities. Starting out with a series of unconnected narratives, I envisioned this drama to ultimately take on the scope of something like GBH. A romantic and impractical notion perhaps, but I felt that there had to be room for great creative ambition on BBC2 once in a while. In addition to this, I had already decided upon an anthology drama series and felt that a traditional BBC2 popular drama comedy wouldn’t go amiss either. Also, I was still duty bound to find some work for Kathy Burke. Thus, I came up with the idea of a series about two gambling addicts. This, I felt would prove a useful counterpoint to those who would try and accuse BBC2 of promoting gambling through its Saturday morning programming. Having originally decided to pair Burke up with Stephen Fry, I felt that his participation in this kind of drama might be frowned upon by BBC1, who I gathered, were preparing to bring back Doctor Who with the posh comedian in the title role. Thus Paul Merton was asked to step into the fold, and my Happiness-by-any-other-name comedy drama was finally born.

Outside of the weekend, popular entertainment was so far noticeably absent from my BBC2 schedules. A swift bit of acquisition and re-engineering soon sorted this out. From BBC Choice, I nicked lock, stock and barrel the excellent RDA. The programme’s knowing, self-mocking humour has long been deserving of a wider audience, and what’s more I felt it represented the first, truly successful late-night British chat show since The Last Resort. Later … still had a home on BBC2, but I indulged a personal prejudice here by removing Jools Holland and bringing in Mark Lamaar as a replacement. Here I felt would be a great opportunity to expand the programme’s remit a little by chucking in some elements of stand-up comedy. Finally, I had to find a home for my Channel 5 acquisition Jailbreak. I had also conceptually really liked this programme. The excitement of breaking out of a fully manned jail was a perfectly modern high concept idea, and I felt it only failed so spectacularly because of its terrible execution. Lessons had to be learned. My idea was to rejig the format so that each episode would be self-contained. Thus, the contestants would have a set time limit of hours not days to escape. Having determined that previous host Craig Charles was really not up for the job, I desperately wanted Dermot O’Leary, however at the time the schedules were produced he was looking distinctly unavailable. Thus, I plumped for Ed Hall. He already had experience in fronting a reality game show and has proved to be most competent at it, too.

<Part One