“We Basically Get to Make What We Like!”

Jack Kibble-White interviews Tom Ware

First published December 2003

Working at BBC Bristol for the last 10 years, Tom Ware has seen his name on the credits of reality series such as Driving School, Holiday Reps and Vets in Practice as well as the BBC’s definitive history of popular music Dancing in the Street. As Bristol’s Head of Development he was involved in devising and pitching Walk On By, Lost Highway and, of course, Bargain Hunt. More recently he has worked as Series Producer on the BBC comedy We Are History as well as Living Famously (a daytime biography series). In the last year though he has also found time to act as Series Editor for BBC4′s exemplary documentary series Time Shift.

OTT caught up with Tom to find out a little more about the BBC4 ethos and how an episode of Time Shift makes it from initial conception to our screens.

OTT: How did Time Shift come about? Was it a BBC4 idea or was the concept devised prior to the channel?

TOM WARE: Time Shift was an idea developed by Mike Poole (Bristol Executive Producer and my boss) based on a discussion with the channel. Mike oversees a lot of output for BBC4, including lots of one off documentaries and several of the Profiles strand and, as such, has developed a good long-term working relationship with the channel. They wanted a cheap, archive-driven series for their schedules and, after kicking the idea around for a while, agreed to an initial trial run of 10 Time Shifts, which has developed into an ongoing commission.

OTT: What determines the running time for each episode?

TOM WARE: Originally the idea was for a two-hour “stack” of programming made up of a short new-make documentary by us, followed by two or more documentaries or dramas from the archives. But we’ve managed to push the channel into allowing us to make longer and longer documentaries! Currently our new-make documentaries are usually 40 or 50 minutes – 40 is best for them because the channel can repeat three as a two-hour block at a later date – followed by a single archive repeat. These repeats can be of variable length but are usually 50 minutes (documentaries) or 80 minutes (dramas), so the total “stack” can be between 90 or 120 minutes.

OTT: How do you determine what subjects to tackle? Presumably it’s heavily influenced by whatever archive material you have available. However, do you accept external ideas and pitches? If so, what kind of things are you looking for?

TOM WARE: Perhaps the best thing about Time Shift is we basically get to make what we like! We come up with ideas and research them, then get them signed off individually by the channel at routine meetings every month or so. It always helps if the idea is one that feels especially pertinent (anniversaries or new discoveries are very useful). Within the basic framework of the series being about British post-War history, we try to spread our ideas “net” as wide as possible – so I’m always interested in any new ideas, from whatever source. However, the series is a BBC Bristol “in-house” production, so we have to actually make all the programmes from our office in Bristol.

OTT: How do you go about sourcing contributors for each programme?

TOM WARE: Once we’ve thought of the basic idea for a documentary we’ll research the subject more fully and, inevitably, authors and academic experts within the field will suggest themselves. Much of our work, I feel, is to put the archive in context. For instance, for a documentary like “The Kneale Tapes” (about the author Nigel Kneale) we wanted a mix of critics and biographers, but also enthusiasts, plus access to Kneale himself. It was great to discover that The League of Gentlemen were such fans of his work and could talk so passionately and knowledgeably about dramas that were made before they were even born.

We have a dedicated series archive researcher too – and sometimes this route will suggest someone else. It’s always great when we track down someone who appears in the archive and then are able to meet them now to reflect on what they’ve learned since.

OTT: We have heard from a lot of OTT readers that they really enjoy Time Shift. One comment in particular is that it seems to be made in a self-consciously old-fashioned style compared to many modern day documentaries. Do you think this is the case, and if so is this intentional?

TOM WARE: It’s nice to hear that people appreciate the series. Though we do try to deviate from the standard documentary chronology when we can, the series does have a self-consciously old fashioned (we’d prefer “classic”!) style. In keeping with the ethos of BBC4, we feel that it’s important that we can tell good narrative stories and deliver TV “essays” about subjects without resorting to the I Love the ’70s/Top Ten 15-seconds-a-subject style of format. Apart from anything else, it’s a lot more satisfying to work on – and it’s great that there’s an audience for our type of programme.

OTT: What’s your view on BBC4 as a whole, and how do you think Time Shift reflects the channel’s ethos?

TOM WARE: I think BBC4 has a fantastic range of programming and, obviously, I am very happy that Time Shift fits right into this. Perhaps the channel has been billed as a little too self-consciously “highbrow” for its own good, with people ignoring much of its more diverse output (especially its excellent film documentary, appreciation and premieres output). Though apparently this is about to change when it gets a new promotional lift in the New Year. Although Time Shift reflects the lower end of the channel’s budget, we like to think that we’re a good “access point” for viewers who might not turn over to watch opera, drama or news – but might stay with the channel after watching our series. The only sad thing is that, as a whole, BBC4 seems a bit under-publicised – especially as it seems, more than any of the BBC’s other TV output, to reflect what many of us feel as the Corporation’s greatest cultural strengths.

OTT: Given that BBC4 attracts only a relatively small audience, what kind of feedback do you receive?

TOM WARE: We get great feedback – especially given the size of the audience. Considering how hard it is to make an impact in the world of digital channels, our series has had probably as much if not more good press than anything else I’ve worked on. Not that we’d turn our noses up at 10 million viewers but, having been there, I can vouch for the fact that a great review from a broadsheet or website, or an email from an appreciative viewer is far better than feeling you’re making TV “spam” for people too lazy to switch over. And, as I said before, it’s great to be working for a channel that gives us the freedom to make what we do – and who appreciate what we’ve achieved on a very limited budget.

OTT: Are there any “gems” that you have come across in the archives that you feel have been completely forgotten by today’s television writers and critics?

TOM WARE: I’m constantly coming across programmes that I either was too young to catch first time around or had simply forgotten about. A good example is The Stone Tape, which I literally knew nothing about (my ignorance!) before we interviewed Nigel Kneale for another programme in our series, and have really, really enjoyed watching it. Working with the BBC archive really is like being in an Aladdin’s cave and, although a huge and very detailed cataloguing system exists, there’s no one around to tell you just how good so much of this stuff is. For the same reason, as a programme maker, it also makes your job a bit daunting when you realise how transient the medium still is – and how much has already been done …

OTT: What next for Time Shift and Tom Ware?

TOM WARE: We’ve just heard that we’ve got another run of 10 Time Shifts scheduled for next summer. Beyond that we don’t know as yet, but I would hope that, if the channel are happy and if we can continue making interesting programmes, then there’s no reason why we can’t carry on making the series indefinitely.

I’m going to be making a big series about boxing for BBC2 next autumn, which I’m very much looking forward to – though I’m also lobbying hard to stay overseeing Time Shift as we have a great team of people and, more than anything else, it’s a lot of fun.