The BBC (UK): producing mavericks, past and present

Ever since bbc reporter Andrew Gilligan's infamous comments about the uk government 'sexing up' the case for invading Iraq led to the departure of director general Greg Dyke, the bbc has had to be careful about the editorial judgments it makes. But that, says recently departed head of documentaries, Alan Hayling, did not stop his department from being bold.
June 1, 2006

Ever since BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan’s infamous comments about the UK government ‘sexing up’ the case for invading Iraq led to the departure of director general Greg Dyke, the BBC has had to be careful about the editorial judgments it makes. But that, says recently departed head of documentaries, Alan Hayling, did not stop his department from being bold.

Something of an undercover expert, the now-indie Hayling’s department produced some acclaimed investigatory programs for BBC1, such as Whistleblower, Secret Agent and Secret Policeman. Although the latter (which unearthed examples of racism in the UK police) was commissioned before Hayling’s time, he says it’s a good indicator of the Corporation’s willingness to take risks: ‘The fact is that there is so much competition you have to take risks to be noticed.’

A more recent example that Hayling is proud of is the Mischief season on BBC3, ‘films which took serious subjects and tried to make them funny and accessible, inspired by movies like Bowling For Columbine and Super Size Me.’

The six films, says Hayling, were left-field takes on topics such as female binge drinking, anti-Asian sentiment, dirty hospitals and the depths the TV industry is willing to plumb in the name of entertainment. ‘We sailed close to the wind with a few of these, but they got great support from within the BBC.’ Mischief has been commissioned for a second season.

Hayling’s risk taking is of an editorial kind – and it’s something that marked his career both as an indie and while at Channel 4. But, if risk taking also means a willingness to back epic TV events, then former BBC2 controller Jane Root also rates a mention for supporting Great Britons, Restoration and Who Do You Think You Are?, series which popularized the subjects of national and personal heritage. Now EVP and GM at Discovery US, Root could claim to be the first controller to have given the BBC’s second channel a personality.

In terms of ambition, BBC1 has been pushing back the boundaries of factual since Walking With Dinosaurs. Under former BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey, the channel took history programming to a new level with the likes of Pyramid and Pompeii: The Last Days, both risk taking in terms of budget, dramatic reconstruction and computer graphics.

Root and Heggessey’s successors, Roly Keating and Peter Fincham, have sought to build on that work. Keating, who took up his post in 2004, has backed thought-provoking productions such as The Power of Nightmares and The Secretary Who Stole £4 million, a docudrama that tells the story of the Goldman Sachs secretary who stole from her bosses. But by far his biggest risk was the decision to air Jerry Springer: The Opera, a highly controversial modern opera which boasted 8,000 profanities – a UK TV record.

Keating is also ambitious when it comes to BBC2′s broadband agenda. Mixing simulcast programming and a comprehensive catch-up service, he wants the channel to be ‘far more open and connective. Whatever the broadband revolution means for audiences and channels in the future, we intend to be in the front line.’

BBC1 controller Fincham comes from a comedy/drama background, so his ambition to be ‘bold and inspiring’ tends to have focused mostly on those areas. If you’re looking for factual risk taking elsewhere, then digital channel BBC4 is its most likely location. That’s where ‘Storyville’ strand editor Nick Fraser plies his trade, purchasing, buying or commissioning 50 films a year, some of which also get aired on BBC2.

Fraser’s commitment to the cause was acknowledged last year, when he was presented with the Trustees’ Award by the Grierson Trust. Explaining the rational for the new award, Edward Mirzoeff, chairman of the Grierson Trust, said: ‘The award recognizes an outstanding contribution to the art of documentary each year. Nick is instrumental in not only helping filmmakers to bring their ideas to life, but in showing these excellent documentaries to audiences.’

Fraser himself has called documentaries ‘the real rock and roll of our times. They are the most interesting form at present and far more inventive than feature films.’ Titles generally mentioned to underline Fraser’s impact are Leslie Woodhead’s A Cry From The Grave and Werner Herzog’s Little Dieter Needs To Fly. Of more recent films, Sean McAllister’s The Liberace Of Baghdad and Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight are examples of films that need the likes of Fraser to see daylight.

From the editorial coalface to the boardroom, director general Mark Thompson has axed so many jobs that there are those at the BBC who would resent him being characterized as a risk taker. (Hayling, for one, is going indie because he can’t stand the sight of so many jobs being cut.) But Thompson does have a bold vision for the Corporation, which he expressed in a report called Creative Future: ‘The foundations of traditional media will be swept away, taking us beyond broadcasting,’ he said. ‘The BBC should no longer think of itself as a broadcaster of TV and radio and new media on the side. We should aim to deliver public service content to our audiences in whatever media and on whatever device makes sense, whether they are at home or on the move.’

Thompson outlined a number of projects he is keen to see developed, included an online ‘knowledge building’ project called Eyewitness: History which will enable people to record their memories of any day over the last 100 years.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.