Letter From London: the Wellcome Trust

As British filmmakers increasingly look for funding outside of television to get docs made, one option is the Wellcome Trust, which supports projects that engage audiences around issues related to biomedical science. The Trust awards broadcast development grants of up to £10,000, offers occasional production funding for films and hosts pitching sessions and matchmaking events to bring together scientists and filmmakers. Carol Nahra spoke to the Trust's Tom Ziessen, about how the charity aims to influence British broadcasting.
February 6, 2009

The Wellcome Trust has had two very visible recent successes. Here’s Johnny, a feature-length doc about graphic artist John Hicklenton, who has MS, recently won an unprecedented pair of Grierson awards and will shortly screen on More 4. And BBC Storyville’s The English Surgeon, also partially funded by the Wellcome Trust, has garnered international acclaim. realscreen contributor Carol Nahra spoke to the Trust’s Tom Ziessen, about how the charity aims to influence British broadcasting.

What are you looking for in proposals?
We obviously need the science behind it to be well-rounded and to be based very much in fact. We like to get proposals looking at science and what science is, but we’re also interested in proposals with science in the background and about science and medicine affecting society. Here’s Johnny ticked a number of boxes. It helps explain what MS is, and it really goes into the scientific knowledge of what we understand about it. It also covers how the medical profession tries to help people with it and how that sometimes conflicts with a patient’s own needs. Quite critically as well, it was trying to do that in a way which was quite different from many documentaries, by making a film about a famous artist. We saw it as having a lot of reach with an audience who wouldn’t necessarily be interested in watching a documentary about science.

Are you able to work with the BBC?
The BBC is quite clear: they can’t take production money from us. However, what I’d like to see is us being able to work with the BBC and being transparent. We’re not trying to get a specific message out there; we’re not trying to take editorial control. What we want is to get science on TV in interesting ways to try to engage more people. The BBC obviously has a large chunk of potential audience out there for science. I just find it frustrating that we can’t work with the biggest broadcaster in the UK because of perceived issues with us having influence with what’s on TV. We are trying to influence it, but not with a particular message. We just want people to engage with science. I don’t think (our relationship with the BBC) is going to change in the near future.

Is the credit crunch affecting your grant program?
We’re not anticipating reducing our funding in the immediate future, but we’re having to look at grants far more carefully in terms of budgets and make sure applicants really justify everything they ask for. Last year we gave £200,000 for The Great Sperm Race (which will air this month on Channel 4). We’re looking at doing two similar size projects this year. We’re really, really keen to work with people who have really big, innovative projects. The Great Sperm Race works because it’s fun to watch but at the same time has a lot of serious content in there.

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