SCHEDULING / Themes tuned: Who plans the television 'season'? Why do they want to do it? And who watches it? Jasper Rees reports

WHENEVER the World Cup is saturating the box, the perennial alarum from television's non-sports consumers is sounded. Why is nothing on but a lot of grown men in shorts hacking a piece of inflated leather around a field? But imagine how the football fan feels when the schedules are invaded by the television 'season', a set menu of programmes on a more determinedly intellectual level. Earlier this year the BBC mounted its huge 'One World' season of programmes on environmental issues to coincide with the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Channel 4 came over all ecological too, and suddenly the nation's television screens, instead of being green, were Green.

The television season has been around for a few years, but it is still in its infancy. The networks have plans for it, though, especially BBC 2 and Channel 4, and well they might given the success of seasons they have mounted so far. Some of the most ambitious and absorbing television events in the last couple of years have come to us via the television season. In 1990 Channel 4's 'Soviet Spring', much of which was done in unprecedented collaboration with Gosteleradio in Moscow, gave a compelling portrait of the Soviet Union in fragmentation, and introduced British viewers to the astonishing work of the Latvian documentary film-maker Yuris Podnieks. Later that year, BBC 2 broadcast the 'Tales from Prague' season which, amongst other things, reported on the Czechoslovak elections and included the award-winning documentary Absurdistan.

There had been other seasons before, but it was these two, so similar in theme and logistical ambition, which confirmed that the genre had a future. That future continued last Saturday when 'War and Peace', a season of programmes on the cost of modern warfare, came to BBC 2. To give you some idea of its size, it's bigger than War and Peace. You need five weeks to get through it; unlike Tolstoy it covers not just one war, but one century of war; and, on top of all that, it gives us all another chance to see Testament of Youth, Blackadder Goes Forth and a bunch of classic war movies.

'There's a general climate on BBC 2 now for finding new ways of expressing ideas,' says Peter Salmon, the executive producer of 'War and Peace'. 'It's a very imaginative time and we're thinking much harder about how we draw viewers in, whether there is some way of varying the old 10-part series syndrome, because I don't think any of us are that sure anymore if that's the way patterns of viewing work. There was a sense, basically, that there was an open season for seasons.'

But what exactly is the point of the season, which cannot afford to be frivolous like a single night of programmes in TV Hell or Texas, or as focused as an evening with Rembrandt or in Petersburg? Is it more than just a cunning plan to infiltrate yet more uncostly old favourites into the schedules?

'People are entitled to address this issue with some scepticism,' says Alan Yentob, Controller of BBC 2, 'but I think you have to judge it on what you see. People require some context to enjoy a programme, and if you want to use your archive, which is full of so many things that people get only one chance to see - unless it's Blackadder, of course - then you've got to find a way to put things next to it which give it a different resonance.'

That is certainly the case with 'War and Peace'. Rowan Atkinson's First World War anti-hero is surrounded on all sides by programming of a more sombre persuasion. Beginning with Tony Harrison's The Gaze of the Gorgon (see television review, below), the weeks up to Remembrance Sunday will see the transmission of programmes and series about war memorials, the psychology of the modern soldier, conscientious objectors and other topics that generally won't raise a lot of laughs.

Isn't there a danger of overloading the viewer's plate? 'We thought long and hard about it,' explains Salmon. 'Believe you me, we whittled down a lot more to get even here. We probably began with 20 documentary ideas. There were all these corners that one wanted to explore and a season gave us that room.'

Beginning on Channel 4 this coming Saturday is a smaller season of Latin- American documentaries and features. The main focus is Goodbye Columbus (the only work in any art form this year which has America's discoverer in its title but isn't actually about him), a series of documentaries on Latin American life, all broadcast on Saturday night.

The season was assembled in a slightly more haphazard manner than 'War and Peace'. 'Once Goodbye Columbus was established,' says Alan Fountain, the commissioning editor, 'we thought that on the back of that it would be good to show a season of contemporary Latin American features because we happened to have them.' Bung in another series called The Other Americas and, Bob's your uncle, you've got a season.

But once you've headlined Latin America or war in the 20th century, you've got to get people to watch, and if possible keep them watching, as if the season were in fact a series. This is never easy with television from abroad.

'In any season that Channel 4 does,' says Fountain, 'there's obviously a number of people, which for any of the seasons we do is relatively small, who will try to watch or record everything. For a lot of other people, having a season says something to the audience. There's all this debate about prejudice against subtitles, prejudice against television from other countries, and it is difficult to bring large numbers of people to Latin American work.

'What we've got to try and do is invite people to drop in and hope they'll enjoy it and stay for a bit and watch more. If you watch for an hour or so you'll see three or four different things that give you a bit of the feel of the place. If you watch the lot you'd get quite a good idea of what's really happening in contemporary Latin America. A season - the idea of it and the scale of it - communicates something more than you could do with one or two programmes.'

'I think one should never assume that people will see them all,' says Salmon. 'What one should hope is that there is an accumulative understanding of the issue, that even if people don't see programmes one and three they might see two and four, that one idea reinforces another, that one programme in a season trails another.'

There are plans for further seasons. One of them, on BBC 2, will be similar to the Prague venture but, for fear of being gazumped, Yentob is not revealing details. The next big one, to be screened next year, also purloins its title from a famous Russian novel. According to Yentob, ' 'Crime and Punishment' is about the justice system. Given all that we've seen about the legal system here and the state of the prisons, and the fact that people are fascinated by policiers as a genre. I hope that we'll start a national debate.'

Yes, but the really important question is, will the season include a repeat of Porridge? 'That's exactly the point I will take into account when we come to it,' says Yentob. 'Whether we can resist one episode or not is to be seen, but possibly we will.' Believe it when you don't see it.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...