Goodbye to post-pub TV

When she arrived as BBC2 controller, Jane Root said Mark Lamarr was the face of the channel and history was dead. But it was a switch to telly for grown-ups that won her audiences, she tells Vincent Graff
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It is not entirely her own fault, but Jane Root, the controller of BBC2, spends more time talking about getting people out of their clothes than you would imagine of someone of her stature. It is my decision to bring up the subject of her staff stripping down to their boxer shorts. But it is Root who volunteers how she has successfully ripped the leather-patched jacket from the back of the typical BBC2 viewer.

First things first: the boxer shorts. It was a brainstorming weekend for senior members of the channel's staff at Root's house in Southwold, Suffolk. Over dinner one evening, a boastful male colleague suggested a swim in the freezing North Sea. So, the next morning, in full view of their boss, all the chaps went for a dip, wearing just their underpants. End of story.

The leather patches are a little more significant. Root, controller since 1999, is talking about how BBC2 regarded its audiences before she arrived. "I read a document in which people talked about BBC2 viewers as though they were Oxford professors with leather patches on their arms," she says. Such a view was doing the channel no good at all.

Root decided the station needed to make a step change. These days, she says, BBC2 is not aimed at a demographic slice of the population; it is aimed at an attitude. She talks about the channel being "sophisticated, enjoyable and grown-up", catering for viewers who are not looking for a "quick snack". It is an approach that seems to have worked: in the year to date, the station has been pulling in a commendable 11 per cent share - almost half that commanded by ITV1 - and a few days ago, she threw a smart party to congratulate her staff on being judged terrestrial channel of the year at the Edinburgh Television Festival. The panel that made the award said BBC2 was "head and shoulders above the rest" and that its output was "amazing". Now just might be the time to pop her head around the director general's door and ask for a pay rise.

But if Root has found the magic formula, she did not stumble across it immediately. An eminent and highly respected producer who knows Root and is genuinely enthusiastic about her says that at first she was tempted by a slash-and-burn approach. "When Jane started, the station was all going to be totally trendy. Whatever had gone on in the past was to be thrown out. I remember her saying that in her ideal world Mark Lamarr would be presenting politics on BBC2." It became clear, the producer says, that the channel was not attracting the young viewers she was after, so, "Two years later, she started talking about 'the M-word' - 'mainstream'." Everything changed from that point. Cue the arrival of "sophisticated, enjoyable and grown-up".

Other evidence of a change in policy is the story of the time she told an independent producer: "Art and history programmes are dead." Now, she cites Simon Schama as one of her biggest stars.

The controller, twinkly, amiable and engaging, is amused when I recall the words of the former Jane Root. She says she cannot recall talking about Lamarr. "I never would have said that," she suggests initially. "I might have been... it's true to say that... there was a lot of discussion about how you get people who don't like politics to be interested in politics..." Then she relents. If she did say that Lamarr ought to be the face of BBC2 politics, she concedes, "well, I honestly hadn't got it right then."

As for the "history is dead" claim, she says she did not use those specific words, but she knows "who thinks I said it". The confusion came about when she was trying to decline a commission diplomatically: "Sometimes, when you are turning things down, it is easier to say than: 'Take this programme away because I don't think it is very good.' But art and history have never been dead for me. As an independent producer, I made a lot of art-history programmes, so it would have been rather perverse of me."

So, I ask her, what should BBC2 be? She says the station damaged itself in the past "by thinking that we were a tiny channel and we were doing our viewers a disservice by thinking they were kind of oddballs". She says other broadcasters are "mad" to think that "the moment you get to your 30th birthday, you are not very valuable any more and they need to chuck you out of the window.

"I took a conscious decision to get out of being in a direct race with Channel 4. I think there's a lot of not-very-grown-up television around, and a lot of commercial imperatives mean that the very young audience - aged 16 to 24 - are super-served in the marketplace." It is her view now that "post-pub, juvenile, tacky" programmes - "late-night-Friday sorts of things" - do not have a place on BBC2. "My audience wouldn't like them; they probably wouldn't watch them."

Root is particularly proud of The Big Read, the BBC's campaign to find the nation's favourite book (in much the same way that Great Britons unearthed Winston Churchill as the country's favourite historical figure). Earlier this year, after obtaining nominations from the public, the BBC published a long-list of 100 titles. Soon, it will reveal the top 21, in alphabetical order. After seven television debates fronted by celebrities - John Sergeant will be batting for Catch-22, Meera Syal for Pride and Prejudice - audiences at home will be encouraged to vote for the ultimate winner.

Even in its early days, The Big Read is having a startling influence. In the month of April, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera sold 800 copies in Britain. A month later - after it had appeared in the top 100 - it sold 10,000.

Root's other interactive favourite, Restoration, in which viewers chose a crumbling building to be restored, had a similar effect on the subjects it featured. One of them, Wentworth House, would normally expect to receive 300 visitors a week; after it appeared on Restoration, it had 3,500 in one day. "There were stories of police helicopters having to be brought in to direct traffic," says Root.

Unfortunately, not all the news has been good lately. The suicide of the former Sky News journalist James Forlong is still fresh in Root's mind when we meet. He killed himself after a BBC2 documentary, Fighting the War, revealed that he had faked a report from the Gulf. That led to his "resignation". Though there is rarely a simple cause and effect in cases of suicide, it seems hard to divorce his departure from Sky from his decision to hang himself. Root is understandably distressed at the "terrible" outcome, but she does not disassociate herself in any way from the programme. "I do not have any regrets about the journalism," she says. "Was the BBC right to broadcast it? Was [the programme] right to say what it did? Probably yes. It was a straightforward, honest piece of journalism. Do I wish what happened had not happened? Of course I do." She will not reveal what, if anything, she has said to the programme-makers and to Forlong's family.

Root has spent much of the past hour smiling. Her mood has now changed. "What I am saying really is for everyone [at the BBC]. Everyone feels it is a shocking and horrible thing to have happened."