Little BBC3 is thinking big

Controller Stuart Murphy wants to see viewers fall in love with his TV channel. He tells Ian Burrell about the many ways he plans to seduce them, including adult sci-fi, cutting-edge comedy and some serious mischief
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Mischievous, whimsical and a little irreverent, Murphy embodies some of the values of the digital channel, the identity of which he has been carefully nurturing since its inception in 2003. Add into that mix - for both channel and controller - such qualities as an authentic regional voice (Murphy is from Leeds and, by the standards of most BBC senior executives, of fairly humble origins) and a social conscience.

BBC3 was named digital channel of the year at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in August but now it looks like Murphy might be off.

Suggestions that he was being "wooed" by the major independent production company and maker of Wife Swap, RDF, were officially dismissed as the kind of "rumour" that successful controllers inevitably attract. In fact, Murphy has been talking to a number of companies in the indy sector and his departure is anticipated, though it is not imminent. "There's a strong likelihood of him moving," says a source.

The controller himself goes only so far as to say he is "100 per cent not" going for the BBC head of entertainment job, with which he has been linked and for which interviews took place last week. His commitment, in the short term at least, is to BBC3, and having established the channel as a recognised home of alternative comedy, he wants it to become more respected for its serious side.

Murphy reveals he has rattled the cages of British health chiefs by deploying teams of victims of the MRSA virus, disguised as contract cleaners, to sneak into hospitals in order to expose the filthiness on the wards. The programme combines humour and investigative journalism in dealing with a subject of deadly seriousness and has prompted a furious complaint from the NHS trusts to the BBC chairman, Michael Grade.

The BBC3 controller is furious at the fury. "It will make your blood boil. Yet the NHS have the cheek to complain to us about doing this," he says. "These 100 people, for some of them it was a moment of closure. They were cleaning floors at the side of beds and they were absolutely filthy. It's just disgusting. I'm shocked that the NHS had the audacity to complain."

The MRSA programme was made "within BBC guidelines", says Murphy. "I'm so proud of it, having been in hospital a couple of times with my kids and they've come out with more infection than they had going in. It's absolutely outrageous. We've robustly defended what we did. Management of the BBC and myself have completely defended it. I can't believe their cheek - they should spend a bit more time cleaning their hospitals."

This is new ground for Murphy, who says: "I think as a team we have underestimated the hunger for serious subjects being done in a comical way."

He has been influenced by the American documentary-maker Morgan "Super Size Me" Spurlock, who was recently unveiled as a star of new Channel 4 digital channel More4. So Mischief, the new BBC3 factual series that includes MRSA, will also feature a doc called Circumsize Me, which stars - look away now - Alan Yentob, among others, talking about what the snip has meant to him. "It's really cheeky and funny and it speaks to young Asians and Jews," says Murphy.

Another programme in the same strand is Binge Drinking, where the supersizer is a mother of four who gorges not on burgers and fries but alcopops, matching young female bingers "drink for drink" to expose Britain's booze culture.

Having won his bauble at Edinburgh - and another from Broadcast magazine for best entertainment digital channel - Murphy clearly feels BBC3 has ticked the comedy box in the minds of the viewers and needs to up its game in other areas. Drama, following the successes of the hospital-based Bodies and the period romp Casanova, is the area where he thinks there is most potential for growth.

He has turned to Russell T Davies - alongside Paul Abbott, British television's hottest scriptwriter - to plot the channel's journey into the world of sci-fi. The result is Torchwood, a series of 13 45 minute episodes which Davies himself describes as "X Files meets This Life".

Murphy can barely contain his excitement when recounting how he persuaded Davies to develop his success with the re-invented Doctor Who by making a post-watershed show for BBC3. "We think it is going to be amazing," he says. "Each episode will be a one-off story and will be funny in a way that Casanova brought humour to period drama." Murphy says that Torchwood will deal with sci-fi in a British way by retaining a warmth and "daft" sense of humour. "Torchwood, at its centre, is about relationships and love and overcoming adversity. And it will be funny."

BBC3's ratings were done no harm at all by the opportunity to show repeats of the last series of Doctor Who, and it is not surprising that Murphy is keen to extend the channel's relationship with the Doctor.

Torchwood, a team of investigators who probe crime and alien activity on behalf of the government, will be namechecked in the Doctor Who Christmas special and again in the next series of the BBC1 show.

Will this post-watershed series feature X-rated activity in the Torchwood equivalent of the Tardis? "People have affairs. There will be sex and swearing, I assume. I'm quite relaxed about that," says Murphy.

He hasn't lost his appetite for comedy, commissioning 20 new productions for next year. Most notable is The Office producer Ash Atalla's comedy sketch show Man Stroke Woman, which will be premiered on broadband via the BBC3 website. The show features Nick Frost (from the film Shaun of the Dead) and Nick Burns (from Channel 4'sNathan Barley).

Murphy has also commissioned a show provisionally titled Teenage Supermodel by the Coronation Street scriptwriter Carmel Morgan. It features tall, skinny Ashley and her better-looking sister, Jade. Ashley is the one who gets spotted by the talent scout and becomes a supermodel.

But Little Britain remains the comedy most associated with BBC3, the breakout show that saved Murphy's bacon when he was struggling to convince critics that the new channel's ratings justified the considerable public funding that supported it.

He acknowledges some disappointment that the new series of the Lucas and Walliams hit will premiere on BBC1 not BBC3. His compensation will be the ratings boost from the midweek repeats, plus a BBC3 Christmas show from Matt and David.

Before Murphy parts company with BBC3, he wants to sharpen the identity of the channel, on as many media platforms as possible, until it is regarded by viewers in the way "they used to say 'I love Channel 4' ". Note to BBC DG Mark Thompson: he said "used to say".