Media: Showman to the chattering classes: Next Thursday, BBC2 celebrates its 30th anniversary. Maggie Brown meets its ambitious Controller

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The Independent Online
The furore over the high-handed changes to Radio 4 has threatened to overshadow a happier event for the BBC.

April 21 marks the 30th anniversary of BBC2, which is currently basking in the success of programmes as diverse as Middlemarch, the authoritative and dependable Timewatch and nightly two-minute visits to that Street in Sarajevo.

Michael Jackson, the youthful and softly-spoken controller, who took over a thriving channel from the higher profile Alan Yentob a year ago, says: 'My ambition for BBC2 is for it to have the greatest range of any channel - a sense that this is a channel where you can bump into things you didn't expect, and which isn't marketing led.'

This is, he points out, a different concept from the increasingly thematic channels - films, sport, news, nature, entertainment repeats - offered by cable and satellite.

Even Channel 4, BBC2's most obvious rival, is forced to genuflect from time to time to advertisers and compete with ITV for revenue: hence The Big Breakfast and two American situation comedies on Friday nights. Jackson says he is happy for BBC2's popular hits such as Absolutely Fabulous to transfer to BBC1 when the time is ripe, leaving him the space and challenge to find new ones: though Have I Got News For You is not moving.

Jackson, a slightly built, shrewd-headed individual, is the envy of his peers. He is only 36, has crucial gaps in his programme-making experience (no drama, no comedy) yet occupies one of the best jobs not just in the BBC but in broadcasting.

This pinnacle of power and influence was reached without slogging away in the bowels of Broadcasting House as a graduate trainee. Jackson is the most prominent and successful product of the new discipline of media studies, having graduated from the Polytechnic of Central London.

He made his name by campaigning for the right of independent producers to have access to the airwaves. When that was won, he exploited the opportunities he'd helped to bring about, with Channel 4's creation in 1982.

Having demonstrated his talent for combining wheeler-dealing with delivering stylish programming (The Media Show for Channel 4 in 1987 was his launch pad), he joined BBC2 at Alan Yentob's invitation to start The Late Show - the delight of the chattering classes - in 1988.

He was promoted over the heads of other worthy programme editors to become head of Music and Arts in 1991, before landing the glittering prize of BBC2 last April, while his mentor, Yentob, took BBC1.

Jackson, with his knowledge of the culture of television, understands that his task is to refresh the channel constantly with good ideas and talent, but not fundamentally redesign it. So Newsnight and The Late Show (revamped) stay put.

'Taking over a success is as difficult as trying to make something that isn't working work. The worst thing you can do is immediately try to make an impression. BBC2's philosophy of choice and range means you do things that aren't always about getting an audience.

'What you learn as controller is an openness to ideas. There's a sense of serendipity to running it. You can plan big things, which turn out not to be as big as you expect, and small things that work really well.' He points to the two-minute programmes from Sarajevo, which could have been superficial, but 'grew into something powerful and moving - you saw something you couldn't read'.

He defends BBC2's theme nights (TV Hell, Radio Night and now An Evening with David Attenborough), which for many viewers have been a theme too far. But he is keener to talk about new things: his initiatives, such as the forthcoming expansion of leisure programmes, building on the broad-based success of the motoring programme Top Gear and Gardeners' World. These, though, are more Essex Man than chattering classes fare, as is the sport (golf, Wimbledon, Torvill and Dean) that helps to make the ratings respectable. Jackson is less shamefaced about these populist elements of the channel's output than Yentob used to seem.

'They're about opportunity, people making the most of their lives,' he asserts. The new programmes starting this spring and summer are Home Front (decorating), The Net (computers) and Tracks (the British countryside).

Jackson is a showman - anyone must be to survive in television - and is clearly looking for new hits. He has great hopes of extending the Video Diaries format in which people tell their life stories, with a new nightly version called Video Nation.

'One of the problems in the past was that we did not listen to Radio 4 and Radio 1.' No longer. The Moral Maze, adapted from Radio 4, will be a regular weekend fixture this autumn, while Germaine Greer, after a successful pilot, will get an all-women chat show, The Last Word, probably on Friday nights.

As for the tricky task of finding new comedy, he makes it clear that he does not think in genres. 'I don't think sit-com, I think funny and relevance.'

The lesson he has learnt from Middlemarch is that there is a real appetite for classic drama, for bringing important works of literature to the screen, as well as for new writers. 'People want to be given something by television. They want to engage.' BBC2 has bought the rights to Jung Chang's Wild Swans and Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children.

Jackson has just viewed the first rushes of David Lodge's adaptation of Martin Chuzzlewhit, BBC2's next classic serial, which is currently in production, and he is upbeat about it. It will be first shown on BBC2, then given an instant repeat after Panorama on BBC1 on Mondays, as happened with Middlemarch.

He is also anxious to rethink BBC2's derided youth programming and the early evening slot of Def 11, created by Janet Street-Porter, who was an unsuccessful candidate for the BBC2 controllership.

'There should be more ambition. It is most difficult to catch this group or to do it without making lager lout television or falling into what I call popism. We need a key, emblematic programme or two to serve that audience with some style and intelligence.' He is full of praise for one existing strand, the alternative travel show, Rough Guide to the World.

He has also decided to drop Dance Energy, the evening youth programme presented by Normski, Ms Street-Porter's boyfriend. 'It has been on for a long time. It's time to move on and try something else - and it made boring television.' He may now launch a black music quiz combining soul and dance music, he says.

There is also a move to clarify output and the muddled schedules that bedevil the 7.30 to 10.30pm period. From the autumn, Timewatch and Bookmark will be weekly, rather than fortnightly, while Laurence Rees, editor of Timewatch, is extending BBC2's esteemed historical coverage by making a series of biographies, reassessing the lives of great people. Screen Two and Screenplay have already been merged to give single plays of uneven quality more impact: they have also been moved, less successfully, from Sundays to a regular Wednesday evening spot.

On the thorny issue of documentaries he is defensive, recognising that his output is outclassed by Channel 4's often brilliant Cutting Edge. He explains Cutting Edge's success by pointing out that it often chooses simple subjects - such as shoplifting - while BBC2 generally displays more ambition. Nevertheless, the competition has forced him into a shake-up, with the tired 40 Minutes being axed.

He is buoyant about the future. It is the BBC's luck to be facing a charter renewal when the Government has a reduced majority, little stomach for further privatisation and the knowledge that the ITV shake-up went awry. This means that BBC2 will most certainly be around for its 40th anniversary.

----------------------------------------------------------------- BBC2'S VIEWING SHARE (%) ----------------------------------------------------------------- 1994* . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11.0 1993* . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10.2 1993 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10.9 1992 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .11.0 1991 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10.6 1990 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10.1 1989 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .10.6 * First 12 weeks Excludes non-terrestrial TV ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: BARB ----------------------------------------------------------------- BBC2'S GREATEST HITS, 1992-3 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Programme 1993 1992 1 Star Trek. . . . . . . . . . . . 47 35 2 Top Gear. . . . . . . . . . . . . 27 24 3 Quantum Leap. . . . . . . . . . . 24 30 4 Food and Drink. . . . . . . . . . 19 21 5 Have I Got News For You. . . . . 17 21 6 The Travel Show. . . . . . . . . 16 15 7 Fresh Prince of Bel Air. . . . . 15 11 8 Rab C Nesbitt. . . . . . . . . . 12 6 9 A Bit of Fry and Laurie. . . . . 10 5 10 Delia Smith's Summer Collection 10 n/a ----------------------------------------------------------------- Source: BARB -----------------------------------------------------------------

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