Roly Keating: Four into Two will go

Roly Keating has had six months to bed down at BBC2, after descending from the rarefied heights of BBC4. Ian Burrell finds him trying to keep a balance between tradition and dynamism
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When Roly Keating took over as controller of BBC2 six months ago, he promptly declared, "I think the balance is rather good." Now he appears a little less sure. "There are elements in the mix where I think the contemporary flavour needs to be stronger, I think those moments of surprise need to be bigger, the sense of humour needs to be stronger and more pervasive," he says.

When Roly Keating took over as controller of BBC2 six months ago, he promptly declared, "I think the balance is rather good." Now he appears a little less sure. "There are elements in the mix where I think the contemporary flavour needs to be stronger, I think those moments of surprise need to be bigger, the sense of humour needs to be stronger and more pervasive," he says.

Keating is a classicist, educated at Westminster and Balliol, and with impeccable programming credentials in history and the arts - but it is the present that is causing him greatest concern in his new role. "I think over the past few years the channel has become unassailable in presenting heritage and history and the past," he says. "But I'm not sure that the thread of BBC2's tradition, which is about keeping a beady eye on the contemporary world, has been as strong as it might be."

These are powerful words from a man who described the channel as "in strong creative health" when he took up the reins and who is giving his first interview since he was appointed to his new post. He is referring to a past tradition "which gave us everything from Modern Times to This Life". Keating, who exempts The Office from his criticisms, says that programmes that poignantly reflect contemporary Britain can be comedies, dramas or documentaries. "I want BBC2 to be the alert 'channel of record' about how British society is changing," he reiterates.

Keating joined BBC2 after three years spent launching and establishing the digital channel BBC4, which is widely admired by critics, although it still attracts only small audiences. So how will he make BBC2 more adept at chronicling the times in which we live? "I moved quickly to invest more in contemporary documentaries," he says. "That is something I learned at BBC4, just how dynamic British documentary-making can be at the moment. I think there are energies there waiting to come through on BBC2."

Amongst the channel's winter schedule, announced last week, is the documentary series Pakistani Nights, in which viewers are given an insight into the home lives of British Muslims, addressing such difficult issues as the evolution of the term "Paki" and the practice of marrying within the family.

Keating wants contemporary documentaries that have a "wide-eyed, curious, open-minded perspective on the way people live their lives today" and he is looking for a "humourous twist" too. He may be known as a high-brow programme maker, responsible for executive producing such projects as One Foot in the Past and A History of British Art, but he is also the man who "discovered" for British television Curb Your Enthusiasm (the cult LA-based comedy starring Larry David). "I snapped it up because I thought it was simply one of the most brilliant pieces of comedy I had ever seen," he says.

He believes that BBC2 does not show enough of its funny side, in a number of genres. "I don't think BBC2's sense of humour should be locked into its comedy zone - at its best this is an extremely witty and clever channel and you should sense that in all sorts of slots," he says.

My Life as a Child is a groundbreaking programme in which children make video diaries that combine humour and sadness, dealing candidly with their feelings about parents breaking up and their home lives. "Here's my brother who's a bit gay," says one very young cameraman, filming his younger sibling. "Get lost you... gaylord!" comes the equally politically incorrect riposte.

Another show from the new season, Look Around You, will be a very funny send-up of what 1970s television might have come up with if asked to predict everyday British life in 2004. In one sequence the presenters suggest that early 21st-century Britons will eat out in fast-food casserole restaurants ("Big C: The casserole people"), faxing their orders to the cook and having their food delivered straight to their casserole dish through a giant pipe. Could Keating, who invested heavily in science programming at BBC4, be taking a swipe at an old favourite like Tomorrow's World? "Surely not! There's no harm in a bit of friendly parody from time to time," he says.

Keating also thinks BBC2 needs to be more reflective of multicultural Britain. Pakistani Nights is cited as a good example of what he is looking for. "That's what I mean about a wide range of flavours and voices. BBC2 has been superb at chronicling all sorts of aspects of Middle Britain but I'm determined to make sure we bring other communities centre-stage from time to time. BBC2 is a place where passionate minorities can take the stage, and they need to do it with pizzazz and a sense of showmanship."

When he was appointed controller of BBC2, Jana Bennett, the BBC's director of television, noted that there was a tiny bit of P T Barnum about Roland Francis Kester Keating. "He has an obsessive commitment to talent, on and off-screen, and combines showmanship with energy and curiosity," she said of the man who was a keen student actor, and who managed to persuade the Globe Theatre to allow BBC4's cameras to film a live performance of Richard II.

In fact, Keating is comparatively shy. Unlike many other controllers, he prefers not to appear on the preview tapes for his channel's forthcoming schedules. And the nearest he gets to acting these days is watching his children in their school plays. But drama on BBC2 is yet another area where he believes there is room for improvement in terms of reflecting contemporary Britain. "It has been memorable and brilliant, from Hawking to Every Time You Look At Me to The Long Firm. A remarkable creative hit rate. Yet it would be good to develop pieces that have the ambition to look at the world around us as it is now as well as telling tales from the past," he says.

The transfer of Top of the Pops from BBC1 to BBC2, announced last week, offers another opportunity to give the channel a greater sense of "now". Keating, who is lean and tall, slightly greying and likes to dress all in black, will not use the programme simply to make a play for a youth audience. "The challenge for the team is that I want it to be a programme that my kids might watch but that I might want to keep up with too," says the controller, who has three children aged between eight and 11.

"What we are commissioning is a longer show that can interweave some elements of the past - not too many - in counterpoint to the pop charts to create the definitive pop music of every generation." Top of the Pops "should not pretend to be the force that it was in the Sixties or Seventies because it is not", he says, pointing to the plethora of music television channels and the different ways that music is consumed in modern society.

BBC2, Keating says, should acknowledge that young people are less cynical about the pop music of the past than previous generations. "We will play music from the archive not just so that people in their forties have an entry-point to the show but because young consumers of pop love that sense of dialogue with the past."

Event television, a feature of previous BBC2 controller Jane Root's reign, with landmark productions such as Restoration and The Big Read, does not strike such a chord with Mr Keating. He says: "That sort of event TV was something that Jane added as a whole new part of [the channel's] repertoire. It's there now and is something that BBC2 has proved it can do. When the right version of it comes along I will embrace it, but I don't think we should do them for their own sake or indeed they won't be events. An event by definition needs to have that vital element of surprise and difference. If it looks like we are simply trying to relive past glories we will hit diminishing returns."

If Ms Root is hurt by the shortcomings Keating has identified (he is otherwise very flattering about his predecessor's five years at the helm), she should not be. At this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival, she implored Keating to "reinvent for a new era". She said: "Roly should follow his heart and his brain, and go where it takes him. If you stop going through that process of changing and energising, you're dead."

Reminded of these comments, Keating is anxious not to appear too revolutionary. He says: "I don't think you should tear things up on much-loved channels. There were some extremely strong ingredients in the mix so I'm not about to tear up the blueprint. But we will move it on, we will change the schedule, we will keep rebalancing it. Everyone should be kept on their toes."

The strong ingredients are programmes such as Horizon, Gardeners' World, Timewatch and Top Gear, which Keating describes as "national institutions ... the first port of call for anyone interested in those subjects". But he will not stand for copycatting on the channel, particularly in reality shows. "Television can fall easily into formula production, where formats feel too similar to other formats," he warns. "I'm raising the bar quite high in certain areas."

So don't expect a BBC2 version of Wife Swap. "There are some areas that Channel 4 has specialised in, around the Wife Swap area, where you have a structured conflict within a format. We will do that where it has a purpose but not for its own sake."

In embracing the contemporary, Keating will not jettison history and heritage programmes; far from it. Genealogy has provided the biggest success of Keating's short time in charge of BBC2, with the series Who Do You Think You Are? drawing phenomenal audiences to hear the moving stories of the baby sister that Bill Oddie never knew he had, David Baddiel's family's flight from the Nazis and Moira Stuart's slave heritage. These are what television executives refer to as "water-cooler moments", that is to say pieces of programming that are so memorable as to provoke discussion among office colleagues.

Part-way through the interview, Keating has a water-cooler moment of his own. The cause is not so much a good piece of television as finding himself parched after talking frankly and unexpectedly about his personal family history. Having tried several times and failed to get the top off a bottle of mineral water, a dry-throated Keating excuses himself and leaves the room to get a drink from the machine. Discussing Who Do You Think You Are?, the conversation had turned to Keating's father.

"Curiously, my son was doing a family history project at school [when the BBC decided to embrace genealogy]. He began researching my dad's life story and I became very fascinated, looking around for old photographs, trying to piece his tale together," he says. "But my dad was adopted and he actually never sought to find his parents and we've always respected that. So my paternal family tree stops dead in the 1920s."

The BBC2 controller's father was a London lawyer, but Keating, 43, had no wish to go into the law and determined soon after graduating that his future was in broadcasting. He joined the corporation as a trainee in 1983 and has risen inexorably, via the editorships of The Late Show and Bookmark to take control first of the digital channel BBC4 and now of BBC2.

Last year, Keating spent time on secondment as joint leader of the BBC's charter review team, helping to draw up the case for the corporation's future in a multi-channel television world, an environment where each channel will need a clear brand identity to thrive. He says he will be careful not to take this concept too far with BBC2. "My response to the digital challenge is not to try to oversimplify the brand. BBC2 is a multi-layered, complex television brand but the good news is that audiences understand that. Every generation has a powerful sense of it and that gives us a very strong foundation to build on."

Keating thinks he has laid firm foundations at BBC4, defining his legacy at the digital channel by saying: "I hope I've left it with a strong sense of purpose and identity. I hope it has earned the right to keep doing things differently and take big risks on talent." The highlights of his tenure were shows such as The Alan Clark Diaries (a drama starring John Hurt as the late Tory minister), the Bafta-winning series of documentaries National Trust and the acclaimed documentary strand Storyville. Keating says that Jonathan Miller's groundbreaking project on atheism will "definitely" be shown on BBC2 next year.

Moving from BBC4 (budget £41m) to BBC2 (£367m) has vastly increased Keating's spending power but has also brought an increased pressure to achieve high ratings at a channel that is struggling to maintain a 10 per cent audience share. Losing The Simpsons to Channel 4 will not help. "It's bracing to run BBC2 without The Simpsons but actually it suits me fine because you can't rely on acquired programmes forever," he says. "I'm hard-headed about it. It's a creative opportunity for the channel."

Those who think Keating might struggle to find the popular touch that will deliver sizeable audiences should be reminded that he spent two years (1997-99) as head of UKTV, the BBC's joint venture with Flextech, working on such channels as UK Style and UK Gold, an experience of which he is intensely proud. "My job as far as I'm concerned is to make sure that the BBC2 I leave behind is as vital, energetic, creative and central to British culture as it is now," he says. "It needs to be pretty popular to do that but it doesn't mean fighting every battle in the old-fashioned terms of ratings."

Asked if there are any areas that BBC2 would not touch, he says there are no taboo subjects for the channel. "It's one of those BBC networks like Radio 4 that can be interested in everything and be intensely open-minded and curious", he says.

And so early next year, BBC2 will take the risk of screening, unedited and with each C-word and every last F-word, the outrageous but multiple award-winning stage show Jerry Springer - The Opera. It is a project that combines the new controller's talent for arts programming with his desire to surprise, be different and live large in the memory. "This is my Jerry Springer moment" are the words chorused by tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members, a nappy-wearing Jesus, and clones of the chat-show host himself.

It might not be to the taste of every BBC2 traditionalist viewer, but Keating's own "Jerry Springer moment" will very likely provide him with yet another water-cooler moment as well.



Editor 1990-1992

Keating establishes his arty BBC2 credentials by editing the panel-based magazine programme (presented by Mark Lawson and featuring the likes of Tom Paulin and Tony Parsons among its guests) that began life as The Late Show in 1989 and is now known as Newsnight Review.


Editor 1992-1997

This literary show wins Keating the Huw Wheldon Award for Best Arts Programme in 1993.


Executive Producer 1993

Keating devises and launches the long-running history series in which presenters, including Kirsty Wark, Lucinda Lambton and Dan Cruickshank, examine how history has shaped modern life.


Executive Producer 1996

A six-part series presented by Andrew Graham Dixon looking at British art from 1066 to the present.


Commissioned as Controller of BBC4, 2003

Great relief for Keating as the digital channel achieves its first breakthrough programme thanks to John Hurt's portrayal of the roguish former Tory minister.


Commissioned as Controller of BBC4, 2003

A widely acclaimed series on the NT's involvement with everything from British nudism to John Lennon's family home wins a Bafta and lands Keating and BBC4 an award for best non-terrestrial channel of the year.


Commissioned as Controller of BBC4, 2003

Direct from the Globe Theatre and starring Mark Rylance, this groundbreaking project was heralded as the first live television broadcast of a stage play.


Controller of BBC2

The film from Keating's latest schedule that he hopes will stand the test of time as a landmark offering, marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp, with a haunting piece from award-winning producer Laurence Rees.


Controller of BBC2

Keating wants his BBC2 to contain surprises, and the hit stage show should raise some eyebrows. Broadcast in its entirety, it is set to become the most profanity-laden programme in the history of British television.