BBC1 finally learns to experiment with science
The corporation's head of science, Kim Shillinglaw, admits that her subject had previously been overlooked in the curriculum of the flagship channel, reports Ian Burrell.
Monday 05 April 2010
Andrew Marr has gone down the sewer. No really, he has, and not some elegant Victorian structure designed by a relative of Peter Bazalgette but a tunnel of waste in the teeming, steaming metropolis of Mexico City.
The former BBC political editor's latest adventure is all in the name of science. He is making a new documentary series for BBC1 called Megacities exploring the functionality, or lack of it, of some of the world's urban agglomerations, including Dhaka, Tokyo, Shanghai and London.
"It's a subject matter which wouldn't have easily found its way on to BBC1 a few years ago," says Kim Shillinglaw, the BBC's head of science, though some cruder TV critics will claim to have seen sewage in the schedules of the flagship channel before. Megacities, argues Shillinglaw, is indisputably about science. "It's mechanics, it is engineering, infrastructure and transport," she says. "It's the real-world sciences, the science of the stuff around you."
She reels off details of a slate of upcoming shows and newly commissioned landmark series such as The Big Personality Test, which will try to explain the influence of our natural disposition on the course of our lives, Animal Einsteins on the intelligence of crows and octopuses, and The Science of E Numbers. Shillinglaw argues that the success of several recent science series is transforming the status of a genre that had become unloved within the corporation.
"Until relatively recently BBC1 science was not where it should be. There was a lot of medical soap, a lot of easy human interest documentaries, it's frankly a bit lazy if you do too much of it," she says of a channel that built its science coverage around factual series such as Trauma and City Hospital and documentaries such as Tourettes: I Swear I Can't Help It.
"In the last few months we have really refreshed BBC1 science, we are putting out subject matter and approaches that have not been there before. Jay Hunt deserves a lot of credit," says Shillinglaw of the BBC1 controller. "I couldn't have done it without her strong sense of commitment. I would say that hasn't always been a priority for controllers of BBC1, science that strays beyond the obvious areas. There hasn't been a sense of 'come on, we can raise our game'."
Hunt's immediate predecessors as controller of BBC1 are Peter Fincham, the current ITV director of television, and Lorraine Heggessey, chief executive of Talkback Thames. Shillinglaw's criticisms are based on the experience of a long career in programme-making that includes credits for Emmy and Bafta-winning science programmes.
One of her proudest moments came recently when Chemistry: A Volatile History, a BBC4 show fronted by Jim Al-Khalili, a science professor, pulled a six-figure audience and outperformed every other show outside of the terrestrial channels, even beating an ITV2 programme about Katie Price. Al-Khalili's programme was about the periodic table. Shillinglaw is clearly anxious that BBC4 is allowed to retain its current commitment to science as a strategic review of the BBC is suggesting the channel should focus sharply on music, culture and the arts. "It's really important that science is there in the mix," she says.
She says both she and Hunt had a sleepless night before the July launch of Bang Goes The Theory, a BBC co-production with the Open University that peaked at 3.9 million viewers and helped to popularise science with items on such subjects as magnetic cows and toffee-propelled rockets.
Similarly, Megacities will tackle a subject that would recently have been seen as inappropriate for a BBC1 audience. The number of urban sprawls in the world is set to rise from eight to 40 over the next decade, she says. "Last year, for the first time in human history, we reached the point where over 50 per cent of the global population lives in a city. It's a real global phenomenon."
Turn Back Time, another BBC1 show, will revisit the 1979 experiments of Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer to examine whether we can defy the ageing process by acting as if we were 20 years younger. So a group of well-known figures will be cloistered for ten days in an environment without modern media, acting and dressing as if they were 20 years younger.
"There will be no mirrors in the house so they're not influenced by their wrinkles or saggy bits," says Shillinglaw. "We will examine whether how you think influences things like IQ, eyesight, grip strength and mobility. We are not just talking about feeling a bit more chipper, but real tangible outcomes."
The Big Personality Test, a special for BBC1's Child of Our Time strand, will be a major experiment itself. Thousands of viewers will be invited to submit data so their self-diagnosed personality traits, from neuroticism to extroversion, can be analysed to see how influential they have been in their choice of careers and relationships. The show, hosted by Robert Winston and Sophie Raworth, will include a visit to IPC Media to investigate how personality types differ in the editorial, commercial and legal departments.
Next month, BBC2 will broadcast The Story of Science, a series hosted by Michael Mosley to mark the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. The programme dedicated to the history of the acquisition of human knowledge. The corporation still feels nervous enough about audience interest in the subject to give the title a secondary line Power, Proof and Passion. It should know from the popularity of some of its recent science programme experiments that the intelligence of the audience should not be underestimated.
That also goes for crows. In BBC1's Animal Einsteins, the powers of recollection of these birds was put to the test by researchers wearing masks of US presidents. All the researchers were friendly except the one disguised as Richard Nixon, who was overtly hostile. Two years later the same crows were reintroduced to the American heads of state. "The crows were totally relaxed with the other presidents," says Shillinglaw. "But the moment they saw Nixon they really freaked out."
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