Big trouble at BBC2? The controller is calm under fire

It can't be easy for Janice Hadlow just now. She is the woman who made television stars of Simon Schama and David Starkey. She is ready to enthuse about plans to broadcast underwater images of a submerged Mycenaean city, to make a landmark series on the classical world, and to reveal the home-decorating secrets of the Victorians.

And yet the controller of BBC2, a passionate historian who began her education at a comprehensive school in Kent, finds the debate about her channel is being shaped by a space-age figure named after the fags at Repton public school. The Stig, the previously anonymous Top Gear character dressed like a Star Wars stormtrooper in a white full-face helmet and white racing suit, has been taking up rather more of Hadlow's time than she would have liked. The question of The Stig's identity has become the subject of a costly legal battle between the BBC, the driver (now outed as Ben Collins), and his book publisher, HarperCollins (which happens to be part of the Rupert Murdoch media empire locked in a wider political battle with the corporation).

Hadlow addresses the subject with caution. You sense that driving fast cars is not her natural territory, though she was "part of the team" that decided to take legal action against the publisher. "There was a confidentiality and a trust issue there that I think was worth the BBC defending," she says. "The pleasure that people took in The Stig was not knowing who he was."

Hadlow needs to protect Top Gear because it is probably BBC2's most successful show. She managed to prevent her colleague Jay Hunt from prising it away to BBC1 (before Hunt left the corporation this week to take up a role at Channel 4), and argues it has "a core value of 'two-ness'" as well as mass appeal. "It's a show with a lot of attitude, a poky identity, if you like." Its presenters, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May, are just as much "avowed experts in their field" as the historians and scientists who host some of the channel's more cerebral offerings. "The reason the BBC2 audience loves them is because they know and love the world of cars. That's a manifestation of expertise; the fact that they don't look like academics doesn't mean they are not experts."

Hadlow needs those Top Gear ratings because she is operating in a much tougher market than her BBC2 predecessors. Since she inherited the channel in November 2008, BBC2's audience share has fallen from 8.3 per cent and an average weekly watch of two hours, 16 minutes to a 6.5 per cent share and average view of one hour, 40 minutes a week. In that time, it has been overtaken in popularity by Channel 4.

There are concerns for BBC2. Senior executives ask nervously what you think of it. There has been a recognition that it has been under-resourced in relation to other BBC networks and it has received an injection of cash to boost its drama output. Last month, at the Edinburgh International Television Festival, delegates heard Sir Michael Grade, a former BBC chairman and director of programmes and former chief executive of Channel 4, claim that both BBC2 and Channel 4 were searching for an identity in a competitive television sector.

BBC2's territory has seen encroachments from its sister digital network BBC4, which Hadlow previously ran, very successfully. "It's a much more crowded marketplace than it was when BBC2 was invented," she says. "[But] I do believe very profoundly that it's possible to be both distinctive and a mixed economy of a channel. I don't know where Michael Grade thinks you would see The Normans and I'm not sure I know where else it would sit. I don't think Channel 4 would commission it and it wouldn't fit on BBC1."

That mixed economy ranges from Robert Bartlett's three-part examination of the people that conquered Britain in 1066 (inspired by Schama's A History of Britain, which Hadlow made a decade ago), through to an eclectic range of comedy, that includes the popular Mock the Week and a starring role for Rob Brydon, who has been given his own 10pm show. Hadlow also enjoyed success with Rev, starring Tom Hollander as an inner-city vicar. "Who else would have done Rev?" Hadlow asks. "It's an absolutely iconic BBC2 commission."

She has ordered more comedy from Stephen K Amos and the female duo Watson & Oliver. Ambitious drama is on the way from the writers Hugo Blick (The Shadow Line) and Paula Milne (White Heat). "It's like putting a jigsaw together where you take lots of individual pieces which may feel quite different [but] you end up with a picture that's recognisable to the audience," the controller says. "It will be two years that I've been doing this job in November. I'd like to think that at the end of the year, a good portion of the picture that is BBC2 will be visible in that jigsaw."

Inevitably, history forms a major part of the puzzle. Laurence Rees, who wrote, produced and directed the landmark The Nazis: A Warning from History in 1997 and followed it with Auschwitz: The Nazis and the "Final Solution" in 2005, is to create a trilogy with a new piece on the individuals surrounding Adolf Hitler. "It's for 2012 because these are incredibly research-heavy pieces and take a while to do. He's still finalising it but it will be about the leadership and personality of the Nazi regime."

Hadlow is excited by the footage that is emerging of the world's oldest submerged city, Pavlopetri, a 5,000-year-old settlement off the coast of Greece. The city, which is believed to have been underwater for 3,000 years, is being explored by divers from the University of Nottingham. "They've got underwater images and it really is streets and buildings, not just dust and a pot. It really is quite big stuff, almost like an underwater Pompeii."

The editor of Private Eye and team captain on Have I Got News for You, Ian Hislop, will make three one-hour films on the role of Victorian reformers in shaping British values, generating new sympathy for children and animals, chimney sweeps and slaves. "Ian asks you to look again at things you think you know about. These are people often characterised as humourless Victorian puritans. They created a new moral world where even people without power were deserving of respect and something more out of society than a feral struggle to survive. That's a huge moment in history which I've never seen done on television."

But most of all, Hadlow is proud of having realised a long-stated ambition of bringing female presenters on to the channel. Mary Beard, the author of Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, will be making a major BBC2 programme on the ancient city she has dedicated her career to studying.

But before that, the BBC2 audience will get to see the "very vibrant" Amanda Vickery, explaining the minutiae of domestic life in 18th-century Britain. "Hurrah! A woman presenter – at last, it's coming!" exclaims Hadlow, who read one of Vickery's books and promptly called her to say, "Let's have a chat."

Vickery, Hadlow says, has the exceptional level of authority that she seeks in a BBC2 presenter. "I do believe that people from the world of academia who want to be on television and are right for television do find ways of announcing themselves to the world. You can tell from the way people write that they're interested in communicating to a wider audience. If she was in the room now, she could charm you and compel you with a subject."

It's a perk of being the controller of BBC2 that you often get to meet your living literary heroes, Hadlow says. "You can read someone's book and say, 'Can we meet?'" She might not extend such an invitation to The Stig.

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