So long Big Brother, and welcome to the revolution on Channel 4

The most radical revamp in the network’s history is underway. Head of programmes Julian Bellamy tells Ian Burrell what will fill the void after reality TV
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The Independent Online

What will it look like this new Channel 4? The broadcaster finally has its new chairman, a new chief executive and, is about to clear Big Brother from the schedules after a decade of the reality show defining, some would say defiling, its brand.

Julian Bellamy is perfectly placed to know. As head of programmes he has been overseeing the commissioning process designed to reposition Channel 4 for a new era beyond digital switchover under the newly-appointed chief executive David Abraham.

When the decision to axe Big Brother was made in August, Bellamy heralded the moment as the start of “the most fundamental creative overhaul” in the broadcaster’s 27-year history.

To critics who claim that Britain’s most deliberately controversial broadcaster had abandoned its old chutzpah for bland lifestyle shows, the profanities of Gordon Ramsay and the inanities of the housemates, it was an encouraging signal. So how will he fill the void of 150 hours of air time with the £50m of programming budget that has been freed up?

Bellamy’s priority genres are drama and entertainment. That means drama series rather than one-offs, era-defining shows such as Queer as Folk and Teachers. And it means entertainment shows with a live element, offering the interactivity that modern audiences crave and delivering the real- time unpredictability that was key to Big Brother’s appeal.

“I’m not looking to replace Big Brother like for like,” he says, reassuringly adding that the recent Celebrity Big Brother will not bring a reprieve for a format which has reached its “natural end”. “It’s a once in a lifetime show, the like of which I don’t think we’ll possibly see again. In a world without Big Brother we have to make sure that Channel 4, through a variety of shows, reflects the national conversation on a day-to-day basis.”

Bellamy talks often of “the national conversation”. He hopes it will be reflected in The Drop, the first commission from the newly-appointed Channel 4 head of entertainment Justin Gorman. Ironically, this is a show made by Endemol, the production company synonymous with Big Brother. Bellamy plans to screen the hour-long show across six nights of the week. “It is live event meets game show,” he says. “I’m very interested in taking different genres and colliding them.” Contestants are given £1m, but must answer 10 questions or watch it all disappear through a series of trap doors.

The format, untried in international television markets, contains “a whole bunch of smart interactive thoughts, twists and turns” and allows viewers to be rewarded for questions which fool the contestants.

It doesn’t sound that radical, for a channel that already takes the daily Endemol-produced game show Deal or No Deal. More revolutionary is Notting Hill, which Bellamy describes as “a real-time documentary series”.

The idea comes from Stephen Lambert, the brains behind such landmark Channel 4 formats as Wife Swap, Faking It and The Secret Millionaire, but also the man at the centre of the controversy surrounding the misrepresentation of documentary footage of the Queen, a scandal that led to Peter Fincham’s resignation as controller of BBC One. Bellamy is excited by the scale of the project. “We are all stepping into the unknown because no one has done something on this scale in documentary in the way we are going to do it. It could become a really big thing on the channel and is genuinely a really big play for us.”

Lambert’s film crews will follow the lives of a group of characters from the west London neighbourhood and turn around an hour-long documentary each week. The title recalls the schmaltzy Richard Curtis feature film, while the format echoes Paddington Green, a long-run

ning BBC series of a decade ago, which also followed real-life west London “characters”. The difference here is in the immediacy of a project which will have a strong online presence.

“No one quite knows what will |happen when the real world collides with the programme, because it is all happening in real time,” says Bellamy. “We are trying to sniff out those ideas that have a sense of unpredictability.”

The head of programmes is “very proud” that Channel 4 has won the rights to cover the 2012 Paralympics. Undoubtedly, it will help to counter accusations that the channel has become frivolous and has lost sight of its public service remit. “There will be online, there will be documentaries, we will cover a whole bunch of disability sports events,” says Bellamy, a former controller of youth channel BBC Three who is a journalist by training and once worked for Dispatches.

Observers expect Abraham to introduce further job cuts from an operation that has seen its programme budget slashed by £100m but Bellamy, who returned to the channel in 2007 when it was at the centre of a storm over its documentary Diana: The Witnesses in the Tunnel says current affairs coverage will be unaffected. He says a diminution of the number of editions of Dispatches will allow greater focus on “big investigation, big undercover and big foreign”, citing tonight’s film by the Afghan journalist Najibullah Quraishi from inside the Taliban as an example. “We are very committed and I think we have to be when you look around and see how little long-form journalism there is in the modern television market.”

Jettisoning Big Brother has allowed Channel 4 to increase its drama budget by more than £10m. One of its most-anticipated projects is Homeland, a treatment of the Palestinian question by the renowned director Peter Kosminsky. “It is looking at Palestine through the eyes of the last days of the British mandate, flashing back and for ward to a present tense modern day story,” says Bellamy. The film, starring Clare Foy, pictured, and Christian Cooke, has been four years in the making and was originally earmarked for the BBC. “The scripts are brilliant and that’s a show that only Channel 4 would do.”

In addition, Shane Meadows is adapting the story of his film This is England for a four-part Channel 4 drama series We Were Faces, set in 1986, when the characters (including Shaun, played by Thomas Turgoose) are four years older.

As for the faces of this creatively-renewed Channel 4, Bellamy talks of the need to find emerging talent and reels off the names of those who have been given their start by the channel. “Think of the amount of brilliant people from Dermot O’Leary to Chris Evans to Jonathan Ross to Vernon Kay to a whole bunch of people who are the staples of modern mainstream entertainment and they all in many ways came from Channel 4,” he says.

“One of the big pushes for us is to find the next generation of faces that will populate Channel 4 screens in the years to come – the next face of science, the next face of history.”

Ah yes, Jonathan Ross is now back on the market. Is he coming back to Channel 4? “I’m a huge fan. I think he’s a brilliant talent. He’s a friend of the channel, he started at the channel. Certainly we are in touch and let’s see where it goes,” says Bellamy. “It would be wrong for me to go into too much detail but I would certainly say that we’ve been in touch. We know Jonathan well, he did a great thing for us at Christmas, The Big Fat Quiz. So let’s see what happens.”