Strictly no dancing on a channel that’s serious about scientists

Janice Hadlow, BBC2 controller, tells Ian Burrell why science and female brains are the key to a home for the thinking viewer
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The Independent Online

The anatomist Dr Alice Roberts tramps through lush green undergrowth that she compares to rural Somerset, before revealing that she is actually standing on the verge of an Arabian desert, spinning the camera round to focus on a gaggle of camels.

The publicity clip from the new BBC2 schedule is a surprise, not just because of the dromedaries, but because here is a serious woman fronting a major, five-part, outdoor series, The Incredible Human Journey – the sort of event television which we are accustomed to seeing presented by an Attenborough, a Schama or a Marr.

But Roberts, already familiar to viewers of such shows as Time Team and Coast is not alone. In forthcoming BBC2 programmes, Meera Syal will present an investigation into the rising levels of self-harm in Britain; Professor Lesley Regan exposes the shortcomings of modern medicine; Mishael Husain analyses the legacy of India’s Mahatma Gandhi; Kate Silverton looks at the British property bubble, and Sophie Raworth leads a probe into the failures of the Equal Pay Act.

Not before time, female presenters are getting to do their share of the heavy lifting in serious BBC programme making. It comes at a time when women are finally being given some of the biggest roles in the corporation, from the director of BBC News, Helen Boaden, and new newsroom head Mary Hockaday, to Jana Bennett, the overall head of television, and the controllers of BBC1, Jay Hunt, and BBC2, Janice Hadlow.

If Jeremy Paxman really does feel threatened by the rise of women at the BBC, as he suggested last year, then he has a bit more to worry about now.

Even Armando Iannucci’s political satire The Thick Of It, which inspired the hit movie In The Loop, begins a fresh series on BBC2 later this year with a new female secretary of state at the Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship (Dosac), played by the comedy actress Rebecca Front.

Unlike Paxman, Hadlow, who took over the hallowed top job at BBC2 in November, is thrilled by these developments. “Getting women in what you might call authoritative presenter gigs is really important,” she says over coffee at a central London hotel. “It is really good to see the beginnings of a variety of confident women presenters coming through.”

The process of finding such presenting talent has been slow. “The truth is that it is really, really difficult to do and does require a potent mix of qualities. But what we are seeing is the product of looking very long and hard to find women who can do it,” she adds. “There is a cultural shift, which television partly reflects, in terms of what women are expected to do, want to do and are able to do. More immediately, there has been recognition among producers and commissioners that they want to get the balance better. We are seeing the results of that now.”

Hadlow, a former controller of BBC4, is determined to make BBC2 better known for “big idea” television that is not ashamed to engage with serious subject matter that provides an alternative to the “shiny floor shows” of BBC1 and ITV1.

When she presided over her first season launch last week, the programmes she unveiled were largely the commissions of her predecessor, Roly Keating, but she took the opportunity to make her mark by pushing The Culture Show to the heart of her schedule, showing an increased commitment to the arts.

By next year, when she is fully in control of BBC2, science will come centrestage. She has commissioned a landmark series, provisionally titled The History Of Science, presented by the animated Michael Mosley, whose talent was discovered by Hadlow.

She likes the fact that – like Dr Roberts – Mosley, who presented BBC4’s The History Of Surgery and Medical Mavericks, has a medical background. “I love Michael’s informality, he is so gung-ho – and he’s a doctor,” she says. “He was a BBC producer, basically, and came up with an idea and I remember saying, ‘Why don’t you present it?’ He is now one of the BBC’s most interesting new presenters – how amazing that you can go from doing things for BBC4 to having a regular slot on [BBC1’s] The One Show!”

The History Of Science, whose executive producer is John Lynch from the BBC science department, is intended to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the founding of the Royal Society. “It is programming that I think will be full of knowledge and confident authority, but also surprising and unexpected,” says Hadlow. “There are all sorts of reasons why that will feel absolutely timely for now.”

She hopes the series will show the impact of scientific discoveries on the way we live today. “More people can probably talk about the First World War than the invention of the lightbulb. Big political events have always loomed larger in our sense of how we got here than major scientific moments. We are going to try to redress that balance.”

This subject of this summer’s big “season”, with programming on both BBC2 and BBC4, is poetry. Among the highlights are Sheila Hancock explaining how the verse of Edna St Vincent Millay helped her come to terms with the death of her husband John Thaw. Hadlow’s old friend Simon Schama will question why the great love poet John Donne is virtually unknown to the British public.

Hadlow is delighted that Iannucci will present a programme about his enduring passion for the poetry of John Milton, and she is even more excited that his comedy series will originate for the first time on BBC2. “The Thick Of It is a work of comedy genius that was nurtured on BBC4, became bigger and bigger and we feel should be on BBC2.”

The new series featuring Front, who worked with Iannucci on shows including The Day Today and I’m Alan Partridge, is expected to pay close attention to the workings of David Cameron’s Conservative publicity machine, as well as starring the infamous New Labour spinmeister Malcom Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi).

Picking up The Thick Of It from BBC4 is part of the pay-off for losing hit BBC2 shows to BBC1, most recently Masterchef. Hadlow says she has to accept such things: “It is not a battlefield, it’s more like a Yo! Sushi [conveyor belt] bar – there is movement between channels.”

Her intention is to raise the profile of BBC2, which was 45 years old last week, through big idea shows that get chosen by television critics as their “picks of the day”. The strategy will be helped by the iPlayer service providing a “halo effect”, when viewers respond retrospectively to the buzz about successful programmes.

Big overnight ratings, she says, are not the only measure of value. “These programmes are never going to deliver – nor would we expect them to – the same sort of audience share that more obviously popular programmes would,” adds Hadlow, arguing that in turbulent times, there is a greater need for intelligent television.

“In the past 18 months, the world we live in has got far more complex,” she explains. “Being part of the conversation is perhaps more important than it ever has been over the past 10 years, and that’s a reflection of the changed world outside.”