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

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.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Brand Marketing Manager - Essex - £45,000 + £5000 car allowance

£40000 - £45000 per annum + car allowance: Ashdown Group: Senior Brand Manager...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer /.NET Software Developer

£26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer /.NET Software ...

Guru Careers: Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing Exec (SEO / PPC)

£18 - 24k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Graduate Marketing Analyst / Online Marketing...

Guru Careers: Technical Operations Manager

£Neg. (DOE) + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Technical Ope...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all