We felt cold and confused. Then we discovered Simon Schama

BBC 2's boss, Jane Root, has lost some of her best-known shows. And she's never been happier, she tells David Lister
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The Independent Online

The controller of BBC 2 is undergoing quite a mood swing. For a moment, one wonders if Greg Dyke was referring to her personally when he said during the summer that BBC 2 seemed unsure of its identity. At first, Jane Root seems extraordinarily bouncy, ebullient and excited at the direction her channel is taking. Then, suddenly, she is crestfallen.

The controller of BBC 2 is undergoing quite a mood swing. For a moment, one wonders if Greg Dyke was referring to her personally when he said during the summer that BBC 2 seemed unsure of its identity. At first, Jane Root seems extraordinarily bouncy, ebullient and excited at the direction her channel is taking. Then, suddenly, she is crestfallen.

She is happy, paradoxically, because BBC 1 has taken some of her strongest shows, including The Royle Family, Have I Got News for You and an evening edition of The Weakest Link. It gives her space to bring some more of her own commissions. Indeed, she has become part of the management panel that made those decisions. Merton and Hislop were not wrenched from her, she stresses. She donated them.

Then, suddenly, she is crestfallen. In the middle of what she believes is her finest hour since taking over BBC 2 in 1998, a Sunday paper prints extracts from a confidential memo she wrote to her top executives, in which she appears to be a fiercer critic of her own output than any of the media commentators. She wrote in the memo that the channel could appear "cold", "confused" and "Calvinist", adding, "Enjoyable things made glum or dull are a speciality of ours." She said it was not attracting enough star names, and it needed to lessen its obsession with the avant-garde and appeal more to Middle England, with programmes about food and the countryside.

And, ensuring its eventual publication like nothing else could, she urged the recipients of the memo that it should not appear in the press.

The leaked memo has not done her any favours. But she stresses that the story at the weekend failed to mention that the memo was written nearly six months ago, when the nature of BBC 3 and BBC 4 were being discussed, since which time the increasingly favoured Root has received £25m of new money for programme-making from Greg Dyke, and the move of the nine o'clock news has changed the game plan for both BBC 1 and BBC 2.

"I wrote that in the summer", she says. "It was a first-response document to the repositioning of the channels. It is not a negative document. I was saying we had to think big, to think prime-time in almost everything we do. I was questioning whether the ratio of experiment to didactic was right. Yes, I said we needed more charismatic performers à la Paxman. And I thought business and arts programmes could be better company. I see it as my job to be provocative with people who are spending millions of pounds.

"I'm obsessed with owning the genres. I'm saying, 'Look, guys, these are fantastic things; let's spend as much money as we can and make them as original as we can.' " The genres to which she refers are programmes about food, gardening, art, classical music, religion, business, the countryside. It is in stressing the last that she also stresses how much she now wants BBC 2 to move away from its Hampstead reputation and appeal to Middle England. She wants the channel to be more mainstream, and yes, she did use the phrase "make it more Telegraph-friendly".

She explains: "I was quite interested post the One Man and His Dog row that we had really got it wrong on the countryside. We were making countryside programmes for people who live in Notting Hill, and not for people in the countryside."

But alongside the extra £25m and the changes to the schedules caused by the moving of the news, there is something else that has happened since Root wrote that memo, which has changed her, changed BBC 2 and may, thankfully, have a subtle change on television from now on. It is Simon Schama's History of Britain. She is thrilled with it and particularly struck by the fact that half its audience is under 44.

It is impossible to resist the temptation to point out to her (and any other television controllers reading this) that the public at large is not in the least surprised by the popular success of an expert holding forth on a serious subject; that it is only those who run television who have insisted for years that talking heads, academics and experts of all shapes and sizes are a turn-off, and that viewers will accept serious subjects only through a Mariella Frostrup filter.

Root, with disarming but not untypical forthrightness, instantly agrees. "Yes, it's like that moment when the BBC decided to stop making costume dramas, and then we realised we rather like that."

It has increased her confidence to commission more serious programming, some of the details of which she is prepared to reveal. There will be a huge science project, How To Build A Human Being, a genetics and medicine project; a series called Art That Shook the World, featuring such pairings as Germaine Greer on the Psalms; and on the drama front, she has commissioned Tony Marchant to adapt Dostoevsky's great novel Crime and Punishment.

The channel, Root feels, is on a roll. So, she is surprised by the scepticism inside as well as outside the BBC. "People here keep coming up to me looking as though my dog has just died and saying, 'You must be very, very depressed.' And internally, people have been predicting the collapse of BBC 2's audience because of digital penetration. But my mood is buoyant. Moving the news and the repositioning of all the channels is something I was part of. People look at something like Have I Got News For You moving to BBC 1 and think that I am bereft. On the contrary, I now at last have a slot for new comedy. And we can move our comedy to another night than Friday [when it is up against Channel 4's Friends and Frasier].

"The move of Have I Got News For You ought to be a great moment for everybody, with everybody excited about it. Angus [Deayton] is excited about it." Isn't that because being on BBC 1 puts him on a much higher salary? By way of reply, she simply smiles diplomatically.

Was she equally happy sitting at the Edinburgh Television Festival when Greg Dyke singled out BBC 2 as unsure of its identity?

"I'm unashamed that we're the channel that now does comedy and The History of Britain", she says. "In the digital world, there's a point in time where that could look a bit strange. Greg was thinking about the long-term future. There are problems. We have what we call internally the brain-damaged junctions, comedy programmes for the under-25s going into history programmes for the over-65s. We once had Gardeners' World going into Bottom.

"But I wasn't annoyed with what Greg said. In fact, I gave him a big kiss after his speech. Greg is saying Cruft's and Robot Wars is a weird mix. But let's have fun with that and accept it's a weird old thing."

But if anything has concentrated her mind, it is not Dyke's Edinburgh speech but BBC 1 moving the news. She says: "If BBC 1 and ITV are being very competitive, then that inevitably makes it harder to get people to watch your shows. It's like a big elephant on your patch."

Could, then, the answer perhaps be for BBC 2, in the light of Schama, to go upmarket?

"Yes, it probably is," she concedes. "Go upmarket, but be energetic. Schama was someone talking, but full of energy."