Monday 11 October 2010
Richard Klein, the controller of the culture channel BBC4, could be forgiven for feeling under pressure. James Murdoch has been boasting that "we put out a greater coverage of the arts on Sky than the entire BBC", while the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has questioned BBC4's very existence (calling it and BBC3 "channels costing nearly £100m each to run, but with very, very small audiences"). Plus Klein is getting married this month. Yet he seems to be taking it all in his stride.
The Sky comments were particularly irksome to a channel that has been given £1.5m in a switch from entertainment to "more significant arts events", some of them live, and "original commissioned works". And he has some political supporters even as the BBC's digital channels continue to be vulnerable to Tory criticism. The Liberal Democrat culture spokesman, Don Foster, says: "BBC4 is the BBC at its best, supporting riskier, lesser known projects that would otherwise struggle to find airtime."
Klein, a Tory with a pierced ear and a German background, belies the image of a traditional BBC boss. And he is not afraid to speak out, once accusing the BBC of "ignoring" mainstream viewers. So what does he think of Hunt's views?
Klein's answer is not fluid. "Jeremy Hunt quoted a figure of £100m which is wrong, it's £64m. The case is this," he continues, before checking himself to say: "I don't think audiences are necessarily asking that question. According to our indications, we're the best-loved BBC channel, share and reach growing strongly."
According to BBC research, the channel's share of viewing has gone from 0.5% to 0.6% – an increase of 20% from a tiny base, while reach has risen from 8.4% to 9.9% of adults. Audience appreciation is the highest for any BBC channel. "The impact we make with things like the opera season, the fatherhood season – there are plenty of reasons why we punch above our weight," says Klein.
Why hasn't that case been made to the government, then? "Of course I would say the case is made but it's not in my gift," he replies. "I'm not tied into the political process, it's not for me to say. He's [Hunt] got a lot on his plate at the moment."
Klein joined the BBC in 1996, became commissioning editor for documentaries in 2005, and was behind a bold BBC2 season called White in 2008. He said at the time: "You don't hear white, working-class opinions often enough on TV. There's a large group of people who feel politically alienated, threatened economically and stifled socially. They feel they haven't got a voice."
Since he became the controller of the BBC's so-called "place to think" in December 2008, Klein has tried to ensure his channel covers a wide range of subjects – from classical music to maths to single fatherhood. He recently commissioned Morgan Matthews, the director of the Bafta-winning documentary The Fallen, to tackle the impact of teenage murders in the UK. The two-and-a-half hour film looks at "every single teenage murder" in a year. Klein calls it "an interesting portrait of Britain" that shows BBC4's ambition.
In drama, the channel is best known for biopics, with subjects ranging from Winnie Mandela to John Lennon. The next one due tells the story of the Carry On star Hattie Jacques, starring Ruth Jones.
"If you look across our year [in drama], there are two or three biopics, there are two or three programmes based on actual events such as On Expenses, and some classic adaptations. I think that's quite a good mix. I want to carry on doing that. I'm also looking for some more 20th-century classics as well. Those that sometimes work are those that have been overlooked for a while. DH Lawrence, for example, brilliant writer but possibly not so much in the public eye at the moment."
Next year his channel will air adaptations of Lawrence's Women in Love and The Rainbow, shot in South Africa. The scriptwriter Andrew Davies once said he loved working for BBC4 because of the freedom he was given. Klein agrees: "In all truth, we're a small digital channel. It forces the scriptwriter and director to rethink how you might present the story and focus on one or two key actors."
Klein confirmed at the last MediaGuardian Edinburgh international television festival that there will be "slightly less" comedy and entertainment on his digital network as a result of the BBC's strategy review. BBC4 has lost The Thick of It to BBC2 but Klein has high hopes for the second series of the Jo Brand comedy Getting On, beginning later this month.
More painfully, the channel looks about to lose Mad Men, to Sky. Last week it emerged that the satellite broadcaster bid up to four times more than the corporation paid last time. Next year, BBC4 will show the US post-9/11 conspiracy thriller Rubicon. Klein says: "We're in the process of looking for other things that would sit in that same mould."
Themed seasons have proved invaluable in that they "set the channel apart in the digital world", he argues, and the channel does between six and eight a year. "I'm a German single father who loves cycling and the great outdoors and I've done seasons on all of those. Early next year BBC4 will focus on justice. Asking what is justice in the 21st century, everything from the criminal sense of justice through to asking what is a just world, almost a 'big society', if you like.
"I think there will be quite a few big ideas like that on the channel that we can focus on and develop, big subjects. Two years ago with Storyville we ran a major series called Why Democracy?, and we've got two other ideas in that vein, which I can't quite announce at the moment. But we're keen to provoke debate."
He sounds a trifle impatient when I question the impact of Sky Arts, which he says is "great".
"I'm very glad they're doing it, it's a good thing to have another major broadcaster focusing on the arts. I don't think the viewers question it as much as the media, they like the alternative." However, he adds: "But one of the jobs we do is give context to the arts. We are about depth and opinion underpinned by credibility and authority."
Klein will use the additional £1.5m he has been given to help BBC4 to create cultural events too. "We're restating our commitment to being the premier arts and culture channel, certainly in the digital world. And I think part of that is doing cultural events that wouldn't have happened without our involvement and we will see how far we can go with that."
BBC4 and BBC2 often come together for seasons – last year, for example, both screened programmes about poetry – and BBC2 also broadcasts some of Klein's shows. What is the relationship like between the two channels?
"The day-to-day mechanism is Janice [Hadlow] and I sit next door to each other. From my point of view there's a clear benefit for maximising programmes across BBC2 and BBC4. We're the premier arts channel for the BBC. It's a good thing if from time to time we come together. Later this year we'll be doing the classical world. We talk a lot."
Several independent producers tip him for higher things at the corporation but Klein will only say he is "very happy" at BBC4. He seems, at any rate, to have survived publicly blasting his employer four years ago when he said: "By and large, people who work at the BBC think the same and it's not the way the audience thinks. That's not long term sustainable. We pride ourselves on being 'of the people' and it's pathetic. Channel 4 tends to laugh at people, the BBC ignores them."
It seems unlikely that people will ignore Klein.
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