Charlotte Moore controls a BBC budget of more than £1bn. Andrew Billen meets TV’s top mandarin
It was a heck of a coming-out party. Promoted in January from Controller of BBC One to the new post of Controller, TV Channels and iPlayer, Charlotte Moore was introduced to the world by no less than the BBC’s Director-General at the Serpentine Gallery in March.
Those who, following inquiries about their dietary requirements, were expecting an intimate sit-down discovered themselves competing for canapés with David Dimbleby, Claudia Winkleman, Kirsty Young, Graham Norton, Paul Merton, Brian Cox and, well, tout le bazar.
Moore, when she spoke, gave the culture secretary a piece of her mind for questioning her old channel’s distinctiveness and gave a clear steer that BBC Two needed rather more of it. Under her, BBC One would be the big tent in which everyone crowded (a bit like this party). BBC Two would
celebrate our differences.
This was one of the most powerful people in television telling some of its most powerful talent how things were going to be, a woman in charge of more than £1bn of licence fee and with more power to determine what we watch than anyone for decades.
“Oh, God, the obsession with power!” exclaims Moore when I meet her a few weeks later in one of those interchangeable offices provided for meetings by New Broadcasting House’s architects.
“Listen. I’ve worked as a genre commissioner and a channel controller, and where it works best is where you really enjoy the conversation in the room. It’s trying to work on an idea together, develop it and talk about it.”
When the DG, Tony Hall, spoke to her about his idea of abolishing channel controllers she saw it as a chance to embrace the new “multichannel, multi-platform, multi-creative opportunities”.
She was enjoying BBC One, where she had been since 2013, but this was a way to make all the channels “complimentary and distinctive”.
Moore, at 47, is one of those bright, creative people with a background in idiosyncratic programme-making and commissioning who has taught herself to speak BBC mandarin – although, admittedly, this must have been only a minor challenge to someone who mastered Bahasa Indonesia while on
her gap year.
Yet, she can also be perfectly down to earth. The first problem on her mind the lunchtime we meet is how she will find time to bake for her children’s school cake sale the next day. Rice Krispies cakes, I suggest, is the way to go.
Earlier in the year, at the launch for The Night Manager, she admitted that watching it was a relief “after the week I’ve had”. The week she had had was one during which she had resigned from her husband’s camera-operator business after The Daily Mail claimed a conflict of interest with her BBC job. As I left the screening, I spotted her in the hotel reception, deep in conversation on her mobile. She gave me a wink.
She says, and I believe her, that she is highly sociable, but she can also be direct and pointed. At the Serpentine, she omitted to thank, praise or even name the now ex-Controller of BBC Two, the departing Kim Shillinglaw, who had also gone for the big job. Was that an oversight?
“Listen, it’s all about trying to articulate what we want to do with this new portfolio strategy. That’s the job I’m here to do and that’s what I was wanting to articulate.” She could have said Kim had done a great job and she was going to build on it.
“Well, you know, I wanted to articulate how we’re going to define the channels.” The words “love”, “lost” and “no” bubble into my head.
“Drama has become the big story on BBC Two,” she says. “I genuinely believe that factual should be at the heart of what BBC Two is about.”
This means, I check, factual programmes most week nights at 9:00pm. She has announced new authored documentaries by Sue Bourne, Nick Broomfield and Fergus O’Brien. She says that it is an “interesting question” whether the quirky film strand, Modern Times, cancelled by Shillinglaw, should return, and praises Back in Time for the Weekend as “a really fun BBC Two programme, full of fascinating information”.
"Being able to look across the channels to see how we can bring diversity into the mainstream and bring new faces to the channels is really important."
It is not, she says, about brows, high or low, but “smart television” that expands minds and shows the world from different perspectives.
“Diversity is extremely important to me,” she adds. “I’ve always championed that throughout my career.
"Being able to look across the channels to see how we can bring diversity into the mainstream and bring new faces to the channels is really important.”
While this is borne out by her career in documentaries – filming in the developing world, executive producing The Other Side series for Channel 4 – Moore has, nevertheless, thrown out Lenny Henry’s proposal for a ring-fenced fund for BAME employment within the BBC, dismissing it as a potential “tick-boxing exercise”. The Campaign for Broadcasting Equality was, to put it mildly, disappointed.
Talking of the mainstream, however, brings us to BBC One, whose controllership, she is not, really, actually, giving up. While there will be a BBC Two “editor” on the model of Cassian Harrison’s editorship of BBC Four, she will not be appointing an editor for BBC One.
“I think that to have someone separate would mean that you then end up being in the same role as the director of TV,” she says – and, despite rumours that this post, too, will be abolished, she expects Lord Hall to appoint a director of television soon. With The Night Manager, The A Word and War and Peace all this year, when, I ask, will people (that is, John Whittingdale) stop bitching about a lack of distinctiveness on BBC One?
“Well, listen, I welcome the debate,” she says, which may well mean the opposite. “Of course, I want to get more distinctive. Of course, I’m always driving to be more distinctive.
"But I suppose I feel, on behalf of all the creatives I work with, none of us goes into ideas meetings thinking, ‘I want to make more of the same.’”
I ask if The Voice UK, which has been lost to ITV, is a victim of the political attacks on its lack of distinction. “ITV bought Talpa [the Dutch production company that owns the format] and, therefore, The Voice.
"I’m a real champion of The Voice. It has been a great programme for BBC One. It was all about new talent. I loved the idea that it was not about what you looked like, that it was all about the quality of the voice.”
That wasn’t quite the issue, though. The issue for critics was that, unlike Strictly Come Dancing, it was a bought-in, foreign format.
“Of course, new British shows are a great thing, and, of course, that’s what we want to do – but I don’t think we should close ourselves off to the global industry,” she responds.
Moore says that it is not her role to go out and battle for the BBC. Someone, however, surely needs to explain to its critics that it will never be able to compete with Netflix in meeting the Prime Minister’s preference for long-form drama serials.
“But at the BBC it is very much led by the story. In publishing, you don’t say to an author: ‘Give me so many pages.’” Besides, she says, Tony Jordan’s Dickensian had 20 episodes. Is it coming back, I ask eagerly.
“We’ve had to make very difficult decisions, really difficult, about what you bring back and what you don’t.” So it’s not? “No.”
She is not a native W1A speaker, having begun her career, after reading West African history at Bristol University, in the independent sector. She started working for Ideal World as a researcher and made a mix of travel and history films in her twenties, freelancing at assistant-producer rank. A break came in 1993 with The Time Traveller, a film commissioned by John Willis at Channel 4, in which, as Associate Producer, she travelled to New Guinea with the travel writer Norman Lewis, by then 84.
In 1999, she made the Channel 4 observational series Lagos Airport off the back of the fashion for airline docs.
“It was chaotic. I remember being asked by Channel 4 if there were any stories about baggage belts breaking down. I said: ‘Baggage belts? They haven’t worked for years.’”
The Nigerian government hated it so much that its High Commissioner demanded it be cancelled.
"You have to do the hours to get the work done, but it's a great way to prioritise. Once you've got kids you can't walk and say, 'sorry. I can't be there for you.' It's quite a leveller isn't it?"
She became Head of Documentaries at Ideal World, Muriel Gray’s Scottish indie, and then Head of Contemporary Factual when it merged with Wark Clements to form IWC.
There, she was responsible for Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. She left as it was being bought by RDF and, in 2006, joined the BBC as a documentary commissioner under Richard Klein. An early triumph for her was
Brian Woods’s Bafta-winning Evicted: The Hidden Homeless. She praises Klein. Now that he has parted company with ITV, is there any chance of him returning to the corporation? “Yes, because Richard’s a talented man. It would be interesting to see what he does next.”
A fiver, perhaps, on him becoming BBC Two’s editor. Upon his elevation to BBC Four Controller in 2009, she succeeded him. Revisiting an old haunt, she quickly commissioned the mind-changing Welcome To Lagos. Other hits included
the controversial Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die and the phenomenon that is The Great British Bake Off.
Briefly Acting Controller of Daytime, she took over from Danny Cohen at BBC One in 2013. He, as her new boss, described Moore as an “outstanding candidate”. She shows little interest in puffing her career to me and is positively reluctant to discuss what preceded it.
“I was brought up in Surrey. I don’t think there is anything interesting about it. A lovely family.” Two brothers also work in television but it was not a heavy viewing home. “I don’t really enjoy talking about my private life.”
Yet, when The Daily Mail discovered this January that she was company secretary to her husband’s business, both she and he – Johann Perry – were all over the paper. The paper did not suggest that she had commissioned Perry Images and the BBC said she had declared her husband’s job, but she resigned anyway. No wonder The Night Manager was a welcome relief.
“Oh God, I think I was probably referring to all sorts of stuff I’d been dealing with at the BBC. I’ve always been very clear about what my husband does. He works for all sorts of broadcasters, making all sorts of programmes.”
As a private person, though, is she prepared for that level of scrutiny?
“When you’re in charge of something like BBC One or, now, the other TV channels, clearly there’s a level of transparency and accountability. I totally accept that, but I don’t think my private life’s got anything to do with that.
She is happy to tell me that she arrives at NBH each morning by 9:15am after doing the school run and is back by 6:30pm or 7:00pm. She resumes her viewing duties after the two children are in bed.
“You have to do the hours to get the work done, but it’s a great way to prioritise. Once you’ve got kids needing you, you can’t walk and say, ‘Sorry. I can’t be there for you.’ It’s quite a leveller, isn’t it? It keeps your feet on the ground.”
With Lord Hall intent on thrusting her into the limelight, that, you may think, is important. Yet, and although I cannot entirely read what fuels Charlotte Moore’s ambition, I really don’t think she is on a power trip. For all that, it has been quite a journey.