Controller of BBC Two Kim Shillinglaw tells Andrew Billen why she believes the health of her channel is vital to securing the corporation’s future
When Kim Shillinglaw became Controller of BBC Two last year, one of her predecessors took her for a drink. Roly Keating had launched BBC Four, moved on to BBC Two and filled in as temporary boss of BBC One. In a meeting room in New Broadcasting House, Shillinglaw recalls with terrible clarity what he told her.
“He said, ‘You will find BBC Two is the toughest. Let me tell you that now. BBC Four has a lot of individual commissions but not very much money, so there’s a limit to how many things it can commission.
‘With BBC One, you make four or five really important decisions for the nation a year – who the new Doctor Who is – but, actually, the schedule is very stable: EastEnders, Watchdog, the news. On BBC Two, you have an awful lot of three-parters, two-parters and singles, so you’re making decisions all the time.’”
She says she did not quite believe him. She does now. She is at her desk in New Broadcasting House by 8:30am, making phone calls and writing emails. Although she is at home to see her children, 14 and 11, to bed, she toils again until 11:00pm. Weekends are rarely work-free.
This is why, although she does not number it in years, she knows her reign here must be “finite”.
Yet Keating, now Chief Executive of the British Library, could not have known then how much stress the BBC would be under a year on. I ask if she is up for a scrap to save the BBC in its present comprehensive state, to shout her case for what she does. Her answer disappoints me a little. “I hope we will always feel a real sense of clarity and purpose about what we’re here for. Certainly, at BBC Two, I do.”
She is at the centre of the public-service remit, I suggest.
“I suppose so. I’m obviously a massive supporter of the fight for the BBC and what I and my team put on air over the next years is obviously part of it, but our focus is very, very much on: where is the best talent? Are they making great things for us? What is the next Marvellous or Wolf Hall? How do we get the next Inside No 9?”
So, if she gets that right, the rest will follow?
“It’s not that. It’s bloody hard to make great television, or, rather, to enable other people to make great television. It’s a 24/7 job.”
I am surprised by that answer. She is one of the BBC’s most persuasive executives, widely liked and pretty low on corporate speak: she should be out there speaking up for the BBC. But I am happy to talk television, great and less great, with her.
We disagree, I think, on how consistently high-brow BBC Two needs to be. Coast, she points out, is highly appreciated by her viewers. She says she favours, in the mix, more experts and fewer celebrity presenters, which is good. So why send Sue Perkins off to the Himalayas?
“I’m not sure that that’s how I think of Sue. I think that she’s actually a rather intelligent and very funny woman.”
Talking of such, what has happened to the remake of Civilisation, announced more than a year ago?
“It’s progressing. It’s definitely happening.”
Has she found her expert presenter?
“Well, I don’t find them. But the team working on it is close. It is very close.”
Has it got to be a woman?
“I never, ever, ever think about that. I said this about Top Gear: I never think about individual programmes in terms of gender. I think it’s a really bad place to get to. What I do think about is the totality in terms of gender.”
When I ask whether the time may have come to fold BBC Four into BBC Two – given that, outside Proms season, it rarely has more than an hour’s new programming a night – she says that she is sad I should even moot it.
With overall responsibility for both channels, she is looking for a more “distinctive” yet “joined-up” strategy. I suggest that the next time BBC Two broadcasts a documentary on La Traviata, BBC Four might actually show the opera.
“That is a good idea,” she says. “We should have done that.”
These, however, are my quibbles and my agenda. Most people agree that BBC Two is in good health. Documentaries are thriving again with the revival of Modern Times (although Shillinglaw is quiet when I ask if the strand will return). It continues to feed BBC One with hits such as The Great British Bake Off and drama is back with successes such as The Honourable Woman and Line of Duty.
What is more, in this spring’s Wolf Hall, there is no doubt that she delivered the BBC an ace in its poker game with the Government.
On the other hand, BBC Two has also surely delivered the BBC’s enemies a trump card in the BBC-mocking sitcom, W1A. Everyone says that it is not satire, but documentary.
“People also say it’s very funny,” she counters. “Do you know, the BBC and, I think, in particular, BBC Two just need to do the right things creatively. When the Top Gear debacle was unfolding, BBC Two had The Wrong Mans making Top Gear jokes, we had Charlie Brooker making Top Gear jokes and W1A making Top Gear jokes.
“And do you know what? With every single one of those, they came to me and asked, ‘Is this all right?’ And I said yes, because this is the DNA of BBC Two and all I can do is be the guardian of that.”
The non-renewal of Jeremy Clarkson’s contract to present Top Gear following his assault on a producer has been the great crisis of her tenure. Clarkson contacted Danny Cohen, the BBC’s Director of Television, who then phoned Shillinglaw and called her in to a meeting.
“It was an incredibly difficult time but, then again, Top Gear had been pretty bumpy for a number of months that I’d been here and doing the job.”
She was a fan of the show’s “craft” and as a “collective viewing experience” at home with the family. But did she, as a woman and a graduate, consider its attitudes were outstaying their welcome?
“I would not have cancelled the show, if that’s what you’re asking me.”
But would she have wished to make changes to it?
“I’ve always had a robust conversation with Jeremy and Andy [Wilman, its producer]. It’s never been otherwise. Long before the final incident, we had had a number of lively conversations. That’s part of making any show that is pushing the line.”
Does she think that Clarkson, as talent, was well handled?
“By me, personally? Yes, I do. And I believe, and I hope – well, I genuinely believe – that Jeremy would say the same. We always had a good, professional relationship that contained both support and the ability to say, ‘Jeremy, I think you’ve crossed the line.’”
Television must have looked very different to her when she discovered it in the 1980s. Her late father worked at the World Bank and in international aid, jobs that took his family to Cameroon and, later, Spain.
Until she returned to live in London as a teenager, her experience of television was limited. Cameroon had no television at all. Later, in Spain, a friend of the family had moved away and left behind a stack of VHSs.
“And there was I, Claudius, Upstairs, Downstairs, and so many, many other things, all slightly out of date. It was such a precious introduction, and scarcity always produces pleasure, doesn’t it?”
Back in London, she attended Holland Park comprehensive school, where she did well, although she says it was not “difficult to be bright there”.
“It was quite rough. I remember my teacher’s car being burnt out in the playground, and somebody getting stabbed in the corridor.”
She went to Wadham, Oxford, where she read history, partied and emerged with a 2:1. In her second year, she met a friend who was working in television. He assured her that it was possible to be paid to read the papers.
She wrote “a million” letters asking for a job and got a lowly one on Observer Films, where she rose to be a series producer. She went freelance and worked on The Money Programme, from where, having “probably watched Broadcast News too many times”, she pleaded for an attachment at Newsnight.
It was “absolutely terrifying. I discovered why I made long-form films.”
It was also where she met her husband, producer Steve Condie, now Head of Specialist Factual at 7 Wonder.
In 2006, she moved to the BBC’s London Factual department with an add-on, part-time role as CBBC indie commissioner. Three years later, she was made Commissioning Editor for Science and Natural History, when she commissioned Stargazing Live, Frozen Planet and the science-drama The Challenger.
In the process, she helped propel the television careers of Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain, oceanographer Helen Czerski and physicist Jim Al-Khalili.
She is said to be good with talent, and direct and decisive in meetings. Before our talk, at a meeting of the documentaries team, she has greenlit a follow-up to the series on sex crime investigations, The Detectives, and said “no” to one on butlers.
I do wonder, however, whether her BBC Two would be brave and decisive enough to commission a piece that really challenged this Government’s agenda, at a time when the corporation’s future lies in its hands.
If Alan Bleasdale came to her with a Boys from the Blackstuff for the twenty-teens, would she commission it?
“I think that’s a very interesting question. BBC Two has been incredibly looked after by my several predecessors, so it’s not a criticism – it’s more a question of how a channel evolves – but I have felt that BBC Two might look a little bit more at what I call the national conversation, at contemporary Britain.
“There is a place you can end up with an awful lot of bunting and cakes. There’s nothing wrong with bunting and cakes and marquees, and they have their place on the schedule. But I do think it’s also important that BBC Two really makes sure that it calibrates that against quite a strong set of perspectives on contemporary Britain.”
And this, I realise, is why we need a BBC with people of Shillinglaw’s calibre and character near the top, and why the choices she makes in the next few months will be a test of both. We talk about the Charter fight again.
“There are,” she says, “no wallflowers among the BBC’s critics. We need to make sure that those of us who believe in the BBC and believe in its essential purpose – whether, that’s the knowledge mission or the space I believe BBC Two should give the creative community to do their most signature work – realise that this is not the time to be a wallflower about our beliefs, either.”
It is good advice. The only thing is, I am not quite sure by this stage whether she is addressing me, RTS members or herself.
A quick skim through Kim
Kim Shillinglaw, Controller, BBC Two
Lives West London
Married Steve Condie, TV producer; two children
Brought up Cameroon, Spain, London
Educated Holland Park School; Wadham College, Oxford
1990 Researcher, later series producer, at Observer Films, followed by contracts at ITV, Channel 4 and on the BBC’s The Money Programme
2006 Creative Executive Producer at BBC London Factual and Commissioning Editor for Independents, CBBC
2009 Commissioning Editor for Science and Natural History Programming, BBC
2014 Controller of BBC Two (and BBC Four)
Triumphs Stargazing Live; Earthflight; Frozen Planet, Marvellous, Wolf Hall
Flops 3DTV, whose potential she was charged with investigating for the BBC
Disasters Jeremy Clarkson exits Top Gear on her watch
Watching Made in Chelsea, The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family, Backchat with Jack Whitehall and his Dad
On pitching ‘Most of the pitches I get for auteur-driven documentaries are shit’
On BBC Four ‘BBC Two brings you the universe and BBC Four, the atom’
On the 10:00pm slot ‘It is where BBC Two should show its knickers’