Boom! news · 13 November, 2019

‘Why I Commissioned That’ Insight from 4 BBC commissioners

Four BBC commissioners reveal the stand-out development processes and pitches that led to a successful green light. Boom! PR Account Director Andrew Dickens reports on the key talking points from last week’s Belfast Media Festival panel.

The BBC website’s ‘Commissioning’ section comprehensively sets out the processes that – hopefully for most visitors – lead to a successful BBC television order.

Most likely, the site is the first port of call for independent production companies, BBC in-house production teams and BBC Studios looking to make content for the UK public broadcaster. The Beeb’s page states: “The over-riding objective is to select the best ideas which deliver the biggest impact, the broadest range and the most value for our audiences.” Words to live by. Yet with the high volume of proposals the BBC receives, access to commissioners remains a tricky feat – with their time usually prioritised based on the strength of submitted ideas.

That’s why any glimpse into the inner workings of BBC is always invaluable intel – which is exactly what occurred at last week’s Belfast Media Festival (BEF) where four influential BBC commissioners outlined projects that “sparked” their interest from the get-go.

Chaired by BBC Commissioning Editor (Popular Factual and Factual Entertainment) Clare Mottershead, the panel comprised: Muslim Alim, Commissioning Editor, TV Daytime; Abigail Priddle, Commissioning Editor, Specialist Factual (History and Religion); Beejal Patel, Commissioning Editor, Documentaries; and Gian Quaglieni, Commissioning Editor, Current Affairs.

Beejal Patel – ‘Mountain Vets’

Hailing from Northern Ireland indie 360 Production, new BBC2 series ‘Mountain Vets’ (6 x 60’) invites viewers to the ancient kingdom of Mourne, where animals outnumber people 10 to 1, and where no two days are the same for the busy mountain vets.

Speaking on the show’s commissioning process, Patel told the BEF panel that after an initial conversation about building up “scale”, 360 Production went away and came back with a stunning location for the series – Mourne. She added: “They came back with a brilliant stat – ‘this is a place where animals outnumber people’. So, we had this promise of a different community and way of life where livelihoods were really connected to the vets’ practice – and actually they were quite close-knit.

“You’ve got the drama narrative from the fact that they’re vets – they’re not just seeing farms but smallholdings and pets as well. They worked out that if you covered the whole geography of the mountain area you could insert stories in a certain way and actually make it feel much bigger.”

Mottershead suggested this gave ‘Mountain Vets’ a “proper sense of scale, place and something that intrigued immediately”.

Muslim Alim – ‘Saved on Camera’

On ‘Saved on Camera’ (15 x 30’), Alim told BEF: “With some of the pitches you get, you have to just see it in your head. I could see this one straight away – especially working in the 11.45am [BBC1] slot.”

The series, from Northern Ireland indie Afro-Mic Productions and UK-based Back2Back Productions, explores heroic real-life moments caught on camera, with backstories and interviews with those involved.

For Alim, the premise of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things” really stood out in the top five lines of Afro-Mic’s pitch and he said the show could attract younger audiences due to the nature of its shareable content. “We have to go to young people to invite them into our programmes and I think ‘Saved On Camera’ is so shareable with some of the moments in it,” said Alim, who revealed he was pitched an impactful sizzle real very early on in the process.

Asked by Mottershead how important “passion” is when coming into a pitch, Alim replied: “One of the things I do when people pitch an idea to me is start looking at their eyes and if their eyes don’t widen, then my eyes don’t widen. I just think if they’re not passionate about it and are just going through descriptions – it’s just not interesting enough for me. I need to feel like they’re really committed to an idea. And it’s really infectious and that definitely happened with [BBC One Daytime series] ‘The Customer is Always Right’.

Gian Quaglieni – ‘The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story’ 

Broadcast on 1st April this year, ‘The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story’ (1 x 60’), offered an unprecedented insight into the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. The Vice Studios production for BBC2 followed the BBC’s Political Editor as she reported on the twists and turns of Parliament, with a film crew shadowing Kuenssberg from the moment the Prime Minister announced her Chequers Plan, through to Brussels, before returning to London.

Quaglieni, who works across BBC2 and BBC3 with commissions under his belt such as ‘Who Should Get A British Passport?’ and ‘Love and Drugs on the Streets’, told BEF he commissioned a taster tape for the film, explaining it was “extremely useful” and a “great tool to experiment different ways of doing things.”

“We had already been covering Brexit for a couple of years when this idea came in, we had already got a sense of how we could do it,” Quaglieni said.

“Clearly, we had the benefit of all this going on as we were commissioning the film so we literally sent Laura out with a newsy camera man to see what we could get to test out what politicians and what calibre of politicians would talk to us, how they would talk to us and also how Laura would be unshackled from that sort of obligation to report. What came back was sort of a mixed bag really, and interestingly so because we learned from it again just by doing a short taster of 7-and-a-half minutes.

“What we got was a gripping behind-the-scenes broadcast that the audience absolutely loved. We also got a lot of Laura and insight of Laura, but we got too much Laura and we suddenly realised you can actually have quite a lot of a good thing in a 60-minute film – we needed to punctuate that somehow with a different style again and make it work.”

While Quaglieni agreed that this was a talent-led project, he said the BBC was always open to new ideas that weren’t necessarily from established stars. “For BBC3 we are looking to bring talent from the audience and not necessarily established talent,” he said. A sequel to ‘The Brexit Storm: Laura Kuenssberg’s Inside Story’ is currently being produced.

Abigail Priddle – ‘Holocaust Denial: A History with David Baddiel’ and ‘Yorkshire Ripper Files’

On the subject of talent, Priddle said comedian, novelist and TV presenter David Baddiel was already attached to ‘Holocaust Denial: A History with David Baddiel’ when the project was pitched to her by Wall to Wall. “David is not unknown talent to the BBC and he has done a couple of ob docs before but this was a bit of a departure for him,” Priddle said. “What made this idea really work was that he felt like the right person at the right to be making this film in the same way when we made the Chris Packham film about Asperger’s.”

Priddle said Baddiel resonated with the audience because “he comes from a place of genuineness”. However, she admitted that talent itself isn’t always be enough to achieve a commission. “What’s key about the way we have been making programmes is that it’s not enough to do a trip around the bay or everything you’ve ever wanted to know about ‘X’ but were afraid to ask with a famous person tagged onto it,” Priddle said. “It’s sometimes better when most people don’t know where they are going to end up.”

On the ‘Yorkshire Ripper Files’, Priddle maintained that “clarity” was key to granting a quick turn-around commission, following a successful pitch for the project, also hailing from Wall to Wall. “It took 8 weeks to commission door-to-door and that was for 3 hours of television – and it’s a big commission and we only did two of them a year at that point,” Priddle said.

However, the panel agreed that commissioning times often varied considerably, with Alim explaining a project could take anywhere between 3 to 9 months to get off the ground.