The Broadcast Interview
Richard Klein, BBC4
He’s been a postman, a bank clerk, a print journalist and spent a week partying with the Happy Mondays. Katherine Rushton talks to maverick BBC4 controller Richard Klein.
Born: 1958, Sussex
Career: 2008: BBC4 controller; 2007: head of independent Knowledge commissioning; 2005: commissioning editor for documentaries; 2000: commissioning executive; 1996: joined BBC as current affairs producer/director; 1990-96: freelance researcher/producer; 1987-90: researcher on LWT’s The London Programme; 1986-87 reporter, Hornsey Journal; 1976-79 various jobs including postman and bank clerk
Education: BA in English at Aberdeen University; post-graduate journalism course at City University
Hobbies: Cycling, walking, reading, listening to music
Lives: Battersea. Eight-year-old daughter, Ellen
Ask factual producers who they rate in commissioning, and Richard Klein will often top the list. Sometimes they praise him for being clever and willing to take risks, but mostly they remark that he is quirky, un-institutionalised and a refreshing change for the BBC.
For starters, he’s a loyal Tory and has often said the famously left-leaning corporation should do more for white, working-class viewers. He attends meetings in Birkenstocks or barefoot (as today, “because it’s summer”); was caught without underwear in a video for last year’s Edinburgh TV Festival; and leaves nearly every party sober so he can ride home on his bicycle.
He also entered TV through something other than the corporation’s training scheme - trying his hand as a postman, a bank clerk and an accountant (although he never really managed the accountant part: experiencing a “cold, hard” feeling he was running into trouble, he failed his exams.) Even when he moved into media, it was as a print journalist on a local paper considered so right wing by Haringey council that it prohibited reporters from local government meetings. “It was hilarious. Even the Daily Mail would say, ‘Blimey, you’re the paper that has been banned’,” Klein recalls.
His career since then has been a bit more typical of TV. Klein produced current affairs programmes before moving to commissioning, where he headed documentaries and, later, all of factual output from the indie sector. However, he gives the impression he has squeezed in a fair bit of life at the same time. He spent a week with the Happy Mondays in Ibiza in 1990, and mentions in passing the time he built his own house. No doubt there are plenty more tales up his sleeve.
But if Klein’s career before BBC4 allowed him to jump from subject to subject “like a butterfly”, being a channel controller is a “much more single-minded” occupation.
“There is a different pleasure to be had,” he reflects. “There is something really exciting and challenging and interesting about saying, ‘How do we keep this ship on this course?’ I’m not sure I came into it with quite the wide open eyes that people expect… I’ve never particularly craved running a channel. I don’t know about playing politics, because I can’t.” (Actually, it is tough to believe that anyone reaches the top ranks of the BBC without serious ambition and political nous.)
More than a controller, Klein casts himself as a curator, a word he says is specifi cally applicable to the job of running BBC4: “We are different from virtually every other digital channel because we don’t strip and strand. We curate moments and seasons and ideas. We apply a lens to a subject matter, and through that lens you will see subject matter in a different way.”
Often these so-called “moments” will be engineered in tandem with his predecessor Janice Hadlow, now controller of BBC2, in line with a BBC Trust edict for the channels to work more closely together. The poetry season, for example, comprised a raft of relatively accessible programmes on BBC2 and more specialised offerings on BBC4, including a special on the Middle English romance, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
However, Klein is keen to banish the idea that BBC4 is entirely esoteric. “I think people have a view that BBC4 does niche subjects. I think it’s quite the reverse. We do big subjects in a niche or authored way. So, how would we do, say, dinosaurs? There’s a popular subject that you would expect on BBC1 or ITV. BBC4 could do it but I think we’d do it in a very distinctive way, and I think it could be as controversial or provocative as the White Season.”
The White Season was engineered by Klein in his previous job to shine a light on the issues facing white, working-class Britain. It sparked controversy at both ends of the political spectrum. Klein was delighted: “I chose that issue because it was one I thought needed looking at. I don’t think it was a watershed one way or the other [but] it raised awareness that it was something we should constantly be seeking to do.”
But while Klein can tackle difficult questions on BBC4, does he have the same sort of licence to make that sort of a political statement? He pauses. “It’s more difficult if I’m honest because it is a small channel.”
Nonetheless, he is looking for standalone docs that address “spiky, edgy, contemporary issues”, and is toying with the idea of a week of live programming around a single “risky” subject. He also wants new voices that represent “positions that don’t always get heard”. BBC4’s autumn/winter slate includes an “inside history” of British diplomacy, fronted by Christopher Meyer, the outspoken former British diplomat to the US, and Klein has just commissioned a new Storyville doc about polygamy, presented by a man whose father had 52 children by 15 wives.
But bold docs are familiar territory for Klein; surely his biggest challenge at BBC4 is drama? Klein disagrees: “Really good docs are often the same thing as fi ction. They are almost like novels written by an author. They happen to be made from real-life programming. I do see all good television as having drama sensibilities.”
Heroes and villains
The upcoming season slate includes a number of interesting-looking dramas cast in a familiar mould: biopics about complicated women ranging from Enid Blyton (an “awful” mother) to Winnie Mandela (part “heroine”, part “villain”).
But Klein now wants to “evolve” the channel’s drama formula, and instead delve into recent history, “reinterpreting” pivotal episodes and adapting modern classic fiction. “How do we explore the 20th century, one of the greatest, fastest changing centuries, and re-interpret that?” he says. He has a few ideas in the works but is reluctant to reveal his hand for fear of steering producers down any single path. “I want them to come up with their own ideas.”
Certainly no subjects are off limits as long as they’re dealt with in the right way, and meet the “three Ps” of Klein’s new BBC4 mantra: “passion, purpose and proposition”.
“Viewers may not always agree with the positions taken, but they will be able to reinterpret the world… I hope that doesn’t sound too evangelical?”
Maybe it does, but it seems that most of the indie sector already has faith. The question is: will the viewers follow?
RICHARD KLEIN ON…
To be in this game, you need strong opinions - but you need to be broad-minded too… It’s inevitable that a controller’s taste has an impact on that channel’s output and so of course my tastes will have some influence on what gets commissioned. Judge me by that.
It would be wonderful if I could just encourage a few more people who wouldn’t normally think there is anything on BBC4 to come in and find out we are a channel that is fun and interesting to watch: that we’re lean forward rather than lean back.
Claiming for indie dinners
I think it’s justified and I’m up for being interrogated about it. If someone makes a really good programme, on behalf of viewers and on behalf of the BBC, it’s not unreasonable to take them out.
How do we explore the 20th century? There are various things in development that will broaden the drama base from being largely factual-based biopics. We are not going to move away and abandon a very useful, successful area of drama [but I] do think it is fun to broaden it a bit.