BBC entertainment events chief Bea Ballard can count on her Christmas Parkinson and EastEnders specials bringing in the ratings. But is she right that old-style variety shows are due for a comeback?
If television is the saviour of the annual family Christmas, then this year viewers might want to send Bea Ballard a thank-you card. As the BBC's creative head of entertainment events, she is overseeing two of the lynchpins of the BBC1 festive schedule - the EastEnders Christmas Party, a comedy and music extravaganza hosted by Shane Ritchie and set in Albert Square on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Night with the Stars, a Michael Parkinson-fronted variety special, to go out on Christmas Day evening.And her Bafta tribute to Julie Walters airs on 19 December.The shows are all full of stars, music and dance and have a big, "event" feel about them. And as personal video recorders such as Sky Plus take off and viewers begin to watch what they want when they want, her style of event programming is becoming more important."The public has got so many channels to choose from that you have got to make an impact," says Ballard, who also executive produces Parkinson."What I love about my department is that it encompasses a real range of programming that goes from at the one end Parkinson through to One Night with Robbie Williams to the EastEnders Christmas party and the Bafta tributes. It is event-making television. That is what it is really about - talked-about TV."Ballard says her department has never been busier, with 150 staff currently working on seven shows. She has just been handed the brief to create a new Eurovision song contest entry special as well as a 60-minute documentary to go out as part of the BBC Talent week in March."We have definitely had fantastic success in terms of new commissions in the past year," she says. "There is no doubt that the kind of programming we are making has grown massively. It is extraordinary. There is an appetite for more events in the schedule but it is also about delivering talent. People want to see big stars like Billy Connolly and Robbie Williams."Currently in development are a new comedy tribute strand along the lines of the Bafta tributes, a number of further One Night with... shows with music and comedy stars and a primetime BBC1 Saturday night music series, which Ballard says could be "a very big thing".Given the amount her department contributes to the schedule, you'd be forgiven for thinking Ballard has an output guarantee. But this is not the case. "We are just like an indie because you are having to pitch ideas just like they would," she says. "You are judged on the success or failure of your shows. There are no guarantees."Ballard's most enduring project has been Parkinson, which she was instrumental in bringing back to BBC1 in 1998. Despite its longevity - Parkinson originally ran between 1971 and 1982 - the format shows no sign of becoming tired, with the last series, which finished at the end of November, regularly pulling in 7 million viewers. It also still has real "water-cooler TV" moments - witness actress Meg Ryan's recent strop when she told Parkinson it would be best to "wrap up" the interview.Ballard - who is flanked in her office by a large photo of Parky with Posh and Becks - smiles at the Ryan incident. "I think what was great was that it was a really honest encounter," she says. "It was utterly compelling. In a very airbrushed world in terms of modern celebrity, it was really refreshing to see a real interview where actually the two people didn't get along. We didn't try and cover that up and we let the viewers make up their own mind."The chat show has been recommissioned for at least two more runs of 10 episodes, but Ballard says she has been firm in rejecting calls for longer series, saying it dilutes the brand."I think it is very hard to do a talk show five nights a week in this country and keep it fresh. I am not convinced it does work. I think Graham (Norton) is fantastic but his ratings have slipped. Clearly it isn't the event it was when it was one night a week."But the BBC has shown faith in Norton, signing him up this week to head next year's Saturday night autumn schedule.Parkinson, meanwhile, is hosting Ballard's Christmas Day variety special - a genre she says is long overdue for a return to the small screen, despite its rather staid image."I think the problem is that variety as a term has got these negative connotations and I think that is where event-making TV comes in," she says. "If you think of the kind of shows we make here, some of them have got those elements of performance and surprise in them. Whatever you call it, it doesn't really matter. It is about bringing together the top talent and showcasing it in the best way. One Night with Robbie Williams - you could say that was variety because it appealed to a huge number of different people. We are creating a spectacle."Ballard has been in her current post for nearly a year but joined the BBC from LWT in 1990. When the corporation poached Clive James, she moved to work on his shows such as Saturday Night Clive. Since then she has worked on Bafta tributes to Billy Connolly and Dame Judi Dench, and Elton John at the Royal Opera House among others.Despite coming from a literary background - her father is acclaimed novelist JG - Ballard says she was more likely to read a comic than a book when she was younger and was addicted to trash TV - something she thinks honed her populist touch today."I have always wanted to do TV," she says. "When I was about 11, I went along to some filming the BBC was doing with my father for Omnibus or Arena and I remember thinking this looks like the biggest fun ever. That was when I got the bug. I devoured all of those dreadful daytime shows, stuff like Crossroads, but, in a way, that is why I think I have quite good instincts about a popular audience - I didn't grow up in a rarefied Hampstead chattering classes type background. Although my dad was a novelist I grew up in a very free and easy way where I wasn't discouraged from watching TV."Ballard, who still insists on executive producing most of her output despite her mounting responsibilities, says she has no intention of moving on from the BBC, despite having been offered new roles, including setting up her own indie. For the time being, she says her only worry is being sucked too far into management. "I love the creative fun of making shows," she says. "I never want to become some suit that loses touch with the creative side of programming."ON THE RECORDBEA BALLARDOn devising ideas: 'Some of the time I identify key talent that I think the public is interested in that I want to develop a show around or feature within a show. Most of the time I tend to have the initial idea then I go to my team.'On BBC3 and BBC4: 'I think it is a great place to try out new talent in terms of artists and the style of programmes. It's fun to have somewhere you can make those cutting-edge shows because you need a nursery slope where you can try people out. If you are making a big high profile show for BBC1 you can't afford for it to fail.'