Mark Bell, Commissioning Editor, Arts

Date: 16.05.2011     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 17.51

Speech to the Book Industry Conference 2011
Monday 16 May 2011

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Hello, thank you David, and thanks for inviting me.

I understand that this time last year this gathering here conceived the notion that became World Book Night.

Saturday March 5th was unprecedented and inspiring – it was wonderful to see so many thousands of people from all around country getting involved. The BBC was delighted to be the broadcast partner for this publishing industry event – since it shared many of the ambitions that we as an organisation hold dear – a passionate enthusiasm for books and the ideas and stories within them, and a desire to pass that pleasure on, to encourage other people to share in the delight that the written word can give.

What a wondrous endeavour, to combine word-of-mouth enthusiasm with an enormous book giveaway.

The Culture Show ran three Books specials back to back on BBC Two on the night which together reached a total of 2.7m individuals, or 4.7% of the population. Here is a short clip of the action on the night.


Today I'd like to talk to you about the opportunities that the BBC offer in terms of working with the books industry and the best ways for you to get involved.

In January we launched a year-long campaign to celebrate books and reading across the BBC's various platforms, and World Book Night formed a part of that – it has been running under the tagline of Free Your Imagination. The title encompasses a range of books related programmes – from documentaries to dramas and talk programmes – that we are featuring and I'd like to talk about some of what we've already shown by way of a guide to the type of programmes I commission.

We started the year with a series written and presented by Sebastian Faulks following the development of characters in the novel. Faulks On Fiction attracted up to one and a half million viewers, significantly more than would be expected for a factual programme in its slot.

The Beauty Of Books was a BBC Four series celebrating the beauty of the book as a physical object, from illuminated manuscripts through to paperbacks and childrens' books – and there was a new talk show – My Life In Books – fronted by Anne Robinson and broadcast early evening on BBC Two. Here is a reminder.


I am pleased to confirm that My Life In Books will be returning for another run in the New Year after achieving an average audience of 1.2m and high audience engagement throughout the run.

The return of this new show is a welcome addition to the many regular book discussion shows across TV and especially radio, many of which are well-established, and it barely needs be said that the BBC's commitment to books stretches well beyond this year.

The BBC is the biggest producer of books programming in the world. We celebrate books and authors on programme strands such as A Good Read, Start The Week, the Culture and Review Shows, Front Row, Imagine, Book At Bedtime, The Verb, Poetry Please, Chris Evans's radio show and so on. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, children's literature, art science and history – our books programmes cover as wide a range of subject-matter as the books you publish and sell.

And our audiences appreciate them. On Radio 4 the number of listeners to Open Book and Book club has increased in the first part of this year to 1.1 million and Book Of The Week has seen an increase to 3.3 million.

My job as commissioning editor of arts programmes at the BBC is to find the best of culture from this country and elsewhere and find ways of presenting it to viewers in the most interesting and accessible way, from photography and visual arts to architecture, heritage and writing – whether as profiles of cultural figures, journalism and review, or narrated programmes that set the art and culture of the past in context.

As well as being useful these programmes are I hope cultural artefacts in their own right – be it a recent profile of the record producer George Martin, a forthcoming film in which the actor Benedict Cumberbatch explores the life and work of the playwright Terence Rattigan, or Waldemar Januszczak's major reappraisal of Impressionism which is coming to BBC Two in the Summer.

The BBC is also an important employer of writers and commissioner of new writing, from dramatic adaptations and dramas through to essays and lectures. Many presenters, interviewees and guests across radio and television are published authors because the skills are similar, and the building block of every good programme – a well-crafted sentence – is the common denominator for all of us here. Here are a couple of clips from single films that played recently on BBC Two and BBC Four.


Last week we showed the film about the Icelandic Sagas and a documentary about L Frank Baum,author of the Wonderful Wizard Of Oz – both quite specialised subjects for television you might think – but each managed to attract upwards of half a million viewers to BBC Four.

It just goes to show that the long tail can be pretty broad – that there are surprising numbers of people interested in quite particular subjects if stories can be presented in the right way.

And people's interest can be sustained – note the way people came back week after week for 12 hours of Danish crime drama The Killing.

This is particularly true on radio, where listeners love to tune in again and again to long-running serials. I am looking forward to the first UK adaptation for Radio 4 of Vassily Grossman's masterpiece Life And Fate – a monumental and gripping account of the Battle of Stalingrad.

And dramatic adaptation continues to be central to the way BBC engages large audiences for literary content – from the I Claudius, Nicholas Nickleby and regular showings of Robinson Crusoe that I remember from childhood, through the Smiley adaptations and the Jewel In The Crown to Pride And Prejudice and Bleak House – the BBC has given a new life to books and a new generation of readers to the books.


This year's list of adaptations is as strong as ever – so far this year we have had The Crimson Petal And The White, Women In Love, and coming up screen adaptations of Case Histories, The Night Watch, Birdsong, Great Expectations and The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, newly unravelled by writer Gwyneth Hughes.

Since the first BBC radio broadcast in 1922, the stories we choose to tell continue to be guided by Reith's mantra to inform, educate and entertain. But they nearly all come also from passion – the desire to share great stories, ideas.

The mantra that guides writers, publishers and booksellers is not so different, though having written a certain amount of cover copy earlier in my career I have seen a few other occasionally hyperbolic verbs employed – perhaps we could add some of the following – to thrill, grip, engross, inspire, intrigue, captivate, haunt, to alter minds, warm hearts and change lives forever.

Hearing and seeing celebrated writers from the past talk – sometimes reluctantly – about the way they write – is one of the great treasures of the BBC archive – which we made use of in a recent series – British Novelists In Their own Words – here is a short taster.


We are in the process of putting together a series along the same lines about our thinkers and the way they have adapted to the broadcast medium. Great Thinkers In Their Own Words will tell at first hand what happened when writers and thinkers used to the lecture theatre were given through broadcasting the opportunity to communicate directly and immediately on a national stage, and the exciting and sometimes fractious relationships that resulted.

This is a great example of the opportunities that the advent of BBC Four and the wealth of material in the BBC archive has made possible.

But discussion of big ideas is not confined to BBC Four. Coming up in the autumn are major series on the history and cultural legacy of the British Empire by Jeremy Paxman on BBC One, and a major series about the origins, uses and abuses of language – Fry's Planet Word – a series which aims to range through history and across the world to try to make some sense of how it is we have managed to communicate like no other species.

World Book Night goes to show what the BBC can offer as a platform for ideas and initiatives – through a launch on the culture show and on Radio 4 and a marketing campaign we were able to help encourage a good number of the 20,000 givers needed for the night – we offered some support thanks to our experience of putting on similar large-scale events – we offered interviews and features in the run-up on radio and archive interviews and readings on the website, as well as devoting an entire night of BBC Two programming on the night.

Other partnerships include the Oxford Literary Festivals link with BBC Four – with talks and screenings of programmes delivered by directors, presenters and writers including Alan Yentob on Tolstoy among others, and we also participated in an afternoon featuring reminiscence, film archive and critical appraisal of the life of William Golding, whom I can announce will be the subject of an Arena documentary on BBC Two later this year, the centenary year of his birth.

We continue to offer support to the Samuel Johnson Prize – this year chair Ben Macintyre and his fellow judges have come up with an exceptional longlist – so thanks and congratulations to any publishers here whose fine books have made it on to the list.

We broadcast programmes about the Man Booker Prize – through the Culture Show we hope to find out again what the residents of Comrie in Perthshire make of the shortlist before we announce the winner on the BBC One News.

Radio 4 is again looking at ways of giving their audience of the Today programme a chance hear extracts from the shortlisted books of both prizes.

Debate and review of books has always been very well served by radio throughout the BBC's history, and has always been present on television on the Culture and Review Shows, but starting on the 27th of this month we will be broadcasting a live monthly Book Review programme which will enable us to select a panel with a particular interest in the subject to talk exclusively about books – for the first show we are inviting a panel including John Mullan, Daisy Goodwin, Germaine Greer and Denise Mina to discuss the Orange Prize shortlist and Beryl Bainbridge's The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress.

Undoubtedly the books industry is facing some significant changes and challenges, be that as a result of the current economic climate or the shift in how we consume literature, but both present an opportunity to re-inspire people to pick up, watch, download or listen to a story that may alter their perspective and even approach to life.

But many threats to culture have been overstated – film was to spell the end of theatre, television the end of film, radio the end of conversation and the end of books, Facebook the end of family life and Twitter the end of civilisation.

Maybe it won't be so bad. And the BBC will continue to be here as a platform for debate, celebration, narration and dramatisation of the best of British writings and storytelling – for the best part of a century many of our best programmes have derived from books, drive audiences back to those books or like Neil MacGregor's Radio 4 History Of The World In 100 Objects become books to buy, treasure or press into the hands of people you care about. Thank you.