BBC Two announces quartet of new arts programmes featuring Melvyn Bragg, Mark Gatiss and James Fox

As the biggest producer and investor in original arts and music programmes in the UK, I’m pleased we’re able to bring such a rich and varied range of new arts programmes to BBC Two.”Mark Bell, Arts Commissioning Editor
Date: 12.06.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.04
Janice Hadlow, Controller of BBC Two and Arts Commissioning Editor, Mark Bell today announce an eclectic range of new arts programmes for BBC Two.
  • Documentary on the life and work of enigmatic horror writer MR James presented by Mark Gatiss with an accompanying drama adaptation of one of James’s short stories
  • An exploration into whether 16th century Britain had its own Renaissance with celebrated art historian, Dr James Fox
  • A major science fiction season 'My God, It’s Full Of Stars'
  • A new two-part documentary in which Melvyn Bragg looks at British radical political thinkers John Ball and Thomas Paine

Janice Hadlow, Controller of BBC Two, says: “I’m delighted to be bringing such an exciting range of intelligent new arts programmes for BBC Two. Melvyn Bragg returns to bring viewers his extraordinary insights into the lives of two radical writers and I’m pleased to bring James Fox’s authority and passion to the channel as he explores Britain’s Renaissance.

"It’s a pleasure to bring Mark Gatiss back to BBC Two with a new look at one of Britain’s genre defining writers and we’ll be setting a channel first as we take an in-depth look at the cult of science fiction.”

Mark Bell, Arts Commissioning Editor, said: “Melvyn Bragg is one of the great writers of our time. He has a particular knack for digging out influential figures we should all have heard of, but often haven’t, then bringing them to life with his inimitable insight.

"The BBC’s arts programmes celebrate authorship across an eclectic range of subjects; it is what makes us tick. As the biggest producer and investor in original arts and music programmes in the UK, I’m pleased we’re able to bring such a rich and varied range of new arts programmes to BBC Two.”

MR James: The Tractate Middoth [Drama] and Ghost Writer [Documentary]

Mark Gatiss writes and directs a new version of The Tractate Middoth, a classic chiller by MR James, England's greatest ghost story writer. Gatiss will bring his distinctive wit and sense of the macabre to bear on one of James's most thrilling tales, involving a disputed will, a race against time, and something very unpleasant lurking in the library.

And in the accompanying documentary, Ghost Writer [w/t], Gatiss steps into the mind of MR James, the enigmatic English master of the supernatural story. A long-time admirer of James, Mark will try to solve one of the great literary mysteries: how this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, created tales that continue to chill readers a century on.

Viewers will join Mark on an atmospheric journey from James's childhood home in Suffolk to Eton and on to King’s College, Cambridge, the two institutions where James spent most of his life, visiting ancient churches, moonlit quadrangles and echoing libraries along the way. By following in James’s footsteps, Mark will hope to uncover the secrets of his inspiration.

These two complementary films will reinvigorate the long and popular BBC Two tradition of a festive ghost story for audiences to enjoy over Christmas.

The executive producer is Michael Poole.

A Very British Renaissance

This three-part series, presented by celebrated art historian Dr James Fox (A History Of Art In Three Colours, British Masters), explores the British Renaissance, an epoch that saw Britain shed its medieval shackles and embrace a world of cutting edge art, literature, architecture and science. But this was no slavish imitation of Continental fashion: this was a very British renaissance.

James Fox takes viewers on a journey which is as surprising as it is stimulating, looking at culture not merely through the prism of the court but through a succession of extraordinary figures seen in a new way - from familiar giants such as Holbein and Van Dyck to astronomers such as Nicholas Kratzer, brilliant miniaturists like Nicholas Hilliard, architects such as Robert Smythson, the poet and intriguer Sir Thomas Wyatt, the obsessive code maker Sir Thomas Tresham, and a host of dynamic artists, thinkers and patrons absent from the standard histories. This will be an extraordinary portrait of a society in a state of constant flux.

The executive producer for the BBC is Jonty Claypole.

My God, It’s Full Of Stars: A Journey To The Edge Of Science Fiction

In a four-part co-production with BBC America, BBC Arts heads to the very frontiers of space and science to produce the definitive television history of science fiction. The story of one of the liveliest and most stimulating genres in popular culture will be told through its impact on cinema, television and literature.

Each episode will explore one of the enduring themes of science fiction: time travel; the exploration of space; robots and artificial intelligence; and aliens. It will be made with the help of the genre’s greatest pioneers: the filmmakers, writers, actors, and graphic artists whose obsession and imagination has taken them into the unknown. Having explored the future, the past, parallel universes and galaxies far, far away, they are now ready to report back on their experiences.

This is the story of science fiction told by the men and women who fell to earth… From HG Wells's War Of The Worlds to The Terminator, from Doctor Who to Star Wars this series will guide viewers through a rich, thought-provoking and endlessly exciting genre.

The executive producer for the BBC is Michael Poole.

Melvyn Bragg's Radical Lives

Melvyn Bragg explores the lives and work of two extraordinary men, both of whom tried to uproot the systems in which they found themselves, and both of whom have left an enduring radical legacy through their actions and their language.

John Ball was a cleric at the heart of the class rebellion against the medieval feudal system, more commonly known as The Peasant’s Revolt. He was the intellectual inspiration of the rebels which ultimately led to his imprisonment and execution. But his words ring down the centuries, taken up by rebels through the ages, echoing in the Civil War and still found today.

Thomas Paine's Rights Of Man and The Age of Reason were a key intellectual influence on the American Revolution which brought independence from Britain, and he charged British radical thinking throughout the 18th century. His arguments also played a pivotal role in the French Revolution and inspired other writers of the day. His influence - both literary and political - has continued long after his death.

A Directors Cut Production for BBC Two

Notes to Editors

Arts on the BBC

The BBC is the biggest producer of and investor in original arts and music programmes in the UK, with a wealth of content across TV radio and online. In 2011-2012, BBC arts and music television was watched by 37.4 million people. The BBC plays a unique role in the cultural life of the UK, creating content and building partnerships with the arts sector that go beyond broadcast, from sharing expertise to widening public engagement, nurturing and celebrating talent and creativity.

This year, the BBC Performing Arts Fund will award £450,000 to theatre groups and individuals. In 2012, The Public Catalogue Foundation and the BBC completed an ambitious project to make the UK’s entire collection of oil paintings available online – 211,861 paintings are now available on the Your Paintings website.

Recent BBC arts and music content highlights include:

  • Your Paintings: A Culture Show Special in which Dr Bendor Grosvenor and Alastair Sooke reattribute a lost Van Dyck
  • The Genius Of Turner: Painting The Industrial Revolution exploring six of Turner’s works alongside some of the most pivotal industrial moments of 19th century British history
  • Pride And Prejudice: Having A Ball in which Amanda Vickery and a team of experts recreated a Regency era ball
  • Howard Goodall’s Story Of Music, a major six-part series for BBC Two
  • And, Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s film Bach: A Passionate Life, a 90-minute documentary revealing his life’s research into the great composer.