Beyond the Broadcast: How academics are working with the BBC on the 'Black and British' season
The BBC’s Black and British season marks an ever-growing appreciation of the need for popular history that reflects the UK’s diverse population, as well as programming that speaks to that population. But the BBC’s desire for a broad appeal has not come at the cost of factual depth or rigour, with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) being a collaborator with the corporation, alongside bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, National Archives, Historic England, British Film Institute and Black Cultural Archives.
It is not the first time that the AHRC has worked with the BBC on its programming, but this radio and television season, which also features the public placement of black history plaques, draws on a wide range of current academic research. This is all part of a relationship that has grown rapidly since the organisations worked together on the BBC’s World War One at Home in 2014.
“The BBC were talking with us about some of the things they were working on, and the Black and British season was one area where we felt we could embed high quality academic research into the programming they made,” says Danielle Moore-Chick, who is Communications Manager at the AHRC. “We knew there were new and emerging themes in our work that would be of interest that hadn’t made it into broadcast yet.”
The AHRC had already established its New Generation Thinkers scheme, which brings early-career researchers in front of BBC producers, and it was workshops organised as part of this scheme that informed some of the work on the black history strand. Specially-organised sessions offered a more curated approach, with AHRC staff working with the BBC’s broad brief to pull in relevant academics and their research.
AHRC-funded researchers were made available to the production team making the BBC2 series Black and British: A Forgotten History, which is presented by David Olusoga. This has the dual effect of ensuring that the research used is bang up to date and that the subjects covered may not have been given air time otherwise.
“We offer the BBC new angles within the arts and humanities, and that is something we can really deliver on,” says Moore-Chick. “The advantage of broadcast is that it gives the subject time, in a way that newspapers can’t. They’re able to absorb the research and understand it. It really is a two-way exercise, as academics get to see how programmes are made and BBC producers get an insight into archives that they may not otherwise know exist.”
This was certainly true of the AHRC-funded research on African diaspora in Roman Britain, which features in Black and British: A Forgotten History. Dr Hella Eckardt, who is based at the University of Reading, acted as a consultant for the series. Her research has fed into a new understanding of black history in the UK and works as a great example of how the AHRC can keep BBC academic references both current and exciting.
“We’re also changing the perception of academics and academic research within the BBC, which in turn is assisting in the quality of programmes,” says Moore-Chick. “The academics are so passionate about their research and the programme makers are so passionate about the shows they make. So when you put them in a room together then sparks really fly. It is really great to see that happening and there is always something you don’t expect. Often, it goes in a completely different direction from where it begins and that is something that both academics and programme makers are open to.”
Judith Nichol, who is the BBC’s Partnerships Manager for Factual Television, is certainly a fan of the BBC working closely with the AHRC, citing previous collaborations on programmes about World War I and Shakespeare as big successes, alongside the inspiration that academics can provide for television and radio.
“The AHRC is an important partner for the BBC when we look for up to date academic research in the humanities,” says Nichol. “Our relationship brings public impact and public engagement with the research, as well as great content for the programme makers.”
James Van der Pool, who is Series Producer on Black and British: A Forgotten History, says that AHRC-funded research has allowed him to drill down into topics and pick out individual stories, rather than have a general overview. Although he also believes that the academic backing provided offers a check on what is current in academia, as well as what is correct. “The work needs to ring true,” says Van der Pool. “We don’t want to work in isolation, we want to tell stories that resonate. So they have to be relevant and accurate. The AHRC collates academics, so that they are not working in isolation either.”
So, what comes next in this fruitful series of collaborations between the BBC and AHRC? “We are launching a new collaboration on female composers, which is with BBC Radio 3,” says Moore-Chick. “It’s going to be a challenge, but these are going to be different outputs to those we have done before, with music being played by BBC orchestras and choirs. A lot of the scores have never been performed in public or recorded before, so that is really quite thrilling.”
Episode 3 of ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’ airs on Wednesday 23 November at 9pm.
Notes to editors
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- The Arts and Humanities Research Council funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98 million to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits and contributes to the economic success of the UK but also to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe. For more information visit: ahrc.ukri.org or follow @ahrcpress on twitter.