E&T talks to Andrew Cohen, BBC Head of Science, about 'Horizon', Brian Cox and the forthcoming series 'The Story of Electricity', which will use the IET archives.
I have just been rescued by on-site engineers out of a stranded lift at BBC Media Centre. Luckily, the BBC Head of Science is still in the building and very personable with it.
Last November at Savoy Place, IET's London premises on the Embankment, Andrew Cohen addressed the PAWS awards (International Festival of Film and TV Programmes on Science and Technology). His premise was, 'Are we in a golden age of TV?'. There has always been a tendency to look back and reminisce that everything was rosier in the past, he says. With science on television, this pinnacle was apparently reached in a 1980's episode of 'Horizon' (physicist Richard Feynman's clip of flower beauty). So everything has been going downhill since then. Or has it?
Cohen reckons we're on the crest of a wave. 'There is a massive interest in science, allowing us to put more complicated content on screen and people are lapping it up.' The BBC's recent extravaganza, 'Wonders of the Universe' is a case in point. But we will return to that later, as well as spilling some even more exciting science content coming up on the BBC.
From humble beginnings...
Andrew Cohen has only been heading the BBC's Science Unit for a year. Press releases have described him as having 'a passion for science'. But does he also have a science background? He is a failed doctor – his words, not mine. He was trying to do medicine, he says, but ended up with a degree in Physiology and Pharmacology. He could certainly do the medic's bedside manner. He followed up a BSc with an Imperial College MSc in Science Communication.
After 16 years at BBC Science, Cohen has now gone all the way from runner to running the unit. Among other BBC Science series, he has been researcher and assistant producer on biggies: 'Tomorrow's World' and more recently, editor of 'Horizon'.
He describes both of these landmark programmes as training grounds. Training grounds where Cohen first worked with Professor Brian Cox and where styles and formats were formed.
So, 'Horizon'. From 2005 to 2009 Cohen oversaw the 'rebranding and editorial reinvigoration of the strand'. What does this mean exactly?
'Horizon' is coming up for its 50th birthday, he says, and it is the succession of new editors that has kept it alive. Although, some things haven't changed since 1964. Compare these 'Horizon' episodes for example: How Much Do You Drink? and How Much Can you Drink?, one from 1969, the other from 1983. Cohen knows this, 'The form changes, not the content'.
When he was at the helm, he wanted to attract more of the non-traditional Horizon viewers. He describes this as adding a bit of 'Marmite' to the formula, as well as borrowing from reality TV. But he was aiming for drama documentary and CGI, rather than scientists' big fat weddings.
Currently, Andrew Cohen is in charge of 60 hours of annual BBC Science documentary across four channels. This includes programmes like 'Chemistry: A Volatile History', 'The Secret Life of Chaos' (both presented by nuclear physicist Professor Jim Al-Khalili) and primetimes like 'The Sky at Night', 'Bang Goes the Theory', 'Wonders of the Universe' and its predecessor 'Wonders of the Solar System'.
Educational TV viewing
I wonder if bringing in a younger audience is a target, since younger presenters seem to be creeping in. 'Bang Goes the Theory' is very hands-on and almost feels a bit like 'Blue Peter'. They carry out exciting experiments such as recreating weather in the studio. After simulating a storm (torrential rain and wind), one of the presenters did a quick calculation and worked out that this gale force was enough to power UK homes for a year. Cohen replies that 'Bang' is aimed at a family audience, rather than the young specifically. 'Science output is at its best when the young and old can enjoy it.'
Should it be part of the BBC's job to supplement science education? There have been worries from eminent figures like Lord Rees that young people are not getting enough science. Where does Cohen stand on education versus entertainment? Is there a dilemma between audience figures and in-depth science?
'We are not here to supplement education...but to get science knowledge to a broad audience – as broad as possible,' he says. He sees no dilemma. 'The best way to educate is to be entertaining. To impart knowledge you have to be engaging.'
And so to 'Wonders of the Universe'. The BBC's recent four-part series, in which Professor Brian Cox presented us with Destiny (time), Stardust (what we're made of), Falling (gravity) and Messengers (light) across spectacular locations. It has been creating quite a buzz. I have even heard that sales of telescopes have gone up and that the first episode had five million viewers?
The series, which took roughly 18 months to make, attracted about 4.4 million viewers on its first episode, which averaged out across the series at 3.7 million, explains Cohen. Surely this is unprecedented for a science programme? 'Unprecedented for a science programme about the universe. For BBC2 it is by far the biggest audience hit for quite some time – seven or eight years.'
Former band member, and now particle physicist Brian Cox (dubbed Foxy Coxy), must have been calculated to pull in the punters? Cohen says he has been working with Brian for many years on new ways of communicating physics and breaking down the barriers of those who say, 'planets aren't for me'. 'Brian is disarming. When faced with complex info, he disarms not scares.'
It is his injection of emotion that is attracting a cross-section audience, he says, a move away from past styles that Cohen describes as 'boyzy' or 'cold and distant'.
'Wonders' is certainly not that. The visuals are stunning and in your face. I mention that, on average, in one episode Professor Cox visits around four destinations.
For instance, to explain how light travels he goes to a Sun-worshipping temple in Egypt, the Victoria Falls, the Namib Desert and Canada's Rocky Mountains. This is something that has not gone unnoticed in spoofs of the programme. Cohen replies that the Earth was the star of the show. 'We are part of this solar system – this was reflecting that. It was important to put Earth at the centre'.
It must have had a sizeable budget? 'It was not a cheap programme to make, no.' How much? 'I'm not going to talk about figures,' he says affably. I wonder if this information is publicly-accessible. 'I don't think it is.'
Who came up with the idea and locations? I have read that Prof Cox was in favour of using cinematic visuals, like a film not a lecture. Brian and the show's directors chose the global destinations, Cohen responds, and Cohen and Cox had conversations early on 'about not seeing our planet in isolation. The laws that exist here exist everywhere in the Solar System.
'It is a personal journey for the viewer – the formation of matter of the universe. Programme two was about the lifecycle of a star – a pretty remote subject. How to make it personal? What are you made of? Every atom you're made of, every atom in this room, was made in the heart of a star billions of years ago. This is quite profound territory.'
He adds that specific stories were used – like where your wedding ring came from. Gold being a material from 'a rare cosmological event'. After the first episode, 'thermodynamics ended up trending on Twitter – a lot of people were talking about entropy. It had real impact at a deep level'.
Surprises for the audience
Public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I expand on the spoofs, where Prof Cox is seen explaining complicated concepts like matter with desert sand; or there is a drinking game where alcohol is downed each time time-lapse cloud footage is shown or Cox's silhouette is seen up a mountain.
Cohen is aware of the spoofs, of course. 'We're quite flattered. But you've got to make sure you don't become too easy to parody.' It's a fine line, he says. So in the next series (yes, there's going to be a next series), 'Wonders of Life', they are going to have some surprises for the audience.
The only criticism of the programme I could find went down a sideline. There was a public debate of the soundtrack. Sir Peter Maxwell Davies (Master of the Queen's Music) complained about 'muzak', the Royal National Institute for Deaf People objected to confusing sounds and some viewers thought the music interfered with the commentary.
'A distinction needs to be made between audibility and stylistic taste,' Cohen states. 'It's a tricky one – people are listening on different TVs, there is huge variability.'
He accepts that there may be a taste issue, but adds that the music was an integral part of the experience. So the BBC has remixed episodes and is undertaking an 'extensive investigation to identify and improve the underlying issues with audibility'.
'We are always looking at programmes to make sure we're getting it right. You should be able to hear the commentary.'
Later this year, new series of 'Wonders', 'Bang' and 'Horizon' are planned, says Cohen, as well as Professor Marcus du Sautoy's 'The Code'. This plays with 'the strange connections that maths allows us to make in the world around us'.
Then there will be 'The Story of Electricity', brought to you using both BBC and IET archives. Presented by Jim Al-Kalili, it 'looks at history and development, the idea of power and ACDC – the story with Edison'.
But most exciting of all is BBC1's new blockbuster, 'Planet Dinosaur'. You are about to meet a whole new generation of dinosaurs, says Cohen. 'More dinosaurs have been discovered in the last decade than in 200 years'. This is due to new palaeontology in South America, China and the Antarctic. And these ones are bigger and badder. T-Rex and Diplodocus are about to be superseded, Cohen says. 'Spinosaurus is one of the stars – he is much larger than T-Rex, lived in Africa, a bit of a fish eater.'
Cohen finishes off by agreeing that there is a need for good science in the public domain – he has created a Virtual Science Academy, a forum for communicators, scientists and broadcasters to request and comment. And in this new media age, where quantity is not necessarily quality, 'strong science journalism' is vital. It seems medicine's loss is science TV's gain.