BBC Studios’ Alan Holland

In August of last year, BBC Studios restructured its factual arm into two teams, creating a specialist factual productions unit separate from the existing documentary unit. Alan Holland, former head of the documentary unit, was put in place to lead the new division, which focuses on history, arts, music and culture. Holland tells TV Real about using history as the North Star to blend genres and continue to innovate.

TV REAL: Tell us about the new specialist factual productions unit you oversee.
HOLLAND: I had been running a combined documentary unit, which incorporated all the specialist factual output but was also responsible for the purer documentary output. That remit was incredibly liberating. In hindsight, it was too broad in terms of being able to excel in any one particular area. Now, we have ambitions to be the best specialist factual producer, certainly in the U.K. and ultimately the world. It was really difficult to have that kind of ambition when trying to serve so many different masters. So, the decision was made to play to this strength of our specialisms and split the unit into two.

The documentary unit continues doing more observational, present-tense, privileged-access pieces. My unit concentrates on four key heartland specialisms: history, arts, music and culture. With culture, I don’t mean the highbrow culture that would be written about in The Sunday Times’ culture supplement. It’s more a lens on how people, often underrepresented people, live their lives. A good example of that is Inside Our Autistic Minds, which puts neurodiversity on the front line and uses the tropes of arts programming to allow four people who are all neurodivergent to create a short film that represents the way they see the world. Ostensibly, it puts the lived experience at the heart of the television show. We’ve been commissioned to take on Stanley Tucci’s further adventures in Italy. That shows another side of what I mean by culture. That series is Stanley exploring his cultural heritage in Italy.

History is our North Star. With this amazing specialism in the documentary unit, we have historians here, people with art backgrounds, music journalists. We’re in a unique position to merge genres, take the learnings of one with the learnings of another, and meld them together. Our best work is reflective of that. That is what we’re going to build our USP around—trying to find the history in art, music and culture pieces with specialist factual layers running through. You’re going to get a narrative about something, and, actually, you end up getting something that is far richer.

That plays into some of the fears I’m seeing with commissioners about not having as much money out there. They’re slightly risk-averse. But this allows you to pinpoint fairly universal, accessible entry points. Once you’ve reached that point, you’re unpacking something more nuanced.

We made a show with Chuck D from Public Enemy called Fight the Power: How Hip-Hop Changed the World. Ostensibly, that is a music show that tells you the evolution of the art form—this is the album that led to that artist who led to that track, which led to that person being inspired. On one level, the entry point is the history of hip-hop. But, if you’re telling the history of hip-hop, you’re actually telling the story of the Black experience in America for the last 50 years. It becomes a social-political history. We’re using culture, art or music as an entry point but then unpacking historical stories that give us a real understanding.

Another good example is The Boys from Brazil: Rise of the Bolsonaros, which is the story of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. On one level, it’s a dynastic political thriller, but underpinning it all is an environmental narrative. You think you’re getting this political treatise, and actually, you’re getting this emotional, environmental roller-coaster that underpins it and brings universality.

My favorite show since we’ve come into this formulation is Uncanny, an adaptation of a BBC Radio 4 podcast in the U.K. It’s a paranormal investigation show in which an investigator, Danny Robins, goes to meet somebody who doesn’t necessarily believe in ghosts but has something they cannot explain in their lives. We interrogate the story from two different angles: from the perspective of a believer who will say this is classic poltergeist activity, and then the counterpoint of a scientist who will say, of course, it’s not a ghost; this is what’s happening psychologically. It uses the tropes of a ghost story and a classic ghost narrative but unpacks social history, psychology and science.

We’re trying to get these layers into our output because we have been so multiskilled and have all of these amazingly talented people from diverse backgrounds. What happens if we take an art historian and musician and whack them together? What does that do for the form we can bring to the piece? That will give us an identity that will help us stand out in the market.

TV REAL: What have been the most significant shifts for you coming over from the documentary division?
HOLLAND: The big shifts were all positive, actually. A reduced remit allows for much greater focus. It’s allowed us to think long and hard about our identity. When we had a supremely broad remit, it was very difficult to create a discernible piece that was identifiably ours in the way we wanted it to be. We were making some great output, but it was difficult to guide the direction of travel because we were active on so many fronts. Narrowing the focus with a “fewer, bigger, better” philosophy allows us to double down and create something we can all get behind. Unifying behind a strategy feels much easier when the focus is smaller.

TV REAL: Tell us about the breadth of the slate you’re working on.
HOLLAND: It is pretty broad. To name a few in the history space, Julius Caesar: The Making of a Dictator is a reappraisal of Julius Caesar from a psychological perspective. It exemplifies the opportunity to layer a narrative from an accessible entry point. Julius Caesar is one of the most famous people in human history. It is meant to be a psychological overview of what was going through his mind as he rose to power. Where did he get the chutzpah? Where did he get the cunning, the unalloyed ambition? It’s a docudrama explicitly designed to stay in the internal narrative of Caesar, deploying it with a psychological lens. Yes, we’re telling that historical story, but at the same time, we’re telling the story of the genesis of all autocratic rule that’s ever happened in history since then. You need to understand Julius Caesar before you can understand Bolsonaro, before you can understand [Vladimir] Putin and, to a certain degree, people like [Donald] Trump and Boris Johnson. While we don’t want to layer in those contemporary parallels too on the nose, one of the techniques we’ve deployed is in the talking-head interviews. As well as talking to great historians, we’re also talking to cultural commentators, modern-day politicians and activists who have walked the political tightrope in contemporary society. On the one hand, it’s a classical historical narrative, but we’re packing it through with political and contemporary resonance.

We do a lot of work with Lucy Worsley, with whom we’ve recently done a deep dive into the work of Arthur Conan Doyle. Before that, we did Agatha Christie. We’re doing more contemporary pieces, including Secrets and Spies: A Nuclear Game. It’s not a docudrama; it’s a Cold War thriller told with archive and talking heads. Rather than just having cultural commentators stating their theories about what happened behind the scenes, we’re attempting to get into the mindset and talk to the people who were in the rooms where it happened. We’ve gone straight to the source. We have an extraordinary array of former spies on all three sides of the Soviet-British-American triumvirate to tell a layered story that we’ve never heard before.

Disco: Soundtrack of a Revolution is one of our cultural pieces. It tells the story of the evolution of disco music but actually is telling you the evolution of LGBTQ culture in New York in the 1970s and how that plays with Black culture and Hispanic culture. So again, it is a cultural and artistic music entry point but tells a really important historical story.

We’re making two things for Tom McDonald at National Geographic. We’ve got the series with Stanley Tucci, which we’re really excited to have. It’s a big ambition for us to be seen as a company that can be a home for A-list talent. So, collaborating with Stanley on this series is a real honor and privilege. It, again, plays to that notion of layers and universality. The entry point is Italian food, but the show is about much more than that. It’s about Italian culture. It’s about identity. It’s about Stanley understanding his heritage. The second thing we’re doing for National Geographic is Lost Gold, which tells the story of entrepreneur and adventurer Tommy Thompson, who, in 1988, found the wreck of the S.S. Central America, which went down in the mid-1800s carrying the largest-ever consignment of gold bullion to go missing at sea. It’s an amazing story. It has all the hallmarks of a Nat Geo adventure treasure hunt that then segues and becomes a true-crime thriller.

So, from ghosts to Julius Caesar to the 1980s to disco to treasure hunts on the high seas to Stanley Tucci eating pasta in Sicily, that’s our remit—and more.

TV REAL: What new techniques and narrative styles are you encouraging your teams to use?
HOLLAND: We have a production in development for one of the streamers that is hopefully going to be our first foray into virtual programming. In this world of AI, we have an opportunity to bring people back to life in a way that has never been done before and extend the remit of archival material. That’s incredibly exciting. We’re seeing what we can do in that space to reignite lost souls and bring back lost voices. From a technological perspective, that’s our direction to travel.

One of the things I’m most excited about innovation-wise is the opportunity to take techniques from different genre tropes and try them out in other spaces. I love that our programs are hard to define, and I encourage our teams to do that. It’s interesting to get people from different backgrounds and ask them to work on a genre they’ve never done before.

Doing Uncanny presented a really interesting challenge for us. Amazingly, it is the first time that the BBC has ever adapted a BBC podcast for a TV show. So, there was no rule book to it. At the end of every episode of the podcast, host Danny Robins leaves the case open-ended and throws it to the audience—and he’s got an incredible rapport with his audience. He leaves time in the next podcast to reference all the theories that have come in from the audience. It’s a very interactive process. So, when adapting it, I wanted to keep that element of interactivity. I worked in live programming for many years, so I’ve always been aware of the power of interactivity in a live setting to justify why you are live in the first place. In a live event, you have an extraordinary audience that is very captive and is often very willing to be harnessed. Danny does that very successfully on his podcast. So, we were thinking about how to do that on TV. We went to our broadcaster, BBC Two, and asked how they would feel about us not delivering the program until the day of transmission—which would normally send commissioners into a flurry of panic. We filmed, edited and had the program completed, but kept back five minutes at the end. We aired episode one on a Friday and then did a throw-forward to the audience and said, “Give us your theories. We want to know what you think.” We gathered all of the comments and then looked at the best information we had come in over the weekend on Monday. We then scripted something, got the presenter back in and filmed it on Tuesday. We edited it on Wednesday. Then, we inserted it into the final project on Thursday, produced the new file and delivered it to the channel on Friday. It meant that we could retain the interactivity but also gave the show topicality. It also creates an event feel, which is rare in factual linear television.

TV REAL: What are audiences looking for now?
HOLLAND: People are looking for innovation. People are looking for new entry points into stories. There’s not as much money floating around the industry, so the necessity to land a piece that will find an audience has never been more potent. One of the reasons I was talking about accessible entry points is that commissioners are more risk-averse than they have been before. If you can go to them with a big-ticket piece of history, a big event, something that really resonates or a big name, it brings the odds down in terms of knowing that somebody, somewhere, will find that attractive. If you are doing the history of hip-hop or the history of disco, there’s a built-in audience. With Uncanny, we knew there was the podcast series, but we also knew that paranormal was a thing. With the Secrets and Spies series, we always intended to present that as a le Carré-esque thriller rather than a drier trot through the 1980s as you might have expected 10 or 15 years ago. It’s the same with A-list talent. Why wouldn’t you want to sit with Stanley Tucci?

Commissioners want us to think that that’s what the audience is after. And they’re probably right to a degree. Familiarity does bring comfort. There’s an awful lot of material out there, and there are an awful lot of channels to pick from. Getting a big-hitting A-lister or something that is really resonant and giving the audience something familiar is attractive. However, if you’re going to do that well, you have to have something different to say. You have to add something to the discourse. You can’t just trot through what has been done before. Audiences have a high expectation that, yeah, I’m happy to tune in for this because I like this person or I’m interested in that event or that’s important for our country or there is an anniversary, but unless you offer them something that is genuinely insightful, genuinely innovative or feels like you’re coming at it from a completely fresh perspective, the audience sees through it. The audience is becoming increasingly sophisticated. They’re told what they should be drawn, and that’s fair, but as a producer, I know that the expectation is that we have to raise the bar. Familiarity only gets you so far.

TV REAL: What are the biggest concerns for specialist factual producers today?
HOLLAND: The concern is that there is not as much money out there, but the ambition is not dropping. If you’re running a channel or a commissioner, and you have an extraordinary body of work behind you from an era when it was better funded, I wouldn’t want to drop that creative ball just because the industry is suffering a difficult time. It’s interesting being in a situation where we’re working with streamers for the first time, which is something that, traditionally, the BBC didn’t do. You get these much bigger budgets, and you still spend them. There’s no luxuriating in the budget. The same constraints remain. Because the ambition is bigger, the talent is bigger, locations are grander and expectations remain sky-high, no budget is an easy budget. It’s really important when we are developing and budgeting shows that we do so diligently and don’t necessarily rise to this desire always to be bigger and better and innovating regardless of the financial implications. The onus is on us to say, OK, this is what we can afford, and we need to think of other ways to innovate. We can think of other ways to convince the commissioner that this is going to be exciting, that we’re going to raise the bar. That’s one of the biggest worries: Are we always going to be able to do that? But that’s then the joy of the challenge. To say, OK, we know that this is the finite amount of budget, and regardless of our ambition, this is what we have to work with. The temptation to say, “Budget be damned, we just want to impress this channel. We’ll just go for it and pay the consequences,” in this day and age is not responsible. Still, the desire to innovate and impress never goes away. I see the desire within the commissioners and broadcasters to keep the standard of their product going up and up despite the economic difficulties. It’s down to us to think of ways we can still impress but at the same time not leave us financially vulnerable. That’s the knot we’re always trying to untangle.