BBC Northern Ireland has ‘sense of velocity’, says Steve Carson

The ex-RTÉ executive has rejoined the BBC at a time when production is being decentralised to the North

Ian McDiarmid stars as Sir Edward Grey in ‘37 Days: How the World Went to War’, a three-part factual drama in which Belfast’s Methodist College doubled as London’s Foreign Office.

Ian McDiarmid stars as Sir Edward Grey in ‘37 Days: How the World Went to War’, a three-part factual drama in which Belfast’s Methodist College doubled as London’s Foreign Office.

 

Two very different milestones will rank among the programme themes at BBC Northern Ireland this year: the 20th anniversary of the 1994 IRA ceasefire and, less obviously, the centenary of the first World War.

Output from its current production base, Blackstaff House in Belfast, will include both topics as BBC Northern Ireland ramps up its contribution to UK-wide network programming.

Steve Carson, who was appointed head of BBC Northern Ireland Productions late last year, says it felt like an “exciting time” to join the broadcaster, which has been boosted by a BBC plan to decentralise production to its regions. “You really feel like you’re in on the ground floor at something that is primed for expansion,” he says. “There’s a sense of velocity for both the BBC within Belfast, and Belfast within the North.”

At his previous employer, RTÉ, where his last title was chief editorial adviser and director for RTÉ Television’s Factual Group, Carson was “moving on the corporate track, that’s the best way to put it”, following a restructuring within RTÉ Television, for which he had earlier served as director of programmes.

“The attraction of this job is that it is closely connected to programming, and the BBC is my alma mater, it’s where I started,” says Carson, who worked for the organisation in Manchester and London early in his career.

Now back in the home city he left in 1987 at the age of 18 – “another positive” – programming is “first, second and last” on his priority list, he says. “It’s all about making good programmes for audiences both here and across the water.”

Even with another charter review approaching, the BBC’s single-funded model can offer greater clarity on budgets. “It helps you plan further out. There is just less certainty of revenue with a dual-funded model,” he says. Otherwise, the public service ambitions of the BBC and RTÉ, with which he hopes to do more co-productions, are similar.

The total content budget for BBC NI, including radio, in the year to the end of last March was about £68 million (€83 million), £18.4 million of which was spent on network-wide programming. The network figure will increase to £22.6 million this year.

While the drama department, headed by Stephen Wright, is hoping to pick up more BBC One commissions, its output for BBC Two in the years to come looks assured.

The plot of the second series of serial killer BBC Two hit The Fall, which is currently filming in Belfast, does not close off the possibility of a third, while there will probably be two further series of police corruption drama Line of Duty.

The acclaimed second series was made by BBC NI after the production was relocated from Birmingham. But unlike The Fall, which has been praised by the BBC NI Audience Council for presenting a “different, if somewhat dark” perspective of the North, Line of Duty is not actually set in Belfast, but in an anonymous English city.

“It’s made here, but not about here,” says Carson. “Representation – telling Northern Ireland stories for the whole of the BBC, and all of the UK – is the other side of it, and The Fall would be a part of that.”

Although BBC NI, run by director Peter Johnston, is keen to tell “Northern Irish stories that are about ordinary people”, as Carson puts it, the legacy of the Troubles is still “part of the story”. This summer a documentary by journalist Peter Taylor called Who Won the War? will be broadcast across the network to mark the ceasefire anniversary.

Carson (who is married to broadcaster Miriam O’Callaghan) is keen to explore “new methods of creative collaboration”, including seeing what happens when people from different departments sit around table and talk to each other. “We want to ask questions like,‘Can a good idea in factual become a good idea in drama?’ ” he says.

The BBC’s major anniversary focus thise year – the first World War centenary – is a case in point. Three-part factual drama 37 Days, about the run-up to the outbreak of war, was made in Belfast last year and was broadcast in March, while Bafta-nominated single drama The Wipers Times, about a magazine produced by soldiers in the trenches, was also made in the North.

BBC NI also made I Was There: The Great Interviews, which delved into archive footage originally recorded for a 1964 series, while television documentary Teenage Tommies, radio series World War One at Home and a series of historical guides for online division BBC Knowledge and Learning are also part of its contribution to a season that is still only warming up.

“The sense of potential is exciting,” says Carson. “When it really puts its mind to it, the BBC is almost as big as World War One.”