Originally trained in opera production at Glyndebourne, Jan Younghusband later moved into theatre production, before becoming a freelance TV writer and producer. In 1999 she joined Channel 4 as Head of Arts & Performance, and in 2009 moved to the BBC to take up the role of Commissioning Editor for BBC Music & Events.
Across her TV career, Younghusband has commissioned numerous programmes and films that have picked up a range of awards, including a number of Emmys, Oscars and Baftas. This week she travels to Doc/Fest in Sheffield, to meet with directors and producers looking to gain exposure for new documentaries.
Ahead of that, CMU’s Andy Malt spoke to Jan about her career to date and the inner workings of the BBC’s Music & Events department.
AM: You started out in opera and theatre, how did you come to move into television?
JY: Television was always around me when I worked in the theatre, and I think I have always watched operas as if they were a live movie. Making TV, of course, is a very different medium because the audience isn’t sitting there, you can’t see them! So how you communicate with the audience on TV is a very different thing to the visceral connection of the theatre, where the audience’s reaction is palpable during the performance.
One day Malcolm Gerrie and Jonathan Hewes, then at Initial TV, asked me, in a case of mistaken identity, to do a budget for a TV series called ‘Orchestra!’. When I explained I wasn’t a TV producer, he said, “Well could you write it then instead?” I said yes, and that was the beginning. That programme featured the conductor Sir Georg Solti, who I had worked with before, so in some ways it felt like a natural progression.
AM: How did you work up to the role of Commissioning Editor for BBC Music & Events?
JY: I worked as freelance producer and author for a few years, building a reputation, I guess, for creating innovative new things. For example, when I did my first multi-camera opera for the BBC – ‘Peter Grimes’ at ENO – I persuaded the director, Barrie Gavin, to do it differently, to not film the audience in the theatre, and to make it more like a film, but from the stage. There had been opera films on TV before, but to make a film in the theatre was very different at the time.
I worked for three years as a producer at the BBC and then moved to America. I came back to the UK when my son was born, and was working freelance again, when Channel Four rang up looking for a Commissioning Editor For Music. Music of all kinds had been an integral part of my life, from playing the piano with my father as a child, through to my first guitar, to playing in a band at university and organising the university classical concert series. I have always had a great passion for and found great inspiration from music. It is like a vital language of expression for us all when words are perhaps not enough.
All of which made the Channel 4 role a great opportunity. As their Commissioning Editor for music, and later arts, I commissioned a wide range of programmes, from ‘Ballet Changed My Life’ and ‘Operatunity’ to opera films for TV like ‘Owen Wingrave’ and ‘Klinghoffer’. I also got to commission artists to make films, such as Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’.
When the job at the BBC as Commissioning Editor For Music And Events came up, I had done ten years at Channel Four and I was due a change. And the BBC is the biggest producer of original arts, music and programmes in the world. It was a fantastic honour to get the job and it felt like the right next step.
Some of the things I have been proud to have commissioned here include ‘Howard Goodall’s Story Of Music’, and ‘Maestro At The Opera’, alongside festival coverage of Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, a new look for The Proms on TV, returning series like the iconic live music show, ‘Later… with Jools Holland’, and big events like the Jubilee Concert and Bollywood Live.
AM: What does your role entail on a day-to-day basis?
JY: I wake up every day and think about our audience. Did they like last night’s programme? Will they watch the programmes next week? Audience viewing patterns have changed, as our audience likes to choose when to watch things, on catch up, and not necessarily when scheduled.
Getting the tempo right for our huge and broad-reaching audience is really important. Getting across the experience of the live events and making that translate to TV, finding brilliant stories about music, putting the artists centre stage. Unpacking the past through landmark historical documentaries and top notch journalism and expert opinion.
The first thing each morning is to discuss the urgent matters of the day, and then it’s a mix of creative meetings, watching rough cuts, preparing for channel routines and getting across the email inbox. A lot of the day is spent in meetings, discussing ideas with producers and directors, shaping programmes, and most importantly thinking up new things to do.
I also do a lot of thinking on my scooter to and from work. This is a very creative time when I am alone, concentrating on the road ahead in more ways than one.
AM: How closely do the different music-focussed departments at the BBC work?
JY: We do work closely together, especially within Radio. BBC Radio and TV working together is a very powerful thing, though not everything needs to be joined up across all our platforms. It depends on the programme or project. The recent Bowie film, for example, was a really unique, one-off TV documentary. But with things like our Glastonbury coverage, there is a real need for the BBC to be fully joined up so we can deliver a truly immersive experience for our audience.
AM: We’ve got both Glastonbury and the BBC Proms coming up shortly. Is it a challenge having both events so close together? Is this something any other broadcaster is in a position to do?
JY: The summer is very busy every year, but the BBC is constantly covering major events, so it’s an everyday affair for us. As commissioning editor for events as well as music, I am involved in the coverage of a diverse range of things, from the Royal Wedding to state funerals and royal services, as well as things like Glastonbury, the Radio 1 Big Weekend and Bollywood Carmen live in Bradford, so we are used to big projects! And it’s the teamwork here that makes it all happen.
The big events and live music programmes all show off a really exceptional side of the BBC, which we must not take for granted. Both outside broadcasts like Glastonbury and BBC’s studio production, like ‘Later… with Jools Holland’, are award winning and rightly so. Watching ‘Later…’ in the studio, or ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and ‘The Voice’, you realise there is a bedrock of expertise at the BBC going back years. And this expertise and the ability to learn from the BBC – as I did as a producer – is the foundation of our industry, and we should work hard to keep that going.
AM: It’s the Sheffield Doc/Fest this week. How important are events like Doc/Fest to you and the BBC?
JY: Doc/Fest is another important hub for creativity. I can’t always go to all the festivals because of my work schedule, but I work with my Commissioning Exec Greg Sanderson – who’s also Commissioning Exec For Arts – and we decide who is going to what. Any opportunity to bring filmmakers together has to be a really great thing because they are the lifeblood of our industry.
AM: Other than industry events, how can musicians and the music industry engage with you and BBC TV?
JY: There is a formal system for sending in ideas via BBC e-Commissioning, and we meet to discuss ideas or hold briefings for bigger landmark programmes. I tend not to have general meetings as such, and prefer to meet when there are actual ideas to discuss. The BBC holds briefing sessions for producers regularly. The briefings are the place for more general chat, and then we get together when there is something more specific to discuss
AM: In terms of music programming, are there any things you think the BBC could do better?
JY: I think we are always looking to do things better and we are constantly thinking of how to refresh returning pieces of programming to ensure they are engaging for our audience. Sometimes success lies in the most unexpected places. But if you listen to the audience, usually they are pretty clear about what they want. As we are spending the public’s money, delivering well for them is vitally important.
But also, sometimes we can surprise them with something they didn’t think they would like! That’s when we have done our job well, when the letters come saying, “I didn’t think I would like this programme, but I loved it”. Lots of people wrote in about ‘Maestro At The Opera’ saying they didn’t expect to like it, but were mesmerised by what the conductor does. It attracted a new audience to opera too. And this month we are broadcasting George Benjamin’s new opera from the Royal Opera House, ‘Written On Skin’, which delivers directly to the core opera audience.
AM: And what do you think have been particular successes in recent years?
JY: Friday nights on BBC Four have become a real destination for music, contextualising music for our audience through quality documentaries and great archive.
On BBC Two we have partnered with filmmakers and delivered some outstanding feature docs: ‘George Harrison Living In The Material World’, ‘Crossfire Hurricane’, ‘Queen – Days Of Our Lives’ and ‘David Bowie – Five Years’. Across the BBC we have some great storytellers in documentary: Sir Antonio Pappano on opera; ‘Howard Goodall’s Story Of Music’; ‘David Starkey’s Music And Monarchy’; ‘The Sound And The Fury,’ tackling the avante-garde in classical music.
Also I’m very proud of our live coverage and events that we have created: Jubilee Concert, ‘Frankenstein’s Wedding’ live in Leeds and now ‘Bollywood Live’. Enabling access to great music and performance is a really crucial part of the BBC’s output.