Speaking our Language: An interview with BBC ALBA (Part Two)

Cathy MacDonald in Sàr Sgeoil

Following part one's discussion of the creation of Gaelic-language channel BBC ALBA, this final part of our interview with ALBA's Head of Service, Margaret Mary Murray, and Head of Content, Alan Esslemont, looks at the commissioning process for new series, the possibility of original drama and some of programmes that can be found in the channel's Autumn schedule.

Jonathan Melville: How do you commission programmes for BBC ALBA?

Margaret Mary Murray: Programming comes about the same as any other channel. We have a creative industry in Scotland and producers who pitch ideas to us. For our most recent pitching round we had 162 ideas from 32 companies, and these companies are a broad range operating in Scotland. Last year we worked with about 16 independent companies plus STV and the BBC and we get pitched ideas from all over.

The hard part is that we work to a budget, our content budget is £14 million a year, so we have to allocate that carefully and what we do is that we have two poles in our strategy. We commission high volume content with a low cost from a number of suppliers and we also commission bespoke programmes. Out of that round we commissioned 13, varying from one off documentaries to short series and some music.

We publish our schedule template and our priorities and we're always looking for standout proposals. We try and target programmes that will work for us in Autumn launch and Christmas and New Year. The backbone of the schedule is also produced through volume agreements we have with a a number of companies. We're working with a large number of Indie suppliers and that works well.

Alan Esslemont: We create over 600 hours of television a year, which is quite small compared to S4C or TG4 who produce around 2000 in Wales and Ireland. In 2009, OFCOM showed that half of the hours of television commissioned in the independent sector in Scotland were worked for BBC ALBA. That's not half the money but on the question of volume of hours we're quite important. We have a restrictive budget so the cost per hour is quite low.

Is there anything you feel typifies your output or that you’re particularly proud of?

MMM: We've done a couple of observational series, one on Partick in Glasgow filmed over 18 months and some other location based documentaries. We also did one based on midwives in Raigmore in Inverness, a very sensitive and emotive issue and we got fantastic access from members of the public who were going through stages of pregnancy or clinics to do with pregnancy and we got a fantastic series that had Gaelic at its heart but which reached out to a national population.

Another series we did with Highland vets worked brilliantly for both audiences. It had a Gaelic-speaking vet based in Wick as the main backbone that touched lots of communities and subject matters. Also one-off documentaries that really punch above their weight for the budget that we allocate, we get amazing commitment from our producers and from the independent companies that supply the channel, they put in a huge amount of creative and personal effort into what they deliver for the channel.

I think if it hadn't been for the buy-in of the independent companies and the two broadcasters that supply the channel, the channel wouldn't have been as successful. What we get in terms of product is as good as anything going out on British television. I’m proud of everything we do.

AE: To a certain extent it's the sum of the parts and more that we're getting out of BBC ALBA, the amount and volume of Scottish-focused material you're not getting anywhere else. By having that on every night and mixing it with deep archive and archive, I think we're creating something that's quite a strong statement and that is using television broadcasting to give Gaelic a strong foothold in Scottish media.

At present we're reaching half a million in any week and that could go higher, but it will be down to the amount of content we can create and with £14 million that's quite a struggle and there are lots of stories to be told in Scotland.

Cathy MacDonald helps launch BBC ALBA's Autumn schedule

There are also some Gaelic programmes on BBC2, do those originate on BBC ALBA?

MMM: They come from us, so most of what is scheduled on BBC 2 will have had its origin at BBC ALBA. I have very close links with Ewan Angus, the Head of Television at BBC Scotland, and we'll discuss ideas we think will cross over straight to BBC 2, series such as Eòrpa. Some programmes have been made for BBC ALBA and remade for an English speaking audience.

We had a documentary a few years ago featuring the Scottish actress Eileen McCallum and her two grandsons who have muscular dystrophy, and that was commissioned for BBC ALBA and another version was done for BBC Scotland.

How much of a Scottish focus does BBC ALBA have?

AE: I think one of the key strengths of the channel is its internationalism. Margaret Mary was the first editor of Eòrpa and at that point Gaelic was standing out doing something international. Two of our new commissions have a very strong international thread and we have a standalone series that looks to documentary markets outside Scotland.

MMM: Audiences are incredibly cosmopolitan in their tastes and we should reflect that in our schedule It allows us to pick the best of what's available internationally so that there isn't an incongruity to it. For example, one of the films we scheduled was Whale Rider, which is about an indigenous community and about their struggle with their young people, their culture and their identity and I think that would have resonated with a Gaelic audience and a Scottish audience as well.

Archive television plays a part of the schedule, including a high profile screening of 1975's The Cheviot, The Stag and The Black, Black Oil which we covered on ReelScotland. How did that come about?

MMM: Cheviot came about because we'd commissioned a documentary on Dolina Maclennan who is well known in the Gaelic world, as well as in the Scots tradition as a performer, actress and singer and whilst we were making this we sourced the film and used quite a few clips – as she states in the film she was the first person John McGrath invited to be a performer in 7:84.

We tried to find the film and amazingly it hadn't gone out in its entirety since 1975. We set about trying to clear it for broadcast and got permission for one transmission and hopefully we'll get another at a later date. It was seen as a companion piece to this documentary and I think it worked really well and brought a seminal piece of writing, theatre and broadcasting to a totally new audience. Even if people missed it it's back being discussed.

You recently screened four episodes of the 1960's series, Dr Finlay's Casebook, celebrating the programmes 50th anniversary. How did that come about and are there plans for more?

That came about because of a letter from a member of the public who brought to our attention that it was the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of this series. I traced the first few episodes down and watched them and really loved them and thought they would be enjoyed by not only those who were fans of the series when it went out the first time round but also that they would be attractive to a new audience

Another drama I noticed on the channel this year was Corp is Anam, a series set in Ireland about reporters. How did that come to be on BBC ALBA?

MMM: That came about through a collaboration we have with other indigenous language broadcasters. We have a network with other Celtic broadcasters in Wales and Ireland but also in New Zealand, in the far north of Norway and Canada, in South Africa and in Hawaii, we have a network and we exchange programmes. Every year we exchange four hours of our programmes and get a lot back in return. That programme came about as part of the exchange. We don't have the funding to originate much new Gaelic drama so it's interesting experiment for us to schedule other language drama.

Glasgow Warriors v Leinster - Sport plays a large part in BBC ALBA's schedule

We’ve discussed on ReelScotland in the past that this country doesn't produce many international hits, unlike Wales which most famously has big dramas like Doctor Who. With the success of foreign language series such as Wallander in the UK, is there a place for a Gaelic equivalent?

MMM: Drama is a core part of a TV schedule and at the moment we're showing repeats of a drama STV made in the 90s and that's been popular. We do have an ambition to deliver more original drama, maybe one a year on a small scale. We also have ambitions to extend the schedule in other areas and drama is part of a wider strategy to expand the channel in other directions. It has been fantastic to see other subtitled dramas rise to such prominence in the UK, it's the first time it's happened.

Money is at the heart of the conundrum but creativity definitely isn't. We know we have the talent and the performers and we know there is a hunger for drama to be created in Gaelic. There is no lack of creativity in Scotland, it's bursting at the seams, people have ambition and it's just about realising some of that potential.

AE: It's a question of budget. The Welsh created Hedd Wyn, a feature film that was Oscar nominated, and through the Welsh channel they've been building up an expertise in drama that then breaks through to series such as Doctor Who.

The Welsh channel has been core at keeping skills within Wales and a lot of that appeared on S4C. For us to get there we'd need to be in a different position budget-wise, but what Margaret Mary says is true. What we see pitched and then delivered shows there is talent in Scotland, it's just we're all pushing frustratedly at boundaries of budget, but that's just the situation we're in. What’s the situation with BBC ALBA on the BBC iPlayer?

MMM: We have ten hours a week on iPlayer. Our scheduler, Maggie Taylor, schedules all of BBC ALBA on television and iPlayer and we know that people use the iPlayer in a different way to the TV - things that don't necessarily stand out well on the television stand out well on the iPlayer.

Brands and associations work well, because if you pick a programme you'll get suggestions on other programmes of interest, so we have a motoring show, Air An Rathad, which is an entertainment series based on cars and all things mechanical and that gets paired up with Top Gear, which drives an audience to our content in a way that probably doesn't happen within the normal schedule. Adjacencies and associations in terms of genre and subject matter work brilliantly.

We also have bespoke animations which are probably lost on the totality of our weekly schedule but on iPlayer they constantly pick up thousands of hits, so odd things are really augmented by the iPlayer and how it associates our content with mainstream series.

It's really important that we're able to offer that on iPlayer as people use non-linear methods for education. Our ten hours get eaten up quite quickly and then there are series that we don't have the rights for on iPlayer, such as some sports. A number of things dictate how we schedule on the iPlayer.

John & Lorna Norgrove with children from Marastoon, a widow’s refuge in Jalalabad

You recently announced your Autumn schedule, what’s coming up on the channel?

MMM: We're making a documentary about the story of the Skye Bridge. There's been sufficient time from the inception of the bridge to now to shake out some of the really controversial issues and some of the iconic moments in more recent issues.

AE: We're working on a a series about a lawyer who, in the 1950s, was involved with the case of the last boy in Scotland who was hanged, a story you wouldn't necessarily connect with Gaelic but it's part of a strand of programming we've done since we started that's been very successful.

Earlier this year we had a series about Glasgow City FC, a woman's football team who did really well in Europe this year. The amount of feedback on that has been huge, from both youth groups and women's sports groups. In many ways I think that's what we're about, we're not trying to do the same as BBC or STV, we have a unique niche in Scotland that allows us to look after some of the niches in Scotland that others can't deal with. That's very good for us.

MMM: New Autumn series include Sàr Sgeoil, in which Cathy MacDonald looks at how the authors of 'Sunset Song', 'The Thirty Nine Steps', 'Kidnapped' and 'The Silver Darlings' were influenced by the Scottish landscape and how they depicted it in their novels.

Sgeulachd Oscar Slater (An Innocent Man) is our latest true crime documentary which reopens a fascinating unsolved case that is purported to be one of the worst miscarriages of justice in Scottish legal history while in Lorgan Linda (Linda’s Story) we follow John and Lorna Norgrove’s emotional journey to Afghanistan, the country which their daughter Linda loved so dearly and where she lost her life in 2010.

We also have music and song from The Royal National Mod 2012 and the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, live coverage of the Traditional Music Awards ceremony plus a new series of Ceòl Country and highlights from the Blas festival.

Visit the BBC ALBA website for details of their current schedule.

BBC ALBA is available on the following platforms:

  • Freeview channel 8

  • Virgin Media channel 188

  • Sky channel 168

  • Freesat channel 110

  • Live on BBC iPlayer