Andrew Cohen – Head of BBC Science

Andrew Cohen
Photo: British Broadcasting Corporation
Admittedly this is more science fact, than science fiction, but when GC was offered the opportunity to chat to Andrew Cohen, head of BBC Science, before the Edinburgh International Science Festival screening of Wonders of the Universe, we jumped at it.

So we sent the resident GC brainbox, Michael Flett, a.k.a. Pixel, along to the Edinburgh Filmhouse to do just that.

– Kevin Gilmartin GC Ed


Geek ChocolateLooking back, there used to be a wealth of science and technology on television – Horizon, the BBC’s flagship show, Tomorrow’s World, QED and Connections with James Burke.

As good as the current work of Professors Brian Cox and Iain Stewart is, the emphasis is more on wonder and sensation rather than hard science, and while Bang Goes the Theory and Braniac can get children excited, do they communicate the importance of science?

Andrew Cohen – I think there’s always a temptation to look back and think that there was a sort of golden age decades ago, and I think that’s one of the wonderful things about having an organisation like the BBC is that you have all of this output over the years to refer to and look back on. But I’d actually say that we are currently in a golden age of science television.

I think of the wonderful titles that you’re mentioning, some of them like Horizon are still on air and going strong, and we have across the four channels of the BBC a huge range of science output, from Bang Goes the Theory on BBC1, Horizon, and other landmark series that you mentioned.

We’ve got programmes on BBC3 and a wealth of output on BBC4 as well, so in terms of taking science content, science knowledge, and delivering that to different audiences, I’m very pleased with the position that we’re in.

GC Following on from that, what inspired you to move into science broadcasting? What books and films did you enjoy as a child, and what keeps you inspired today?

AC – I think it’s not very difficult to keep inspired at all, because when you work in a dynamic area like science, you’re continually surrounded by novel information and things to look at. I take my inspiration from all around me, from meeting people at events like we’re at today, from all the extraordinary publishing that’s going on in science communication at the moment, newspapers, television.

I think that often the important thing when you’re working in science communication is not to necessarily concentrate just on the science and media. I think there are an awful lot of ideas that can emerge from completely non-scientific areas, whether it’s films, art or television. It’s interesting, particularly when we’re trying to make science as much a part of popular culture as we can, to take your inspiration from all different kinds of places.

As a kid I think my whole interest was in the human body, that was my thing, I wanted to be a doctor, so I’m a classic failed doctor who happened to do something else!

GCAnd of course Professor Robert Winston is in town as we speak, he clashes with the event that we’re at, unfortunately.

AC – We’ve got another big human biology series like The Human Body coming out in about a month’s time on BBC1, which is exciting, Inside the Human Body.

It’s always a pleasure to work on something you had a fascination with as a child, and something like Wonders of the Solar System is another example of that. Every six year old that you talk to has a fascination with the planets, and I think for me to be able to be involved in a project like that was a real privilege.

GCWhen Professor Cox was here last year showing an episode of Wonders of the Solar System he was saying that the BBC were somewhat astonished, they had a rating in mind, and they got considerably more, and were very pleased with that.

AC – We never try and guess the public too much, but we have a pretty good idea of our science audience, the kind of numbers of people that come to things, but we’ve had to throw the rulebook out a bit over the last year, in the best possible way, so that’s been a fantastic sense of really getting these programmes to very big audiences.

GCOne thing I noticed watching Wonders of the Universe is that so much traditional science programming uses diagrams and illustrations, but everything Professor Cox does is physical, he’s always there, keeping it very real and accessible.

The particular example I’m thinking of is in the episode Messengers when Brian was demonstrating how the aberration in the orbit of Io was used to measure the speed of light. Was that a conscious choice?

AC – I think that these things evolve over many years. I started working with Brian Cox about five years ago when I was the editor of Horizon, and he was a contributor, he wasn’t a presenter then, but what we began to realise was that Brian has a very particular talent for explaining complex science in quite direct ways, so that tradition of using explanatory graphics is something that we’ve never done with him.

So we’ve got in a show like that a combination of low tech – and you can’t get much lower tech than some rocks pretending to be the Sun, the Earth and Jupiter – and high tech with the graphics.

But I think it’s those contrasts actually, in all filmmaking, that really give the programme its energy, so that’s something we’ve developed with Brian over the years.

GCI very much enjoyed Stargazing Live, and it was wonderful to see a national science show that was very involving and participatory. With the caveat that you’re probably only in the very early planning stages of next years, what phenomena are you hoping to tie it into next year?

AC – I think Stargazing has a very simple premise to it really, which is astronomy, the oldest and I think the most beautiful of all the sciences, and for most of the time we’ve been practicing astronomy, we’ve been doing it with no equipment whatsoever, with the naked eye.

So Stargazing is all about the fact that maybe as a nation, as a culture, we’d forgotten the pleasure of just walking outside and looking up at the night sky and realising what is up there.

It’s amazing how many people literally didn’t realise you could see a planet with the naked eye, and I think that’s a huge pleasure, so next time around it’s going to be very much the same flavours in Stargazing, but obviously whenever you do a live show there’s going to be different things up there in the night sky.

I think we’ll be concentrating more on deep space objects than last time, maybe chuck in a black hole or two, as they’re always popular. More of the same, but dealing with a lot of different phenomena!

GCOne of my favourite moments in Wonders of the Universe was when Brian gets out his hardback copy of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, just bringing in the heritage of science programming. Whose idea was that?

AC – Brian is involved in all of the stages of production, and his hero is Carl Sagan, so it was an opportunity for him to really directly thank Carl Sagan for the inspiration he gave him.

GCThe BBC is renowned for the quality of its documentary programming, not only those we’ve spoken about, but the body of work of David Attenborough, where every show seems to be bigger and bolder than the last, so where else is there for you to go?

AC – The great thing about science is that there is always somewhere else to go because science never sits still!

I think there are a couple of answers to that question really. We’re already planning the next series for Brian Cox which is called The Wonders of Life, and that’s going to be a very interesting look at biology from a physicist’s perspective, so that’s going to be an interesting different project, something that’s never really been done before.

And then, I know, the Natural History Unit have got a very big series later this year called Frozen Planet, which is out in the autumn, so that’s a very exciting project.

But in the longer term I think what we’ve found is that a specialist unit like the BBC Science Unit can return to subjects on this kind of scale probably once every decade or so, so what you’ll find is that we did The Planets in 1999, then it’s back on your screens in 2010, because ten years is a great cycle, not only for the generation of new scientific content, but also for the generation of a new form of television, so I hope we get the planets on a bit earlier than ten years time again.

GCAbout ten to fifteen years ago, the docudrama was very much in vogue, often more an extrapolation than actual science. First there was Walking with Dinosaurs and then Walking with Cavemen, and my feeling on watching them was, there’s an element of science in here, but how much is supposition and how much is actual fact?

AC – I think the Science Unit is always there to find new ways of invigorating and interesting the audience in science and docudrama can be a fantastically powerful part of that.

There was a very famous Horizon documentary in, I think, the late eighties called Life Story which was the story of Crick and Watson which was dramatised, so I think throughout our broadcasting history we’ve always used drama documentaries to do that.

Like all things, they come in and out of fashion, but I have absolutely no problems with it as a form at all, and in fact programmes like Walking with Dinosaurs were based on a huge amount of research, so I wouldn’t actually put it in the docudrama category. I know it can be a grey territory at times, but I when you have a unit that is really there to communicate science, I know that we always stay on the side of documentary rather than drama.

GCWhat other shows have you been involved with down the years?

AC – I’ve worked in the Science Unit for sixteen years, so it’s been my whole professional career, so I’ve worked on everything from Tomorrow’s World to QED to Horizon, lots of different landmark series, and I was editor of Horizon for five years, so lots of different stuff. It’s a privileged place to work, really.

GCAndrew, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

The Edinburgh International Science Festival continues until Friday 22nd April.

Wonders of the Universe and Wonders of the Solar System are both available to buy on DVD and Bluray.

Special thanks to Frances Sutton and Jen Wood on the Science Festival media team.



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