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The making of Timewatch

Updated Wednesday, 18th January 2006

John Farren, editor of Timewatch, explains why he has the best job in the world of television.

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Film crew Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team

I honestly believe I have The Best Job in the World of Television. I get to commission (i.e. choose) twelve shows every year, then oversee how they are made, working with some of the most talented, smart and motivated people in television.

They are all extremely good at their jobs, love what they are doing and appreciate how lucky we are to do what we do.

Added to that, we have a large, devoted fan-base of viewers who give us a lot of clear feedback about what we are doing, and a very appreciative set of bosses within the BBC, who have been very supportive of the team's fabulous work, particularly over the last couple of years.

Love on a boat
A Timewatch re-enactment: scenes from The Floating Brothel

Even the Director General is (allegedly) an avid fan. So what's not to enjoy?

Timewatch doesn't obey any set formula, but has always embraced the latest techniques to bring history to life. For example, during the 80s it first used "re-enactments". In the past 3 years, the advent low budget, high quality computer generated imagery (CGI) has allowed us to tackle stories that we might not have attempted before.

A computer reconstruction of the effects of a tsunami Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team
Timewatch goes CGI for The Killer Wave

One of my favourite examples was The Killer Wave of 1607, a film which traced the forgotten floods of that year as detailed in the chronicles, and followed two scientists who'd become convinced that they had been caused by a Tsunami.

It was impossible to imagine this film without recreating the sense of the damage the floods wrought, and this we did by combining CGI with re-enctments filmed in a submersion tank. The critics judged them “chillingly effective". I agreed.

Sometimes history on TV has to chill your bones to succeed. Other times, you simply want to see what something really looked like, and the CGI in Britain's Lost Colosseum, or the recent Gunpowder Plot succeeded brilliantly in bringing amazing lost buildings back to life.

Why do you re-enact?

This whole idea of recreating lost worlds lies at the heart of a "debate" that sometimes gets played out in the newspapers - should history programmes seek to re-enact?

To my mind, it's a false debate. That is what our job is - to explore what has gone before, and to tell the best, most interesting stories in the most vivid way possible, without losing any accuracy. We ask our audience quite regularly what they think, and mostly they agree they like the re-enactments - as long as they are sufficiently well done, and don't get in the way of the story.


The biggest dislike is unconvincing fake facial hair! (To such an extent that we were roundly criticised for the beards of the re-enactors in the Gunpowder Plot - most unfair, as not only were the beards accurate for 1606, they were real!)

Gladiators Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: BBC
Gladiatorial battle from Timewatch

There is a serious point at the heart of this "debate". Some critics claim that television is dumbing down; the tide is ebbing from some mythical golden age, where families sat hushed to consume highbrow programming of amazing quality, with a uniformly agreed agenda of self-improvement. They didn't. People have always watched TV to be "informed, educated and entertained".

The best history programmes do all three at once. My wish for Timewatch is that it will continue to attract a broad audience who have some interest in history, who will give us 50 minutes of their time, and will leave feeling satisfied that they have heard a good story, and learned something new along the way.

How are stories chosen for Timewatch?

The $64,000 dollar question, then, is how do we choose the stories? It's quite simple really, and this is why I REALLY love my job.

I am "pitched" many hundreds of stories by publishers, academics, authors, BBC producers, independent TV producers, BBC factual commissioners, friends, family, people I meet at parties. Many of these would make great films.

And I just choose the 12 stories I like the most, (and that more importantly I believe my audience will like the most.) Some of the obvious ingredients are emotion, name recognition, personal stories, fresh revelations, a sense of quest, the occasional real scoop. And literally anyone may have the story that does the trick.

Man by warship gun barrel Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team
Leave it out! EastEnders led Timewatch up the River Plate

At a recent BBC awayday, the Editor of EastEnders, Kate Harwood, mentioned that her grandfather had commanded the British ships in the Second World War's first naval encounter, the Battle of the River Plate.

Her family had all his diaries and letters. Was I interested? This story formed the basis for the second programme in the current Timewatch series.

What do the next 25 years hold?

Television is changing faster now than at any point in its short history. Within a few years, maybe even months, digital advances mean we'll be downloading programmes to computers, mobile phones, a plethora of new channels.

With so much choice available, being a trusted brand like Timewatch is ever more crucial. So is keeping in touch with what our audience is thinking.

The skeletal remains of a child Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Production team
The Lost City of the Pharoahs

So we're encouraging our fans to come and find us on our website, and to sign up for a newsletter that offers them on-line previews, behind the scenes filming information, and the sources of our research.

We also invite them to private screenings, and discuss what they think of selected films. Eventually I'm sure they'll be able to download our old films through the website. We may be a history show - but we have a great future.

25 years from now I won't be the Editor of Timewatch. But I'd love to think I'll still be watching it. And that you will too.





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