four star: boxing clever
Roly Keating is showcasing a week-long series of architecture films on the channel he directs, BBC4, at a time when the way in which TV deals with the whole subject of architecture is changing
If you have seen any TV programmes on the subject of architecture in the past 10 years or so, the chances are that the man behind them was Roly Keating.
Keating devised and launched the longrunning BBC2 heritage series One Foot in the Past, which, he is proud to say, tried to tell the stories behind the buildings and the people that they housed. The House Detectives was also his, and was again an attempt to investigate the 'secret histories' of buildings, using people like Dan Cruickshank. And the controversial How Buildings Learn revelled in looking at the merits of the functioning strengths of schemes rather than the 'magazine architecture' the programme's presenter, Stewart Brand, disliked.
Now, with a week-long series of films on architecture, which started on Monday, Keating is again the man behind the latest spurt of UK architecture programming to coincide with the Venice Biennale, at his new home, the digital channel BBC4. The programmes investigate such things as 'happy architecture' - featuring the work of people such as Richard Hywel Evans, partly because Keating was 'curious' about him, and Pop Goes the Museum, an entertaining look at what became of that Dome of the North, Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music. There is also a show on The Return of the Architect - a pilot where the Hopkinses return to Glyndebourne to face the music.
Keating joined the BBC as a general trainee in 1983, having studied Classics at Oxford. 'But I knew from an early age that broadcasting was my big love, ' he says.
'And if there was any way to get into it I'd love to. I was probably part of the first main television generation, where the radio was always on in the house. I guess I grew up with the rhythms and the voices of broadcasting.'
Arts programmes were, and still are, his particular forte. He was founder, producer, and subsequently editor of arguably the most influential programme in that field - The Late Show. From 1992 to 1997, Keating was editor of Bookmark, a series on literature criticism which helped him pick up the Huw Wheldon Award for best arts programme in 1993.
'Then I became fascinated by the whole subject of digital expansion as it was talked about in the mid-1980s, and I had a kind of vision of that as something I wanted to get involved with and be creative with.'
Thus it came to pass, and Keating became controller of digital channels, editorially responsible for the digital and pay-TV channels scheduled by BBC Broadcast in the UK. Those are based on the corporation's rich archive: BBC Choice, BBC Knowledge, BBC Prime, UKTV among them. Creative repeats, if you like. But then, last year, Keating was made controller of BBC4, following secretary of state Tessa Jowell's approval of the new digital channel (BBC3 is less certain).
'BBC4 is something only the BBC could support and sustain, ' he says, 'because this is extending the service in areas the market finds it most difficult to sustain by itself, like extended coverage of classical music or programmes about ideas, or international documentaries, or foreign cinema. The public service side of the digital expansion at the BBC is all about an expanded mix of public service channels which don't try and salami-slice the content infinitely.'
And, adds Keating, digital has allowed that unprecedented 'privilege' of screening an entire week of architecture programming in prime time.
'It makes this possible. And we're learning already that the audience appreciates that.
We can offer something that is satisfyingly different from the mainstream.'
A case in point perhaps is the programme Pop Goes the Museum - about Nigel Coates' popular music centre in Sheffield. The 40minute film does not linger on the purely architectural story. There is mention that the aims of the design competition - run by the RIBA - were finally at odds with a fight to make content fit the building's rigid frame. And there is a passage implying that its failure was down to the fact that it was architects on the Arts Council Lottery panel who okayed the scheme without scrutinising enough the other parts of the story. But the programme really scores in telling the social and cultural side: Sheffield, local and nationally famous Sheffield pop musicians, and the panicked way in which many of the Lottery bodies suddenly had to dispose of large amounts of cash. And the way the media frenzy ensued but business plans were cast asunder by people's apathy.
The popular music centre was actually anything but.
Keating's approach is what he calls the 'unclassifiable cross-genre approach to architecture', which he hopes to push in the future.
In many cases, it is the producers coming up with ideas for the shows; at other times simply Keating's own curiosities, which he hopes mirror those of the general public. He feels the architectural profession is happy that programming is moving away from the pure abstracted art form to architecture-asthe-fabric-of-society-type films. 'The best practices certainly have a much more integrated view of what they're doing.'
As to his personal design tastes, Keating professes to having to 'glue his chequebook into his pocket' to prevent him snapping up too many goodies from the world of furniture - the Robin Days and Ernest Races of this world. But with three kids - aged nine, five and two - architecture at his north London Victorian terraced house has been edged slightly to one side. He does, though, profess to have an unusual choice as his favourite building - the 'fantastic and wonderful' Hayward Gallery on London's South Bank. 'I've never gone so red as when someone proposed demolishing it.'
Keating is aware that BBC4 needs to be 'discovered' by its market, aided by more of the word-of-mouth appreciation that has come so far via the BBC websites and bulletin boards. 'The real test will come in five or 10 years' time, ' he says.
And you can bet that Keating will be there to see it.