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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > The art of talking science
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image image image Date published: 16/10/02
  image The art of talking science
RTD info special "Talking Science"
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  A film-maker, producer, writer and director of science programmes at the BBC since 1991, David Filkin is one of those who has helped forge the reputation of the British public channel in scientific communication. The key to this success is the narrative.
   
     
   

What is a good science programme?
A useful programme – It is useful if it enables a certain audience to increase its understanding of science or in some way to gain insight into science. It may be a case of communicating knowledge, drawing attention to new issues or entertaining on the basis of science subjects - and there is no reason why the same programme cannot combine all three. The essential task is to communicate information. For that you have to both capture and hold the viewer's attention.

Do certain types of programme fulfil this function better than others?
All TV formats are equally suitable. Life Story, made by Mick Jackson, is a feature film telling the story of the race to discover the structure of DNA, eventually won by Crick and Watson at Cambridge. This emotionally tense human drama not only revealed the personalities of the scientists involved, but also made it possible to understand the structure of DNA. That is one way of approaching science.

Many documentaries cover science subjects in much greater depth while also including some clever story telling plus the human interest aspect. This can captivate audiences as effectively as the very best thrillers. Any science subject can make gripping viewing. As long as the human aspect of science is not ignored, and researchers are not reduced to the role of explaining impersonal data, any subject can make for a good television programme. The challenge for the producer lies in building a good story around somebody. That does not mean that the story cannot include notions of complexity and doubt, which are part and parcel of science. These elements can, in fact, be the most compelling aspect of a science story.

The documentary produced by Simon Singh for the Horizon series, for example, dealt with a field as abstract as mathematics. The film opens with an interview with Andrew Wiles, the man who discovered the solution to Fermat's last theorem, which had remained unsolved for centuries. He breaks down in tears as he tries to explain the significance of his finding. Most people who see this display of emotion remain glued to their sets to find out what this mathematical discovery was really all about.

The United Kingdom, and in particular the BBC, have a reputation of producing the best science programmes in Europe, if not the world. Why are they are so good at this?
We have a long tradition of training people to be specialists in all sorts of fields – including science – on which the BBC has built its expertise and reputation. Also, until recently, the budgets and opportunities available to these specialists were the envy of other broadcasters. But these funds are now decreasing. TV programmes now live or die by their financial viability, whether the backers are from the public or private sector. There are no longer unlimited funds, but that does not mean that you can no longer back talent. Life Story, which I have just mentioned, cost ten times more to make than a 30-minute magazine programme like Tomorrow’s World. I do not believe the BBC was wrong to do this and I think it was a gamble worth taking.

     
 
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David Filkin

David Filkin

 


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