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Inspired by... Life at the top of television: Head of Media Arts gives insight into BBC career

Posted on 31/01/2013

Continuing our series of inspiring stories, we spoke to Professor Jonathan Powell, Head of the Department of Media Arts, who enjoyed an eminent career as a TV executive before joining Royal Holloway.

During his time at the BBC, Jonathan was a producer on dramas such as Crime and Punishment, starring John Hurt, and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. He was later appointed the BBC’s Head of Drama and was responsible for the launch of both EastEnders and Casualty, before becoming Controller of BBC1.

We spoke to Jonathan about his award-winning TV dramas, what the future holds for the BBC in light of recent scandals and how his switch to academia came about by “accident”:

Who has been the biggest inspiration in your career?

I have worked for a number of great executives in my time at Granada TV and the BBC, people who believed in me, kept me on the straight and narrow and let me pursue my enthusiasms. I have also been inspired by the great writers of television - Troy Kennedy Martin, Dennis Potter, Arthur Hopcraft - for their belief in what I was doing, as well as the novelists who moved me emotionally through the power of their words and whose work I was able to bring to the screen.

What is your favourite television drama that you produced or commissioned and why?

It has to be the adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I fell in love with the grace and melancholy of the novel and felt that we captured it on the screen. It is full of epic performances, led, of course, by Sir Alec Guinness. All these years later, it is still remembered and has the power to make you weep.

How did the switch to academia come about?

It happened by accident! A colleague from the old days of TV asked me to lecture for our MA students and I enjoyed it hugely. After that, Royal Holloway was kind enough to take me on full-time. I was glad of the change after more than 30 years in various executive TV jobs and I find the Egham campus a rejuvenating place to work.

What does the future hold for the BBC in light of recent scandals?

The BBC will survive this awful period. It is a great institution and the new Director General will restore a sense of order. I felt very sorry for the previous incumbent, George Entwhistle, who did not deserve the treatment he received. The future will be OK for the BBC as long as it holds onto its core values and produces great programmes. The more complex the media world gets, the more it requires terrific content.

What advice would you give to students looking for a career in television?

Believe passionately in the power and importance of communication and become an expert in the areas that interest you. Follow your instincts, act promptly at all times and never be late for anything!



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