December 1, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Sophie Walsh interviews Steve Crabtree, editor of BBCs science series 'Horizon' to discuss taboo science, the future of Horizon and why he wishes he's met David Bowie...

Horizon logo

After it’s first broadcast on 2nd May 1964, BBC2’s flagship science series Horizon has steamed ahead with cutting edge documentary on science, technology and philosophy, providing a platform from which some of the world’s greatest scientists can communicate their observations and reflect on the changing views of the universe.

50 years later, in 2014, Steve Crabtree took over from Aidan Laverty as the 14th series editor. We caught up with him to find out about how he got there, the legacy that his 13 predecessors left behind and where he wants to take Horizon in 2016…

Hi Steve! So as a science filmmaker what were your influences growing up?

 I wasn’t very academic at school, in any sense. I was in the bottom sets for everything I think, apart from English. It’s not something I’m proud of but its not something I would shirk away from either. I was well read, I’d come home and read books all the time, I was really into comics and massively, hugely into television. So I think those three things informed me as a young boy.

So how did you go from a wayward school pupil to becoming editor of BBC2’s longest running science documentary series?

 It’s quite an unorthodox story, so I’ll try to be as brief as I can! I left school at 15 and did what many boys in my town did which was get a job at the nuclear submarine shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness. I did a 4-year apprenticeship as a painter and decorator and during that time I sort of progressed really from comics to to science magazines. The big one that had an influence on me was New Scientist. I in the shipyard for about 8 years and I owe everything to that experience, but it wasn’t for me. So I took redundancy and went to an art college thinking I might end up drawing comics or something and in my second year ended up converting to a filmmakers course. I very quickly learned that I didn’t like making dramas but I liked making documentaries, and realised I had a bit of a knack for and woman talking over coffee

 Wow so quite an unorthodox route so far…

Well also during this time I was teaching music production, gigging in heavy metal bands (I had three-foot-long hair back in the day!) and I finally got some work experience at the BBC on Mysteries with Carol Vorderman. I was painting and decorating of an evening and the weekend to make money and after several months managed to get an interview with Bettina Lerner (then editor of Horizon). She explained there wasn’t a job for me at the BBC but she’d never met anyone that used to pain a nuclear submarine! So we had this amazing conversation and a few days later I got a call offering me a second interview (which I went to armed with about 50 ideas) and got a six-week job in development at the BBC Science department. I’ve been there ever since working my way up from development to junior researcher at Tomorrow’s World to assistant producer, to producer/director and so on, until the series editor role came up and I applied and got the job.

BBC headquarters

Wow! And with 50 years of programming behind you. Can you see Horizon changing under your editorship?

Well I’ve noticed I’m not actually doing anything different! We have this enormous archive, 52 years worth- that’s about 1500 programmes and I’ve been through it as a TV geek, printing out the list and ticking them off as I watch them. Just not in order otherwise I think I’d go mad! But there’s not a standard format- all the shows are brave and interesting and sometimes boring but every week, it represents something different, in a different way. I think it’s amazing that Horizon is still an oasis where you can be experimental and try new talent, new experts, new ideas. Although that said, I do play a game with myself sometimes where I can put a film on not knowing the date and guess the editor…

Haha, have you got a high success rate?

Well pretty good. There’s one particular editor, a friend of mine, and if it’s a historical mystery, whether there was a biblical flood for example, I can tell immediately that it’s him. So maybe there’s a sort of signature there but that’s all I think it is because while we steer the film, it’s the directors that make it.

Do you think there are there any taboo subjects left? A place where Horizon can’t go?

I guess it’s more of a taste thing. I mean we’ve done everything, not just on Horizon but the BBC, Channel 4- they’ve tackled some really difficult subjects I can’t genuinely think of anything that television hasn’t yet tackled in one way or the other, there’s no reason why Horizon wouldn’t be able to do that.

So how do you go about judging what is good for Horizon?

The question we always ask: is there any new science? If there is new science, then there are a number of other boxes that I tick such as will it fit within the run? Which presenter will it fit with? There always has to be a reason to do something.

And you think that reason is primarily to educate or entertain?

Well this is probably more of a personal view but all television is entertainment, frankly even the news in my view, is a form of entertainment. The BBC aims to inform, educate and entertain and Horizon involves all three I think. That said, whilst informing and educating are clearly important, if you can’t draw an audience and keep them with you for an hour then you won’t have achieved what you set out to. That’s what entertainment is, telling a story in a gripping way- so I would hope all of our films are to some degree entertaining.

What’s been your favourite?

God that’s an unfair question!! Do you mean of my own stuff or…?

Of your own programmes…

So here’s a secret that I’m happy to share with you. When I got to a senior enough point in television, I made a big list of all the heroes I really wanted to meet from my life that had influenced me, then devised programmes that would mean that I would go and meet them people and I think I’m pretty much through the list!

That’s good going!

I mean I’ve never met a Beatle, and I’ve never met David Bowie who would definitely be on the list but my first ever half hour was called ‘The science of Spiderman’ so I met Stan Lee who invented Spiderman who was such a childhood hero of mine. I got a film commissioned about the Sex Pistols who were a big influence on me so I met John Lydon and Malcom McLaren. I’ve met Alan Moore. I don’t know if you’re a comic nerd like me but any comic fans reading will know who Alan Moore is!

And the proudest moment?

When I went into that room to try and get a job in development, one of the 50 ideas I was armed with was about my experience in the shipyard painting submarines. It’s an amazing place- it’s military, it’s top secret, they build them in a big shed- I thought it would make an amazing observational documentary. But that was 1999 and it wasn’t until 2009 I finally made that film.

Wow- ten years!

I pitched that film every 2 or 3 years and it never got commissioned. By the time it finally was I was reasonably senior so I went off and made ‘How to build a nuclear submarine’. It became a series, then two series and so I went from being a producer/director to series producing that series before moving essentially into management, for want of a better description, as editor. So ‘How to build a nuclear submarine’ was probably the first ever idea I had for the BBC and the last film that I made as director.

Full circle!

Exactly, it was really funny, if you look carefully my mum and dad’s house is in it, my nana’s house is in it my you know, I always said it was a kind of ‘love letter’ to Barrow where I’m from.

So when you’re pitching your programmes, how do you make sure that you’re not patronising but also not alienating people by being too scientific?

It’s a very good question, its almost impossible to answer, here’s my take on it. We make 15 episodes a year and the license fee payer pays for those 15 episodes a year so I want to try and make Horizon reach as many people as I can. Not all the films will entertain, educate and inform everyone; some people love films about dark matter and quantum mechanics, other people may enjoy films about online dating or what your cat gets up to of an evening so we try to make sure we get a range of programmes made. One of the criticisms we get is ‘why is horizon doing a film about x y and z, that’s not really science’ and you say, well it is science, but it just might not be the science you’re interested in that week. Its like, I hate using the analogy but a box of chocolates- some you like some you don’t like but you’ll get something out of all of it and actually the idea is that you share it around a little bit because other people may like the ones that you don’t.

Indeed, and I think that’s what makes it successful, having a broad enough reach that you’re engaging as many people as possible. I need to ask, do you watch your own when they’re on TV?

Oh gosh yes! You never quite believe its going to be on telly until you watch it on telly. I was up in Glasgow recently signing off a film, and the editor of that program is a really old friend of mine, so we went out for a pint but I knew my programme was on that night so I was like “look John I’m totally sorry mate but I’ve got to get a cab back because I need to be in that hotel room for 8 o’clock to watch this film come out!”. I just find there’s something magical about it.

So where would you like to leave Horizon, is there scope for it to move beyond TV and more into the public sphere or is it a format that you think should be kept intact?

Honestly it is a brilliant question because we do get asked this all the time in TV and the honest answer is, I don’t know. I’ll get my proper BBC hat on here, to say that as a public service broadcaster, is really important to bring the public the type of stories that Horizon does. Although other series and channels dip their toes in, no one else will really dive deep in to a film about quantum mechanics or physics or mental health issues. I feel there’s a duty to produce these programs and get them out there for people. But we’re constantly experimenting and evolving- we’ve just got a Facebook page, we’ve experimented with 5 minute cut downs that you can watch on your phone to get key headlines from the film if you haven’t got chance to watch the whole thing. But on a totally personal note I hope, when I end my editorship, I hand it over to someone else and they continue to make hour long documentaries on prime time BBC2 television because I think it would be a real shame if it went away, frankly.

I agree. Steve Crabtree thank you very much. And with that, he went to start constructing the next 15 films…

To watch clips from the interview, go to our I, Science YouTube channel and watch it here.

Sophie Walsh is studying for an MSc in Science Communication.

Horizon is on BBC2 on Tuesdays, 8pm. Watch the latest episode here: 

Images: Horizon logo; BBC new broadcasting house, mikecphoto.