Jesus College alum Fiona Campbell has been BBC Three's Controller since 2019BBC with permission for Varsity/ Lucas Maddalena with permission for Varsity

What do “Oh! what’s occurring?“, the Hot Priest and Connell’s Chain have in common? Answer: BBC Three.

Alongside being at the forefront of youth comedy, drama and entertainment over the last 20 years – from Gavin & Stacey and Two Pints, to Killing Eve and I May Destroy You – the channel has also served as an incubator for young talent. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jed Mercurio, Stacey Dooley, Jack Whitehall, Daisy May Cooper and Rose Matafeo are just a handful of actors, writers and producers whose early careers were turbo-charged by their projects for BBC Three.

Since January 2019, the task of finding the next smash hit has been the responsibility of Fiona Campbell. As BBC Three’s Controller, Campbell directs the strategy of the channel as a platform for under 35s and oversees the commissioning of the content that continues to define youth culture today.

“We’ve got to serve all audiences”

Campbell meets me in the gardens of her alma mater, Jesus College, where she studied Economics as an undergraduate. Her start in broadcasting came when she was hired by an Italian evening news show while a postgraduate at Johns Hopkins University’s Bologna campus.

Although she has worked in the industry ever since, one of the first things Campbell reveals to me is that, even for someone with her career-long experience, it is almost impossible to predict the success of a particular TV show. She takes one of her early projects as Controller, bringing the American sensation of RuPaul’s Drag Race over to the UK, as an example: “We really hoped it would do well because it was so popular in the US, and while it has ended up being a massive hit over here too, at the time we just didn’t know for sure if it would cut through.”

In fact, according to Campbell, how a new release performs can depend on a multitude of factors: “What’s the other competition? What’s the weather like?” A big one is “what is going on in the world” – “huge global events can totally knock things out of the water”.

“BBC Three has a responsibility to build the future talent pipeline”

Unsurprisingly, the “global event” she is alluding to is the pandemic. It was Campbell’s job to navigate BBC Three through this period, which presented an unprecedented paradox of soaring TV demand, but limited resources. “All consumption massively shot up because people were watching iPlayer for anything from news updates to their children’s education needs and, of course, entertainment”, she reflects. “At the same time, however, it was very difficult for the people making productions with the rules changing day by day.”

Despite the “incredibly challenging time”, BBC Three was able to release the TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. It quickly became a lockdown obsession, breaking records to become the most-streamed series of the year on the BBC. “It was streamed over 60 million times, which was insanity, because everybody was at home and watching it, sometimes even three times over”. Not to mention, of course, the side-phenomenon that became the chain necklace worn by Paul Mescal as the lead in the series. An Instagram account dedicated simply to posting screenshots of ‘Connell’s Chain’ gained 30,000 followers the week of the series’ release (and now stands at a staggering 140K).

Reflecting on other highlights of the job so far, Campbell tells me a further one was seeing the success of another Northern Irish show, but arguably one that could not be further from Rooney’s romantic drama, titled The Fast and the Farmer(ish). “It’s an extreme tractor racing competition that we shot in Northern Ireland, but it takes a Scottish, a Welsh, an English and a Northern Irish team, and it does really well in every single rural area of the UK.”

“Young people don’t necessarily want to or are able to leave their geographic region”

Campbell hails from Northern Ireland herself, and nationwide representation on TV is something she passionately believes in. “There are 13 million under 35s in England, 1.6 in Scotland, 1.3 in Wales and just under a million in Northern Ireland. We need to reach them, and to do that we have to reflect all our life experiences”

Under her leadership, BBC Three has increased its regional-based content. Alongside The Fast and the Farmer(ish), other shows include Angels of the North – a reality show following a Gateshead hair salon – and Fresh Cops, a Midlands-based police documentary series, which Campbell informs me she has recently greenlit for a second season. “I’m really, really proud of all those shows that are telling the stories of people from different areas of the country.”


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For Campbell, BBC Three’s commitment must extend past merely reaching regional audiences, to actually utilising their talent in casting and production, which is why she seeks to work with regional independent production companies and calls for nationwide casting. “BBC Three has a responsibility to build the future talent pipeline – that’s what its role has been from its inception. Unlike when I was growing up, where it was the norm for young people to move to bigger cities for better opportunities, young people today don’t necessarily want to or are able to leave their geographic region because their economic support mechanisms are at home, and certainly not everybody can afford to move to London […] by building out regionally, we can harness young people with the local knowledge and support network to back them”.

And on that note, Campbell rounds up our conversation with some advice for anyone trying to make it into the TV industry: “Approach the smaller production companies in your local area – they are often more personable and more orientated to giving young people a chance.”