Top UK talent lead return of BBC’s imagine… series

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (Image: BBC Studios)

BBC series imagine… is set to return to BBC One and iPlayer with four films from BBC Studios profiling leading figures and events that are shaping today’s cultural world.

BBC’s imagine… line-up

The line-up includes comedy double act French & Saunders, prolific screenwriter and Doctor Who showrunner Russell T Davies, plus legendary pop duo Pet Shop Boys.

Opening the series will be a special episode: imagine… Manchester’s New Factory (w/t) which tells the story of the city’s colossal new cultural venue – Aviva Studios – the home of Factory International and the Manchester International Festival.

With multiple flexible spaces, including one large enough to house a jumbo jet, Aviva Studios is the UK’s largest cultural investment since Tate Modern.

A destination for the arts and music, it has been described as the most important cultural development in Europe.

Manchester New Factory Aviva Studios – Free Your Mind (Image: Tristram Kenton)

The possibilities offered by this vast and ambitious building have been explored to the full by its opening production, Free Your Mind – an epic, immersive dance retelling of the 1999 film The Matrix.

Imagine… will take viewers behind the scenes of this striking production with choreographer Kenrick ‘H2O’ Sandy, composer Michael ‘Mikey J’ Asante and director Danny Boyle and will also explore the creative processes of designer Es Devlin and writer Sabrina Mahfouz as they prepare to present their show, and this new building, to the world.

For Manchester, this moment is about more than launching a new venue – it is the culmination of decades of cultural regeneration which began when Factory Records and the Hacienda put the city on the musical map.

It is also a bold statement about the future of the arts in the North, and the role they can play in all our lives.

But at a cost of £240 million (more than twice its original budget) in a climate of cuts and a cost-of-living crisis, the pressure is on for this expensive new venture to bring jobs, training and creative opportunities for communities across the region.

Imagine… will follow these efforts, hearing from local performers, artists, city leaders and students, and will watch as the Free Your Mind cast take to the stage for the first time with a performance that, in the words of Danny Boyle, seeks to, “hand over the keys of the building to the people of Manchester”.

One episode, imagine… Russell T Davies: The Doctor and Me (w/t) follows one of Britain’s most celebrated TV writers as he prepares to once again return as showrunner of Doctor Who.

Back in 2005 Davies was responsible for relaunching the action-adventure series after many years away from TV screens, few could have imagined the phenomenon it became.

And now, in the programme’s 60th anniversary year, he’s back – with two Doctors and bigger ambitions.

imagine… goes behind the scenes at Cardiff’s Bad Wolf Studios to see the adventures of the time-travelling hero being filmed, touring the enormous sound stages and meeting Ncuti Gatwa, the Fifteenth Doctor, ahead of his eagerly anticipated tenure as the Time Lord, after the unexpected regeneration of David Tennant.

Doctor Who is just one of Russell T Davies’ many TV successes, and imagine… traces the evolution of his writing, from his beginnings at Granada, writing soaps such as Coronation Street, to finding his voice as a queer writer on Channel 4’s landmark gay series Queer As Folk and to more recent successes, including 2021’s critically acclaimed AIDS drama, It’s A Sin.

The film will also feature interviews with David Tennant, Helena Bonham Carter, Olly Alexander, Sally Wainwright and Caitlin Moran.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders (Image: BBC Studios)

Another episode, imagine… French & Saunders: Pointed, Bitchy, Bitter explores a brand of comedy based on satire, silliness and above all friendship – the UK’s most successful double act of the last 40 years, French & Saunders.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders’ relationship started when they were college flatmates, entertaining each other by playing pranks and messing about as characters.

Behind the scenes at a recording of their successful podcast, Titting About, it’s clear they’re still sparking off each other to create comedy.

Imagine… charts their journey from the game-changing Comic Strip team, which helped launch the new Channel 4 in 1982, to their domination of BBC schedules over the decades and their recent ventures on the stage, the page and in film.

French and Saunders are joined by a cast of collaborators including Dame Joanna Lumley, Ruby Wax, Richard Curtis and Alexei Sayle.

These interviewees help to reveal the caustic wit behind the cosy exterior and show the huge impact that French & Saunders had on the generations of comedians that followed.

Alan Yentob, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe (Image: BBC Studios)

Next, imagine… Pet Shop Boys: Then and Now ( w/t) follows Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, who are the most successful duo in UK Music history.

They have sold more than 50 million records, produced over 40 Top 40 singles, four UK number ones, performed in several world tours, and they are still making new music together.

In spring next year Pet Shop Boys are releasing a new album produced by Arctic Monkeys/Blur producer James Ford, which comes 40 years after the original release of their classic song West End Girls.

Imagine… is given a sneak preview of the album and talks to Tennant and Lowe about its creation and their evolution over the past four decades: pioneering, original, highly influential but always maintaining the integrity and quality of their inimitable style, sound and songwriting.

Their songs have often commented on Britain and the world around them with wit, sensitivity and intelligence driving the stories they want to share through perhaps some of the most memorable synth-pop music ever created.

For their tours they have worked with the most innovative theatre personnel to create original and thrilling performances.

Now for the first time they have allowed backstage access as imagine… accompanies them on their global Dreamworld tour, filming rehearsals in London and backstage in Helsinki. Contributors include fellow musicians, music journalists and creative collaborators.

This is an intimate look inside the world of Pet Shop Boys and will be broadcast in spring 2024.

imagine… is a BBC Studios Specialist Factual Production for BBC One and BBC iPlayer. Alan Yentob is the Series Editor; Executive Producer is Tanya Hudson, Producer/Directors of the series are Catherine Abbott, Alex Harding, Laura Blount and Louise Lockwood. It was commissioned for BBC Arts by Mark Bell.