Department of History

Rachel Ashdown, Commissioning Editor for Entertainment at the BBC

Rachel graduated from BA History in 1993. She explains how, through studying a subject she loved and making the most of opportunities, she was able to realise her ambitions to work in the media. 

"It was never a given that I would go to university. Nobody in my immediate family had gone to university before. When I started applying, I really wasn't sure if I would go. But I'm so glad I did, because it opened up so many opportunities.

I think I chose history because I really enjoyed it. I loved finding out about things that had gone before and the course at Nottingham was very broad. 

A headshot of Rachel Ashdown wearing a blazer and smiling

You just literally did a bit of everything and that was what appealed. I felt it was a good broad subject that I could use in whatever I wanted to do."

History at Nottingham

"Doing A level, the courses were quite traditional, so it was Tudors and European history. The fact you could do a really deep dive into a specific area for my degree was brilliant. The first year was very broad, but after that you could really pick an area and explore it. And it was areas I would have never had had my eyes opened up to previously.

I really enjoyed Ross Balzaretti's modules on medieval women's history. They were great and something I wouldn't have even considered was an option when I was doing my A levels. I also enjoyed the local history with Professor Beckett. It felt like I'd moved to this community and then learnt to understand what made that community I was living in.

History is a really solid degree. It teaches you to read, it teaches you to interpret, it teaches you to write, and to be organised. I used to allow myself two hours a day, at lunchtime, to go and do stuff in the Students' Union, then go back to the library. I was very disciplined!

One of the most important skills was research. We did quite a lot of interpreting documents and original source material. There was a lot of teamworking, too, once you got into the second and third year in terms of working on tutorials. There was a lot to think about in terms of hitting deadlines, timing and getting your pre-work done to then deliver your final project, which is basically what I do now."

Extracurricular opportunity

I'd always thought I wanted to work in the media. One of the first things I did when I got to Nottingham was I signed up to be involved with Impact magazine. I was very active with that in my first year, and also with University Radio Nottingham (URN). Those activities were the thing that made a huge difference.

"I was also really involved with the Students' Union – I was hall president in my second year and I went on to be communications officer and vice president.

In my sabbatical year, I applied to do a postgrad in broadcast journalism. Because of the work I'd done with URN and the Students' Union and Impact, it meant that when I went for the interview, I had a lot to talk about and I'd shown a commitment to being interested in the media right through my university career.

I did the postgrad, but at that point I still hoped I was going to be a print or a broadcast journalist. It was when I was doing my work experience that the world of television and specifically entertainment was opened up to me. Before then I didn't even know how you went about working in TV.

I always dreamed of working in the media, but was never sure it would be possible. I always thought I could teach, or do one of the traditional milk round jobs. I applied for that postgrad course speculatively and it turned out that all the other stuff I'd done at Nottingham really made a difference."

Working at the BBC

"What happens as a commissioning editor, is that independent production companies bring their programme ideas to you. You then look at it and, if we commission it, we work with that production company as they deliver it. Sometimes I work on projects that pre-date my time at the BBC, but I mainly work on new series, so I'll take something from a page to the screen with the producers.

I love the creativity. I love it when you commission a show that then goes on to sell around the world. There was a show that we commissioned called All Together Now, which ran for two series on BBC1 and that has sold now to almost 20 territories around the world. I've seen Brazilian, Danish and Italian versions of it. It's really rewarding.


All Together Now filming. Credit: BBC/Remarkable TV

I'm really happy when I'm able to help support other people with opportunities and hopefully encourage the next generation of programme makers. I'm involved with the BBC's Creative Diversity and Inclusion panel. That's something I'm really enjoying, as I really feel it's important for the next generation of programme makers to come from as broad a range of backgrounds as possible.

My years at Nottingham really shaped my experience and gave me some of my most important friendships. I still get a real thrill from being in a TV studio and think I'm really lucky to do what I do. 

I knew history was a solid grounding if the journalism thing didn't ever happen, because really I didn’t think it would. I really enjoyed history and still do. I still like to read history books!" 

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Study history

 Rachel's advice

  • "Do well in your course, but also seize the opportunities that are available 
  • Choose what is going to really interest you, as you're going to be studying it intensely for three years!
  • If you want to work in TV, you need to have watched a huge range of television and be able to talk about current programmes 
  • I’d worked as a runner, researcher and producer for many years before I became a commissioning editor. The route is to go in as a runner, then work your way up
  • Get experience, whether it’s writing a blog, having something on URN, the magazine, or the TV station. It's no good when you’ve graduated saying, 'I'd like to work in television' and having no history of being interested in it."

Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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