When you think about BBC4, what comes to mind?

Everyone still needs a place to think.

When you think about BBC4, what comes to mind? Its strapline at launch was a serious-minded “Everybody Needs a Place To Think”. And, God bless the good ship, it certainly has been that since it came into existence more than a decade ago.
 
It was and is the very antithesis of BBC3: while that is shrill and almost painfully young, BBC4 delivers a quieter, more ruminative experience, full of high art, big ideas from the worlds of science and philosophy, now legendary music documentaries, and of course, remarkably excellent and original British drama.
 
The latest in this latter category’s fine tradition is Burton and Taylor – a love-boozy, love-woozy wander in and out of the lives of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during what would be the final scene of their onagain, off-again double act.
 
The year is 1983 and the actors, divorced for a second time, are playing divorcees in a stage adaptation of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The parallels are obvious and delicious – and the audience is lapping it up. Helena Bonham- Carter as Taylor is twinkly and fun and furious, bowed but ultimately unbroken; Dominic West has the swagger of a oncegreat man – you see men like him in the in street all the time. The whole thing is a delight, from start to finish.
 
Alas, much as the party eventually ended for Dick and Liz, the ongoing party of British-written and made drama for BBC4 is also at its close. That there are no more planned dramas from the channel is, inevitably, down to the cuts the BBC must undertake. On one level, it’s no big deal – BBC4 is hardly the home of the blockbuster drama series – there’s BBC1 for all that jazz, with BBC2 picking up any drips in the audience for its cult hits. But BBC4 has carved out a remarkable niche when it comes to producing smart, lovingly made British drama.
 
What will fill in the gap left behind? We look to Europe: the channel will be buying in more foreign programming, from Belgium (Salamander) and France (Spiral) and of course, Scandi-noir and Scandi-drama. From there, in the past few years we’ve had Wallander, Arne Dahl, The Bridge and, of course, the big daddies of the lot, The Killing and Borgen.
 
The last is a certified critical and commercial hit – an average of more than a million viewers – and in its 9pm slot on a Saturday night it is particularly suited to a certain element of the British audience who want to see a 40-something year old woman kicking ass and taking names. It also helps that Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is eminently crushable across the board and dips into faultless, accentless English at least once every couple of episodes. I have nothing against these developments – I enjoyed The Bridge well enough to look forward to seeing its American remake on FX whenever it comes to the UK. But I still mourn the loss of what BBC4 could be creating itself.
 
This is the channel that brought us The Alan Clark Diaries and Dirk Gently, after all. Where else on the BBC are we to find programmes this good? The tone of BBC4 is its most valuable asset – it might no longer use that slightly starchy tagline from its earliest incarnation, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It is a place to think.
 
BBC1, for all its virtues, is not the place for Women In Love (2011, starring Rosamund Pike and Rory Kinnear) or Room at the Top (2012, with the always watchable Maxine Peake); it is where Mrs Brown and her Boys live, still fracking laughs out of cross-dressing, and where the unashamedly populist Count Arthur Strong is currently plying his trade. And while BBC2 can put on a good show when it comes to art and culture, the kind of drama that would have been found on BBC4 feels a little out of place. Unless it’s a rerun, of course.
 
So what now for a peculiarly British strand of drama? Who knows? America keeps galloping along, delivering us antiheroes by the bucket load – soon Breaking Bad will return – and Netflix will continue to deliver. We’ll muddle along somehow – but we will all be much poorer.
The ongoing party of British-written and made drama for BBC Four, like Room at the Top (pictured), is coming to a close. Photograph: BBC Pictures.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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