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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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster