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

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism