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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era