Winning telly: a scene from BBC3's Bluestone 42 (Photo: BBC/Coco Van Oppens)
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BBC3 is the Wild West of TV yet it produces some gems

Rachel Cooke pits the youth channel against its counterpart, the cerebral BBC4, by comparing Bluestone 42 and How to Get Ahead.

Though I realise it’ll probably struggle on without me, I can’t quite decide whether to join the campaign to save BBC3. I agree with Tony Hall, the director general, that salami-slicing is a bad idea: to make the necessary savings – £100m – he’d have to get out his Sabatier so often that we’d probably end up with The Great British Bake Off on a loop.

There are only two options. Either you axe BBC3 as a terrestrial channel and move it to the iPlayer in 2015, having vastly reduced its budget (as announced), or you kill off BBC4. Most of you know by now of my ardent feelings for BBC4, home of 18th-century German ceramics, egomaniacal British architects and, er, material science, and I’m praying it won’t also end up online in the end. (Danny Cohen, the BBC’s director of television, has been unable to reassure licence fee payers that this definitely won’t happen in the future.)

However, my relationship with BBC3 has changed over the past two years. I’ll always despise Snog Marry Avoid? – a freak show that aims to transform Jodie Marsh-like “slap addicts” into “natural beauties” (it’s now inexplicably in its sixth series) – but the channel has developed some gems, too: Him & Her, Bad Education, Our War. What to do? What opinion to hold? To start with, I decided to dedicate this column to a programme from each.

BBC3’s Bluestone 42 (Thursdays, 10pm), a comedy about a bomb-disposal unit in Afghanistan, is in its second series and I like it more and more, even if it isn’t yet M*A*S*H for the al-Qaeda generation. It’s only intermittently funny – it’s by James Cary and Richard Hurst who worked on another only intermittently funny show, Miranda – but it’s brave to satirise something so brutal and that isn’t over yet (on 6 March, the Ministry of Defence announced that a British sapper had been killed in Afghanistan). It’s also well-acted and there’s something about its textures – the way it captures both the soldiers’ boredom and all the ridiculous things they do to combat it and their downplaying of their terror – that feels authentic. And when it is funny, it’s hilarious. In episode three, Captain Medhurst (Oliver Chris), wanting to escape his men, took his laptop up to the flat roof of a derelict Afghan house. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Colonel Smith (the ever-brilliant Tony Gardner) was already in situ. “Espresso!” said Medhurst, listening in some amazement to the frothing of his superior’s coffee machine. Smith gave a coy smile. “I thought you’d be more surprised by my pizza oven,” he said, gesturing at a petite arch of mud bricks. There’s a daring here that most sane people would like to see more of across the BBC.

Meanwhile, on BBC4, there’s a new history series called How to Get Ahead (Wednesdays, 9pm), written and presented by Stephen Smith, Newsnight’s estimable culture correspondent. In the first episode, we were getting ahead at the court of Richard II, an aesthete king who was peevish and thin-skinned, which doubtless enabled the programme to speak quite loudly to those members of the audience who toil in the creative industries. (A lot of arty bosses are, it seems, not unlike Richard II. The only difference is that their breath is sweeter. Or it is sometimes. But I digress.)

Smith criss-crossed Merrye Englande explaining the rules of court life: think Who Moved My Cheese? with tapestries and hose. Along the way, there were several stunts. In Lavenham, a cobbler made a pair of preposterously long poulaines for Smith, in which he waddled about, half waterfowl, half Vivienne Westwood. I could just about bear this; his mode is pleasingly deadpan. But then . . . Uh, oh. Time for a little medieval lapin with Clarissa Dickson Wright! Do BBC4 audiences need gimmicks with their history? No. I switch to BBC4 to avoid such nonsense. It would have been better if Smith had turned to a proper expert – leather patches or dirndl skirt, I don’t mind which – instead of Dickson Wright and her richly fruited bunny.

Did my viewing clarify things? Perhaps a little. How to Get Ahead is a fairly atypical BBC4 show; I couldn’t use it to build the case for, say, merging BBC2 and BBC4. Yet Bluestone 42 would fit in fine at BBC2, if only the channel would ditch one or two of its cookery shows. I do worry about the licence fee payers of the future and how their love for the BBC is to be nurtured. BBC3 is their place, even if it feels like the television equivalent of the Wild West to their parents. I suppose, on balance, that Hall and the rest have made the only choice they could. Maybe it’s just that I don’t want to sound too uncool – too white, too middle class – by coming out and saying so. Except . . . oh. Whoops.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 4 years of austerity

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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.