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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.

a scene from BBC3's Bluestone 42 (Photo: BBC/Coco Van Oppens)
Winning telly: a scene from BBC3's Bluestone 42 (Photo: BBC/Coco Van Oppens)

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.

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