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 in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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