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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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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