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What’s the point of BBC4?

When the channel started in 2002, it was branded as “a place to think”. Later is became a pantomime horse, part Jonathan Miller, part Top Gear. What happened?

Richard Klein, BBC4’s controller since 2008, is off to ITV. His time at BBC4 will be remembered for pop archives, dramas about British comedians and Eurocop shows on Saturday nights. Klein was the man who brought The Killing and Scandinavian noir to Britain.

Critics accuse Klein, however, of dumbing down BBC4. When the channel started in 2002, it was branded as “a place to think”. The creative director of BBC Broadcast, Ruth Shabi, said: “The core concept of the campaign ‘Everybody Needs a Place to Think’ reflects BBC4’s aim to give viewers access to big ideas and brilliant people.” Presumably she didn’t mean dramas about Hattie Jacques. What happened?

The first problem was timing. To watch BBC4, you need Freeview. Now 12 million people watch Freeview but fewer did when the channel launched over a decade ago. By Christmas 2002, BBC4 had an audience share of 0.1 per cent. It never recovered from this catastrophic start. By 2008, its audience share was still only 0.5 per cent. The BBC lost its nerve. Out went “the place to think”; in came Klein, who tried to make it a more accessible, less highbrow channel. It didn’t work. BBC4’s audience share is still only 0.8 per cent. Worse still, the channel never found a new identity.

Which brings us to the second problem: what’s the difference between BBC2 and BBC4? For 40 years, BBC2 was BBC Television’s smart choice. It was where you could watch edgy arts programmes such as Arena and The Late Show, alternative comedy and serious drama. True, there was always a mixed diet: arts and ideas but also Pot Black and MasterChef. It was a pantomime horse, part Jonathan Miller, part Top Gear.

Then came BBC4, BBC2’s smarter brother, but it dumbed down and became just like BBC2: Borgen and Martin Scorsese documentaries but also Britain’s Best Drives. Isn’t that what BBC2 is for? Tweedle-Two and Tweedle-Four.

One of the most pressing problems facing the new director general, Tony Hall, is what to do with this mess. Everyone knows what BBC1 and BBC3 are. But who needs both BBC2 and BBC4? One logical solution is to kill off BBC4. Not only is it not doing the job it was created for, it’s not even clear what job it’s doing at all.

There is an alternative. Why not move BBC4 upmarket, as originally intended, creating two distinct channels? Dumbing down didn’t work. The audience share rose from 0.5 per cent to 0.8 per cent in a decade. It was like one of those bizarre Soviet experiments that went nowhere. Instead, why not relaunch it as something distinctive?

There’s a reason why this is the right time. The culture is smartening up. Take Michael Sandel. Twenty years ago, only a few academics had heard of Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard. Now he’s everywhere: books, public lectures, a TV series. The ideas he talks about – private greed and public squalor – speak to austerity Britain.

He’s not the only one. People are more interested in ideas. Take the buzz about Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and the New Atheism or the revival of “big history”. Or take The Killing. A few years ago, no one would have shown a foreignlanguage detective series on British TV. The Killing was such a success that French and Saunders were making jokes about Sarah Lund’s jumper. There is an appetite for smart talk and smart drama, something a lot cleverer than Broadchurch.

This is the moment to relaunch BBC4. What it needs is distinctive faces – in the way Gordon Ramsay and Jon Snow are faces for Channel 4 – and a distinctive agenda. BBC4 could become the channel for the age of Intelligence Squared, Hay-on-Wye and G2, smart viewing for people who want smart TV.

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide