When you think about BBC4, what comes to mind? Its strapline at launch was a serious-minded “Everybody Needs a Place To Think”. And, God bless the good ship, it certainly has been that since it came into existence more than a decade ago.
It was and is the very antithesis of BBC3: while that is shrill and almost painfully young, BBC4 delivers a quieter, more ruminative experience, full of high art, big ideas from the worlds of science and philosophy, now legendary music documentaries, and of course, remarkably excellent and original British drama.
The latest in this latter category’s fine tradition is Burton and Taylor – a love-boozy, love-woozy wander in and out of the lives of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor during what would be the final scene of their onagain, off-again double act.
The year is 1983 and the actors, divorced for a second time, are playing divorcees in a stage adaptation of Noël Coward’s Private Lives. The parallels are obvious and delicious – and the audience is lapping it up. Helena Bonham- Carter as Taylor is twinkly and fun and furious, bowed but ultimately unbroken; Dominic West has the swagger of a oncegreat man – you see men like him in the in street all the time. The whole thing is a delight, from start to finish.
Alas, much as the party eventually ended for Dick and Liz, the ongoing party of British-written and made drama for BBC4 is also at its close. That there are no more planned dramas from the channel is, inevitably, down to the cuts the BBC must undertake. On one level, it’s no big deal – BBC4 is hardly the home of the blockbuster drama series – there’s BBC1 for all that jazz, with BBC2 picking up any drips in the audience for its cult hits. But BBC4 has carved out a remarkable niche when it comes to producing smart, lovingly made British drama.
What will fill in the gap left behind? We look to Europe: the channel will be buying in more foreign programming, from Belgium (Salamander) and France (Spiral) and of course, Scandi-noir and Scandi-drama. From there, in the past few years we’ve had Wallander, Arne Dahl, The Bridge and, of course, the big daddies of the lot, The Killing and Borgen.
The last is a certified critical and commercial hit – an average of more than a million viewers – and in its 9pm slot on a Saturday night it is particularly suited to a certain element of the British audience who want to see a 40-something year old woman kicking ass and taking names. It also helps that Birgitte Nyborg (Sidse Babett Knudsen) is eminently crushable across the board and dips into faultless, accentless English at least once every couple of episodes. I have nothing against these developments – I enjoyed The Bridge well enough to look forward to seeing its American remake on FX whenever it comes to the UK. But I still mourn the loss of what BBC4 could be creating itself.
This is the channel that brought us The Alan Clark Diaries and Dirk Gently, after all. Where else on the BBC are we to find programmes this good? The tone of BBC4 is its most valuable asset – it might no longer use that slightly starchy tagline from its earliest incarnation, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It is a place to think.
BBC1, for all its virtues, is not the place for Women In Love (2011, starring Rosamund Pike and Rory Kinnear) or Room at the Top (2012, with the always watchable Maxine Peake); it is where Mrs Brown and her Boys live, still fracking laughs out of cross-dressing, and where the unashamedly populist Count Arthur Strong is currently plying his trade. And while BBC2 can put on a good show when it comes to art and culture, the kind of drama that would have been found on BBC4 feels a little out of place. Unless it’s a rerun, of course.
So what now for a peculiarly British strand of drama? Who knows? America keeps galloping along, delivering us antiheroes by the bucket load – soon Breaking Bad will return – and Netflix will continue to deliver. We’ll muddle along somehow – but we will all be much poorer.