As BBC Four turns 10, are its best years already over?
The highbrow channel has been a huge success, but BBC cuts may damage it, writes Neil Midgley
When BBC Four reaches its 10th birthday on March 2, it will have much to celebrate.
Its brainy-but-not-dry view of the world makes it one of British TV’s unique treasures, showcasing dramas such as The Road to Coronation Street, history documentaries such as The Protestant Revolution and comedies including The Thick of It.
Yet if the BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson has his way, budget cuts will make such programmes a rare species on BBC Four.
At £54.3m a year, BBC Four is already the cheapest of the corporation’s four main TV channels – BBC One costs over 20 times more, at £1.1bn. Ironically, according to one of the channel’s most famous alumni, BBC Four’s tiny budgets can be an inspiration. “The fact that there wasn’t a huge amount of resources for The Thick of It became a virtue,” says Armando Iannucci, who created the brilliant political satire. “The budget decided the style of it: hand-held camera, one location, general lighting, so we didn’t have to stop and start.”
More importantly for fans of Malcolm Tucker’s foul mouth, Iannucci also points out that “BBC Four was never sensitive about the language, or asked to see scripts in advance”. For Iannucci, The Thick of It was a springboard to Hollywood, and HBO is just about to air a new series, Veep, which is Iannucci’s satirical take on American politics.
Despite this success, and the popularity of other sitcoms such as Getting On, Thompson has put the future of scripted comedy on BBC Four in doubt. Stemming from the six-year licence-fee freeze agreed with the Coalition in 2010, his cuts will see BBC Four’s budget cut by 10pc, or £5m.
Much of BBC Four’s reputation has been built on drama, from The Alan Clark Diaries to Enid. Yet home-grown drama, as well as history documentaries, will disappear from the channel. Science series will be cut by a third. “That’s appalling, because the cost of making these sorts of factual documentaries is cheap television,” says Prof Jim Al-Khalili, a regular face on BBC Four presenting programmes such as Shock and Awe: the Story of Electricity. “I think, to try to narrow the remit of BBC Four to be arts and culture to try to compete with Sky Arts… that’s ridiculous.”
But that’s exactly what the supervisory BBC Trust, which Lord (Chris) Patten chairs, wants BBC Four to do. Despite the Trust’s repeated incantation that all BBC services should be ever more “distinctive”, a Trust report on BBC
Four in 2010 decided that BBC Four should concentrate on arts and culture – and therefore, by definition, be less distinctive from Sky Arts. And the competition is about to get more fierce: though Sky Arts’s audiences are often still tiny, Sky has tripled the two channels’ commissioning budget, and is relaunching them this week.
One of BBC Four’s strengths has been its partnerships with organisations such as the British Library and the Victoria & Albert Museum. And Jude Kelly, the artistic director of London’s Southbank Centre, recently announced a partnership with BBC Four for next year’s season about classical music in the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise. But Kelly has expressed concern about the future. “For the last few years, the BBC has been building back an authority around culture, the arts, drama, history, science. To cut away again at that is very, very short-sighted,” she says.
It’s not all doom and gloom for BBC Four, however. It is worth remembering that the channel will retain 90pc of its budget, and therefore 90pc of its output. Channel head Richard Klein has promised that BBC Four will remain multi-genre, including documentaries such as Storyville and foreign dramas such as The Killing, and that he will work hard to keep the tone, range and feel that the channel’s viewers love. There is even still time for Lord Patten to change his mind before finally rubber-stamping Thompson’s proposals.
But if the proposed cuts do go through, Iannucci pithily sums up viewers’ worst fears: “I hope BBC Four doesn’t turn into just reruns of The Old Grey Whistle Test and the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.”