Celebrate a decade of growth

Turner and Jones in Hattie Hattie, starring Aidan Turner and Ruth Jones was a huge success for BBC Four

BBC Four - what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, some people thought when it launched ten years ago. For others it remains, as its opening slogan said, 'a place to think'.

Almost from the moment it replaced BBC Knowledge, BBC Four has been under the microscope and its future questioned. In 2004 a government report said BBC Four and its sibling BBC Three represented 'poor value for money' and did little to connect with viewers or drive the growth of digital TV. Audiences then rarely exceeded 100,000 and the top-rated show was a documentary about the death of singer Kirsty MacColl which drew 190,000.

More popular - less money

Ironically, as BBC Four faces its share of the Delivering Quality First budget cuts its ratings are at an all-time high, audience share has doubled to 1.7 per cent and weekly reach is 9.8m. More than 69,000 people signed a petition against cuts to content.

DQF calls for BBC Four to be 'refocused' to play a supporting role to BBC Two. It means fewer entertainment programmes and overseas acquisitions. In many ways the channel has become a victim of its own success.

It has to tread a fine line between remaining an intellectually and culturally rewarding channel which can attract viewers, but not too many or it risks treading on the toes of BBC Two. Under controllers Roly Keating, Janice Hadlow and now Richard Klein, BBC Four has found its niche. It has done so by taking risks and reinvigorating some areas of programming, for example the biopic.

A series of eponymously-titled dramas including Gracie and Enid, culminated with Hattie which starred Ruth Jones as Hattie Jacques and was BBC Four's most popular show ever pulling in just over 2million viewers. Yet, despite those successes, BBC Four will be doing fewer dramas to save money.

A channel for the curious

BBC Four has ploughed its own furrow by being a channel for the intellectually curious. The subjects it has covered and the kind of shows it has produced are diverse - from Secret Life of the Motorway to The Private Lives of Medieval Kings and archive Top of the Pops.

A look at its schedules over the last ten years reveals a magnificently-eclectic mix. Topics covered include bee-keeping, clog dancing, autism, the ukulele, Gaugin, the A303, canals, Shostakovich, sea containers and pedigree dogs. In the arts it has provoked debate and, despite its smaller budgets, attracted television heavyweights - whether it is Melvyn Bragg on John Steinbeck or the forthcoming elegant David Frost film Frost on Interviews. Its relative fleetness of foot compared with BBC One and BBC Two has also helped attract talent including Helena Bonham-Carter, Frank Skinner, Russell Brand and EastEnders actress Jessie Wallace.

Andrew Davies once told me he liked working for BBC Four because, despite the lower budgets, there was more creative freedom. That freedom away from the mainstream spotlight has enabled it to be bold and, as is so often the way, taking risks proved popular. Many of its shows have, to use a management-speak phrase, 'punched above their weight'.

The Scandinavian touch

The Killing, Mad Men and The Thick of It immediately leap to mind. Such was the success of Mad Men, it was poached by Sky and The Thick of It was picked up BBC Two. Some might think BBC Four's interest in Scandinavia is new but one of its launch season programmes was a documentary with a Channel 4-sounding title called More Sex Please - We're Scandinavian.

From then on, BBC Four has had a love affair with the region that has climaxed with The Killing. That drama continues to attract new fans of Scandinavian drama and knitwear and its popularity begat more imports such as Borgenand the eagerly-awaited new comedy drama starring The Soprano's actor Steven Van Zandt, Lilyhammer.

So what's changed over the decade?

BBC4's launch season included Storyville, Dali drama Surrealissimo, Bjork at the Royal Opera House and a production of Madam Butterfly. It also aired The Talk Show, presented by Andrew Marr and Readers' and Writers' Roadshow, an extraordinarily clunky title for such a literary endeavour.

The last two have disappeared but Storyville remains, as does the channel's commitment to the performing arts with Cinderella and The Nutcracker proving popular for the channel over Christmas.

In fact Christmas was BBC Four's biggest week ever, helped by the Royal Institution lectures which averaged one million viewers each.

Increasing competition

However in the coming years, as well as budget cuts, it faces increased competition from Sky Arts which has had its budget tripled and grabbed headlines recently when it announced programmes involving Michael Parkinson and Emma Thompson.

Unless money is reinvested from ongoing efficiencies, which is a possibility, BBC Four will have to box clever by using more archive and doing less.

Despite this uncertainty, like many ten year-olds it is celebrating its first decade this weekend with a disco, or rather a programme - The Joy of Disco.

As Klein, who is committed to his channel Staying Alive, put it recently: 'I can think of no better way to celebrate this [anniversary] than with mirror balls, platform shoes and the Bee Gees. Blow-dried hair is optional.'


BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.