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Ten years of BBC Four

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Richard Klein Richard Klein | 13:50 UK time, Thursday, 1 March 2012

Image from the BBC Four birthday trail.

I am writing this blog while recovering from a dose of viral flu - a sudden attack that floored me for three days, left me shivering like a leaf and feeling as though I was in someone else's skin, hallucinating. Nice.

Bear that in mind, folks, while I tap out some thoughts about the past 10 years of BBC Four.

Well, 10 glorious years, of course. Indeed, if there is one thing that the channel has achieved over the last 120 months it is to prove that it is possible to attract decent audiences not only to thoughtful programmes but also to a broad range of subjects all on the same channel. I think people understand now that Four is an entertainment channel, only we entertain differently, thinking outside the box, through discourse, wit and proposition.


Michael Sheen stars as Kenneth Williams in the BBC Four drama Fantabulosa.

BBC Four is unique in the digital world. It doesn't strip and strand or stack - run the same shows one after another, or play them out like clockwork across the same time slot during the week. It behaves like a mainstream terrestrial channel, mixed genre, moving from one subject to the other.

And now. Since its launch, the channel reaches nearly 10m people a week watching at least three minutes (an industry standard) and our share is hovering around 1.4%.

Some of the milestones? Well, winning four Baftas last year (including best Comedy Performance for Jo Brand and Best Single Drama for The Road To Coronation Street) stands out. As does having the most talked-about drama of 2011 (alongside Downton Abbey!) in The Killing. Having over one million viewers tune in each week to watch our series on The Story of British Musicals felt good, as did having over 1/2m people watch our extraordinary experiment to create an orchestra with instruments purely out of scrap. Afterlife, our 90 minute film that recorded decay and re-be-birth in a house full of rotting food was also a winner with audiences.

Jack Dee in BBC Four comedy Lead Balloon

Looking further back, stand out shows over the years at Four have been the breakthrough drama The Alan Clark Diaries, beautifully acted by John Hurt; the National Trust programme which won a Bafta for Best Documentary series; and the film that opened the channel's first ever moment on air, Michael Landy's extraordinary art happening where he destroyed all of his possessions.

Other wonderful stand-out moments have been a slew of great comedies - The Thick Of It, Lead Balloon, Getting On and Twenty Twelve. In drama there was the wonderful Fantabulosa, about Kenneth Williams, the Curse of Comedy series and The Long Road To Finchley, which told the story of Margaret Thatcher's early years getting into parliament. More recently Hattie, Lennon Naked and Holy Flying Circus have proved that drama is still alive and well on Four!

Stephen Fry in the BBC Four film about opera composer Richard Wagner.

Stephen Fry on Wagner

One of the pleasures of running BBC Four is being able to bring new talent to the public, and because BBC Four is all about proposition and authorship there's been some great new faces telling new stroies as well as familiar faces telling unexpected tales. Stand-outs among the familiar for me include Stephen Fry's film on Wagner, Ian Hislop on the Beecham reforms, Richard Wilson on Britain's best drives, Jo Brand on crying and, of course, Julia Bradbury's walking programmes.

Less familiar but with real stories tell include Lucy Worsley's history of the house, Jim Al-Khalili's on-going films about deep physics and Robert Bartlett's insightful series on the medieval mind.

Thick of It

The cast of BBC Four comedy The Thick of It

Of course one name also stands out for me - Andrew Graham Dixon, who over the past five or six years has been building a body of work desrcibing the art of various countries. Andrew's take is effortlessly propositional and his last series, on American art, was masterful.

So, going forward, what now for the next 10 years? Well, be in no doubt that it will be tougher here. Following the government's decision to freeze the licence fee, BBC Four is facing some quite serious cuts in originations - ie new programmes, and I have no doubt that these will have an impact.

However on a more positive note I am determined to do everything that I can to ensure that the quality and tone of BBC Four programmes remains as high as ever. And to ensure that the spirit of Four - witty, knowing, curious, having something to say, propositional - will be maintained. And expanding the channel's role as the curator and leader of the BBC's Archive project - rolling out as much of the archive as we can in a way that is both entertaining and financially sensible - will also form a new part of the channel's activitities.

Stephen Mangan and Darren Boyd star in three new episodes of Dirk Gently.

Coming up this year will be the final series of The Killing, and a terrific new police murder mystery called The Bridge. There's our new series on Catholics, a gorgeous new series on Art Nouveau and our new drama series inspired by Douglas Adams - three more Dirk Gently episodes.

And now, enough - my head's spinning again, and I'll sign off before I start typing nonsense! Keep an eye on BBC Four and I very much hope you enjoy what you see.

Richard Klein is Controller, BBC Four


  • Comment number 1.

    With DQF what is to happen to BBC FOUR's HD programming, if BBC HD which carries a hybrid HD service with content from BBC TWO, THREE and FOUR is replaced by BBC TWO HD?

    Are these programmes to be restricted to 576i transmission? If so can the HD versions please be released on the iPlayer for computers and connected devices once transmitted in 576i.

    Must admit to being saddened at the potential loss of the excellent science, nature, history and documentary HD programming from the channel.

  • Comment number 2.

    Happy Birthday to BBC Four. Really enjoyed the disco programme last night. Onward!

  • Comment number 3.

    I share Richard Klein's enthusiasm for BBC Four, and the celebratory tone of his article is fully justified IMHO. Only one thing spoils it--the DOG, which grew brighter last year and constantly spoils programmes for me, especially drama, to the extent that I don't tune in anything like as much as I might. I will watch The Killing III, where it will no doubt stand out on the many dark scenes, but it will be with a sense of frustration. (I'm grateful that it disappears for films and, apparently randomly, for some other things. I take that as a sign of hope.)

    BBC Four distills what the BBC does best. Please overrule the attitude encapsulated on the poorly (and perhaps self-servingly) argued blog piece on research findings on the DOG, and let us enjoy it fully.

  • Comment number 4.

    By far the best channel available in Freeview, and currently the only BBC channel that can be relied upon to consistently turn out quality, informative and entertaining programmes.

    The best history and science documentaries, presented by experts, and treating their audience as intelligent adults.
    Interesting and out of the ordinary music programmes.
    The best new humour around.
    Not forgetting the wonderful Saturday evening euro cop fix.

    Happy Birthday BBC4, long may you continue.

    And, for those who think the channel is elitist, give it a go, you'll be pleasantly surprised.

  • Comment number 5.

    Congratulations to BBC4 for introducing the subtitled foreign drama to our screens most of which have been good. However with Inspector Montalbano are you not in danger of debasing the brand. I know it is popular but is it of sufficient quality to be a BBC4 progamme.

  • Comment number 6.

    There is no list of superlatives long enough to describe the pleasure that BBC4 has given me.

    The range from original comedy through dramas, home grown and imported, to documentaries on subjects of magnificent diversity is a beacon of excellence without equal.

  • Comment number 7.

    BBC 4 = Only Connect, great foreign dramas, good music and science, it's perfect for anyone with more than 2 brain cells. If you have to cut the quality of one of your channels, please let it not be BBC4 which shows the most enjoyable tv in the country today.

  • Comment number 8.

    I like the music documentaries and the comedies best - Getting On said a lot about what goes on in real hospitals!

    And thanks for broadcasting The Night Shift - I don't know Icelandic and relied on the subtitles, but the people in the service station were so believable, especially Olafur, the wannabe rock star.

  • Comment number 9.

    There are a number of comments about BBC4 - and this blog post - on the BBC Points of View message board, that you might like to read too.

    Here's a link http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbpointsofview/NF1951566?thread=8331718&latest=1#p111899131

  • Comment number 10.

    Happy tenth birthday for BBC4!

    The only channel which I watch consistently and the very best of public service television. A particular highlight was Jim Al Khalili's hosted programmes on matter and space.

    A shame then that it is being relegated to a SD only 'feeder' channel for BBC2.

    One early and worrying indication of a drop in quality is the import of a particular voiceover commercial intonation. In the trailer for the forthcoming documentary 'Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau':

    A TREND, from a particular voiceover SCHOOL, reading commerCIALS, that drop the TONE, at the end of every PHRASE and SENTENCE, which, as well as sounding unNATURAL, becomes VERY annOYING.

    Regarding 'The Killing'; may I make a plea for it to be shown as a slow burner of ONE episode a week? I'm sure most BBC4 viewers have the capacity of delayed gratification to maximise the enjoyment of this excellent series.

  • Comment number 11.

    BBC4 is a wonderful and very successful channel and I will definitely join you in raising a glass to celebrate. However I do find it sad that when something is successful like BBC4, there is a desire to destroy it! Sometimes it almost seems like serious decisions are made on the grounds of jealousy or something! The budget for BBC4 should be increased not decreased! Quality should be rewarded not penalised. The feeling is that BBC 4 is making too much high quality and acclaimed drama... lets put an end to that! It's sad the self destructive things we do in this country.

  • Comment number 12.

    3. At 20:01 4th Mar 2012, HD_fan428
    - - - -

    DOGS are something liked only by those in broadcasting that have business and marketing degrees.
    Those with broadcast engineering degrees will dislike them as they WILL eventually burn into your display.
    Those who are creative will just hate them.

  • Comment number 13.

    My default channel and the only one really that treats the viewer as if we have a brain. A oasis of intelligence amongst the dross that is modern tv.


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