TV Channel Review: BBC4 – Making A Cultural Killing

Our cultural saviour?
BBC4: Freeview 9, Sky 116, Virgin 107

Come this Friday night, there is only one place you will be able to tune in to a documentary about “the life and work of the composer, who is best known for the choral song Jerusalem and the well-loved hymn Dear Lordâ€?. And it isn’t ITV2.

Since 2002, BBC Four has been working against the tide of mindless primetime reality shows featuring celebrities falling over on ice and/or flashing their breasts at unsuspecting teenagers to bring us “an ambitious range of innovative, high quality programming that is intellectually and culturally enrichingâ€?.

Replacing BBC Knowledge, this used to be a channel which only history teachers could get excited enough to soil themselves over but BBC Four has evolved. The channel has become the number one destination for subtitled thrillers of Scandinavian descent including The Killing, Borgen and upcoming mafia drama, Lilyhammer. This Saturday night will also see the dramatic debut of Italian detective show, Inspector Montalbano.

Glancing back at the launch line-up in 2002, we see “a week of programming devoted to the relationship between the three great primates of Africa…and mankindâ€? but there is a distinct lack of the kind of lip-smacking “don’t missâ€? dramas that fill some of the channel’s most celebrated TV slots nowadays. Obviously it can’t compete financially with Sky Atlantic, which is currently bathing in the glory that its fine dramatic stock has garnered, with headline acts Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones and Mildred Pierce all bagging awards last year, so it must find cleverer ways of getting hold of hits.

Sarah Lund and the Prime Minister's husband from from Borgen

As such BBC Four have become masters of unearthing low-key gems from abroad and it gave  Mad Men it’s break in the UK and other firm favourites like Flight of the Conchords have also been given a platform. Meanwhile homegrown shows like The Thick Of It have also been wildly successful and graduated to BBC Two and the channel has now succeeded in opening the door to subtitled drama and an entire cultural phenomenon involving garish knitwear. Honestly, who knew that the British people were prepared to read words AS WELL AS watch the picture?

The moral of the BBC Four story? If Stephen Fry would like it or is in it – it gets air time. Taken to an extreme, this kind of televisual cultural cleansing could result in a snobbish TV landscape where every programme educates and informs. How awful. But is it such a bad thing that amidst the Celelebrity Big Brother On A Love Island: Shipwrecked On Ice mayhem we all love, BBC4 attempts to shine like an intelligent beacon in the entertainment wasteland?

TV torture or heaven-sent entertainment for the masses?

Every year the channel is tasked with cramming in 100 hours of new arts and music programmes, 110 hours of factual programming and premiering 20 international films. The rest of BBC Four’s schedule is cobbled together using repeats dredged up from Aunty’s archives. In January, the Daily Mail were positively livid about the programmes aired by the station, “more than half of BBC4’s are reruns even though the channels only run from 7pm to 4am!â€?, the paper spat.

But the jury is out as to whether this really represents bad value for viewer’s money. Let us not forget that this channel receives an annual budget of £54.3million, compared to BBC One’s 2011/12 allowance of £1,167 million. Quality drama and documentaries cost money to make, commission and purchase and many would argue that the recompense for this comes in the shape of repeats which can (sometimes) even be enjoyable despite lacking box fresh appeal.

While ITV2 offers cheap and cheerful bubblegum for the eyes on a Saturday night with the new series premier of Celebrity Juice, BBC Four offers Top Of The Pops: 1977. It may not always offer the most contemporary viewing experience but for many, this is precisely its appeal.