Why BBC2 is now number one

From The Shadow Line, Line of Duty and Murder to Parade's End, The Hour and The Girl - Alison Graham celebrates the resurgence of drama on BBC2

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Why BBC2 is now number one
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EastEnders is on BBC2 this week. It was on BBC2 last week, too, because of the Olympics. EastEnders is on BBC2. There’s something so odd about that sentence; it feels like the world has shifted a tiny bit so that the natural order of things is upset, like a shaken shelf. It’s wrong; as wrong as Roy Chubby Brown playing Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited, or Bob Crowe hosting a dinner party at Windsor Castle.

It’s so odd that BBC2, nearly 50 years after its launch, is still wrapped in a miasma of “posh”. It’s still seen as a bit of a cut-above, the drawing room to BBC1’s scullery. It would be fun to think that the more edifying surroundings might rub off on EastEnders; maybe its tormented characters could be encouraged to suffer in profound middle-class silence, never giving a hint of emotion instead of laying everything bare like a baboon showing its bum. A bit of bourgeois reticence would go a long way.

If it worked, maybe other noisy BBC1 dramas could transfer for a bit. How about Casualty? On BBC2 it could be set in a well-scrubbed private hospital somewhere in the Home Counties, where nice middle-class people have treatable diseases and no one gets MRSA or ossifies because they have been accidentally left on a trolley in a lift for six weeks. And, praise be, no one would ever, ever talk about their personal lives. That’s a big, big Middle England no-no.

There was a time, not so long ago, when BBC2 appeared to have lost its way. What was it for, we all wondered, while new arrival BBC4 peered over its half-moon glasses and supplanted BBC2 as the boutique channel. BBC4 became the Algonquin Round Table while BBC2 was the place where you went to watch Top Gear. If, of course, you watched Top Gear. But there was always Gardeners World and University Challenge. And Coast. And Mastermind. Hmmmm. Where did all the good drama go?

No one talked about BBC2 in the way they talked about BBC4, particularly after the latter suddenly plugged itself into the cultural matrix and switched on the zeitgeist to become the home of all of those Nordic Noir dramas we keep talking about (The Killing, Borgen, The Bridge and so on). But we cherish BBC2 again after the recent success of Line of Duty, its biggest drama hit in seven years. I loved Jed Mercurio’s febrile thriller right from the start and was delighted that others felt the same way. Soon it became a huge Twitter talking point and there was genuine excitement before every episode and lots of chat afterwards. You could feel the love.

BBC2 planted its flag last year with The Shadow Line, brilliant, talked-about, divisive, with fluctuating viewing figures but not a big, popular success. Line of Duty, though, won audiences of more than three million every week (very good for BBC2) while over on BBC1 Blackout, a thickly pretentious though admittedly stylish three-parter that didn’t really go anywhere, quietly expired with audiences of under three million.

Crucially, Line of Duty caught imaginations in a way that Blackout simply didn’t. I know viewing figures aren’t everything, and neither should they be on the BBC, but they are the best indication of appreciation we have.

There is more to come. Murder, an exceptionally hard, but thoroughly brilliant drama from writer Robert Jones and The Killing director Birger Larsen, will, I hope, thrive on BBC2, the perfect home for something that is so far out of the mainstream. Murder is a tough watch (no firm transmission date has yet been set) but, believe me, it’s rewarding. I was transfixed by every minute of it.

Coming up soon is Tom Stoppard’s dramatisation of Ford Maddox Ford’s quartet, Parade’s End, with Benedict Cumberbatch (this is a big, big deal, obviously), a new series of The Hour, and The Girl (with Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren and Toby Jones as Alfred Hitchcock). BBC2 is getting back to its old self again with a bit of added swagger. About time, too.

@TVAlisonGraham