Stand up for BBC4

It’s time to stop the heart being cut out of our best-loved channel, says David Butcher

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Brace yourselves for bad news, everyone. In looming BBC cuts one television service looks set to have its wings clipped, and the channel in question is our beautiful, beloved BBC4.

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Hearing that BBC4 is under threat is like hearing that your local library is closing. Your heart sinks. You see the ruthless logic and you know that cuts have to be made. But you also sense a wrongness and a short-sightedness, a philistinism gnawing at something that should be a national treasure.

The fact is, BBC4 scores the highest appreciation figures of any BBC television service in audience surveys and the highest ranking for distinctiveness. It is not some elitist ghetto but a world-class offering, produced on the relative pittance of £60m a year (which is roughly the same price as the rights to broadcast Formula 1).

This is the channel that when it launched in 2002 had the tagline, “Everybody needs a place to think”. Its first controller, Roly Keating, proclaimed that it was aimed at “people who want more from television: more depth, more range, more stimulus”. Which sounds to me like a fair description of most Radio Times readers.

So what’s behind the current threat? Well, the BBC needs to squeeze into the financial straitjacket created by last year’s licence fee settlement, so it launched a cost-cutting drive called “Delivering Quality First”. We’re not talking a few savings on croissants and flowers here: DQF involves lopping 20 per cent off the corporation’s spending.

The loss of entire channels or services has been mooted. “Doing fewer things better” is the pithy summary: the question is, which things? Decisions will be announced next month and there have been strong rumours that BBC4 will be scaled right back, while BBC3’s youth-oriented programming is bolstered.

Because dramas and comedies cost far more to make per hour than, say, documentaries about ships, the suggestion is that BBC4 might withdraw from those pricier genres to concentrate on factual output. Some whispers suggest it may become little more than an “arts and archive” backwater.

Frankly, that would be nuts. Yes, BBC4 is a small channel with small budgets, but in terms of its drama and comedy output it’s the mouse that roared. Think of the political satire The Thick of It, or dark-edged sitcoms like Getting On and Lead Balloon.

Think of the string of acclaimed and award-winning costume dramas such as Hattie; Lennon Naked; The Curse of Steptoe; Hughie Green, Most Sincerely and The Road to Coronation Street. Collectively, these created a new genre that peeked behind the curtain at cultural icons to show their darker side, all brilliantly written and produced on a shoestring.

And let’s not forget the Euro-gems BBC4 brought to our homes, such as Wallander, Spiral and The Killing, or peerless US imports like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Mad Men. The list goes on and on.

If BBC4 is restricted to “knowledge” shows, this entire, rich seam of comedy and drama will be out of bounds. Of course, we all love the channel’s factual stuff too. Who else is going to make music retrospectives with BBC4’s flair, or delicious one-offs like the recent profile of Terence Rattigan?

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Who else will make brilliant, quirky programmes about chemistry, clouds or the A303? (Not Sky Arts, that’s for sure – or even BBC2). But if these are the only things BBC4 is allowed to do in future, it would be a huge loss, and a shameful one.