Happy birthday, BBC4 – ten of the channel’s all-time classics

Plus ten of the quirky hidden gems that make us love BBC4 even more...

BBC4 is ten today. During that decade there’s been something interesting, illuminating, funny or downright eccentric on almost every night. But we’ve attempted the impossible and whittled the artsy channel’s output down to an all-time top ten… then we realised it really was impossible just to do ten so, as a special birthday bonus, we compiled another list of ten lesser-known BBC4 gems. Happy birthday, BBC4!



1. The Road to Coronation Street (2010)

The best of the light-entertainment bio-dramas: Daran Little’s story of how Tony Warren changed primetime telly for ever, with Jessie Wallace as Pat Phoenix.

2. The Thick of It (2005)

A comedy standard now, but when it started, the handheld cameras, improvised script, political insight and ear-scouring foul language could only be BBC4.

3. The Killing (2011) 

The show that would have made the channel if budget cuts hadn’t come along straight after and cut BBC4 in half: acquiring a Danish 20-part cop show for peanuts was nothing short of genius.

4. Only Connect (2008)

One of the best TV quizzes of all time: lateral thinking, ingenious questions and a homely but challenging Oxbridge-seminar atmos.

5. Holy Flying Circus (2011)

Startlingly original Pythons bio that junked all genre conventions and created something almost as cleverly, playfully funny as its subject.

6. Mad Men (2008)

Repeated on BBC2 and now on its way to Sky Atlantic, but who first brought Don Draper and his secrets to British homes? BBC4, of course.

7. Borgen (2012)

The follow-up to The Killing, a political drama by the same Danish channel. Arguably it was even better.

8. Getting On (2009)

Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine’s comedy of despair and tiny victories, set on a women’s ward and laced with astringent observations.

9. The Alan Clark Diaries (2004)

The channel’s first breakthrough: 1 million viewers tuned in for the first episode of John Hurt as the insulting Tory roister-doister.

10. The Art Of… (2008)

Spain, Germany, Russia, America – Andrew Graham-Dixon has sauntered stimulatingly round the lot of them, explaining paintings in style.


1. Rich Hall’s Dirty South (2010)

The stand-up comedian suddenly announced himself as a brilliant documentarist with this sumptuous mix of film crit and socio-political acumen.

2. The Secret Life of Waves (2011)

Physics and philosophy combined as David Malone gazed at the endless ocean, elucidating on energy transfer and how it represents the transience of existence. A dry subject done with depth – classic BBC4.

3. How to Be 18th Century (2006)

BBC4 is worth celebrating just as the home of Nicholas Craig, the supercilious failed actor played by Nigel Planer. His acting masterclasses (see also How To Be Old) are cryingly funny.

4. The Fine Art of Whistling (2006)

Whimsical doc about an international whistling contest, culminating in a tense, sudden-death “whistle-off”. Dynamite telly.

5. The Passions of Vaughan Williams (2008)

A sizzler from master classical music documentary-maker John Bridcut, revealing Ralph Vaughan Williams the impulsive heartbreaker, whose life story became a thrilling drama with a heart-pounding soundtrack.

6. Old Jews Telling Jokes (2011)

One of the funniest television programmes ever made: sexagenarian Jewish New Yorkers, telling jokes to camera against a plain white background.

7. A303 – Highway to the Sun (2011)

BBC4 pootled happily towards self-parody with this fusty curio: Tom Fort, in his damp overcoat and cream Morris Minor 1000, turned the varied delights of a history-drenched road into a very English documentary.

8. Tales from the Palaces (2005)

Fly-on-the-waller at Britain’s former royal abodes, which not surprisingly turned out to be staffed by a welter of camp, dusty eccentrics.

9. Sacred Music (2008)

A guide to choral music brilliantly presented by Simon Russell Beale, whose clear insights made the series fascinating even if the music sent you to sleep.

10. Summits (2008)


History don and frustrated thespian David Reynolds recreating classic diplomatic smackdowns, often impersonating both world leaders, then critiquing their personal flaws.