BBC Four’s future is uncertain, but we need arts channels like it now more than ever

The home of arts programming and innovative dramas like The Thick of It, BBC Four may now be under threat - and the impact would be devastating, says Flora Carr

The Thick of It

BBC Four first launched almost 20 years ago, back in 2002. At the time, controller Roly Keating claimed in Radio Times that the new channel would be able to achieve things that no other channel could – its slogan was “everybody needs a place to think”. It was, and is, ostensibly a place for culture, a free-to-air channel helping to democratise the arts. 

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It’s also ambitious when it comes to commissioning original British content. Such gems like political satire The Thick of It, Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, the hilarious Olympics comedy Twenty Twelve, and the thinking-woman’s quiz game Only Connect, hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell, all originated on BBC Four.

Which is why the new rumour that the BBC will soon be relegating BBC Four to online, as it previously did with BBC Three, came as such an unwelcome surprise. Last week Broadcast added oxygen to those industry rumours, revealing that BBC sources feared for the channel’s future following its editor Cassian Harrison’s move to BBC Studios.

Much has been said in the recent weeks and months about how in times of crises, we turn to the arts – but that in the case of this particular crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, the arts have never been more at risk. Following the news about BBC Four, it must be assumed that the same can now be said for arts programming. 

At times frightening, at other times frustrating, lockdown is a stressful state to be in, and BBC Four represents everything that’s keeping us sane during this pandemic. We find refuge in the arts: escapism, a creative outlet, or else a place to disappear. Under lockdown, galleries, theatres and film sets are (rightly) closed. Concerts are cancelled, and booksellers struggling. But as we’ve discovered, the arts aren’t luxuries: they are a vital part of our own identities, of our culture and communities.

Through film and art and reading books, we travel to places we may never go, meet people we would never encounter otherwise; it’s a lifeline for those who are currently staring at the same four walls day in, day out, and particularly for those self-isolating alone. 

For those stuck at home and looking for creative ways to fill their time, BBC Four has filled that gap. Tomorrow at 8pm, for example, BBC Four viewers are invited to pick up their pencils for a life drawing class – with real nude models – as the nation channels its artistic side. 

It’s via BBC Four that we were first introduced to many foreign dramas, from Twin (the Scandi-noir, starring Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, that’s recently gripped the nation), The Killing and the original Wallander, to American imports like Mad Men and the gentle art series Painting with Bob Ross, which has enjoyed a resurgence of interest and achieved cult status among millennials and Generation Z viewers (it even featured in teen drama Euphoria). 

Britain’s future music stars, like the royal wedding cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, are discovered on the contest BBC Young Musician, which has been televised solely for BBC Four since 2014. 

If you go on BBC iPlayer, BBC Four’s channel page is chock-full of content for those in quarantine. For those missing visits to art galleries, you can check out their ‘Museums in Quarantine’ four-parter. Slowly realising you’ll probably miss that sold-out play you booked before the lockdown? You can watch the channel’s Culture In Quarantine: Shakespeare series. But of course, the great thing about BBC Four is that it’s also on-air, so older, less mobile and potentially less tech-savvy viewers can still experience culture from the comfort of their homes. 

UNSPECIFIED, UNDATED - APRIL 24: (NO SALES) In this undated handout supplied by Kensington Palace, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who will be performing at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle poses for a photograph. The couple will marry in St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19. (Photo by Lars Borges/Kensington Palace via Getty Images)

Music, literature, drama, comedy, theatre, art: it’s all there. And now more than ever, we need channels like BBC Four, to plug the gap that’s currently missing from our lives. 

Through channels like BBC Four, we can all access the arts. It doesn’t matter if we couldn’t attend that famous play at The Globe Theatre, or couldn’t visit the Tate Modern; and it certainly doesn’t matter if we’d normally be too shy to attend a real-life life drawing class.

But taking BBC Four off-air, and limiting its resources, would make it that little bit harder for people to experience world-class culture – whether we’re in lockdown or not. 

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