BBC Four might be changing but it remains a vital place for overseas drama

The news that changes to BBC Four won't be affecting the channel's international drama offering is cause for celebration, says Patrick Cremona.

The Investigation

When news broke last month that BBC Four was set to be turned into the “home of archive content”, the response from many viewers was understandably one of consternation. That the channel which had brought us such brilliant shows as Detectorists, Only Connect and The Thick of It was to become what amounts to little more than a repeats channel seemed like a huge mistake on the part of the BBC, a repeat of their ill-fated (and now reversed) decision to take BBC Three off-air in 2016.

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One of the main reasons for this dismay was that many assumed the news would also spell an end for international acquisitions on the channel. Since BBC Four was launched in 2002, it has been the UK home of several hit shows from overseas, both American series such as Mad Men and foreign-language imports like The Killing. This alternative drama programming, alongside its arts coverage and wide-ranging selection of documentaries, has always been one of BBC Four’s greatest strengths, and would arguably be just as much of a loss to the channel as original programming.

The good news is that those lamenting the demise of the channel’s overseas output were in fact premature with their protestations. In a clarification send to RadioTimes.com shortly after the news broke, the BBC confirmed that BBC Four will remain as “the home of International drama and will continue to build “on its rich history of bringing the very best drama series from around the world to UK audiences”. Original commissions might have been put on hold, in other words, but overseas dramas are going nowhere.

Now, while there’s still reason to be frustrated at the cancellation of new commissions, the news that foreign acquisitions won’t be affected is cause for celebration. That’s because, despite increased competition from the likes of Netflix and Channel 4’s superb Walter Presents strand, BBC Four continues to be one of the best places to watch overseas drama in this country.

Let’s look at Scandinavian drama, for example – a genre in which the channel has gained a specifically stellar reputation thanks to the breakout success of Nordic noirs like The Killing and The Bridge. While recent acquisitions haven’t quite reached the immensely successful heights of those two programmes, there have nonetheless been some terrific Scandinavian shows broadcast on BBC Four in the last couple of years.

2020 saw the debut of a handful of excellent Norwegian series: Game of Thrones star Kristofer Hivju took on a dual role in the twisty crime thriller Twin, while The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss appeared in detective drama Wisting – which boasted the record of being Norway’s most expensive series of all time. Then there was State of Happiness, an enjoyable period drama which explored the inhabitants of the town of Stavanger following the discovery of vast reserves of oil in 1969. These series are all very different from one another, but each has clear merits, and each also offered something a little different from the dramas we might normally see on BBC channels.

Kristofer Hivju and Rebekka Nystabakk in Twin

This has continued into 2021, with two series in particular having caught our eye. First, there was The Investigation, the latest series from Borgen co-writer Tobias Lindholm, which explored the real-life investigation into the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, who was killed in Denmark in 2017. It’s a grisly case, but the series never leans into the sensationalism that is so often a major part of true-crime drama, eschewing salaciousness entirely in favour of a more sober-minded, forensic approach. The murderer never appears, nor is he mentioned by name throughout the whole series, and yet the programme is no less absorbing or compelling for his absence. 

Following shortly afterwards was Man in Room 301, the first-ever Finnish drama to air on a BBC channel. The series is a more straightforward crime drama, following a family who appear to encounter the man who killed their infant son while they were on holiday in Greece 12 years ago. It’s the kind of crime drama that is perhaps a little reliant on contrivance and coincidence but is nonetheless a tremendously engaging and suspenseful watch, anchored by some terrific performances. It’s another programme which, like so many of those mentioned above, would simply not have been seen by nearly as many people had the BBC not shown it in a Saturday night slot.

While we can be disappointed at the decision to scrap original content, then, as long as BBC Four keeps acquiring exciting, high-quality series from overseas, the channel will continue to stand out as a vital part of the broadcaster’s offering. Here’s to many more years of Nordic noir.

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The Investigation and Man in Room 301 are both currently available on BBC iPlayer. Take a look at the rest of our Drama coverage, or check out our TV Guide to see what’s on TV this week.