BBC4 goes weird and wonderful with abstract idents and new shows | John Plunkett

The channel’s editor, Cassian Harrison, is dismantling its branding and says he is excited about a range of new series

BBC4 channel editor Cassian Harrison is just back from Copenhagen, where he has been checking up on the latest series of The Bridge, and is off to a read-through of a potential successor to The Thick of It. “New writers, quite bold and exciting,” is all he will say.

On Monday night he will do the unthinkable, dismantling his channel’s branding and handing the precious between-programme idents to a bunch of artists including Turner prize winner Laure Prouvost. The results, to coincide with a new season of programmes about abstract art, will be weird and wonderful, and even “laugh-out-loud funny”.

“Too often the BBC is seen – and sometimes it can behave – as a bit of a closed shop, a walled garden,” said Harrison. “It’s terrific to be able to get artists to do stuff directly for us in a really unmediated way.”

With BBC1 ordered by the BBC Trust to take more risks, and BBC3 due to go online only next year, BBC4 is something of a beacon among the BBC’s on-screen offerings.

The only one of its four TV channels to grow its reach since the start of the decade (albeit, watched by 14% of the population, also the smallest), it has done so on a dwindling budget of £50m at the last count, compared to BBC2’s £402m and BBC1’s £1bn.

BBC4 ident
One of the new abstract idents for BBC4 Photograph: BBC

New BBC4 commissions include a Brian Cox night, in which the popstar turned particle physicist will choose some of his favourite programmes and talk science with actor Brian Blessed, and a new documentary about Spike Milligan called Spike: Love, Life & Peace.

But the programme Harrison is most excited about is Dancing Cheek to Cheek: An Intimate History of Dance, fronted by Strictly Come Dancing judge Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley.

With leading industry lights such as former BBC chairman Michael Grade suggesting that BBC4 should be axed and its resources rolled into BBC2, what makes it a BBC4 show?

“The level of detail, the depth we go into in the subject,” said Harrison. “A BBC4 programme when it is cooking on gas is just packed with information but presented in a really nice enjoyable way.”

BBC4 has looked to tackle its dwindling budget with partnerships both inside and outside the BBC (with Welsh language broadcaster S4C, for instance, on Welsh language drama Hinterland, which will return for a second series).

‘Not having a lot of money fosters innovation’

With its acclaimed (and expensive) run of biopics coming to an end with last year’s Burton and Taylor, its new drama series will be a run of short-form two-handers, The Dialogues. “It might sound a bit naive, but I genuinely think not having a lot of money fosters innovation,” said Harrison. “We are innovating on all kinds of levels and one of those is finance.”

The channel’s biggest hitters remain its foreign dramas which have become a staple of its Saturday night schedule since The Killing, the acclaimed Danish thriller starring Sofie Grabol as Sarah Lund, began in 2011.

Half of its top 10 shows in 2014 to date are subtitled drama hits, including The Bridge, starring Sofia Helin‎and Kim Bodnia which will be back for a third series next year, Salamander from Belgium, Sweden’s Wallander and Inspector Montalbano and Inspector De Luca, both from Italy.

Another of its top 10, Victoria Coren quiz show Only Connect, moved to BBC2 last week. Coren, in her introduction, was moved to wonder what was on BBC4: “Something about the Incas or folk music”. (In fact, it was a Horizon repeat about asteroids.)

Harrison said: “There is a lot of talk around Game of Thrones and Netflix, but what we have got on BBC4 is a really good network of European public service broadcasters working on a particular style and mode of drama which isn’t happening anywhere else in the world. It’s something we really want to treasure.” A big fan of Game of Thrones, Harrison told the Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival last month: “Boobs and dragons, you can’t go wrong.”

New foreign drama will include political thriller The Code from Australia, starring Lucy Lawless; Cordon, a Belgian thriller about a deadly virus outbreak in Antwerp, and 1864, its first period drama from Danish public service broadcaster DR responsible for The Killing and The Bridge.

Inspector Montalbano
Luca Zingaretti stars in Italian drama series Inspector Montalbano. Photograph: BBC/RAI Radiotelevisione Italiana

Facing the music

Harrison will also shake up BBC4’s music-heavy Friday night schedule with fewer archive-driven documentaries. He wants more live music and a more imaginative way of bringing stage performances to the screen, a key part of BBC director general Tony Hall’s arts push, to “reflect the intimacy and interactivity of sitting in a live theatre. It’s about how do we manage to take a stage performance but make it feel bigger and more cinematic”.

With BBC3 set to go online only next year, Harrison can offer no guarantees about BBC4’s future, with negotiations around the BBC’s charter renewal and licence fee negotiation due to begin in earnest after next year’s general election.

“I don’t think any bit of the BBC can promise anything at the moment. Charter renewal is always a big moment,” said Harrison.

The BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen, speaking earlier this year, suggested further budget cuts might mean BBC4 going down the same online only route as BBC3.

“I am really interested in what might happen with BBC3, what that might look like and the grammar of what that might be,” said Harrison. “On the other hand I do think our transmission channels, BBC1, 2 and 4, what we put out on air is an incredibly valuable resource.”

BBC4 – top 10 shows of 2014*

1 The Bridge 1.62m

2 Salamander 1.35m

3 The First Georgians: The German Kings Who Made Britain 1.28m

4 Inspector de Luca 1.04m

5 Wallander 1.02m

6 How the Wild West was Won with Ray Mears 985,000

7 Only Connect 895,000

8 Tales from the Royal Wardrobe 876,000

9 The Kate Bush Story: Running up that Hill 806,000

10 Inspector Montalbano 796,000

*top rating episodes where appropriate Source: Barb


John Plunkett

The GuardianTramp

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