Hugh Thomson

BBC Four and the dumbing down of British television

BBC Four and the dumbing down of British television
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The announcement this week that BBC Four is to stop making new programmes and become a largely repeats-only channel – which they are cheekily calling ‘archive’ to make it sound better – is a depressing reminder to viewers of a very long-term trend.

When BBC Four was launched amidst much fanfare in 2002, its slogan was 'Everybody Needs a Place to Think'. Has the BBC decided that they no longer do? Or perhaps the corporation – in focusing on ‘youth programming’ like BBC Three – thinks it isn't its job to provide one.

Oh dear. Whatever happened to television? And in particular, the area that BBC Four was particularly supposed to promote: factual and arts television.

Time was when working in television was to work in one of the most exciting industries around. A huge wealth of documentary-making talent showed us how we were living both in this country and abroad – to reveal ‘The World About Us’, as one long-running factual series proclaimed. While Arts documentaries would introduce cutting-edge new artists, and often be so well-made as to be artistic films in their own right: the glory days of 40 Minutes and Arena.

Now it’s largely curatorial. A glance at television schedules right across the BBC shows a woeful lack of ambition, with a staggering amount of repeats already. There are hardly any new observational documentaries to show us how other people live. And, with rare exceptions, the only arts documentaries are obvious coffee-table accompaniments to big shows at the National Gallery, stately and reverential.

For some years now, BBC Four has settled into a comfortable armchair with carefully stage-managed lessons by presenters like Andrew Marr, or Lucy Worsley – ‘floating lectern’ programmes as they are known in the trade – where the presenter delivers a scripted lecture with an appropriate and changing backdrop, a bit like a PowerPoint presentation or something for the Open University. All fine in their way of course, but very, very safe.

The BBC needs to reset its priorities and its ambition. It’s not enough to do the occasional marquee drama. As good as Wolf Hall and War and Peace have been, the corporation can hardly hope to compete with shows like The Crown.

What the BBC can do – and perhaps should do to fulfil its public remit – is to offer far more observational documentary, which it has allowed to wither on the vine. Given this is a style it once made uniquely its own, this is a crying shame.

There is a real appetite for knowing how others live. An appetite that has grown as we find ourselves in an increasingly compartmentalised world – and over the last year when we’ve all been shut in. Channel 4 comes close with the fabulous Gogglebox and – a guilty pleasure of mine – Come Dine With Me, which at least gets us into lots of different people’s houses, as Wife Swap used to do. 

Imagine that television was invented today. That we suddenly created the capacity for large numbers of people to have a communal experience by watching the same programme at the same time all around the country. And not just the Queen addressing the nation – although her success at doing that is a reminder of how powerful television can be.

Some of the most extraordinary programmes made recently were documentaries: the award-winning For Sama, seed funded by Channel 4 News and chronicling the Syrian war from the point of view of one family living in Aleppo; Kingmaker’s startling revelations about Imelda Marcos in the Philippines; Netflix’s The Edge Of Democracy about Brazil. My son got me to watch Netflix’s eye-opening 13th about black rights in the States in the wake of the George Floyd protests, which has been required viewing for many of his generation. None were made by the BBC.

The BBC needs to regain its ambition when it comes to factual television. That this can be hugely successful has been shown by both Netflix and HBO. It also has the signal advantage of having become far, far cheaper. Technology allows documentaries to be shot by only a handful of people these days, or indeed by just one. For a BBC facing budget cuts, it makes financial sense to make more documentaries and fewer dramas; documentaries come at a fraction of the price. Yet it’s not so much that the BBC is not meeting this challenge; it’s that they seem so blithely unaware it’s a challenge at all.

When once in a blue moon they do attempt some documentary, like Once Upon A Time In Iraq, they should sit up and take notice at its positive reception. And they could easily make some riveting television much closer to home. Never have we known less about how different institutions work in Britain; never has the goal between extreme wealth and abject poverty needed more examination. Series like Roger Graef’s Police were both eye-opening and influential. And as Paul Watson’s The Fishing Party or The Family used to show – or Molly Dineen’s wonderful films – they don’t all have to be serious to command a lot of attention.

There is a wealth of young filmmaking talent out there itching to make documentaries about the world and indeed our own country, and given very little chance by the BBC: this might also help with their quest for diversity which seems to be about the only thing they ever worry about these days.

Nor is it just about the size of the audience. Just as with Radio Four, for the BBC to command a licence fee or a central position in the broadcasting ecosystem, it also needs to command respect. And that means doing things that straightforward commercial channels might baulk at. Show us how we live now. Surprise us with portraits of communities that many people don’t know about. And give us that sense of communal viewing that television is uniquely qualified to provide and could play to some BBC strengths.

Now that he’s got his feet under the desk, Tim Davie as the new Director General needs to reset the BBC’s vision and purpose, and perhaps return it to some of those fundamentals. Tony Hall did much to steady the horses after years of damaging management reorganisations and scandals over excessive executive and presenter pay. His replacement has the opportunity to get on the front foot once again, which the BBC badly needs to do if it is to survive. Otherwise it will reach the point where every one of its channels is just showing repeats.

Hugh Thomson was BAFTA-nominated for his BBC series on the history of rock and roll, Dancing in The Street and won the Grierson Award for his BBC series on India with William Dalrymple. He was an instigator and founder member of the Sheffield Documentary Festival.