20×4: Marking Twenty Years of BBC Four

Hi all, still sorting out some refinements of the 100 Most-Shown BBC Programmes Ever. In short, a total of 25,371 programmes have now been added to the mix (previously buried within other listings such as 90s/00s CBBC – where individual shows were listed in one big programme description on Genome – plus listings from the 1940s and 1950s previously missing from my Big Huge List), which will require rejigging previously listed programmes somewhat.

While I’m continuing to sort all that out, here’s a long read to keep you ticking over. Previously published on unpopular-because-everyone-assumes-everything-is-paywalled-on-there-when-in-reality-only-95%-of-posts-are-paywalled* platform Medium, here’s a scamper through the history of BBC Four, and the most popular programmes therein.

(*My posts were always free, of course. And only partially because nobody would ever want to pay to read them.)

For some reason, many television channels prefer to celebrate their 21st anniversary, not their 20th. But, given the way the BBC is being used as a chew toy by Culture Secretary and Relative You’d Mute on Facebook Nadine Dorries, the odds of BBC Four being around that long seem a little on the slim side, so here’s a celebration of the channel’s first twenty years on air.

Four was borne out of mostly-forgotten digital channel BBC Knowledge. That was launched on 1 July 1999, by Buzz Aldrin and Jamie Theakson, and I am not making that up, as “The first television-based multimedia learning service”, which basically meant that it had a website.

It came with commendably lofty ideals, and (as seen in the channel’s launch programme) serves as a real time capsule of early-era digital TV. Bustling with ideas on how it can get people involved, get people of all ages scrabbling for more information, and generally just be the polar opposite of linear, couch-based TV. Problem was, all those ideals were let down by two things. Firstly, optimism alone can’t power such a project, and secondly, when everyone is still paying for dial-up internet by the minute, throwing a barrage of URLs at the audience during end credits (the ‘interactive’ aspect of the channel) was never going to really work. Plus, that ident was bloody unsettling.

So, BBC Knowledge became BBC Four on 2 March 2002. Originally pitched as a new channel for thinkers, at various points it would become a hub for docudramas about beloved Light Entertainment figures, to a channel willing to put together an hour-long documentary on Tetris, to the UK’s capital of subtitled European drama, to it’s current cash-strapped incarnation as A UKTV Repeats Channel For People Who Play Variants of Wordle. And, of course, where Top Of The Pops repeats live.

Join me now, so together we can celebrate twenty years of the Tristran Fourmile of British Television. Quickly now, before someone on there expresses a preferred pronoun and Dorries has it crushed.

All viewing figures from BARB.co.uk, 28-day figures used where available, 7-day figures used where they weren’t.

2002, international year of the palindrome and BBC Four’s launch year. Despite an early promotional push for Four, it took a while for viewing figures to grow. In the early months of the channel, a broadcast with viewing figures circa 30,000 could top the weekly chart. It took until a few months for those figures to grow, no doubt helped by an oft-used tactic from the dawn of the digital epoch: take a popular main channel programme, and debut new episodes on your new channel. This is something we’ll see quite a lot here.

Sunday 8 December saw episode eight of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ ten-part WWII miniseries Band Of Brothers air on BBC2, followed by the final two episodes premiering on BBC4. The tactic proved a success, despite that double-bill finishing just before 1am. On a school night. And it’s the latter of those final two episodes that draws the bigger audience up there, starting at 11:55pm.

Elsewhere on the list, Five Miles High looks at “how scientists are unravelling the mysteries of the jetstream”, a prime example of Peak BBC Four even at this early stage. Joint-fourth place goes to — and don’t worry, BARB’s listing as ‘David Attenborough Colon’ has nothing to do with the image now in your mind — “Life on Air: David Attenborough’s 50 Years in Television”, a landmark that now seems a little quaint now our most valued of National Treasures has clocked up a further two decades on air.

Sharing seventh place are more good examples of Four’s staple diet at the time: in-depth nature documentary The Natural World (in this case, an insight into the life cycle of sperm whales) and Not Only… But Also.., a comedy repeat deemed too unfashionable (or at least, too monochrome) for Gold.

Pete and Dud, enjoying that pint

As if to underline the mission statement of the channel, at number 9: Business Secrets Of The Pharaohs (well, practically).

Four’s first full year sees the ‘episode premiere on the new channel’ tactic deployed again for political thriller State of Play and historical drama Charles II: The Power and the Passion, with fresh new episodes given first airing on BBC4 immediately after episodes were broadcast on BBC1. And again, it worked very well for the digital-only outlet, with viewing figures very much growing — little surprise, as this was during the initial transition to digital TV for many people. Indeed, with the disastrous OnDigital project making way for what-they-should-have-been-doing-all-along Freeview in late 2002, it’s likely that keeping in the loop with new must-see shows like these was a key factor in people opting for the subscription-free service.

Sneaking into tenth place on the list, a programme that would become an institution for Four before moving onto bigger things. Adopting same ‘see it a week early on BBC Four’ format again, QI’s modest format made it feel every bit at home on BBC Four as on BBC Two. While the sheer volume of QI episodes now makes it feel like acceptable background TV (at least to my mind, perhaps due to it being omnipresent on Dave), at the time each new episode felt like a treat, and certainly felt like a welcome alternative to BBC Two Comedy Zone offerings like Buzzcocks, Two Pints or Catherine Tate.

Onto 2004, and QI is starting to spread throughout the chart, taking up four places on the list. However, the breakout hit of the year is The Alan Clark Diaries, a dramatisation of the late Tory MP starring John Hurt. Rather than using the ‘week early’ scheduling, the full run of the series debuted on Four a few months before finding a place on BBC Two, and it paid off with the first episode of the series attracting the new channel’s largest audience to date.

In fourth place, an Arena special covering the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Secret Policeman’s Ball in aid of Amnesty International. Annoyingly, despite the BBC Programme Guide suggesting that’s currently on iPlayer for another four months at the time of writing, iPlayer says otherwise. Boo.

[UPDATE: Thanks to @BarryHodge18 on The Twitter for pointing out that – at the time of writing this (i.e. 22/8/22), it’s currently on iPlayer for another seven days.]

Making up the remainder of the list, in fifth place is the concluding part of He Knew He Was Right, Andrew Davies ‘s dramatisation of Anthony Trollope ‘s novel being broadcast on BBC One with new episodes a week early on Four, and in ninth place the repeat of Monty Python’s Flying Circus that followed the Arena documentary on the Secret Policeman’s Ball. Genome might well know which Flying Circus episode that was, but it’s not going to tell us.

2005. QI’s victory is total.

Much the same in 2006, to be quite honest, but at least a couple of shows makes inroads to QI’s dominance. Top of the chart is, in my correct opinion, the peak of BBC Four’s original programming. The centrepiece of a Kenneth Williams Night on the channel, preceded by Round The Horne Revisited and …in His Own Words, Michael Sheen portrayed the tortured actor-cum-diarist in Fantabulosa!, a feature-length docudrama that bagged two BAFTAs, kickstarted Four’s comedy-docudrama subgenre and helped accelerate the ascent of the chameleonic Welsh actor. All that, AND it was followed that evening by a repeat of Jackanory. This is what we want!

Also sneaking into the top ten, The Chatterley Affair saw David Tennant star in Andrew Davies ‘s drama about jurors at the Lady Chatterley trial.

2007 saw the final BBC Four premieres of QI, after which it would become a fully-fledged BBC Two series. Luckily, the growing popularity of other shows on the channel helped lessen that blow. The most notable example clearly being Fanny Hill, Andrew Davies’ two-part adaptation of John Cleland’s 18th-century novel. Starring Rebecca Night, Alison Steadman and Samantha Bond, the well-received miniseries brought in the first million-plus viewing figures for the channel.

Arguably the most populist series to be afforded the ‘see the next episode a week early’ treatment on Four, series two of Life on Mars initially brought some big audiences to the channel, though it seemed by the end of the run many viewers were content to just wait a week for the BBC One broadcasts — by the time episode four hit the channel, the numbers had dropped to just over 300,000.

A repeat of Blackadder Goes Forth made it to fourth place on the list. You know which episode. The BARB listing for that week erroneously lists it as ‘Blackadder Back and Forth’, but dear me, no. Seventh place goes to Miss Marie Lloyd: Queen of the Music Hall, a costume drama inspired by the life and loves of London’s East End music hall legend Marie Lloyd.

2008 and a couple of years on from Fantabluosa!, the channel revisits what would rapidly becoming a winning formula for Fouir’s original drama — dramatic retellings of the stories behind British comedy legends. And, with no small irony, The Curse of Steptoe hits the top spot, nabbing BBC Four’s highest audience since launch. And it’s lucky it gathered such a large audience for its original broadcast, as it’s not about to be repeated any time soon, such was the lackadaisical approach to truth-adherence on the part of the programme makers.

A piece of peak BBC Four in second place, Ian Hislop Goes Off The Rails explored the fall-out from 1963’s infamous Beeching Report, which led to a third of the nation’s railway lines being closed, forced thousands of people onto the road, and to the David Croft sitcom nobody talks about. And that wasn’t the only rail-based attraction for the channel that year — viewers cho-cho-chose to put four more documentaries on railways into that top ten.

Gracie! What? Your tea’s ready! Yes, that wasn’t in the script of the feature-length docudrama exploring the life of Rochdale-based national treasure Gracie Fields, but perhaps it should have been. A big year for docudramas on women identifiable by their first names, with Enid and Margot* also proving popular (*Fonteyn rather than From The Good Life, if you were wondering. That one’s ‘Margo’).

A landmark moment for original comedy on BBC Four here, with Jo Brand’s NHS sitcom Getting On taking fourth place on the list. And with good cause — a great series, and perhaps a peg too square for a BBC2 Comedy Zone then populated by Mock The Week and Krod Mandoon and the Flaming Sword of Fire. For the record, while the most well-known BBC Four sitcom was probably The Thick Of It, the highest that ever got in one of the yearly charts was sixteenth place, in 2005.

Four’s docudrama juggernaut rumbled on, with the tale of Tony Warren grappling with production difficulties, a mercurial cast and Granada’s Bernstein brothers to bring the twice-weekly happenings of a certain cobbled Weatherfield street to our screens. The Road To Coronation Street is certainly a nice little cross-channel curio, it being an ITV Studios Production for the BBC, being subsequently repeated on… ITV.

As if to underline that the digital diaspora could probably have room for an entire UKTV Trains channel, Indian Hill Railways proved to be a surprise smash, with an episode on the Nilgiri Mountain Railway beating some strong competition in second place. Not that there wasn’t room for original written content (that isn’t based on pre-existing TV properties), with solidly entertaining Douglas Adams adaptation Dirk Gently taking fourth place on the list (much more lo-fi than BBC America’s later remake, but certainly the better of the two) and On Expenses, a drama based on the true story of Heather Brooke’s attempt to expose spurious MP expense claims, in ninth.

2011 saw a new landmark audience figure for the channel, with Ruth Jones portraying the private life of Hancock, Sykes and Carry On foil Hattie Jacques. Hattie also featured turns from Robert Bathurst as husband John Le Mesurier (a role he’d later reprise for Gold’s remounting of the missing Dad’s Army episodes) and Aidan Turner, then fresh from Being Human, as lover John Schofield. A one-off that proved to be the pinnacle of Four’s comedy docudrama subgenre, attracting more than two million viewers. As you may notice from the table above, it was so popular, the repeat of Jacques’ 1963 appearance on This Is Your Life would be the thirdmost watched thing on BBC Four that year. Which, if you’d like to see it, is currently on iPlayer.

Elsewhere on the list, the start of the channel’s bravest and most brilliant scheduling move — handing over peak-time Saturday nights to subtitled Danish drama. Viewers were first introduced to Detective Sarah Lund in January of 2011, picking up a solid and appreciative audience of around half-a-million viewers as the mystery unfolded. By the time the second series of The Killing was aired in November of 2011, the buzz around the series saw audiences grow towards and beyond the million mark, the high point coming for the series opener as a newly rural Lund is recalled to Copenhagen Police HQ to help investigate the murder of a lawyer.

The growth of the Nordic Noir strand continued into 2012, with the third series of The Killing joined by Hans Rosenfeldt’s cross-nation puzzler The Bridge. The Danish-Swedish series proved every bit as popular for Saturday night audiences, as they strove to decipher the mystery of the Øresund Bridge.

Only Connect helped to break up the Danish duopoly, with the quiz taking third place on the list. Having ran on the channel since 2008, modest audiences of around a quarter-million steadily grew, until it was comfortably topping a million. A place on BBC Two would soon beckon. For the record, this top-rating episode isn’t a celebrity special or anything — a good old standard episode 13 from series six, ‘Footballers vs Draughtsmen’.

After two years of ubiquity for European crime dramas on the channel, 2013 saw something that couldn’t be more BBC at the top of the viewing charts. As Wood Lane’s most famous building prepared to contribute to London’s unaffordable housing crisis, viewers were treated to a tour of an all-but vacated TVC (with some incongruous and decidedly spurious parkour failing to add much excitement) before a proper send-off, a live performance by Madness in the car park. Goodbye, Television Centre.

“TV-See you later.”

With only three appearances in the list from the latest Saturday night Scandi-noir epics, it’s safe to say the cultural obsession with the genre is now fading. People just don’t like having to read telly, and that’s the end of it.

TRICKED YOU. There hadn’t been a series of The Bridge in 2013, and Four’s alternative offerings (Borgen, Spiral, Arne Dahl, Wallander and Young Montalbano) attracted big but not huge audiences (by BBC Four standards, of course). But in 2014 The Bridge was back back back, baby (I readily admit this sentence lacks the gravitas that should be afforded the series).

By 2015, the BBC Four audience was truly transfixed by The Bridge, so much so that Four now had its second ever two-million plus viewing figure — a new record of 2,107,000 viewers for the first episode of series three. Indeed, by the end of 2015, of the channel’s twenty most-matched programmes since launch, sixteen of them were Saturday night subtitled dramas. And if that weren’t remarkable enough, all sixteen of those were episodes of The Bridge.

By 2016, there were no more episodes of The Bridge to be shown on BBC Four. While the series itself would return for one last run in 2018, it was popular enough to move to BBC Two, where it would receive viewing figures largely identical to those it had enjoyed on BBC Four. Putting it out on Friday nights was probably an unwise decision there, in fairness.

Not that this spelled the end of Saturday night subbed dramas, but now it was time to cast the commissioning net a bit wider. Specifically to Iceland, where a gritty drama fitting the post-Bridge gap in the schedules (“a dismembered body is found in the river at the same time a ferry arrives at a small fishing port”) could have been forged especially. Bruce’s Big Night it wasn’t. Trapped because another big hit for Four, and made household names of Olafur Darri Olafsson, Ingvar Eggert Sigurdsson, Nina Dogg Filippusdottir, Ilmur Kristjansdottir, Steinunn Olina Thorsteinsdottir, Thorsteinn Gunnarsson and Baltasar Breki Samper (okay, it didn’t, but it does make you hope whoever compiles the listings for Radio Times can just copy-paste cast lists).

No, not that one.

It was back to Nordic normality for the other European crime drama in the top ten, with Sweden’s Modus seeing psychologist and criminal profiler Inger’s autistic daughter Stina attending a wedding reception and returning as witness to a murder.

No, we’ve moved onto the next programme now. Tsk.

Taking up other spots on the list, what with BBC Three having ceased trading as a traditional channel earlier that year, it was left to Four to take on any Olympic overspill, the channel being granted the opportunity to open up at lunchtime for the first time ever to do so. Top spot of the year went to the channel’s Rio 2016 coverage from 11 August, and the men’s singles third round tennis clash between Italy’s Fabio Fognini and [checks result of match] Britain’s Andy Murray.

While it’s nice to slap ourselves on the collective back and coo about how cultured we are that foreign-language drama is the most popular thing on one of our main TV channels, spare a thought for all those other shows. Home grown producers, grappling with decreasing budgets as the channel is repeatedly ordered to tighten its belt, trying their damnedest to get another QI or Thick Of It, then some Nordic upstarts waltz in and snaffle up all the viewers. It’s not even a trick that’s been working for other channels — Channel 4 tried to bottle some of that subtitled foreign drama magic for themselves, but it just never quite took off for them. Walter Resents, more like. (I am pleased with that joke. Shut your face.)

So it’s a bit of a surprise to look at the top ten for 2017. A single solitary Saturday night showing up there — the opening episode of French series Witnesses, an uplifting tale where the spirits of a ragtag bunch of plucky orphans are lifted by the antics of talking poodle Mr Tickles who… nah, it’s about the frozen bodies of 15 men being discovered on an abandoned bus.

The most-watched BBC Four offering of the year proved to be Roots, a retelling of the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries commissioned by USA’s History Channel, this time starring British actor Malachi Kirby as 18th century slave Kunta Kinte and Forest Whitaker as his mentor Fiddler/Henry.

Perhaps to the relief of BBC Four commissioning editors, an actual homegrown series takes up the remaining places on that Top Ten. The third and final series of Detectorists arrived in 2017, following two earlier series on the channel that drew relatively modest audiences. Word of mouth around the series certainly helped build up demand (and those modest figures for previous series’ probably helped avoid it being pinched by BBC Two), meaning the last outings for Andy and Lance would be by far their most popular.

Nothing lasts forever, not least a BBC Four with the budget to invest in new comedy, so it was back to Saturday night foreign drama taking up the lion’s share of the top ten for 2018. That’s except for a documentary that would become the most-watched broadcast to ever hit BBC Four. The Jeremy Thorpe Scandal was an edited and updated version of Tom Mangold’s original 1979 Panorama investigation into the trial of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Made on the assumption that that the trial would result in a guilty verdict, a special post-trial programme was prepared, and — following the trial’s not-guilty outcome — scrapped. The documentary itself remained unseen for almost 40 years, until this airing in June.

That in itself, is fascinating enough to warrant a watch. But the timing of the broadcast was more than a little canny — it following the final episode of Russell T Davies’ smash hit miniseries A Very English Scandal on BBC One, bringing a whole heap of viewers with it.

Ah, 2019. The last year of precedented times. So, what was popular with a populace not knowing how much time they’d be spending stuck inside twelve months hence? A slightly surprising cornucopia of content, topped by American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley. Can’t imagine why legendary levels of bullshit and America would be such a big draw? Than you’re more successful at blocking out memory of the Trump presidency than most. This opening episode saw Lucy Worsley question how much of America’s founding story was actually based on fact. Sadly though, not followed by a repeat of The Simpsons episode where Lisa uncovers the truth behind the myth of Jebediah Springfield.

That was followed by 2019’s Gatiss-helmed Ghost Story for Christmas. Martin’s Close saw Peter Capaldi star in the latest adaptation of an MR James festive frightener. As was widely accepted at the time, the well of TV-friendly James’ stories was more than a little shallow by that point, but it certainly drew an audience.

As if to further prove that Christmas telly isn’t quite the same as it used to be, late December also saw new Norwegian drama Wisting arrive on the channel. A premise “in which a body is found in snow underneath a Christmas tree”. And a Hap-py New Yeeeear.

Onto Plague Year 2020, and as if to prove that things just weren’t going to be the same, the most popular thing on BBC Four that year was… Snooker. Not even part of a mid-1980s theme night or anything. Just snooker. Snooker.

A strong roster of imported drama helping entertain a nation needing a little more than coloured balls being knocked around green baize, however. The Valhalla Murders saw “Katrin ‘Kata’ Gunnarsdottir, an ambitious detective with her eye on becoming the head of the Reykjavik police detective department” tackle the labyrinthine case of a murdered ex-drug dealer, Wisting continued to throw blood on the winter snow, while Norwegian drama Twin followed the fortunes of two very different identical twin brothers. I’m going to come out and admit that while I was fortunate enough not to be furloughed during lockdown, if I were ever going to stand a chance of catching up with all the BBC Four foreign dramas I want to see, that would have been my best chance.

Okay, the last year we’re looking at here, and there’s a curious thing. You’ve got your usual Saturday night drama — Swedish crime drama The Hunt For a Killer — but that isn’t top of the list for the year.

What does top of the chart for 2021 is part of a repeat run for the first series of Sharon Horgan, Holly Walsh, Helen Serafinowicz & Barunka O’Shaughnessy’s* parenting sitcom Motherland. Nothing especially surprising, you might think. After all, it’s a good series, and certainly very popular. But the scheduling of that repeat run… three episodes are on there, in first, third and fourth place on the list, all from the same night. And not in any remotely hospitable time of day — they went out at (going by the BARB listings) 11.50pm, 12.20am and 12.50am respectively. That’s a lot of parents pacing around with a squawking baby at that time of night deciding they might as well put something relatable on.

(*And nobody else)

It doesn’t end there — just outside that top ten are repeats of the same series going out even later that same night. 1.20am, 1.50am and 2.20am.

Why? Well, there’s a reason. And it’s one that probably pre-empts what might well be the reason we won’t have a BBC Four for much longer.

You see, as mentioned briefly right at the start, all these figures are from 28-day post-broadcast windows where the data is available. So, traditionally, that would include people watching recordings on VHS or PVR, more lately also including views on iPlayer. And it seems the majority of the views for Motherland up there are iPlayer-based — the figures for a 7-day window that week tell a different story.

If you’re reading this on mobile and can’t make out the text on the image, it’s basically all snooker.

If a mostly-gutted BBC Four is to be positioned as a repeats channel for people who solve a Wordle in three guesses, that job’s currently being fulfilled quite effectively by iPlayer. And as the BBC is being endlessly whittled away by an uncaring government, BBC Four is probably first to find itself under the penknife.

Even factoring in those iPlayer view counts, offerings from BBC Four for 2021 are on the slide. Given the vastly reduced budget for the channel, that’s no surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of a shame.

We’re going to miss it. Heck, those yearly charts didn’t even have room for Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe, Mad Men, The Mark Steel Lectures, Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, Flight of the Conchords, Rich Hall’s America documentaries, Paul Merton’s silent movie documentaries, The Thick Of It, The Slap, Newswipe, Gameswipe, Pop Britannia, Comics Britannia, The Falklands Play, In Search of Steve Ditko or going to the trouble of recreating the first ever BBC broadcast from 1936, using original 1930s equipment. In short,we’re damn lucky anyone ever thought we deserved it. At times, Four was a channel that might even have won Lord Reith round to the idea of tele-vision.

BUT, this is meant to be a celebration. So, here are a few bonus charts I’ve scooped out of my number stew.

06/01/77 — Sheer Elegance, Tina Charles, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Clodagh Rodgers, Boney M, Smokie, Jethro Tull, the Drifters and Johnny Mathis
TOTP Christmas 1978 — Darts, Abba, Boney M, Brotherhood of Man, Father Abraham, Bee Gees, Brian and Michael, Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, Wings, Showaddywaddy, Rose Royce, Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta and Legs and Co
Yes, I know, I’ve formatted the table differently. Don’t blame me, blame Timeshift’s long episode titles.

God bless you BBC Four. And all who sailed in you.

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