BBC4: TV for adults who like to think

BBC4 was described by a rival as 'turgid', but that isn't the impression Ian Burrell is getting from some of the new programmes promised by the digital channel's controller
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The Independent Online

It should be said that Ross did not take a great deal of persuading - in fact the project was his idea. He also gets to travel to Japan, Korea and Hong Kong to meet some of the up-and-coming film-makers he most admires.

The project, called Jonathan Ross's Asian Invasion, was hatched at January's BBC4 World Cinema Awards in Portobello Road in west London, which Ross hosted. After he had given a nervous BBC4 controller Janice Hadlow some encouragement with her speech, Ross was asked if he would like to do some presenting on the channel.

Hadlow remembers: "I said, 'Is there anything you would like to do for us?' He said, 'I want to make something about Asian cinema for an interested and committed audience.' Thus it was born."

It is a great coup for BBC4, which has been seen as an arts channel and an intellectual's channel but wishes to be more than both of those things and which has recently been put under further pressure by the arrival of Channel 4's More4.

Channel 4 marketing director Polly Cochrane claimed in these pages in September that BBC4 had become "very turgid", a home for shows with "some old man talking about Tolstoy ... with subtitles".

Hadlow, by contrast, is kind about More4, saying how much she likes The West Wing and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The BBC4 controller says that her channel is more of a home for original British programming, though. She says Ross's arrival is no departure from BBC4's current course and that, as well as encouraging little-known talent, the channel should "invite big names like Jonathan to do things they are really passionate about".

She says: "Jonathan Ross is an absolute obsessive about Asian cinema. He's so enthusiastic and persuasive that you just want to know. He's an expert - not just a celebrity that has been Sellotaped on to it - and that comes across in every frame."

In the three-part series, Ross interviews key directors such as Ryuhei Kitamara, who got to make the first Godzilla movie in 10 years, and star comedian Stephen Chow. Tony and Cherie Blair will be pleased to learn that Ross also pays tribute to Hong Kong action heroes Jackie Chan (the PM is said to be a "number one fan") and Bruce Lee.

The series will be packaged on BBC 4 with a series of Asian film premieres, such as The Twilight Samurai (Japan) and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter ... and Spring (South Korea).

Janice Hadlow is anxious that her channel leaves viewers both "invigorated" and "energised". She wants her schedule to offer sensations of "enjoyment" as opposed to being "austere and rather dutiful". More spa treatment than cold shower.

She compares running a digital channel to being able to undo the corset that sometimes restricts the terrestrial world where, Hadlow says, "people get very nervous about undoing the back of it". But on BBC4, well, she says, "I was going to say you can let it all hang out."

All this talk of undoing corsets would strike a chord with Donald McGill, the cartoonist behind many of the saucy postcards that could once be seen on the piers of British seaside towns. A documentary about McGill recently delivered BBC4 a healthy audience as part of The Lost Decade season on British culture between 1945-1955, which has previously been something of a black hole. Hadlow thinks this cross-genre season helped to identify the channel.

Does this mean that BBC4 is for people old enough to remember the Fifties? Hadlow denies this but admits: "We are never going to be the youngest channel on the block. That's not our purpose."

There were younger people who were drawn to BBC4's programmes about post-war sex surveys and the origins of the television quiz show, she says. The channel's demographic is also given a younger skew by music documentaries on subjects such as Britpop and the life and times of maverick Mancunian band The Fall.

These shows were overseen by BBC music supremo Mark Cooper, who is also preparing the forthcoming Folk Britannica, which will trace the emergence of groups such as Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention and will coincide with a major concert at the Barbican in London.

BBC4, which was the British channel that first alighted on Curb Your Enthusiasm (now, ironically, showing on More4) is also home to the best British comedy of 2005, The Thick of It (starring Chris Langham and Peter Capaldi). Armando Iannucci's brilliantly observed satire on the attempts of a New Labour ministry to engage with the media will be back for a new series next year. For those that have missed it so far - and it is essential viewing for anyone working in the media - all six episodes so far will be shown again on BBC4 before Christmas, ahead of the show's transfer to BBC2.

BBC4 has been criticised for its lack of audience but now has 4.6 million watching for at least 15 minutes each week. The growth of the channel is aided by cross-promotion within the BBC and by the increase in the number of multichannel homes. Hadlow says the "moment has passed", when BBC4 and other channels benefited from the Freeview-inspired movement of older viewers to multichannel television.

The channel has also developed off the back of strong, original programming. In terms of costs per hour, BBC4 is cheaper than all the corporation's other adult channels and even children's channel CBeebies. Nevertheless, it still manages to produce original drama and Hadlow is particularly excited about a new project that will dramatise the life of comedian Kenneth Williams (played by Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in the Channel 4's The Deal). "It's partly about his relationship with his mother and partly his relationship with fame. Mostly it's about his relationship with himself, which for him was the only one that mattered in the end."

Hadlow was a BBC trainee and is a former editor of The Late Show. As joint head of the BBC's history department she oversaw the very successful A History of Britain and three series of Reputations, including a programme about Kenneth Williams.

With its saucy postcards, great comedy and Kenneth Williams can BBC4 still be called turgid? Stop messing about.