BBC4 - Welcome to the sanctuary

As Channel 4 reels from 'Celebrity Big Brother' fall-out, Gerard Gilbert hails BBC4 as the true home of quality TV. Ian Burrell talks to its controller, Janice Hadlow
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The Independent Online

Let's get one thing straight from the start - I am a Celebrity Big Brother fan. In its undeniably malevolent way, I believe the show produces the sort of unpredictable, closely observed psychodrama that most television dramatists can only fantasise about. And in sparking protests in Westminster and on the streets of Mumbai by people who have never even watched the show, it is as salutary as Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. On the other hand, I can fully understand why many cultured viewers agree with Ken Russell and have turned away in disgust. For such as these, Big Brother is symptomatic of the more general disappointment they feel about Channel 4, a broadcaster that started out promising bold, sophisticated programming, and has ended up with Jade Goody haranguing a Bollywood starlet over the correct use of stock cubes.

Where do they go, these lost viewers? There was a time when BBC2 would have provided an automatic sanctuary, but Two is an unpredictable beast these days, as likely to serve up snooker or darts, Strictly Come Dancing magazines or Anne Robinson than powerful documentaries or intelligent drama. Newsnight still anchors the channel in some sort of serious-mindedness, but on the whole it's packed with deservedly popular middle-brow entertainments like MasterChef, Top Gear and Gardener's World. Even Horizon is a dumbed-down pale shadow of its once rigorous, take-no-prisoners self. And let's not forget parlour games like Room 101, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI - safe long-runners that keep Perrier award-veterans from having to find a proper job.

The truth is that an increasing number of viewers, if they have not turned off television entirely, are going digital for their brain food - and it is broadcasting minnow BBC4 that is slowly but surely becoming the television station of choice for the sort of well-informed viewers who also listen to Radio 4. Given their shared integer, as well as interests, this is maybe as it should be.

The figures are modest - the sort of numbers that would spell disaster on BBC2: 800,000 people tuned into BBC4's most watched dramas: The Alan Clark Diaries in 2003 and the Kenneth Williams biopic Fantabulosa! in 2006. A more normal evening's tally would be about 300,000, which was the audience for Mortgaged to the Yanks (a history of Britain's postwar debt that is repeated tonight), as well as a repeat of the recent Arena on The Archers (what a perfect fit for BBC4!). But these viewing figures are steadily growing - largely, it must be said, as more people pick up Freeview or paid-for digital services, but also as people come to know and trust the content. And BBC4 programming is the sort of stuff that television critics, as a class, like to watch - and, therefore, gets written about. But it's not just media pundits who are putting pen to paper, or fingertips to laptop keys. BBC4 boss Janice Hadlow claims she gets far more letters and e-mail than she received at Channel 4, where she was in charge of specialist factual programming. She claims that a brand loyalty of the sort found amongst Radio 4 listeners is emerging among BBC4 viewers.

Hadlow, who has been in the post since 2004, has recently overseen fascinating, multi-faceted seasons of programmes on British science fiction and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, and BBC4 was the only channel that would choose to screen Spike Lee's four-hour film about Hurricane Katrina, When the Levees Broke, in its entirety. Personally, as a longstanding devotee of Edgar Reitz's Heimat trilogy, I was interested to note that the most recent 11-hour instalment was shown on BBC4, whereas the original two Heimats were shown on BBC2. Indeed, the BBC4's commitment to foreign language films is reflected in their clever creation of a the BBC Four World Cinema Award - a statement of intent that is not always, alas, followed up with any consistency in the weekly schedules.

Meanwhile, two of the best received sitcoms in recent years - The Thick of It and Jack Dee's Lead Balloon began on BBC4 , as well as it being the first channel to broadcast Larry David's peerless Seinfeld follow-up, Curb Your Enthusiasm. And then there are the eye-catching dramas like Fear of Fanny (with Julia Davis as Britain's first TV chef, Fanny Cradock) and a live remake of the 1953 science fiction drama The Quatermass Experiment. The new winter/spring schedules were announced last week, and are spearheaded by a season on the Edwardians that will include Andrew Davies' adaptation of George and Weedon Grossmith's The Diary of a Nobody, a landmark series about the history of photography and (pace Celebrity Big Brother), a history of racism.

In other words, this is a channel bursting with confidence and self-belief. It's also one that has come a long way since it emerged from the chrysalis of the unloved BBC Knowledge almost five years ago under the aegis of controller Roly Keating, who has since gone on to become controller of BBC2. In fact, BBC4's first evening of programming, on 2 March 2002, was a simulcast with BBC2, a statement if ever there was one that the fledgling BBC4 saw itself as the new BBC2 - or at least the standard bearer of BBC2 cherished traditions. But is it? The short answer is yes. In fact, BBC4 is arguably more "BBC2" than BBC2 ever was - and it is the digital revolution that has created this happy state of affairs.

The multichannel explosion has saved the sort of programming many people associate with BBC2 from gradual but almost certain extinction. The channel has been chasing ratings success ever since Mrs Thatcher first suggested that the Corporation should earn its licence fee by catering for mass audiences. But the future, as Mrs T didn't foresee, is all about catering for niche audiences, as ITV1 is discovering to its cost - freeing digital channels like BBC4 from the shackles of pleasing a lot of the people a lot of the time. And BBC4's niche is as a lifeboat for disgruntled BBC2 viewers, especially those attracted by the stripling's resemblance to the earlier, more ambitious BBC Two of the late 1960s and 1970s.

This hasn't been an accidental process, and Broadcasting House has been in active process of social engineering - hiving off BBC2's more highbrow offerings to its little sister, while big sis' went chasing volume. Such a policy is not without its critics, especially amongst the 25 per cent of BBC2 viewers who can't as yet receive BBC4.

The only other blot on this idyllic-seeming broadcasting landscape is the nagging suspicion that something, or rather someone, is missing from the equation - the accidental viewer. I remember as a teenager in the 1970s switching over to BBC2 to watch, say, The Goodies, and stumbling on a Dennis Potter play, or a documentary about the Spanish Civil War. If The Goodies was a new comedy idea in 2007, it would probably be shown on BBC3 - the channel where young people are supposed go. BBC4, which shows very welcome music documentaries about the likes of Nick Drake and the Eagles, also recycles ancient editions of The Old Grey Whistle Test - hardly the most tempting proposition for today's teenagers. A niche, in other words, can also be a ghetto. Hadlow has recently said that she is starting to address this missing youthful demographic, but in the short term don't expect Mark Lawson Talks to Jade Goody, or Shilpa Shetty's Guide to Bollywood. Is that a loud sigh of relief I hear?

'There are lots of ways to be intelligent or serious'

We are not a place where you have to sit, stroking your chin and looking reflectively into the sky," says the BBC 4 controller, Janice Hadlow. "We are a channel that's about intelligent entertainment as well as hardcore thinking."

Having inherited the digital channel from predecessor Roly Keating in 2003, Hadlow has subtly broadened the appeal of what was already a highly regarded operation. This is where you will find Spike Lee making searching documentary television, Jonathan Ross offering his expert insight into Asian film-making and Jack Dee attempting the transition from stand-up to dramatised comedy.

There are few cobwebs in the BBC 4 schedule in spite of Hadlow having a background in making history programmes. Indeed, that is perhaps why the channel manages to avoid fustiness - Hadlow is the woman who made history sexy on other BBC channels, giving a platform to the likes of Simon Schama, David Starkey and Niall Ferguson.

Under Hadlow's stewardship BBC 4 has twice been named non-terrestrial channel of the year at the Edinburgh television festival. "If I have to choose one word to describe what links all the stuff we do, intelligence is the word I reach for," she says.

"But there are lots of different ways of being intelligent or serious. There are things that are easily recognisable as television with a serious purpose, such as The Proms or world cinema. But other things are just as valuable. Last week we ran a fantastic programme called Hotel California which featured music from The Byrds to The Eagles. It was about music but it was also about culture, social history, politics, the feeling of the time. Our audience adored that."

Unlike Channel 4, Hadlow is under no obligation to introduce a crude ratings-driver such as Big Brother into her channel's schedule. "Our task isn't to do what Big Brother does for Channel 4, that isn't what we are about. We would never do a comparable programme."

That doesn't mean Hadlow is sniffy about popular culture. She is planning a follow-up to BBC 4's TV on Trial series, which examined the impact of the small screen in terms of intellectual and mass-market programming.

She doesn't mind that rivals sometimes try to give the channel a sepia tinge with the faint praise of calling it "highbrow". She is proud, for example, of her commission of Andrew Graham-Dixon's analysis of the origins of Christian art.

"I don't mind when people call us highbrow because it's an indication of some of the stuff we do, but I don't think we get tagged as much as we used to with the epithet that 'It's all about Tolstoy'," she says. "I don't think we ever actually made a programme about Tolstoy, but hey ho."

Hadlow, 48, is a mother of two who was educated at a comprehensive school in Swanley, north Kent, and attained a first in history at the University of London. Having once worked as a researcher for Victor Lewis-Smith, the former BBC radio trainee has a good sense of humour. BBC 4 (under Keating's watch) was the original British home of the acclaimed Larry David show Curb Your Enthusiasm.

"When Curb went to Channel 4, I thought, 'You know what, we are going to make our own comedy,'" says Hadlow. BBC 4, subsequently unveiled Armando Iannucci's political satire The Thick of It, and subsequently Dee's new vehicle Lead Balloon.

As BBC approaches its fifth birthday, Janice Hadlow, the history woman, is determined that in a further five years the channel will still be relevant, intelligent and without cobwebs. "You want it to be lively, connected, engaged. You want it to feel that it was of that time and still doing something for people rather than just a dusty relic in an attic."

Ian Burrell