British television in the 1990s was deluged with countdowns. The 100 greatest cartoons, the 20 best cheesy 80s hits, and so on. It was a very popular format that was clearly cheap to make (just interview ten talking heads about public nostalgia and splice it with archive footage). And I vividly remember critic A.A. Gill, somewhere in this very British nostalgia-fest (I forget exactly where), being asked when television’s ‘golden age’ was, and replying: “Television hasn’t been around long enough to have a ‘golden age’.” I thought it was a particularly good reply, although I was to find out later that Gill had a personal reason for being exasperated by the notion: his father, Michael Gill, producer of the BBC’s first landmark documentary series Civilisation is often credited with creating it.
Eulogising a whole television channel is admittedly painting in fairly broad strokes, but BBC4 between the years 2004 and 2013 is hopefully a bit more specific, and it grew out of a culture that I believe was pretty much single-handedly created by one person. Not Michael Gill, although this person was also one of the creators of the Civilisation series.
David Attenborough (or, according to Wikipedia: Sir David Frederick Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FZS FSA FRSGS — social climbers, you can give up and go home) is internationally famous as a television presenter of nature documentaries. He is also known for having been the second Controller of BBC2, and the creator of many popular television programmes. What I think is not quite so well-known is just how much Attenborough defined the shape of British television. His strategy, when he was essentially given an entire channel to play with, was to think of every special interest he could, and then make a television programme about it. Football? Match Of The Day. Gardening? Gardener’s World. Popular Music? The Old Grey Whistle Test. And so on. Many of these programmes ran for decades, and are still running. Attenborough’s speciality, though, was the landmark documentary series.
Fast forward 40-odd years, and the BBC decided to launch a whole channel dedicated to this very Attenborough-influenced style of documentary: BBC4. And when I honestly try to think of the cultural works that have brought me the most happiness, those 10 years or so of BBC4 documentaries would be hard to beat.
Why? Well, I think the Attenborough Factor is key (and also probably the name of an ill-judged reality TV show in about 10 years’ time) because clearly he has always believed in television, and believed that documentaries should be entertaining, and made with high production values. This has led to what I feel is a BBC ‘house style’ of documentaries built on wonderful storytelling about how the world works.
But I also think the house style that formed the basis of that BBC4 golden age was based on an understanding of what the 3-part documentary series is so good (maybe even uniquely good) at. What it is not good at is deep-dive detail. There is no room for footnotes, or links to other works. What it is good at is as a fantastic primer for a subject. They don’t tell you everything, or anywhere close to everything, but they tell you enough to get you interested, and give you enough of a frame of reference to get started in finding out more. They nearly always follow the same structure: the history of a subject, starting at the beginning and moving to the present day, told accurately but generally. Effort is made to outline the differing opinions in this history, but little attempt is made to claim which opinion is correct.
And where Attenborough started with special interests, BBC4 continued with science, art and culture. One fantastic recent example (which I cite so often that it’s become a running joke between me and my wife) is the joint BBC / PBS series The Brain, presented by neuroscientist Dr David Eagleman. This 6-part series is a beautifully told walking tour of the big themes in neuroscience, and is based on a book — The Brain: The Story of You. Or rather… the book is more likely based on the television series, because even though it allows for much more detail, it also has to spend much more time and go into a lot more complexity explaining ideas that you could otherwise just see, and right away understand, on television. In fact, some of the book involves describing things that happened spontaneously in interviews and experiments in the television programme.
I particularly noticed how good television can be at explaining complex ideas when I recently started reading Stephen Hawking’s classic A Brief History of Time. The book begins with a brief history of cosmology, and I was surprised how much of it was familiar to me… thanks to BBC4 documentaries. But when it started to explain concepts in detail, I kept finding myself thinking “I wish I could see this explained on television”. Written prose felt like the wrong medium, rather like trying to describe a piece of music in words rather than playing it. To give an example of what I mean, try playing this clip below with your eyes closed:
If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself having to concentrate increasingly hard to keep track of what is being talked about. Now open your eyes and watch the clip. Doesn’t it become so much easier to follow? Because each point is being reinforced in countless ways: by narration, by body language, by analogous objects, by animation, by sounds…
That clip is from the American PBS network, and a reminder that the BBC is not the only game in town when it comes to this kind of informative television. And I admit I may have a preference for the Beeb output because it has been tailored specifically for a British audience. Which brings me to why I’m so specific about the ‘golden age’ of BBC4 being so specifically from 2004 to 2013.
2004 was when I first noticed it starting to get really good, but 2013 was when I started to notice the output becoming… well, more British. To the exclusion of everything else. It seemed to me like the breadth in subject and perspective that I had come to take for granted from the Attenborough school was becoming narrower and narrower. And perhaps that is just me – the rise of YouTube and Netflix might have meant that I just watched less terrestrial television and thus had a narrower idea of BBC4’s output. But just looking at the schedules for BBC4 at the moment, as I still occasionally do, it seems to be mostly repeats, and mainly repeats about British history: monarchs, battles, the glory of British invention.
You do still get some occasional gems after 2013 (Hannah Fry’s programme on Ada Lovelace being a fairly recent one), but now the big guns like Mary Beard and Andrew Graham-Dixon seem to make fewer and less expertise-based programmes, and make them for BBC1 and BBC2. And that classic BBC4 style of entertaining-but-informative documentary, the kind so lovingly parodied by Peter Capaldi in his BBC4 mockumentary on the British film industry The Cricklewood Greats (below), just doesn’t seem to be a priority anymore.
Some of these programmes are still available on BBC iPlayer though. Some are on YouTube (probably illegally). Some are even on Netflix. But catch them if you can. And when you do, why not make it a social occasion, with my very own…
BBC4 Documentary Drinking Game
- Programme starts with the presenter in an exotic location, telling an anecdote to camera about one of the more bizarre characters in this 3 part series [drink 1 shot]
- Presenter, despite being good looking, is (according to Wikipedia) a bona fide expert in the appropriate field [drink 1 shot]
- Their opening anecdote is followed by a 2 minute exposition of what the 3 part series is going to be about [take the top off another bottle in preparation]
- Exposition section features close-up footage of the bow of a boat speeding through water [drink 1 shot]
- Exposition features the words “I’m going to take you on a journey…” [drink 1 double shot]
- Title card for the series features text in glowing Papyrus font [cry ‘Hallelujah!’ and drink 1 shot]
- Location shot of presenter walking down a street talking to camera [drink 1 shot]
- Location is somewhere that makes you want to die with envy and/or kidnap a travel agent [drink the shot of the person to your immediate left]
- Cut to presenter’s voiceover, continuing the same sentence, over shots of presenter walking down in street in a different direction, looking thoughtful and moody, possibly wearing sunglasses [put on sunglasses and drink 1 shot]
- Cut to a different expert talking head, reiterating the last point with different words [drink 1 shot]
- Expert talking head is sitting in a darkened university library [drink 1 shot]
- Expert talking head is an academic but NOT at ‘Oxbridge’ because the BBC doesn’t want to make it look like it can’t be arsed to leave the South East [drink 1 pint]
- Cut back to presenter, sitting down at a sunny outdoor café table this time, demonstrating a concept with their tiramisu [drink 1 shot of espresso martini]
- Presenter interviews a local inhabitant whose job/hobby is somehow related to the show’s concept, because the BBC doesn’t want presenter to seem too elitist [drink 1 shot]
- Presenter asks to ‘have a go’ at whatever they’re doing, because the BBC really worries about that elitist thing [drink 1 double shot]
- Presenter makes a complete cock-up of what they’re doing, and nearly falls over [drink 1 double shot]
- Everyone laughs [drink 1 shot here too, because if this doesn’t happen it’s really awkward]
- Presenter brings up a point that makes you say “Oh, you’re not going to regurgitate that old ahistorical cliché, are you?” to the TV [don’t drink while berating the TV]
- Presenter then mentions the cliché, refers to it directly as ‘that old ahistorical cliché’, and then goes off in a completely different direction, giving you a non-European context that you weren’t aware of [finish the bottle]
- You find yourself overwhelmed with cozy thoughts of tea towels, the shipping forecast and Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and catch yourself humming ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ [2 paracetamol and go to bed]