BBC 2, BBC 4 and geek TV

Feature Andrew Blair
30 Aug 2013 - 06:14

Andrew reports back from the BBC 2 and 4 'Meet the Controller' session at this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival...

BBC 2 and BBC 4 are not, at first glance, providing huge beefy slabs of geek-meat for us to sink our teeth into. However, we like to think we cover a broad remit here at Den of Geek, and you can be a geek about anything. Personally, I think there's overlap between arguments over as 'the Doctor's race and/or gender' and 'the squad numbers worn by Colin Hendry during his time at Rangers F.C.'. 

You may note the number of BBC 2 dramas and comedies that have geek appeal: Parade's End. The Fall. The Thick Of It. All reviewed on this site. You may be a fan of cakes, cats and sewing, in which case, BBC 2 is totally your friend. You may have noticed Ivan Radford's regular articles about music in films. Guess what BBC 4 is going to be doing a documentary series on? 

That's before we mention the historical documentaries, Bill Bailey meeting primates, and Brian Cox eulogising about how we're all going to die and it's amazing. BBC 2 and 4 are the geek's non-fiction channels of choice. The White Queen might have been a big BBC 1 drama, but on BBC 2 you can find Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel debating the character of Anne Boleyn.


Janice Hadlow is now controller of both channels, tasked with maintaining award-winning quality (Terrestrial and Digital Channels of the Year respectively) in the face of cuts. BBC 2's daytime schedule has been sacrificed in favour of repeats, meaning that primetime entries such as The Great British Bake Off are followed by original drama commissions. The money is staying with the evening schedule. While it's easy to be snobbish about such fare, BBC 2 is clearly working to a pattern of cosier, light entertainment in its pre-watershed slots, and following it up with dramas and comedies afterwards. Despite BBC 2's viewing figures being lower, Hadlow noted how shows such as The Thick of It are now entrenched in popular culture despite not being obvious smash hits in terms of ratings. 

Pre-watershed, shows that sound like Alan Partridge-pitches combine homely interests with cutting edge science, new technology and a sense of irreverence. Somehow competitive baking and sewing have been turned from twee-sounding frippery into popular shows (although crochet and knitting are unlikely to follow). Documentaries about cats involve satellite tracking and aerial surveillance. Its inviting you to put your feet up and relax with a pint of gin. There's going to be a show about dogs presented by Kate Humble. It's also going to have dog nerds explaining why dogs are like that. Essentially, imagine everything that sounds twee in existence, and then imagine it with relentless enthusiasm and Brains from Thunderbirds explaining the science behind it. All of geek life is here. 

Once you've finished your gin, get some coffee on the go, because you're probably going to be presented with an intricate period drama that demands that you pay attention. Keep some gin on standby though, because it'll probably devastate you at some point. The Fall is going to return (even if we were alone in not much liking episode 1), Top of the Lake has just finished, Peaky Blinders is going to bring post-World-War-One Birmingham to your screens (and also Andy Nyman as Winston Churchill). You may note a lack of Science-Fiction and Fantasy amidst these shows.

There is some good news here. Hadlow's response to the question 'What show on another channel do you wish you had made?' involved Educating Essex and Game of Thrones, describing the latter as 'outside TV's comfort zone' and wondering what it would have looked like on BBC 2. Den of Geek asked her about genre shows, and while there is a factual series about Science-Fiction and further Mark Gatiss-fronted horror documentaries coming up, Hadlow had this to say regarding drama:

“I would be interested in thinking about those territories for BBC 2. I think it's an area that could do quite well for us and there a number of different things we're thinking about at the moment. I think it's a territory we haven't been into much in the past and we should be thinking about – longer term – what that sort of programming looks like for BBC 2. I think it would look different to BBC 1. Do you go along the lines of an adaptation or an original piece of work? There's a lot to be done about it but I think it's an interesting territory.”

BBC 2's burgeoning drama output has been very strong to the extent that the channel can even manage to dispense with The Hour. The prospect of it challenging more obviously geek-friendly fare, unhampered by the necessity for large family audiences or demographics, is very exciting news indeed.

Read more from this year's Edinburgh International Television Festival, here.

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