BBC Four turns 16: We look at their best shows

by | Mar 2, 2018 | All, Reviews

In a recent episode of BBC Two’s Mum a character tried to impress someone by telling them, “we only watch BBC Four, we love documentaries and anything subtitled.” And whilst this was meant as a ‘we’re more cultured than you’ remark it got me thinking about the impact of one of the BBC’s most interesting channels.

Today (March 2nd),  marks the channel’s 16th Birthday so it’s a good excuse to look back over their extensive catalogue of shows. Budget cuts may mean their original drama and comedy output has shrunk but the channel still delivers gems like Detectorists and spawned our obsession with nordic noir and top notch foreign dramas.

Borgen (2010 – 2013) If you would’ve told me a few years ago that I’d be so invested in a show about Danish politics I’d’ve laughed in your face until I was hoarse. BBC Four has an incredibly knack for picking the most engaging foreign drama and Borgen went on to win both critical praise and even a BAFTA.  The show followed the work and home life of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg and those in her inner circle including spin doctor Kasper Juul and also followed the TV journalists at news station TV1 that followed her every move. Engrossing and filled with likeable and easy to relate to characters it’s no wonder Borgen was such a success.

The Bridge (2011 – Present) Nordic Noir is a genre because of BBC Four. A lot of people would’ve scoffed at the idea of a subtitled drama before BBC Four presented us with The Killing and whilst that holds a special place in our hearts for being the first show to expose us to the wonder of foreign crime drama, 2011’s The Bridge is possibly the best drama of its kind the channel has shown. When a body, cut in half at the waist, is discovered in the middle of the Øresund Bridge, which connects Copenhagen with Malmö, placed precisely on the border between the two countries, the investigation falls under the jurisdiction of both the Danish and Swedish police agencies. It is not one corpse but two halves of two separate women: the upper-half being that of a female Swedish politician, the lower-half being that of a Danish prostitute. Saga Norén from Sweden and Martin Rohde from Denmark lead the murder investigations. Hans Rosenfeldt’s scripts were intense and always surprising. The crime drama is a thing we do brilliantly in the UK but The Bridge stands on its own as one of the best crime dramas to ever grace a screen. Saga Noren is as iconic as Sara Lund who came before and Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg who we also met in 2011. It has spawned a US and UK remake and the fourth and final series will be shown on BBC Two later this year. The wait is proving difficult.

Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe (2006 – 2010) Oh Mr. Brooker. He may be busy with Netflix churning out the next edition of his mind bending Back Mirror, but let’s not forget that Brooker found fame screaming at the idiocy of modern TV on BBC Four’s Screenwipe. This was much more than a satirical look at the week’s TV and news, Brooker’s unique take on the madness of pop culture made the show one of BBC Four’s biggest hits spawning spin offs that still air on BBC Two.

Detectorists (2014 – 2017) Mackenzie Crook’s gentle comedy took us by surprise when it made its quiet first appearance on the channel.  A comedy about a group of enthusiastic metal detectorists, this sweet natured show ran for three glorious series. Toby Jones and Crook shone as leads Lance and Andy who took their detectors across sunshine drenched fields in search of a big find. As word of mouth spread and awards beckoned there may have been a temptation to pick this up and plonk it on a bigger BBC platform, but Crook always liked the idea that is show was on BBC Four saying it made it feel special and that it was the right home for it.

Getting On (2009 – 2012) This brilliantly honest comedy from the minds of Jo Brand, Joanna Scanlan and Vicki Pepperdine was BBC Four at its most unique. The show focused on the work of two nurses and one doctor in an NHS hospital and never shied away  from showing the bleaker aspects of hospital life and elderly care. Semi autobiographical the series spawned a spin off which featured Brand’s character Nurse Wilde outside of the hospital and even a US remake which garnered equal critical praise on HBO. It was show filled with dark humour that could only have worked on BBC Four. We miss it.

The Killing (2008 – 2012) The first Danish drama to be shown on British television took everyone by surprise and quickly became part of the discussion of the best TV in years. The series is set in Copenhagen and revolves around Detective Inspector Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl). Each series follows a murder case day-by-day. Each fifty-minute episode covers twenty-four hours of the investigation. The series is noted for its plot twists, season-long storylines, dark tone and for giving equal emphasis to the stories of the murdered victim’s family and the effect in political circles alongside the police investigation. The wonderful thing about The Killing, and the majority of shows from the nordic area is the way they have of focusing on characters you initially assume are minor who become part of a much wider show as it progresses. The Killing has influenced British crime dramas with seeds of it sat within shows like Broadchurch and obviously Marcella. If for some reason the foreign drama craze has past you by watch the first episode of The Killing and you’ll understand immediately why we all fell under its spell.

The Life of Rock with Brian Pern (2014 – 2017) Simon Day’s spoof documentary about fictional  ageing rock star, Brian Pern, the former frontman of the 1970s progressive rock group Thotch felt more reminiscent of one of the channel’s Friday night music documentaries than a comedy but it quickly became a hit. The character of Brian Pern is an affectionate parody of Peter Gabriel.”There is more than one influence in that character,” Gabriel told Mark Blake, “but I am definitely one of them. I’m flattered by it. With guest appearances from people like Christopher Eccleston,  Reeves and Mortimer, Suranne Jones,  the series the series features a range of musicians playing themselves including Roger Taylor, Phil Collins, Jools Holland, Rick Wakeman, Rick Parfitt, Chrissie Hynde, Tim Rice, Billy Bragg, Roy Wood, Paul Young, Mark King, Noddy Holder, Martin Kemp, Melanie Chisholm, Chas Hodges, Dave Peacock and Mike Batt. It was spoof comedy at its most authentic. And the series ended with a hastily arranged tribute to Pern after his death in a ‘segway mistake’

Only Connect (2008 – 2014) Oh another one that has proved a success and been  moved to BBC Two. Victoria Coren’s quiz appears simple and easy when you first describe it but it’s a show that demands concentration and rewards somewhat niche knowledge. Each programme has two teams of three people competing in four rounds of gameplay. In the first three series, clues in Rounds 1 and 2 and the connecting walls in Round 3 were identified by Greek letters. In series 4 Coren Mitchell announced that this idea had been dropped, ostensibly due to viewer complaints that it was too pretentious, and that henceforth Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (two reeds, lion, twisted flax, horned viper, water and the eye of Horus) would be used instead. The show’s opening sequence displayed Greek letters in the first episode of Series 4, but were replaced with the hieroglyphs in subsequent episodes. It’s a far more enjoyable watch than the description might make you think and it’s a great one to play along with with friends.

Trapped (2016 – Present) A more recent addition to BBC Four’s impressive foreign drama slate, Trapped was an engrossing and nail biting Icelandic drama that aired in early 2016. The story centres on a murder in a remote and cut off part of Iceland. The characters are rich and interesting and the setting lends itself brilliantly to the whodunnit with a claustrophobic and unforgiving atmosphere.

Twenty Twelve (2011 – 2012) This brilliant mockumentary about the team working on organising London’s Olympic games was well.. as I said before, brilliant. From the mind of John Morton, who bought us the equally brilliant People Like Us, this comedy initially felt incredibly real. Led by Hugh Bonneville’s Ian Fletcher (who we’d see again as the BBC’s Head of Values in BBC Two’s WIA), Jessica Hynes as PR Wizz Kid Siobhan Sharpe and the with key roles from familiar faces like Olivia Colman and Amelia Bullmore plus nonsensical narration from a wonderfully straight David Tennant made this an instant favourite. It laid bare all of our concerns about preparations for the games as Fletcher struggled to control is waywood and haphazard team. The two series and the spin off of W1A are one of our favourite British comedies in recent memory.

Did you Know? BBC Four aired HBO’s The Wire which is rightfully considered among the best TV ever made. It also aired HBO’s brilliantly funny Flight of the Conchords about a pair of musicians from  New Zealand who move to New York to try and make it big. The channel was also the first UK home of US comedy Parks and Recreation. You may’ve also forgotten that hugely popular panel show QI started life on BBC Four before moving to BBC Two, BBC One and back to to Two. It also showed critically acclaimed US drama Mad Men from AMC and prided itself on inventing slow TV such as ‘sleigh ride’

Happy Birthday BBC Four. Here’s hoping we’ll be championing you for years to come!

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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