BBC Three

In 2003 I got a freeview box. I got good reception. I could see the transmitter from my window.

BBC One or Two had being running ‘BBC Three takeover’ sessions, with several BBC Three programmes in a row. They were good. It’s not fashionable to say that nowadays.

In its early days it was innovative, cutting edge, risk taking and alternative.

One of the programmes I saw on the BBC Three take over shows was Dreamspaces, which simply explored modern buildings and architecture. It didn’t pad out the show with music montages, and the presenters gave facts, rather than the normal approach taking by shows of making the presenter be ‘fun but stupid’ and ask an ‘expert’ lots of basic questions.

One day I turned on quite late. There was some sort of animation on, clearly British. It was very dark, used subjects normally avoided on TV, surreal, and very very funny. Did I mention it was dark? It was Monkey Dust and it was amazing it was allowed to be on telly in these puritanical times.

Early evening, some new sketch show started, it was alright, but the laughter track detracted from it. Had two guys who used to be in Rock Profiles on UK Play (which was very very awesome) and was called Little Britain. Heard of it?

And then there was Burn It. A fairly good drama about a bunch of twenty-somethings up in Manchester. Not a million miles from This Life. But like so much of what was shown, never really got more than a small audience and very few of heard of it.

Same can be said for The Smoking Room. The funniest comedy ever (probably, it’s a close one against Father Ted and Spaced). Brilliant characters and acting. You need to buy the box set. Seriously.

And Gavin and Stacey started out on BBC Three. So did the Mighty Boosh. And Nightly Night was another dark black comedy.

BBC Three became one of my favorite channels. One evening I switched on the Telly: Live shaky camera work… In what looked to be Paddington Station… and they were singing Opera. It was flashmob the Opera. An Opera performed at Paddington station, towards the end of the evening peak, with the performers walking amongst the crowds singing to well known opera pieces but with new English lyrics following a fairly simple story (women thinks she doesn’t love her partner, likes the looks of another, realises she loves him after all). The brilliant line of lyrics “if you get on-the-train, our marriage is down-the-drain”. And it ended with a flashmob which instructed the flashmobers to turn up and start singing a set of lyrics to a particular tune at a specific time, thus creating a chorus.

It over came huge logistical and technical challenges: getting National Rail to agree to it, an Orchester in the corner of the station – but the sound they created had to transmitted to speakers near the performers to avoid the time delay of such a distance, the noise, the risk of the public trying to interact or obscure the performers, a backlash from commuters.

It was wonderful, in my opinion at least. And made me look at Opera differently. It was creative and new and combined high art with everyday life without being cheesy and awkward, bringing it to new audiences. This is was the BBC should be about.

But then something happened. Almost overnight the good programmes seemed to stop. An evenings schedule seemed to be filled with ‘House of Tiny tearaways’ ‘Nanny SOS’ ‘Young and being mum’. Followed by Eastenders and then Two Pints of lager. What had become of my BBC Three? Cutting edge experimental comedy replaced with this…. this… shit.

It’s as if someone said: right, our audience is early twenties, female, northern, working class, and most of them have kids and we need to create programes for them with some sort of public service and education slant. Only the people in the room saying this were all middle class white well educated liberal Londoners, they didn’t know many people who were their new taget audience, but they think one of them served them once on the services on the M6.

Now it was at this point that I started watching TV less, so maybe there were the odd good programmes I was missing, but on the whole every time I flicked past BBC Three is was cringe-worthy bad.

But should it be scraped, or change back to the channel it was? It may no longer be my cup of tea, but Radio 4 lovin geeks are not its target audience.

I’m not in a position to say if their is an sector of the UK population who find this stuff interesting, and whether this proves more useful than watching some other dross (there is worse, think Katy Price). Surely if this is the case, then this is a public service, creating programmes that provide more stimulus than the alternatives a certain group of people may watch.

Where’s this post going? Well Old BBC Three and New BBC Three both had/have their uses. The former was a test bed for the new and experimental, the  latter may well (I don’t know) cater for those who, how do we say, are not natural BBC viewers and a Soap is about as good as it gets (it even slips in 60 seconds of news every hour).

Imagine that BBC Two has one new slot in the schedule (and budget) a year to fill with new comedy. And you’re the controller, and your job is constantly on the line, both due to viewing figures and storms in a tea cup caused by the pillar’s of fairness that is our national newspapers. You’ve got a dozen pilots which could fill it. What would you go for? BBC Three essentially created lots of new slots to fill, and therefore could commission much more – albeit with smaller budgets (no bad thing, the best often do much with small amounts of money). We take Gavin and Stacey and Little Britain for granted as staples of British Comedy from the last 7 years, but they were just two of many that were commissioned by BBC Three, which so happened to take off and therefore move to BBC One and Two. Had BBC Three not existed they may have just been two of the many pilots that never get the ‘green light’. What’s more, BBC Three’s small market share seems to have allowed it to take risks (a hard thing to do, we seem to get more conservative in our TV viewing and outrages by the day). Not just with the controversial (Monkey Dust), and bad language (Smoking Room), but the plain obscure (Mighty Boosh).

Finally let us not forget that budget wise, the cost is quite small, £115, though I’m not sure how this takes in to account programmes that are commissioned on BBC Three but are also shown – and have most of their viewers – on BBC One/Two. Have a look at this amazing infographic from the Guardian. It’s only on in the evening, and past 11pm it more or less shows repeats from earlier in the evening,

So when the likes of Paxman and Humphries cite BBC Three as an example of what can be cut I disagree. Of course we find it trash, in the same way we find Cbeebies of no interest, much of it is not for us. Though the BBC needs to careful with its approach, it needs to prove that the people who these programmes are intended for actually do watch then, and don’t find them laughable/boring/patronising, and ideally show that by watching them they are gaining something that they wouldn’t if they otherwise watched something else. If this is not the case, then why bother, why not let them watch something else, and spend the licence fee on something else.

BBC Three is much unloved at the moment, especially by the media and commentators. It has changed over the years, and for me, some of early stuff was great, but it now caters to a specific audience. Ultimately much of it’s content is either repeats, or programmes which will be shown on BBC One/Two in time, and nearly everything is low budget. Scrapping it may not be the great money saver many people presume.


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