In a UK first, BBC Three will stop broadcasting as a traditional television channel on 15 February and move to a completely online platform, supposedly in line with the viewing habits of its young audience and certainly to meet the challenge of budget cuts across the BBC. In its broadcasting life the channel has faced sustained criticism about its content and populist tone, and over the last decade it has always been first in line for suggestions of BBC services to cut. When author P.D. James interviewed BBC director general Mark Thompson in 2009, she presented a list of programmes she felt were unworthy of the corporation, a list which was entirely composed of BBC Three titles.
And yet, BBC Three has produced award-winning comedies, dramas and documentaries in quantities unmatched by other digital channels, with its quirky appearance and occasionally outlandish programme titles (Dog Borstal springs to mind) cleverly masking some daring commissioning and an underappreciated commitment to addressing social issues.
At its launch in 2003 the channel’s first controller Stuart Murphy promised: “In contrast to other channels, Britishness will be found throughout BBC Three”. However many ways ‘Britishness’ can be defined or represented on television, BBC Three delivered in terms of original programming with crossover comedy hits like Gavin and Stacey (2007-10), Little Britain (2003-07), long-running supernatural drama Being Human (2008-13) and even beloved reality series like Don’t Tell the Bride (2007-present). Aimed at an audience of 25 to 34 year olds when it was first launched, the tone of the channel changed noticeably over the years with adult-focused programmes including Bodies (2004-06), The Smoking Room (2004-05) and Pulling (2006-09) cast aside in favour of teen dramas and more youthful comedy.
Critics often questioned why the BBC was focused on this type of programming when young audiences were arguably well served by existing commercial channels and services. Danny Cohen, controller of BBC Three from 2007 to 2010, always mounted a vigorous defence against this, arguing that the BBC was for everybody and had a duty to make programmes for audiences of all ages. BBC Three did provide hard-hitting documentaries with programmes like Kizzy – Mum at 14 (2007) and Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts (2008), and it’s difficult to imagine these programmes originating on another BBC channel. Hopefully in its new online incarnation, something rather different to a television channel, there will still be the opportunity for programmes such as these.
There’s been a valiant campaign to keep it on air, but as BBC Three leaves our schedules to be accessed only through apps and myriad devices, we are taking this opportunity to look back at some of its greatest programmes. Trends do suggest that online viewing is becoming more of a communal experience than a solitary way of watching programmes, which is good news for BBC Three because these shows deserve to be shared – and not just via social media.
Monkey Dust (2003-05)
Taking a form of black comedy possibly even darker than the work of Chris Morris, Monkey Dust was an animated series depicting Britain as a “perpetual urban nightmare”. From BBC Three’s opening night over the course of three series it was relentless in its pursuit of satire, with no vile stone left unturned.
Featuring the voices of Morwenna Banks, Sharon Horgan and Rebecca Front among others, the series is impossible to imagine in today’s schedules with sketches including a murderous apparition of the Virgin Mary and the notorious Paedofinder-General. Recurring characters in the show included Clive Pringle with his outlandish excuses, prisoner Ivan Dobsky and a gang of hapless terrorists which appeared years before Four Lions (2010). The series was created by Shaun Pye and the late Harry Thompson, the original producer of Have I Got News for You described admiringly in a tribute by David Baddiel as “one of the broadcasting world’s great heretics”.
Bill Gallagher’s six part Conviction was not your run-of-the-mill good-guys-catching-bad-guys police drama. Emotions run high for a hard-drinking, tough-talking team of detectives in both their professional and private lives as they investigate the brutal murder of a 12-year-old girl. When one of the team dishes out his own justice, his life begins to unravel as he is haunted (literally) by the chief suspect and desperately covers his tracks.
Conviction is a well-written, gripping drama on living with the consequences of your actions, with standout performances from the whole cast, particularly the superb David Warner in the role of Alzheimer’s sufferer Lenny, patriarch of the Fairburn family. It received a BAFTA nomination for drama series and earned a repeat-screening ‘promotion’ to BBC2 a year later.
Nighty Night (2004-05)
“Hiya Cath!” Jill Tyrell (Julia Davis) often trilled to her long-suffering neighbour (Rebecca Front) in what was usually the opener to an invasion of personal space or deeply inappropriate ‘health advice’. Billed as a “West Country Fatal Attraction”, Nighty Night gave us the monstrous Jill, who doesn’t see why her husband Terry’s cancer should be a hindrance to her pursuit of a good time or a new partner, preferably in the shape of new neighbour Don (Angus Deayton).
Written by Julia Davis herself, the series was a masterpiece of passive aggression. Can you force a vicar to eat poisonous Angel Delight out of politeness? Jill can. Nighty Night skewered alternative therapies with filthy aplomb as Jill made her personal journey from hairdressing to murder, all set to a demented pop soundtrack. The great supporting cast featured familiar British comedy talents including Ruth Jones, Felicity Montagu, Kevin Eldon and Mark Gatiss, but Davis was the star and we must give Jill Tyrell her due otherwise, as she says, it just gets nasty.
The Mighty Boosh (2004-07)
Naboo the shaman, Bollo the talking gorilla, a colour scheme straight out of a 70s psychedelic dream and Noel Fielding in some of the funkiest outfits ever willingly worn on TV – the wonderful, multi-coloured, fantastical world that is The Mighty Boosh was like a children’s TV programme remade for adults, complete with a lovely, deceptively gentle tone. Over three series we followed the escapades of the unlikely pairing of the funky Vince Noir (Noel Fielding) and the cautious Howard Moon (Julian Barratt) as they saved mutant animals from a crazed zoo owner, tried to retrieve Naboo’s Shaman Juice from the Crack Fox, and so much more.
Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt’s creation was a successful stage production before moving to radio, but surely TV was its natural home, where the combination of genius visuals, outlandish fantasy sequences and catchy musical numbers could be fully explored.
Before becoming the 10th incarnation of The Doctor, David Tennant was a cheeky scamp version of the legendary lover in Russell T. Davies’s gorgeously entertaining Casanova. Peter O’Toole played the elderly Casanova, looking back on his life, in a spirited and colourful 18th-century romp which took in Venice, Paris and London. Davies’ script was modern, with his trademark humour and compassion; Tennant had bags of charm, and Murray Gold composed the music (can you see where this is going, Time Lord fans?). At the heart of the series was a tender love story, but a wealth of humour and a tremendous sense of fun gave the drama a real energy and vitality, with a genuinely touching ending.
Him & Her (2010-13)
Two things immediately strike you about Him & Her: its action is confined to the central characters’ bedsit (and the staircase outside) and each episode takes place in real time. Within these constraints a universe unfolds. Steve and Becky are lazy, crude, self-indulgent and unmotivated, but, compared to the family and friends who visit them, they are angels. This is a comedy of awkwardness and embarrassment taken to the extreme – each 30-minute segment like a distilled Mike Leigh film.
Perceptively written by Stefan Golaszewski and brilliantly performed by Russell Tovey, Sarah Solemani and the whole cast (with special mention for Kerry Howard as the monstrous Laura), Him & Her develops minimally over three series from a starting point in which nothing happens to an apocalyptic fourth series, subtitled ‘The Wedding’, in which the action moves out of the flat for the first time but stays true to its malevolent trajectory.
The Fades (2011)
Monsters are lurking in the dark. The undead (‘fades’) walk the streets. Paul is special, Paul can see them. A battle is being fought in the shadows and Paul is in the middle of it.
Jack Thorne’s drama mashes up supernatural horror with the trials of teenage misfits at school. It features exceptional performances from Iain de Caestecker as the intense Paul and Daniel Kaluuya as Mac, his wonderfully comic, film-obsessed best friend (who also delivers some quirky plot recaps straight to camera). There are shocking scenes of violence, flesh-eating zombies, moths flying out of mouths and a nightmare landscape of dust. The Fades had a bittersweet real-life ending: it deservedly won a BAFTA for best drama series but had already been cancelled by the BBC.
Our War (2011-12)
The most insightful of the many documentaries and news reports about the war in Afghanistan, Our War was told from the point of view of the young British soldiers who took part, using their own video footage, much of it recorded in action by helmet cameras, and their subsequent reflections to camera. Their experiences and attitudes are vividly and authentically conveyed, seemingly without interference from the Ministry of Defence and without any attempt at moral or political judgement.
After two brief series, a one-off was made in 2014 to mark the withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan. The same year, the programme’s distinctive techniques were used in BBC Three’s Our World War to convey the reality of the First World War to a young audience, though, obviously, with reconstructed combat sequences in place of the startling reality of the original.
Some Girls (2012-14)
Bernadette Davis’s wonderfully sparky Some Girls is rather like a female counterpoint to The Inbetweeners, charting the ups and downs of a group of teenage friends. It is centred around the love lives, home lives and friendships of four very different 16-year-old South London school girls: Viva – the clever one, Amber – the stupid one, Holli – the angry/violent one, and Saz – the sarcastic one. It is a setup that gives ample opportunity to explore a multitude of teenage issues. The sharp and witty script is rich in visual gags, fizzles with snappy dialogue and has a great pop soundtrack.
It is brought vividly to life by the brilliant young cast who over the course of the three series imbue their characters with a real sense of warmth and affection. Although quite sweet at heart, like The Inbetweeners it’s not for the easily offended.
Murdered by My Boyfriend (2014)
Based on a true story, this drama exemplified BBC Three’s ability to tackle difficult and important subjects in accessible ways. It tells the story of Ashley, an outgoing 17-year-old girl whose blossoming relationship with Reece is marked by steadily creeping controlling behaviour and violence. Regina Moriarty’s strong and considered script was based on incidents in the life of a real victim and it’s noticeable that the warm scenes between Ashley and her friends wouldn’t be out of place in any young adult drama.
As Murdered by My Boyfriend marks Ashley’s time with Reece until her death, Paul Andrew Williams’ direction captures the mundane terror of domestic violence as well as the abstract sense of time passing, and violent episodes which fuse together while Ashley’s life is slowly dismantled. Georgina Campbell’s powerful central performance earned her a BAFTA. Hopefully in its online incarnation BBC Three can continue to occasionally produce powerful dramas such as this.