An archive-only BBC Four means losing a platform for quiet documentary storytelling

With the rise of the ‘docbuster’ and an end to new BBC Four commissions, what is the future for intimate documentaries by new and unknown voices?

24 May 2021

By Jeanie Finlay

Jeanie Finlay’s debut documentary Teenland broadcast on BBC Four in 2007
Sight and Sound

Jeanie Finlay creates award-winning work for cinema and television, telling intimate stories to international audiences. She has made films for HBO, IFC and the BBC, including four commissions for the acclaimed BBC Storyville strand. Watch her films at

In March, the BBC announced that arts and culture channel BBC Four is to cease commissioning new programmes and become archive-only as part of the ongoing significant cost-cutting drive across the corporation.

Back in 2003, the then-controller of regions and nations at BBC Four, Richard Klein, took a chance and commissioned me – a six-month-pregnant artist from the regions, who hadn’t been to film school and who had previously only made a ten-minute short – to make a 60-minute film for the channel: Teenland.

Jeanie Finlay

Inspired by the Japanese phenomenon of withdrawal from society, hikikomori, and my own experiences spending a year off school aged 13, Teenland took us behind the closed doors of four teenagers who spent all of their time in their bedrooms. It was a film about social isolation – an experience many of us can now relate to more than ever.

The broadcast of the film on BBC Four took an intimate story about four young people living separate lives and presented it to a wide audience. The rush of the transmission, the audience response and interaction and the critical reception were intoxicating and transformative for me and helped set me on a path for a new career as a filmmaker. I’m currently making my ninth feature documentary and it’s hard for me to imagine I would be asked to write these words from that position without the existence of BBC Four.

Teenland epitomises the approach to filmmaking I’m interested in taking. I learned with that first film that the stories I captured didn’t need to be told by alpha characters to be heard and that my camera had the power to lean in and act as a loudhailer for the gentlest, most intimate stories.

But these kind of stories benefit most when they can remain quiet and have a TV broadcast or a cinema release to do the shouting. With BBC Four films now being relegated to iPlayer, my concern is that the broadcast moment – for me, a unifying conjunction of audience, interaction and vital critical notice – will be lost forever, and that quieter films may struggle to find their audience and end up like unread titles in a library.

Where is the place for quiet films from new, unknown, diverse voices to flourish?

Over the last 20 years, we have witnessed the rise of the feature documentary, but also the depletion of broadcast slots and sources of the finance that fuelled it, and funded work like mine. Regional organisations such as EMMedia in the East Midlands are almost all gone, and more recently there has also been the Europe funding fallout of Brexit and its impact on international co-production to contend with.

In their place there is a seemingly plentiful array of new platforms and opportunities for documentary. However, in order to secure a commission today you may need to entice the algorithm with louder, slicker narratives that play like fiction, or perhaps a big doc about sports, quirky animals, crime, or celebrities who go by just one name.

I watch and enjoy many of these films, but that isn’t all I’m hungry for and it isn’t all I want to make. I believe there’s also an appetite for contemplative, perhaps observational, longform documentary that doesn’t comfortably fit into a genre. I’m hopeful that Doc Society as well as BBC Storyville (now partnered with BBC Films) will continue to swim against this tide, as champions of creative documentary. What I fear is that the spaces where these types of films may traditionally have found a home – places like BBC Four – are growing fewer and fewer.

It makes me wonder, where is the place for quiet films from new, unknown, diverse voices to flourish? Where might smaller, more intimate films get the chance for that broadcast moment?

[The filmmaker and long-time editor of the BBC’s flagship arts series Arena] Anthony Wall once described walking the streets on the evenings that his films were broadcast and catching glimpses of them being watched on televisions in people’s living rooms, and though I’m not by any means nostalgic for the days of just four channels, I understand and value the collective power of a broadcast.

The pandemic has shown us more than ever that social connections can be made and maintained in ways other than the physical, that we can share something with each other through our screens. With the loss of BBC Four we’re not just losing a channel; we’re at risk of losing a platform for unknown voices and the promise of the profound communal experience of watching a story together.

Further reading

Filmmakers’ Greatest Documentaries of All Time

Filmmakers’ Greatest Documentaries of All Time

Doc around the clock: BBC Arena celebrates 40 years in a day

By Sukhdev Sandhu

Doc around the clock: BBC Arena celebrates 40 years in a day

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

Get your copy