As fans of The Thick of It will remember, this was the caller to a phone-in show who caused Malcolm Tucker to explode like a clootie dumpling left too long on a high heat – and the classic comedy clip being posted on social media summed up the anger provoked by the decision to pull the plug on what many regard as “the best channel on the box”.
“Tim from f****** Ruislip!” roars Tucker to the phone-in’s producer, “give me his f****** number. If you don’t give me his f****** number I’m going to have to go to f****** Ruislip and f****** snap the thumb and forefinger of every single person I see who I think resembles the kind of w***** who would wander around in this day and age with a name like f****** Tim!”
The Thick of It, starring Peter Capaldi as the spontaneously combusting spin-doctor, began life on BBC4 which, on Davie’s watch, won’t disappear completely but will stop producing original content.
There will be more eloquent condemnation of this move, for BBC4, as well as being a home of fearless comedy, has been the channel of high art, thought-provoking history programmes, mind-expanding science and terrific rock documentaries. But maybe what’s needed, on Davie’s answer-machine and the inbox of this government, is a Tucker-style oxy-acetylene blast.
The BBC is under the severest pressure from Boris Johnson’s administration. The Prime Minister’s version of Tucker, Dominic Cummings, had Auntie’s leftie elite in a swivel-eyed gaze when he declared the BBC “the mortal enemy”.
Cummings has gone but the Beeb knows it’s not safe. Far from it when Johnson’s election threat was to abolish the licence fee. He’d dismantle the entire Corporation given half a chance so right now it’s cost-cutting like mad.
But why BBC4? Surely, its defenders and devotees argue, the Beeb’s highest-paid stars over on BBC1 – the “talent” – could be asked to accept a few thousand being shaved off their fat fees to help fund another Adam Curtis film or the next series of Storyville rather than this switch to archive-only?
Does the outside broadcast from Glastonbury really need so many employees on site with access-all-areas BBC laminate so that the closing Sunday night credits read like the cast of thousands in a Cecil B DeMille Biblical epic from the golden age of Hollywood? Does Sports Personality of the Year definitely need to happen in an enormodome with rock bands and pyrotechnics and Clare Balding driving a Sherman tank onto the stage? (Okay, the last-named hasn’t actually happened… yet).
Why BBC4 when BBC3 is being returned to full channel status? Previously online, BBC3 is targeted at younger viewers but kids don’t watch TV and are already lost to YouTube videos of pranking and pratfalls.
Why BBC4 when it’s the most BBC channel on the BBC and the one truest to the Reithian spirit of inform, educate, entertain? Ah, but maybe that’s the reason…
Though the Corporation has wielded the knife, just about every critic of the decision accuses the government of holding a gun to its head. “A great big shame,” tweeted the comedy writer Simon Blackwell, “for no The Thick of It without BBC4 and no In the Loop or Veep either”. He should know having worked with Armando Iannucci on the original show, the movie spin-off and the American version.
The musician MR Bennett said: “BBC4 may not have big audiences but one thing is certain, for every programme aired it is a million times more likely that a viewer’s life will be changed deeply and forever. This could mean the loss of a generation of musicians, artists and thinkers.” And more than one fan of channel 116 despaired: “Yet the BBC is keeping Mrs Brown’s Boys?!”
I could have made this column just a list of BBC4 programmes I’ve loved, re-watched and kept in my planner for a rainy day or a global pandemic. The channel has been brilliant on history, none more so than the history of TV. Back in 2008 when it had the budget for one-off dramas, there was an exceptional series called The Curse of Comedy. As the title suggests, this was the fly in the greasepaint of the first golden age of TV.
The film about Steptoe & Son told how the two stars – despite hating each other and despite the sadnesses of their lives away from the set, with one failing to fulfil the prediction of becoming “the British Marlon Brando” and the other being homosexual when it was still an offence – still managed to produce the greatest sitcom of all time. And Ken Stott as a monstrous Tony Hancock and Trevor Eve as an oleaginous Hughie Green have rarely been better, before or since.
Even at its most infuriating, BBC4 has always been highly watchable. In 2009 it sent Jonathan Meades, the renaissance clever dick, round what he dubbed “the football pools towns”: Cowdenbeath, Methil, Alloa, Coatbridge and others which have “no existence other than as part of the Saturday afternoon rite”.
Intensely English and sneerful, he pretended to be enchanted by a gurgling stream: “You may see shredded tights and abandoned shopping trolleys but I see moonlit trysts.” He presumed Dunfermline Athletic’s nickname, the Pars, is short for paralytic and remarked of the Scottish diet: “You do not need to go to Switzerland when the chip shops provide such an effective euthanasia service.”
But the film was funny, beautifully shot and, because Meades is so pretentious, you learned from it. I’ve learned a lot from BBC4 and am sure Boris Johnson, who has aspirations to be his own kind of renaissance clever dick, will have done too, if he ever watched. The campaign to save the channel starts here.