BBC Four biopics: Lessons in Trashy Respectability

Hannah Andrews

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    Between its launch in March 2002 and 2013, BBC Four, the BBC’s niche arts and culture digital channel, broadcast a cycle of biographical dramas, largely about the unhappy personal lives of British cultural and political icons of the 20th century. Alongside stylish European drama imports, world cinema, and documentary programmes, biopics became a key marker of the BBC Four brand, and its dominant original dramatic output. In scholarly work on television biopics to date, the genre has been seen as akin to tabloid newspapers, a trashy cultural form that reduces the importance and seriousness of biographical narrative. However, in recent years biographical drama has been used by upmarket television brands like HBO, Showtime or, indeed, the BBC as a mark of distinction and respectability. This article analyses this dynamic in relation to BBC biopics, exploring how a specific dramatic genre is used to support the brand of a niche digital channel. It attends not only to the benefits of such material for marshalling audiences both within and beyond the channel’s intended demographic, but also to some of the ethical and legal challenges intrinsic to a genre that exploits the personal stories of real people.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)409-429
    JournalJournal of British Cinema and Television
    Issue number3
    Early online date30 Jun 2016
    Publication statusPublished - Jul 2016


    • BBC Four
    • biopic
    • quality television
    • television branding


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