Rod Stoneman looks back at the radical, risk-taking early days of Channel 4, as an example of a progressive alternative to mainstream, conservative media culture
In its first decade, Channel 4 took risks and developed programming that gave voice to the marginalised – from Black radicals to Irish republicans, and gay rights campaigners to striking miners.
The inception of Channel 4 in 1982 brought significant change, as the concept of a mass audience was discarded in favour of an address to smaller and more specific niche audiences. As the first ‘publisher broadcaster’ it was programmed with imagination and commitment, bringing genuine diversity to the anachronistic and calcified structures of British television. The political and cultural context for the new station was set by legislation to “innovate in the form and content of programmes”, and a remit “to reach new audiences not catered for currently by British television.”
Some of its bravest programming was developed in its first decade from 1982, when Jeremy Isaacs was appointed Chief Executive. His original, guiding phrase suggested the new channel was to be “different, but not too different”. He had to navigate aggressive reception from the right wing press; headlines like “Channel Bore”, “Channel Snore”; “How to de-tune your set from Channel 4” was The Sun’s typical contribution.
The first years of Channel 4 were an exhilarating period for anyone involved in the station or the nascent independent production sector. I joined the Independent Film and Video Department, a small section in Channel 4 which developed its version of the project for radical television, led by the late Alan Fountain, with Caroline Spry from 1985.
We understood our task to involve enfranchising a wide variety of programme makers and styles of making, pushing the boundaries of what was possible on television – working with individual filmmakers, groups and co-operatives within an ethos of radical pluralism. We began by commissioning and buying programmes for The Eleventh Hour, a late Monday night strand, and People to People – a short series of access and community programmes.
The wide range of The Eleventh Hour included political and personal documentary, low-budget fiction, perspectives from the Global South which offered insights into other cultures and politics. Initially this took place through seasons like New Cinema of Latin America, Africa on Africa and Vietnam Cinema. We bought and provided partial production finance for over 150 feature films from Africa, Asia and Latin America; this activity eventually lead to a weekly feature at 10pm on Sunday evenings in Cinema of Three Continents.
Our programming also encompassed visually radical experiments in film aesthetics and narrative forms: Dazzling Image, Abstract Cinema, Midnight Underground. For me, one of the most extraordinary events at 10pm on 19th September 1993 was when we transmitted Derek Jarman’s Blue, flooding Yves Klein’s ultramarine into living rooms for 80 minutes (with no advertising breaks), watching the filmmaker, losing his sight through AIDS, lucidly confronting his own mortality.
In another item which refuted patronising assumptions about the intelligence of British viewers, we screened three interviews and lectures with the always enigmatic and often opaque French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan – in black and white, subtitled and screened at 1.45am. To my astonishment they found their way to an audience of 250,000.
Giving voice to the voiceless
The space for progressive politics, and perspectives new to television was also sustained from a network of autonomous regional workshops. Previous discussions with Michael Meacher, then Junior Minister in the Department of Trade in the Labour government, had led to a concrete proposal that a structure of small regional production units be funded on the basis of longer term programmes of work instead of funding for one-off projects. Support for distribution would be included in production budgets, to a circuit of twenty-five small cinemas.
The abrupt fall of the Labour administration in May 1979 ended that proposal. But within two years Channel 4, in partnership with the British Film Institute and other regional bodies, began to realise a scaled-down version of the same workshop strategy. At its height a budget of £2m from Channel 4 contributed to a network of 12 to 15 workshops each year.
Three workshops, Sankofa, Black Audio and Retake, began to consolidate the Black independent sector. John Akomfrah’s Handsworth Songs, transmitted in 1987, was an early indication of the potential for reaching significantly wider audiences with formally innovative, politically relevant experimental film.
Workshops based in Belfast and Derry made documentaries such as Under the Health Surface: As Told by Belfast Women (1986) and Mother Ireland (1988/91), and were able to articulate Irish feminist and republican views at the height of the Troubles, although the latter contained an interview with Mairead Farrell, who was one of three IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar in March 1988, and the programme was delayed for three years. Workshops also produced low-budget fiction feature films like In Fading Light (1989) from Amber in Newcastle and Hush-a-Bye Baby (1990) from Derry. The workshop network produced several programmes and collaborated on a set of Miners’ Campaign Tapes during the strike in 1984-5.
The underlying notion was one of encouraging ‘direct speech’, defined not only in terms of the access programmes in People to People (which followed the BBC’s Open Door) and initiating a shift of power whereby a community of interest could define and express itself on television, minimising the processes of mediation from “television professionals”, and shifting the balance to participatory access and interactivity. This connected with an emphasis on marginalised and voiceless communities in Britain and abroad and offered a sustained challenge to the imposed monoculture.
An expanding budget for the Independent Film and Video Department enabled a move towards magazine programmes that introduced radical views and found mid-evening scheduling in the late 1980s: Visions – which was followed by the Media Show, and then from 1991, Critical Eye connected single polemical and analytical documentaries, a magazine show like South, combined short pieces made by creative documentary filmmakers from what was then called the Third World.
Out on Tuesday (later, just Out), the world’s first networked gay and lesbian series, ran between 1989 and 1994 and set about giving new, often radical representation to diverse queer sexualities, cultures, experiences and histories. Many of these areas are still almost entirely absent from current television in Britain and elsewhere – paradoxically, as channels have proliferated, choice has narrowed and the histories of radical film on Channel 4 seem to have been buried and effaced.
It was an incursion into mainstream television by more imaginative, more politically responsive and aesthetically daring forms of programme making. Although it seemed not to go far enough or fast enough at the time, the project of taking radical and ‘difficult’ work met with some degree of success and a wider audience. In the ten years I was there, our department expanded exponentially in budgets and inhabited more accessible spaces in the schedule.
However, clearly these efforts and radical programming as a whole was set back and then swept away, as the British government constructed haphazard legislation designed to release 'market forces' which themselves, in the longer term, led to new, more congenial and conservative film and media configurations. This was a subtle, typically British way of reshaping broadcasting in an ideologically more amenable form.
Our work should be seen in a wider frame alongside the other parts of Channel 4 offering new forms of television: Film on Four having a decisive impact on the British film industry with features and series: My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), The Crying Game (1992), and the mini-series A Very British Coup (1988); an innovative soap like Brookside which was filmed in a newly developed suburban cul-de-sac in Liverpool; Channel 4 News providing a more substantial news service; sport from other cultures; education and politics included Bandung File, produced by Tariq Ali and Darcus Howe – a political perspective continued at the moment through The World Today on Telesur (supported by various left-wing Latin American governments) alongside the occasional radicalism and relativism of other international state-supported broadcasters.
Al Jazeera and Telesur point towards the very high degree of selectivity in mainstream representations that can take fact toward what we normally understand as fiction. It is not that the dominant depictions are untrue in any simple way, but that they are such a chosen, partial medley that they need to be contested as a misrepresentation, a drastically incomplete and biased picture.
Not coincidentally, the epoch of early Channel 4 corresponded with examples of braver programming in other parts of British television – following the original success of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972, BBC 2). For example Stuart Hall’s Karl Marx: The Spectre of Marxism (1983 Thames Television), or even right-wing Labour MP Brian Magee’s interview with Herbert Marcuse on the BBC’s Men of Ideas, where to his insistent question “But why are you still a Marxist?” Marcuse simply replied “Because it is correct.”
There is a contrast with the present when the Left is positioned through individual punditry – jousting with soundbites on well-established hoary formats like BBC’s Question Time is certainly welcome, but it’s no substitute for the space to develop arguments in sustained, independently-made programmes. The role of independent media – Novara, Tribune, Radical Film Network, Jacobin, Momentum – play David and Goliath with the mainstream.
As television belatedly is increasingly accessed in a non-linear mode via the internet, some of the most interesting contemporary filmmaking can be facilitated by digital technology. It is much easier to shoot and edit ultra-low-budget work outside of the funding structures now – radical filmmaking is out there, it’s just not evenly marketed or distributed.
It is not for nostalgic motives that we should revisit the 1980s as a historical moment in British television, but as a sketch of political and cultural possibilities that, in a changed context, can be renewed and surpassed. The innovations of early Channel 4 are relevant again at this critical time of change as television enters a new digital terrain and the Left emerges from the setbacks of December 2019 and the devastation of a pandemic. What can we learn from Channel 4’s daring and ground-breaking approach to diverse programming during the first breath-taking years, and how can its championing of new and alternative voices be applied to the new digital TV landscape?
This article is republished from Tribune.
Rod Stoneman was the director of the Huston School of Film & Digital Media at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He was previously the CEO of the Irish Film Board and a deputy commissioning editor of the Independent Film and Video Department at Channel 4.