The UK’s Channel 4 turns 40 on 4 November 2022. How can we assess the achievements (and failures) of this unique broadcasting initiative? The UK’s fourth TV channel was set up by a conservative government to be innovative in the form and content of programmes. Now it is just one small group of channels among the hundreds that are available. Conceived as the agent of change in the TV industry, has it now served its purpose?
Boris Johnson’s culture secretary Nadine Dorries certainly thought so, proposing that it should be privatised, and a lot of preparatory work has already been done to achieve this. But Dorries’ judgement was flawed (she thought it was supported by tax revenues rather than by advertising) and the subsequent conservative governments have grown less and less enthusiastic about the idea. It’s now probable that Channel 4 will continue in its current form, a sentence that is very pleasing to write.
So how do we assess the legacy of 40 years of Channel 4? A conference at BFI Southbank (23-4 September 2022) began that process. A conference is the ideal forum for coming to terms with the diversity of Channel 4’s influences. My 40 minute keynote acknowledged the ridiculousness of any summarising of the history (a minute per year!), instead opting to stress the influence on ‘everyday TV’: how Channel 4 has consistently broadened the range of programming about consumer affairs, lifestyles, personal issues from morality to the body. This steady accumulation of instances has changed British TV, despite big missteps like the Big Brother franchises’ later years, and the proliferation of property programmes instanced by Mandy Merck in a session which concentrated on pioneering programmes on sexuality, alongside Marcus Collins’ examination of the series ‘One in Five’ from 1982.
The conference format allowed for memory sessions as well as formal papers. Campaigning academic Sylvia Harvey and former commissioning editor Rod Stoneman debated whether the original remit of Channel 4 still had any force. Holly Aylett excavated the history of the pioneering women’s current affairs series Broadside, and Margaret Dickinson detailed how an early education series about public transport, Losing Track, was a true academic/producer collaboration.
Channel 4’s distinctive contribution to documentary production has fallen off in recent years, as Steve Presence argued cogently, looking at the legacy of slots for one-off films like Cutting Edge. Others looked at specific instances of breakthrough documentaries, from Phil Agland’s ‘Beyond the Clouds’ to classics like ‘Handsworth Songs’. The internationalist emphasis of Channel 4’s early years was celebrated (critically) by Michael Chanan, mixing witness and analysis. The banner of ‘diversity’ which rationalised much of this work (as well as earlier ‘minority’ programming) was dissected by Anamik Saha, examining how the concept has been deployed in various ways by Channel 4.
Channel 4 has recently had to address its own influence as a cultural institution more centrally. The relocation of its headquarters to Leeds, and the establishment of regional centres elsewhere was examined in two papers by Andrew Spicer and Nathan Townsend. The complicated history of Channel 4’s relationship to Wales and the Welsh language S4C was examined by Elain Price. Arguably, the current devolution initiative was one that was forced on the organisation rather than chosen. However, its address to regional devolution is a huge contrast to that of BBC or ITV, both regional in name only. Another initiative that shows Channel 4’s confidence as a cultural organisation has been its pioneering coverage of the Paralympics, as Dan Jackson outlined in the results of a major research project. Richard Tait, meanwhile, demonstrated how Channel 4 News had in the past been used by Channel 4 as an effective means of fighting off successive privatisation attempts that date back more than 30 years.
Many of these issues are just beginning to receive proper academic attention. The more familiar areas of Channel 4’s contribution to filmmaking, and its foundation of the UK independent production sector. Here, the conference was able to offer fresh research. In a session on Film on 4, Tom May offered a new statistical study, Hannah Andrews extended her well-known work on cinematic television, and Joseph Oldham examined the tortured development of the pivotal series ‘A Very British Coup’. The relationship of Channel 4’s film investment with Scottish independent production was examined by Jonathan Murray, Alistair Scott and Nelson Correa. John Wyver used his research into the development of a standard financing deal and budgeting tool for independent production to ask whether the development of truly independent production had not been hampered by the cost-plus arrangement that guaranteed a modicum of profit.
Wyver himself appeared as an actor in Channel 4’s history, along with several other conference presenters, in a session outlining Channel 4’s various approaches to television itself. Paul Kerr contrasted Gogglebox with the 1980s Media Show, and Richard Hewett showed how television’s own history has been examined in a series of different initiatives. Far from being an inward looking session, this exposed some of the major trends in the development of the Channel 4 ‘family’ of channels, as it now is.
The range of approaches to this 40 year history demonstrated here is remarkable. It stands as a major contribution to understanding the nature of Channel 4 as a cultural institution. Fortunately, all of these sessions were recorded by the BFI and are on YouTube thanks to the conference co-sponsor Royal Holloway’s Centre for the History of Television Culture and Production. The sessions are presented as a continuous stream, but this handy guide tells you where to look for each paper:
Channel 4 then and now: BFI Southbank 23-4 September
Friday, 23 September
Keynote: JOHN ELLIS: Reassessing Channel 4, 12 mins – 51 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
Seeing the world anew (chair: Rosie Thomas)
- JUSTIN SMITH: The Peacock Screen: ‘Multiculturalism’ and Cinema on TV at Channel 4, 1 hr 11 mins – 1hr 41 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- GEORGE GUO: Demystifying ethnographic filmmaking between the UK and China: in the case of Phil Agland’s Beyond the Clouds (1994), 1hr 43 mins – 2hrs 11 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- MICHAEL CHANAN: C4 and Globalisation: the example of Latin America in the 1980s, 2hrs 12 mins – 2hrs 33 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- DISCUSSION, 2hrs 33mins – 3 hrs on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
Realising the remit: Witness session (chair: John Wyver)
- HOLLY AYLETT: Women’s voice in flagship current affairs. The legacy of Broadside and 20-20 Vision in current affairs, 14 mins – 52 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- MARGARET DICKINSON: Making a series for Naomi Sargeant’s Education Department, 53 mins – 1 hr 25 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- DISCUSSION, 1 hr 26 mins – 2 hrs 06 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
Race, Documentary Practice and the Radical Politics of Channel 4 (chair: Ruth Adams)
- STEVE PRESENCE: Independent documentary and Channel 4 since 2000, 4 hrs 6 mins – 4 hrs 29 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- CLIVE NWONKA: ‘Songs of Handsworth Praise’: Channel 4 and Black Cultural Politics as a Public Sociology, 4 hrs 31 mins – 4 hrs 55 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- ANAMIK SAHA: Mainstreaming Diversity: British South Asian cultural production and Channel 4 in the early 2000s to now, 4 hrs 56 mins – 5 hrs 22 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- DISCUSSION 5 hrs 23 mins – 5 hrs 52 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
Film on Four (chair: Justin Smith)
- TOM MAY: From diverse experimentation to chasing The Madness of Four Weddings and Trainspotting: a statistical history of Film on Four (1982-99) on television (pre-recorded), 3 hrs 12 mins – 3 hrs 28 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- HANNAH ANDREWS: Film4 in the age of cinematic television, 3 hrs 30 mins – 3 hrs 53 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- JOSEPH OLDHAM: ‘Selling the audience a good yarn, even though it’s about politics’: Developing A Very British Coup (1988) in the Early Years of Channel 4, 3 hrs 55 mins – 4 hrs 17 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- DISCUSSION 4 hrs 18 mins – 4 hrs 46 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
Inventing the organisations (chair: George Guo)
- JOHN WYVER: Budgeting and financing independent production, 6 hrs 5 mins – 6 hrs 27 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- ELAIN PRICE: ‘…more to unite us than to divide us’ – establishing the relationship between S4C and Channel 4, 6 hrs 28 mins – 6 hrs 49 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- DISCUSSION, 6 hrs 50 mins – 7 hrs 5 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
Sexuality (chair: Rowan Aust)
- MARCUS COLLINS Gay Liberation? C4, Homosexuality and One in Five (1982), 5 hrs 12 mins – 5 hrs 36 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- MANDY MERCK Property and other porn on channel 4, 5 hrs 37 mins – 6 hrs 7 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
- DISCUSSION, 6 hrs 8 mins – 6 hrs 14 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
Saturday 24 September
Lost initiatives (Chair: John Ellis)
- PAUL KERR: Channel 4 and media programming – Open the Box to Gogglebox: A Personal History, 12 mins – 45 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- RICHARD HEWETT: Television Will Archive Itself: Channel 4’s role in revalorising ‘old’ TV, 45 mins – 1 hr 11 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- DISCUSSION, 1 hr 11 mins – 1 hr 50 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
Scotland (chair: John Hill)
- JONATHAN MURRAY: Restless Natives: Film on Four, FilmFour and the case of Scotland, 1982 – 2001, 15 mins – 50 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y
- ALISTAIR SCOTT & NELSON CORREA: Channel 4 – then and now – the view from Scotland: the evolution of the Channel’s relationship with the Scottish production sector, 52 mins – 1 hr 28 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y
- DISCUSSION, 1 hr 29 mins – 1 hr 54 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y
What remains of the original remit? (chair: John Ellis)
- SYLVIA HARVEY: ‘The Origins of Channel 4: From Pluralism to Neo-Liberalism 1977-1990’, 2 hrs 13 mins – 2 hrs 14 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- DISCUSSANT: ROD STONEMAN, 2 hrs 39 mins – 2 hrs 59 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- RESPONSES 3 hrs 0 mins – 3 hrs 8 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
Who Dares Wins (chair: Rowan Aust)
- DAN JACKSON, MICHAEL SILK, EMMA PULLEN Rio 2016 Paralympics: intentions and achievements, 2 hrs 12 mins – 2 hrs 47 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y
- DISCUSSION, 2 hrs 48 mins – 3 hrs 6 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y
Channel 4 devolved (chair: Nick Hall)
- NATHAN TOWNSEND: Channel 4 in Leeds: The Regional Devolution of a Public Service Broadcaster, 4 hrs 9 mins – 4 hrs 32 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- ANDREW SPICER: 4 All the UK: The Policies and Politics of Relocation, 4 hrs 33 mins – 4 hrs 56 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- DISCUSSION, 4 hrs 56 mins – 5 hrs 32 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
Channel 4 News (chair: John Ellis)
- RICHARD TAIT: How the threat to Channel 4 News has played a part in previous campaigns to Stop privatisation, 6 hrs 9 mins – 6 hrs 55 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- DISCUSSION, 6 hrs 55 mins – 7 hrs 4 mins on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
Streams, Day 1
- STREAM A https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU
- STREAM B https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0
Streams, Day 2
- STREAM A https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw
- STREAM B https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y
John Ellis is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway University of London. He led the ADAPT project on ‘how TV used to be made’, funded by the European Research Council. He co-edited Hands On Media History (2020) with Nick Hall, and is the author of Documentary: Witness and Self-revelation(Routledge 2011), TV FAQ (IB Tauris 2007), Seeing Things (IB Tauris 2000) and Visible Fictions(1984). Between 1982 and 1999 he was an independent producer of TV documentaries through Large Door Productions, working for Channel 4 and BBC. He is chair of Learning on Screen and an editor-in-chief of VIEW, the online journal of European television history and culture. His publications can be found HERE.