Viewfinder Magazine

Channel 4 at 40
by John Ellis, Royal Holloway, University of London


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’s 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 (23rd-24th 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.

Channel 4 Conference, BFI

Channel 4 Conference, BFI

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, 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 Hewitt 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 23rd-24th SEPTEMBER

FRIDAY 23 SEPTEMBER

KEYNOTE

JOHN ELLIS Reassessing Channel 4 https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=771

Seeing the world anew (chair: Rosie Thomas)

JUSTIN SMITH The Peacock Screen: ‘Multiculturalism’ and Cinema on TV at Channel 4 https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=4126

GEORGE GUO Demystifying ethnographic filmmaking between the UK and China: in the case of Phil Agland’s Beyond the Clouds (1994) https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=6180

MICHAEL CHANAN C4 and Globalisation: the example of Latin America in the 1980s https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=7929

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=9130

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 https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=891

MARGARET DICKINSON Making a series for Naomi Sargeant’s Education Department https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=3180

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=5177

Race, Documentary Practice and the Radical Politics of Channel 4 (chair: Ruth Adams)

STEVE PRESENCE Independent documentary and Channel 4 since 2000 https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=14780

CLIVE NWONKA ‘Songs of Handsworth Praise’: Channel 4 and Black Cultural Politics as a Public Sociology https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=16259

ANAMIK SAHA Mainstreaming Diversity: British South Asian cultural production and Channel 4 in the early 2000s to now https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=17817

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=19405

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) https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=11536

HANNAH ANDREWS Film4 in the age of cinematic television https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=12627

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 https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=14119

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=15472

Inventing the organisations (chair: George Guo)

JOHN WYVER Budgeting and financing independent production https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=21889

ELAIN PRICE ‘…more to unite us than to divide us’ – establishing the relationship between S4C and Channel 4 https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=23264

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/bazuTEAMkYU?t=24611

Sexuality (chair: Rowan Aust)

MARCUS COLLINS Gay Liberation? C4, Homosexuality and One in Five (1982) https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=18771

MANDY MERCK Property and other porn on Channel 4 https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=20228

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/2EfRumRSKV0?t=22068

SATURDAY 24 SEPTEMBER

Lost initiatives (Chair: John Ellis)

PAUL KERR Channel 4 and media programming – Open the Box to Gogglebox: A Personal History https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=736

RICHARD HEWETT Television Will Archive Itself: Channel 4’s role in revalorising ‘old’ TV https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=2729

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=4289

Scotland (chair: John Hill)

JONATHAN MURRAY Restless Natives: Film on Four, FilmFour and the case of Scotland, 1982 – 2001 https://youtu.be/y90M_IgNQ2Y?t=897

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 https://youtu.be/y90M_IgNQ2Y?t=3107

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/y90M_IgNQ2Y?t=5354

What remains of the original remit? (chair: John Ellis)

SYLVIA HARVEY ‘The Origins of Channel 4: From Pluralism to Neo-Liberalism 1977-1990’ https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=7988

DISCUSSANT: ROD STONEMAN https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=9566

RESPONSES https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=10775

Who Dares Wins (chair: Rowan Aust)

DAN JACKSON, MICHAEL SILK, EMMA PULLEN Rio 2016 Paralympics: intentions and achievements https://youtu.be/y90M_IgNQ2Y?t=7957

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/y90M_IgNQ2Y?t=10041

Channel 4 devolved (chair: Nick Hall)

NATHAN TOWNSEND Channel 4 in Leeds: The Regional Devolution of a Public Service Broadcaster https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=14991

ANDREW SPICER 4 All the UK: The Policies and Politics of Relocation https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=16361

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=17831

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 https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=22171

DISCUSSION https://youtu.be/CaeXRK_9NFw?t=24910

DAY 1

STREAM A https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bazuTEAMkYU

STREAM B https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2EfRumRSKV0

DAY 2

STREAM A https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaeXRK_9NFw

STREAM B https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y90M_IgNQ2Y


About the Author

John Ellis is Professor of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London. He has worked both as a TV producer and a Media Academic. In 1982, he was one of the first independent producers commissioned by Channel 4 in the UK, making their Visions series through Large Door. He is currently Chair of Learning on Screen.