It was once part of a golden era of the popular avant-gardeby Sam Thompson / September 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Since becoming a corporation in 1993, Channel 4 has striven towards more mainstream appeal. The result today is depressing viewing: 12 different property shows, endless repeats of US sitcoms, and increasingly bizarre forms of reality TV—the less said about Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners or Britain’s Biggest Hoarders the better. Its anti-establishment politics has almost disappeared, to be replaced with the stereotyping of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Benefits Street. The cosy comfort-viewing of the Great British Bake Off, which it nabbed from the BBC, signalled its creeping investment in the nostalgia industry.
But it wasn’t always this way. Established in 1982, Channel 4’s remit declared it should “provide innovation and experiment in form and content”—a spirit celebrated in a short season of films at the Barbican. In in its first week on air, alongside flagship programmes like Countdown (1982– ) and Brookside (1982–2003), C4 showed Walter (1982), a film drama about a disabled man starring Ian McKellen, and the alternative comedy series, The Comic Strip Presents… (1982–2016). The highbrow Jeremy Isaacs, the channel’s first director, created space for art history, foreign film, theatre, and opera.
Until the mid-1980s, radical playwrights and filmmakers found sanctuary on British television through the BBC’s Wednesday Play (1964-70) and the Play for Today (1970-84). Channel 4 would later become a home for many of these artists. Equally significant were the video experimentations—in style, subject and method—from the early 1960s.
The London Filmmakers’ Co-op took inspiration from the emergence in 1961 of the New York Filmmakers’ Co-op, headed by maverick director Jonas Mekas. The major difference was that the London Co-op was egalitarian, not only in distribution, but production. Their filmmaking was non-hierarchical; the creative process was collective. The London Co-op precipitated other video collectives, springing up in Cardiff, Sheffield and Liverpool, and all increasingly attuned to post-68 themes: feminism, LGBT rights, and (later on) anti-colonialism and anti-racism. Add to this the more concrete issues of the day: Aids activism, industrial unrest, accessing services and unemployment.
The recession of the late 70s and early 80s threatened many of these initiatives. Adding to their woes, workers at independent filmmaking co-ops were shut out of the major broadcast union as they weren’t waged. The Independent Filmmakers’ Association—a network representing the interests of the co-op movement—had been negotiating with the broadcasting unions and the British Film Institute for greater stability in the independent sector. The arrival of Channel 4—with its remit to provide “innovative and experimental” television and its model of devolved programming—was the perfect opportunity.
The Workshop Declaration enshrined Channel 4’s commitment to the co-op movement, ushering in a golden era of the popular avant-garde in British television. Rather than commissioning individual shows, they gave continued funding for particular workshops (film collectives), which provided a wage for the artists, giving them the freedom to explore difficult issues and undertake long-term projects. The Declaration operated a model of “integrative practice”: workshops organised distribution, educational activities, and the provision of film equipment, as well as film production.
“C4’s anti-establishment politics has almost disappeared, replaced with the stereotyping of Benefits Street“
There was effort to amplify the voices of women, ethnic minorities, and the regions, and to engage with pressing social issues. So, from the Declaration emerges the first all-Asian film collective, Retake. With films like Living in Danger (1984) and An Environment of Dignity (1987), both made for Channel 4, the group brought stories of British Asians to a mainstream audience. The Black Audio Film Collective made a number of film-essays under the auspices of the Declaration. The venture was regionally diverse, skewering the London-centred BBC and cabal of other mainstream broadcasters and filmmakers. Take one example: the Amber Film collective, started by film and photography students in 1968, chose to take root in Tyneside. They ended up making a number of films for Channel 4.
In 1989 Channel 4 gave notice that it would begin a two-year phasing-out of the funding for the workshop programmes. The BFI followed in 1991. The experiment ended but there remains a substantial legacy. Some of the filmmakers incubated during this period have become industry successes—Black Audio Film Collective’s John Akomfrah’s most recent feature was the much-lauded The Stuart Hall Project (2013). Some of the workshops live on in different forms. Amber Films, for example, runs a gallery, cinema and archive in the heart of Newcastle. Many of the filmmakers and artists demand rediscovery. The Barbican season demonstrates the urgency and prescience of many of the workshop films: Welcome to the Spiv Economy (1986) explores the effects of precarious employment; Acceptable Levels (1983) is an indictment of the symbiotic relationship between the media and politics; Handsworth Songs (1986) explores representations of race, immigration and rioting.
There is still good programming on Channel 4—Grayson Perry’s documentaries, for example. The company has long outsourced its filmmaking to Film4, which has helped finance some of the best British features of the last three decades. And amid the hawkish landscape of UK news broadcasting, Channel 4 News offers a refreshing perspective. But there is nothing like the films produced during the Declaration—the closest you’ll get these days are in art galleries. The technological means for a popular avant-garde are more available than ever, and there is no shortage of artists who are formally adventurous and politically committed—although they’re poorer and their circumstances more precarious. What’s really missing are the bold TV commissioners that once gave them a platform.