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…