The post-punk generation: Daniel Day-Lewis and Gordon Warnecke in “My Beautiful Laundrette” (1985). Credit: Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo

Modernism for the masses: the lost glories of Film on Four

Channel 4’s film coverage held a mirror up to a diverse 1980s Britain—and offered a passport out of provinciality
December 9, 2021

Clearing out boxes from my childhood bedroom this summer, I chanced on a decades-old pamphlet that sent me into an unexpected reverie. It was an annotated filmography—A5 format, its pages mostly stills and synopses—devoted to New Wave director François Truffaut. Produced in April 1986 by Channel 4 to accompany its mini-retrospective of the filmmaker, who had died 18 months earlier, the brochure cost the price of a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

I had sent off for it smitten and reeling after watching the still-peerless The 400 Blows (1959), Truffaut’s autobiographical portrait of a Parisian teenager finding a refuge from his troubled family in cinema. I’d never been to a cinema myself or even seen a subtitled film. No one I knew had been to Paris. And yet, there in my parents’ living room in Gloucester, on a free television channel, on a humdrum homework night, Channel 4 was showing me things I didn’t know I wanted to see. It was offering me a passport out of provinciality—a roadmap from my old to a new self.

The current Conservative government is eager to privatise Channel 4. Is it any wonder? In 2019 its then-head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, called Boris Johnson “a known liar.” In the same year, Channel 4 News replaced Johnson with a melting slab of ice after he refused to appear on a debate about climate change. For decades, Tories have characterised the channel as being overrun by left-wing, sexually permissive, politically correct Londoners.

Its defenders have highlighted its successes in drama, investigative reporting and youth programming. Yet there has been little mention, except in an advertising campaign, of one of its most enduring achievements: its contribution to film. When the channel began in 1982, cinemagoing in the UK was near an all-time low. Countless cinemas were going out of business. Perhaps the best decision ever made by Channel 4’s founding chief executive Jeremy Isaacs was to hire David Rose, a highly respected BBC producer who had steered works by writers Alan Plater and David Rudkin to screen.

Rose oversaw a new film strand, whose remit was to encourage new or newish filmmakers, promote innovations in form as well as content, and to give titles the chance to be shown in cinemas as well as on television. His record, on modest budgets, was astonishing: over the next eight years he green-lit 130 films including Richard Eyre’s The Ploughman’s Lunch (1983), Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa (1986), Alan Clarke’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1987), Mike Leigh’s High Hopes (1988) and Stephen Frears’s Prick Up Your Ears (1987).

At one point Channel 4 bankrolled projects by Wim Wenders, Andrei Tarkovsky and Agnès Varda

In the tradition of the BBC’s Play For Today (which ended in 1984), C4’s films held up a mirror to the nation. Rose offered opportunities to dissenters and heretics: Margaret Tait, Sally Potter, Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, Laura Mulvey, Marc Karlin, Derek Jarman. Jarman’s Blue, an extraordinary meditation on going blind and dying of Aids, was shown one evening in September 1993. The whole thing consisted of a voice speaking over a single blue screen.

This work chimed with the prevailing oppositional ethos at Channel 4. The network was staffed by men and women sympathetic to feminism and gay rights, to multiculturalism and class politics. It was public broadcasting for a post-punk generation, its sensibility in tune with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, the international music festival Womad and alternative weeklies. Perhaps its most celebrated title, My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), a Hanif Kureishi-scripted film about the love affair between a young British Pakistani and a skinhead, was decried by Oxford history professor Norman Stone for its “overall feeling of disgust and decay.”

The channel gave screen time to avant-garde artists who, in the 1970s, had operated in fine-art or fringe co-op circles; younger practitioners of video and digital art; filmmakers from working-class and neglected regions across the UK. Its commitment to animation won it more than 150 festival awards, while Nick Park’s Oscar-winning Creature Comforts began as a five-minute short in a series entitled Lip Sync.

Audience sizes may have been small by television standards, but they were huge compared to what was possible on the repertory circuit. This was modernism for the masses, the democratisation of experimentalism. Among the people watching and perhaps taping these programmes were those who went to art school in the late 1980s and early 1990s—Sam Taylor-Johnson, Jeremy Deller and Steve McQueen—and who would later make Channel 4-supported films. The weird and wild schedules of the 1980s were crucial wellsprings.

Channel 4 also offered platforms for young black British voices—most notably the Black Audio Film Collective, whose formally challenging features provoked still-relevant debates about what is or isn’t considered a “minority” story. Most startling from today’s vantage point was its relative indifference to American film culture. It bankrolled projects by Wim Wenders, Andrei Tarkovsky, Agnès Varda; featured seasons on Arab, Vietnamese and African cinema; allowed Nasreen Munni Kabir to produce a 46-part series called Movie Mahal that educated many South Asian immigrants on the riches of Indian cinema. Given the increasing globalisation of film since the 1980s, it’s a crying shame that British networks are now so parochially transatlantic.

Growing up, I used to find many of these films baffling. They dealt with themes and histories about which I knew little; their narratives were fragmented or dense or plain elusive; and their rhythms far slower or (less often) far pacier than anything on the BBC or ITV. Mostly, though, I was puzzled by their very existence. How come no one I knew had ever heard of them? Had someone been shielding them from us? Tentatively, I began to think about culture as a landscape in which borders and barriers are constructed—as a public space that often feels privatised, as a contact zone invisibly segregated.

Film on Four closed in 1998. There were latter-day iterations, whose successes included The Last King of Scotland (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). But Channel 4, like so much British broadcasting, has changed. The older I get, the more I miss the old Film on Four. It wasn’t the result of data-optimisation or trying to cater to an advertiser-friendly demographic. It was driven by a vision rather than a desire to burnish a brand. Unlike the content of the streaming behemoths, its films felt deeply rooted in places and communities. They took me to Newcastle, Nicaragua, Johannesburg. I re-watched The 400 Blows last week. I still trembled.