Channelling The Past

Film still for Channelling The  Past

This magazine doesn't often look at television matters, but Channel 4 has had such an impact on UK culture since it crash-landed in 1982 into a staid broadcasting world that its silver jubilee can't be ignored. To assess its history and worth to us all, Alkarim Jivani talked to some of those involved in its creation

What do you think has been C4's greatest achievement in the last 25 years?

Jeremy Isaacs: C4 showed there was life outside the BBC and ITV and that you could screen programmes made by a variety of sources. It was enabled to do this by the new belief that there was not a single mass audience that had to be addressed at all times and from whose fodder anything that might offend anybody had to be eliminated. C4 was formed to create individual programmes for individual tastes and if other people didn't like it, that was too bad.

All the programmes invented and assembled by Alan Fountain, Rod Stoneman and Caroline Spry in the late Monday-night slot The Eleventh Hour were made by people who hadn't worked in British TV before and had different things to say. And the programmes that delivered unmediated opinion straight to camera, as in the Opinions series, were also new. The series was conceived when the BBC decided not to broadcast a talk they'd invited Marxist historian E.P. Thompson to give, which I thought was very feeble. If we are a pluralistic democracy, we must allow people to be exposed to others' coherent views.

The Tube found a visual language that matched the musical language it carried. For Channel 4 News we argued that the world can't be described in soundbites and so we needed at least twice as much time to show what's happening. David Rose's Film On Four was an enormous achievement - one of the most important meetings in my life was with a delegation of British film-makers including David Hare and Stephen Frears, who said that if we were going to make our fiction on film as we'd promised, could we please make feature-length films. The list that resulted is remarkable; every one of them is an original utterance.

Liz Forgan: C4's most important achievement was probably the establishment of a flourishing independent production sector. When C4 started, television was vertically integrated - the producer and the broadcaster were the same. Now there's a danger that vertically integrated broadcasters will disappear when what we need is a mixed economy.

C4 also burst open a regulated broadcasting system where content could be prescribed to the minutest degree. When I arrived at C4 I met a man from the ITC [the Independent Television Commission, which oversaw all non-BBC broadcasting] in the lunch queue, who said "I'm your minder." "Ho, ho," said I, coming from the liberated world of newspapers, "I suppose you pop in every week to see what we're doing." "Yes," he said. I was dumbfounded. You had to argue over individual words and scenes - unbelievably close control - but we managed to burst it open. We trained audiences to understand that you could see all sorts of different things on television that all sorts of different people believed or didn't believe and it was up to you to decide.

In terms of programmes, I'd say that Channel 4 News - which was my baby - has endured in recognisable form since 1982. Film On Four broke open the tetchy relationship between theatrical distribution and television - instead of being at war, they became a partnership. And the films that resulted were different from both TV plays and what was being made by the film industry.

Kevin Lygo: C4's greatest achievement has been a collection of wonderful programmes: in entertainment, Da Ali G Show, Father Ted, Don't Forget Your Toothbrush, So Graham Norton and Clive Anderson Talks Back; in documentary, Phil Agland's documentaries on China or The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off; in drama, Shameless, Queer as Folk and GBH as well as single dramas like Longford and Sex Traffic. And Brookside, of course. So everyone would remember a C4 programme as one of their all-time favourites.

On the industry side, the strong independent production sector we have in this country today is largely due to C4. And it has also been a great platform for new talent, so half the people on mainstream TV got their break on C4 - French and Saunders, Jonathan Ross, Ricky Gervais, Graham Norton... I'm not sure anyone else would have persisted with them for quite so long in order to make them come on.

Mark Lawson: In drama C4 made the clever decision to go for a few high-profile projects - it still horrifies the BBC when C4 has done three dramas and wins three BAFTA awards whereas the BBC has done 740 and doesn't get any. Queer as Folk, Shameless, Dockers and Longford are projects the BBC and ITV couldn't make even now for reasons of politics, regulation or cowardice.

But for me the single most important programme is Brookside, which changed how soap opera looks, is written and is acted, in that it introduced good actors to soaps. I think Phil Redmond is one of the few great visionaries in British television.

Roger Graef: C4 has continued its commitment to current affairs through Channel 4 News, Dispatches and Unreported World. And you have to acknowledge the importance of its coverage of Iraq. Plus, its investment in FilmFour was a major influence on independent film-making and a serious contribution to culture, as were many of its documentaries.

Sarita Malik: C4's investment in independent producers and support of British film-makers gave rise to a new kind of British cinema in the 1980s. My Beautiful Laundrette was groundbreaking and as a result different kinds of black British films emerged. Plus the channel's relationship with the independent subsidised workshop sector in the early 1980s allowed practitioners to escape the logic of the marketplace and the constraints of commercialism.

From an audience point of view, programmes like Brookside, the various documentaries, Oliver Reed on After Dark, The Tube, Network 7, The Big Breakfast, Brass Eye, Da Ali G Show and Big Brother made television look and feel a lot edgier, a lot younger, a lot more modern. The fluidity and spontaneity made you aware of what television could do.

Most importantly, C4 has focused on catering for a multiplicity of audiences rather than a monolithic British public. There are still arguments about whether defining cultural identity through black and Asian programming is the best way to produce cultural diversity on screen, but the intention was good and real efforts were made. Nowadays C4 invests in networking and training events for black and Asian practitioners, but it seems like too little, too late. And where is today's black and Asian broadcasting agenda or the black and Asian decision-makers and commissioning editors?

What did you understand by C4's original remit and is it being upheld?

Jeremy Isaacs: The remit had the marvellous advantage of being permissive rather than prescriptive: encourage innovation in form and content; provide a distinctive service; cater for interests ITV doesn't cater for. Norman Tebbit complained that I'd got the interpretation wrong - that we were doing programmes about Northern Ireland and gays when we should have been covering golf or yachting.

Everyone has to interpret the remit for themselves, but in the last couple of years the balance has got out of hand - though there are still wonderful programmes like Longford or Jamie's School Dinners.

Liz Forgan: The remit was to be brave, to take creative risks, to serve unserved audiences and above all to ensure that plural voices were heard. It was clear that one or two of the ITV directors on the board had taken that to mean serving up badminton and macramé and they were somewhat amazed that it meant left-wing or gender politics. But it wasn't all left-wingery and being avant-garde. For Channel 4 News I said a third of the time was going to be devoted to foreign affairs. And I ran the only programme on British TV that was entirely about understanding the politics of the right during the Thatcher revolution. After endless tussles with the regulator I was allowed to have a discussion series featuring half a dozen people from the right to the extreme right, with nobody from the left to say: 'on the other hand...'.

The notion of innovation today has to be completely different and you can still see C4 trying new things. My regret is that it's missing an opportunity to be more global, to make world cinema or world music widely available.

Kevin Lygo: At the heart of the remit is an obligation to do the things other people don't do. Obviously this was easier when there were only four channels, but now with 400 it's difficult to provide programming you can't find elsewhere. So the remit today is about catering for minority tastes on a mainstream channel with a public-service ethos of properly funded excellence. The remit is also about being pioneering, and a big part of that is to bring new faces to the screen, new writers to the page and to introduce new directors and producers.

The attitude of challenging orthodoxy is still there: we want to deal with things of social importance that other channels ignore. So look at the energy we've devoted to the portrayal of British Muslims and Muslim life in both drama and documentary or our coverage of gay life, which has been much more truthful than other broadcasters'.

Mark Lawson: C4 was supposed to provide programming that wasn't available elsewhere, which was given a strong liberal interpretation. Although it's unimaginable that Willie Whitelaw and Margaret Thatcher intended a channel where people could swear a lot and have sex in ways that viewers hadn't seen before, that was a reasonable interpretation of the brief. It's difficult for the BBC to do certain things because }of its symbolic association with the establishment, and even now the rules governing fact-based drama are so strict that it would be virtually impossible for the corporation to make Longford or the Princess Margaret drama, while ITV wouldn't do them for commercial reasons.

There are still daring and radical programmes on C4 but they have to attract an audience and make a splash whereas at the start the requirement to get big ratings wasn't part of the game. I don't think the channel has lost it way, but what it has done is to change its route. The first series of Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother were defensible within the Jeremy Isaacs interpretation of the remit because they represented an original and radical form of television that the BBC couldn't and ITV wouldn't have done. But they should never have got to series seven or eight - I have an endless row with Peter Bazalgette over the fact that I think we'll end up with a suicide and/or a homicide resulting from one of these programmes. Where it gets complicated is that such shows become advertising and publicity cows that have to be milked.

Roger Graef: The remit to do what no other channel would do is still being upheld but I'd like to see it given more pride of place. Whenever C4 does something it could be proud of it's buried in the noise of other programmes that are less remit-oriented such as the sex and lifestyle stuff and the pitch to younger people. From the point where they started to sell their own advertising, marketing has played a more and more important role in decision-making. C4 was a brilliant conception, but uncoupling its link with ITV was the beginning of the end. I had a major row with Michael Grade about it at the time, when a number of staff asked me to challenge him. I take no satisfaction from having been proved right.

Sarita Malik: The original remit was bold and uncompromising and the early programming seemed to honour that, positioning the viewers as savvy and intelligent. Until that point there were very limited ways in which black and Asian people were represented on TV and even the fact that they appeared on C4 regularly was quite radical. But nowadays you have to negotiate your way around the schedules to get that feeling.

What do you see as the way forward?

Jeremy Isaacs: C4's future lies in being utterly distinctive and my wish is for that distinctiveness once more to consist in being unpredictably different. I would like the regulator to encourage this by accepting that public service means catering for a plural society and reaching different audiences. The growth of consumerism, the need felt by advertisers to address a particular demographic - 16 to 34 year olds - and the growth of powerful and successful independent production companies mean we are being given series after series of similar stuff aimed at similar audiences. So C4 needs to bring the genuinely new and challenging into balance with yet another series on how to buy property abroad. I wish it well in what is a very different and far more competitive world.

Liz Forgan: I think C4 has two choices. Either it declares that the time for public-service broadcasting on this kind of budget with this kind of audience expectation is over and goes commercial with a slick, fast-moving, upmarket, young, sassy channel. Or it reinterprets the remit for the 21st century, doesn't care if the audiences are smaller and asks for the subsidy it requires. But it can't go on dithering.

Kevin Lygo: You can have too rich a diet: if every night you gave people all the challenging stuff we do, they'd be sick on the carpet. Television will always be largely a medium for entertainment and even serious programming has to engage you or you won't sit there when you have 399 other choices. The trick is to find a subject that's entertaining and exciting and tells human stories but also has a social purpose - like Jamie's School Dinners. I've never commissioned a programme on the basis of 'I don't really like it but it will do well' because that gets you into a cynical pattern.

Mark Lawson: The way ahead is clearly to get in first on new ways of viewing, so if we were setting up C4 today it would be on the web or on mobile phones. But I doubt it could do that now because it has become a broadcasting behemoth with huge salaries and huge structures.

Roger Graef: Instead of flirting with privatisation - and the more it markets itself as a way of reaching younger viewers, the more it risks being privatised - it should recommit itself to public-service broadcasting and its remit. At that point its claim for pubic subsidy would be taken more seriously. But at the moment it's trying to be commercial and subsidised at the same time.

Sarita Malik: Diversifying its suppliers and the social and cultural backgrounds of its commissioning editors will help break the monotony. And it needs to make its viewers not just consumers but also citizens.

How has C4 influenced Britain's cultural climate?

Jeremy Isaacs: C4 made viewers think about television and exposed them to things they wouldn't otherwise have been exposed to. One viewer rang up in furious amazement during a programme on choreographer Pina Bausch: "What is this terrible rubbish and why after an hour and a half am I still watching it?" I think of him as the typical C4 viewer. I keep meeting people who were in their teens when C4 started and they found it offered them views and opinions their parents didn't have. They were grateful for a channel about life that they recognised and that recognised them.

Liz Forgan: I think it shifted TV culturally and prepared it for the flowering of the multichannel marketplace. But most importantly it trained viewers to think of television in a different way - it was no longer Daddy telling you what to do.

Kevin Lygo: The tolerant, liberal and questioning attitudes at the heart of C4 have made people more aware of what life is really like. We show people in a way that isn't always comfortable to the middle class and we've often irritated the establishment - as with the David Kelly drama.

Mark Lawson: If you went back 25 years and looked at tapes of Newsnight and Coronation Street you wouldn't believe that kind of stuff was shown. EastEnders clearly only exists because of Brookside and the major writers of the last quarter of a century - people like Jimmy McGovern, Paul Abbott, Russell T. Davies and Kay Mellor - all started on C4 because at the time the kind of work they wanted to do would not have been possible at the BBC or ITV. And C4 brought us the best of US programming early on.

Roger Graef: C4's adventurous drama, film-making, current affairs and documentaries made a major contribution to broadening the agenda. And risk-taking was supported and celebrated in a way it hadn't been anywhere, ever. I think it's good C4 is questioning the way forward right now, because all is far from lost.

Sarita Malik: C4 has redefined how our national image is projected on screen and how we narrate our culture to ourselves. It has made Britain appear younger and more modern.

The panel

Jeremy Isaacs was the founding chief executive of C4; he left in 1987 and subsequently headed the Royal Opera House and launched the digital channel Artsworld (now Sky Arts)

Liz Forgan was editor of the Guardian's Women section before joining C4 as a commissioning editor in 1982; she was C4's director of programmes until 1990 and was subsequently managing director of BBC Network Radio

Kevin Lygo was head of entertainment and music at C4, director of programmes at Five and head of independent commissioning for entertainment at the BBC before becoming C4's director of television in 2003

Mark Lawson is a journalist, broadcaster and author and one of the regular presenters of BBC R4's arts programme 'Front Row'

Roger Graef sat on C4's board of directors from 1982 to 1987 and has made more than 120 films covering current affairs, arts and comedy

Sarita Malik is a writer and researcher and the author of 'Representing Black Britain: Black and Asian Images on Television'

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012