How Channel 4 gave Film-Makers Their Big Break

Posted on 26 November 2012

Channel 4 celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, three decades on since Countdown launched the new television service in November 1982.

At the time, UK television was a landscape that would look very unfamiliar to anyone born in the multi-channel 21st century. Before Channel 4’s launch only three terrestrial channels stalked the broadcasting world, like lumbering dinosaurs – BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – while each region of the country had a robust and vibrant commercial TV company all to itself (Central in this region; Granada for the North-west; Thames for London etc). Into this cosy and quasi monopoly of broadcasting leaped Channel 4 like a misbehaving ‘enfant terrible’.

Devised by government legislation to add diversity and new voices to the nation’s screens, Channel 4 also sourced its output, like a publisher, from third parties – from the new, independent production sector – and not, at least in the beginning, from the traditional power houses of television, represented by the BBC and ITV. Unlike the television dinosaurs, Channel 4 did not produce its own programmes, but it invested its budget into new patterns of creative commissioning, introducing a new era of opportunity and entrepreneurialism into the ecology of UK television.

One of the first beneficiaries of this libertarian largesse was the Birmingham Film / Video Workshop which, along with similar projects across the UK, formed a network of mutual film societies. For the best part of the 1980s, BFVW was backed annually by Channel 4, complementing support from the British Film Institute and West Midland Arts, enabling the Film Workshop to grow to a team of seven film/video-makers, and yield 25 plus films. A key theme of BFVW was ‘participation’, the legacy of which was explored in some detail in 2009 in an exhibition at Digbeth’s VIVID Gallery.

BFVW’s films were broadcast by Channel 4 and were screened in cinemas across the UK, while also benefiting from invitations to international film festivals in Berlin, Paris, New York, Locarno, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Munich etc.

The Workshop’s output in the 1980s included documentaries – Traces Left, African Oasis, Giro, Girl Zone, Paradise Circus; dramas – Sweet Chariot, Property Rites; shorts – Medium Slice of Life; feature films – Out Of Order; TV series – Turn It Up; campaigning films – Put People First, Miners Tapes; and media debates – Are You Being Served Well?, The Black and White Pirate Show.

All these films were developed in a spirit of collaboration and participation involving many individuals and organisations across the city and the West Midlands. Three key themes laced through this body of visual work – culture and politics; representing young people; women in society.

For example, collaboration with a quartet of teenagers in Telford – the Dead Honest Soul Searchers, aka DHSS – led initially to a sequence of documentaries, beginning with the home taping enquiry What They Telling Us Its Illegal For?, later on the production of a feature film, the first shot on video in the UK, titled Out Of Order, and subsequently a series for television called Turn It Up. This creative collaboration with young people was innovative in its application of graphics, new video technology and the form of the documentary, and clearly had an influence on the direction that youth television took in the 1980s on BBC and Channel 4.

The BFVW drama Property Rites experimented with drama and documentary forms, combining both in its re-telling of a 19th century Birmingham historical event – the case of Mary Ashford.

The film investigated assumptions underlying common attitudes to sexual violence, and by using a mixture of fiction and documentary material unearthed a version of history previously hidden.

The legacy of C4’s involvement in Birmingham, originally begun in 1982 with BFVW, has continued to make its mark in the city. In later decades film makers associated with BFVW developed further links with Channel 4.

For example, Yugesh Walia’s production company Endboard introduced onto UK television screens the South Asian sport of Kabaddi; Jonnie Turpie’s Maverick TV established for Channel 4 a whole new health and lifestyle profile with ground-breaking, award-winning programmes such as Embarassing Bodies; and Roger Shannon exec produced numerous C4-backed award-winning feature films – Under The Skin with Samantha Morton, My Brother Tom with Ben ‘Q’ Whishaw and Festival with Chris O’Dowd.

To mark 30 years of Channel 4, the Departure Lounge at MAC Cinema in Birmingham is screening two BFVW films from the early 1980s next Thursday, November 29, at 6pm. The films are African Oasis, from 1982, which is about the Handsworth Cultural Centre, directed by Yugesh Walia, and What They Telling Us Its Illegal For?, directed by Jonnie Turpie and the Dead Honest Soul Searchers, from 1984, which looks at the legality, or not, of home taping. The directors will discuss their films after the screenings.

Roger Shannon, Professor, Film and Television, Edge Hill University

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