British Universities Film & Video Council

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The Channel 4 films of the 1980s: ‘A worrying new category’

As Channel 4 draws the curtain on the eleven-year success of the Big Brother franchise,  it continues to reap the rewards of being the producer of some of the most popular shows on television, including teen dramas Skins and Hollyoaks and reality shows like The Secret Millionaire and Come Dine With Me. It has also given birth to subsidiary Freeview channels like E4 and More 4 which have also been highly successful. One thing is certain: Channel 4 is no longer the ‘baby’ of British broadcasting. Today, it has the highest profits and largest audience share in its 28-year history, though some might argue that as the channel has matured, it has grown further and further from the cultural expectations and public-service ideals from which it was conceived.

Before 1982 British broadcasting was ruled by the BBC and ITV, though intellectual pressure for a fourth channel had been building from the late 1960s. In an era before communication devices like video, mobile phones and the internet were available, filmmakers struggled to find an outlet for their ideas, ideas which had previously been ignored by the broadcasting duopoly in favour of appealing to a wide ‘family’ audience. In 1972, BFI director Antony Smith proposed the idea of a channel which would act as a ‘publishing’ house, bringing together works from independent producers (unlike the BBC, which produced in-house programming). In 1974 Lord Annan was invited to set up a committee to consider the idea of a third broadcasting force in Britain, and this culminated in a 538 page report, delivered to parliament in 1979. In the report the committee called for the birth of a new channel which would be innovative in content, giving a voice to the marginalised elements in British society and catering for minority audiences. The committee also requested that the channel be funded by a newly created body known as the Open Broadcasting Authority rather than being a subsidiary channel to ITV.

Channel 4 made it to our TV screens on the 2nd November 1982, albeit in a rather different form from that set out by the Annan committee. The idea of the Open Broadcasting Authority was to be scrapped, and instead the channel would be funded by an annual subscription from ITV, which would also sell the channel’s advertising. Following the recommendations of the Annan committee, ‘innovation’ would be written into the 1980 Broadcasting Act, which set out the following public service requirements for the Channel. It should:

Include a suitable proportion of matter calculated to appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by ITV.
Include a suitable proportion of programmes of an educational nature.
Encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes.

The Annan committee also paved the way for Film on Four, as it was then called, though the idea of a dedicated film strand never directly featured in the report. Jeremy Isaacs, who was to become Chief Executive of the channel, introduced the idea in a speech (and unofficial job application) delivered at the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1979. Film on Four was part of the Channel’s new Fiction department, headed by David Rose. It was to commission films of modest budgets and to provide a platform for talented new writers and directors. Between 1982 and 1992 Film on Four directly funded 136 features. Many of these films were given cinema releases, which allowed the productions to gain widespread publicity before airing on the channel later on. This provided a significant boost to the British film industry and effectively created an unprecedented bridge between television and film.

Channel 4 offered opportunities for filmmakers at a time when the British film industry was ailing, when cinema attendances were falling and when the average Briton was watching 25 hours of television per week. The film on television could potentially be seen and discussed by millions of people. It was a way of addressing the nation and establishing a shared communal bond, a position that was previously held by the ‘television play’ such as the BBC’S Play for Today, which ran from 1970-1984. Hanif Kureshi was predominantly a playwright before the unexpected success of his Channel 4 funded film My Beautiful Laundrette (Stephen Frears, 1985). He was attracted to writing a film for television because his work would attract widespread attention, while the theatre struggled to get its ideas beyond a small and limited audience.

So how were television films different from the television dramas and ‘plays’ of the past? In some cases they were essentially no different, but they were simply marketed as films. Other productions seemed to match cinematic films in terms of quality, such as Neil Jordan’s Angel (1982), Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, (1982) and Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, (1982). But the aesthetic differences between film and television also caused concern for many filmmakers and critics. Producer and Managing Director of the National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC) Mamoun Hassan called the new films a ‘worrying new category, a hybrid which might work if shown in very small cinemas.’ Some filmmakers seemed unconcerned about the differences, but Hassan felt this keenly:

One director told me that the only difference was that the TV image was smaller. If that’s the level of thinking, forget it, because we’re not going to get anywhere. As Kurosawa said, why should people go to the cinema when, if they do, they see what they see at home?[1]

Television has often been associated with the ability to transmit events live, and as such it has an immediacy that cinematic films do not. Television has also been associated with naturalism, while the cinema is often associated with escapism. There are also differences in the viewing experience: whereas cinema offers high definition and special effects, television cuts this down to low definition and allows for the interruptions of ad breaks.[2] In a cinema the focus of the audience is directed towards a screen, whilst the television viewing space has to compete with other events going on in real life.

Much of Film on Four’s early output was different enough to be distinguished from the single play, but perhaps too different to fit into any kind of genre. In Sight and Sound magazine filmmaker David Scott said that the films could have ‘dropped from the moon’ in that they didn’t ‘relate to very much’ and showed ‘no awareness of cinema tradition.’[3] But it is possible to identify some thematic continuity in Film on Four’s early output, and this might in part be ascribed to the influence of Commissioning Editor David Rose. Prior to his appointment as Head of Fiction at Channel 4, Rose was Head of Regional Drama for the BBC at Pebble Mill. His job there was to ‘diversify’ the output of the BBC’s single plays, encouraging new writers and talents, a policy which led to a successful series of plays known as Second City Firsts. Rose encouraged writers like Alan Bleasdale, Ron Hutchinson, David Rudkin, Willie Russell, James Robson, Peter Tierson, David Hare, Philip Martin and Barry Collins. He was also very interested in film. At Channel 4, Chief Executive Jeremy Isaacs favoured a ‘hands off’ monitoring approach to commissioning, but Rose remained a ‘hands on’ commissioner who gave advice right up until the editing process.[4] Many of the films commissioned by Rose at the BBC had a distinct regional aesthetic, a sense of time and place, drawing upon geographic landscapes and themes of claustrophobia, confinement and escape, and it is possible to identify these styles in many Film on Four productions.

The Channel 4 films of the 1980s often begin with establishing shots in order to foster feelings of shared communal experiences. The opening of Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988) uses a BBC radio shipping broadcast to establish a sense of shared memory, though the film ultimately questions the validity of memory and shared experiences through complex camera techniques and shifting perspectives. Dance with a Stranger (Mike Newell, 1985) opens with the caption ‘Spring, 1954, London’, while Letter to Brehznev (Chris Bernard, 1985) begins with an aerial shot over Liverpool. Rita, Sue, and Bob Too (Alan Clarke, 1986) opens by panning slowly around the grotty council estates of West Yorkshire.

Along with a distinct sense of time and a regional aesthetic, films commissioned by Channel 4 in this era also highlight the perils of living in rural areas. Another Time, Another Place is set in The Black Isle, north of Inverness, and deals with the story of Janie, who forms a relationship with an Italian prisoner of war. Janie is often shot against the backdrop of the rural Scottish countryside, and at times even appears to be a part of the countryside itself. Ill Fares the Land (Bill Bryden, 1983) is marked by a tone of desolation, and deals with the inhabitants of a tiny village in the Hebrides and their decision to move to the mainland. In Accounts (Michael Darlow, 1983) Mary Mawson and her two sons move from Northumberland to Roxburgh to become freeholders instead of Tenant farmers. The film revels in its regionalism, and, like Janie, the two teenage sons seem to be bonded to the landscape.[5] In Neil Jordan’s Angel, Danny (Stephen Rea) seeks to avenge the death of a deaf/mute girl who was innocently gunned down as a witness to a payment protection racquet. Here, the Irish countryside and the Troubles serve as a background to a story of revenge, although the perils of living in such areas are also explored. When Danny guns down one of the men responsible, there is no one around to hear his cries. Similarly, when he breaks into a cottage in the countryside and forces a widow to give him her husband’s clothes, she eventually shoots herself, motivated by a mixture of depression and loneliness.

In these films rural living highlights the idea of being trapped and confined in specific locations. In Letter to Brehznev, Teresa and Elaine are trapped in Liverpool through a lack of opportunity – Elaine through unemployment, and Teresa through a dead-end job and a general lack of prospects. Boredom is briefly overcome when Teresa treats Elaine to a night on the town. The girls meet and fall in love with two Russian sailors, Peter and Sergei. Elaine, through sheer persistence, flies to Russia to be reunited with Peter, though she is hampered by her parents, the press and the government who lie to her to keep her at home. Teresa, however, remains confined to her humdrum life in the chicken factory. In Rita, Sue and Bob, Too, Rita and Sue feel so imprisoned by their humble surroundings that they seek to relieve their boredom by having an illicit threesome with a married man. In Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting Nowak is trapped by the secret that he struggles to keep from his workmates (Poland has been placed under martial law) in order to get his construction job done. His colleagues are trapped by the fact that they can’t speak English, while Nowak also experiences his own problems of communication – he has no way of contacting his home because of the political troubles brewing there. Perhaps these films are better suited to television, as the television medium deals better with naturalism and feelings of confinement rather than the escapist elements associated with the cinema.

Much of Film on Four’s output in this era also falls into a collection of what can loosely be termed ‘art films’. These films deal with issues of individual identity, are more interested in character than plot, usually focus on the alienation of the individual from society and aim to create feelings of ambiguity and unresolved endings.[6] Films like Angel, Letter to Brehznev, The Draughstman’s Contract, Caravaggio (Derek Jarman, 1986) and Distant Voices, Still Lives contain these artistic conventions. In the 1980’s the watchword was ‘innovation’. Jeremy Isaacs funded European films in order to purchase the rights to them in the UK, whilst Film on Four also funded productions dealing with issues relating to homosexuality, racism, feminism and black culture. Channel 4 and Film on Four offered an outlet for issues that filmmakers wanted to express, although its commitment to the original remit was tested by a series of controversies over the content of some of the material shown.  My Beautiful Laundrette was perhaps the most successful fusion of these themes and the best example of the Film on Four ‘art film’. The film heralded an explosion in British black cinema. It was a fragmented mix of social issues – homosexuality, race relations, and entrepreneurialism under Thatcher. It was fully funded and shot on 16mm because it was not expected to be a success, which made its resulting popularity particularly surprising.

Jeremy Isaacs was a former head of the BFI Production Board and was known and respected among filmmakers as being sympathetic to their cause, trying to extend the time between a cinema release and a showing on television for as long as possible. After 1987, Michael Grade, who succeeded Jeremy Isaacs, differed in his approaches. Unlike Isaacs, Grade believed that the aim of Channel 4 was to refresh British television, ‘not shore up the British film industry.’[7] Also, the 1990 Broadcasting Act had stipulated that after 1993, Channel 4 would have to sell its own advertising, which meant an emphasis on what could potentially be ‘popular’ rather than ‘experimental’. The channel began to invest money in bigger productions that had more chance of being commercially successful. My Beautiful Laundrette, a film which highlighted a complex myriad of social issues and revelled in real-life ambiguity rather than resolution, might never have been made in the 1990s.

In terms of measurable success the shifting approach of Channel 4’s film output from the 1980s to the 1990s might not necessarily have been a bad thing. Towards the end of the 1990s, however, there was a more marked separation between Film Four and Channel 4, and this period also saw trends towards larger investments in more populist films. This culminated in the disastrous Charlotte Gray (Gillian Armstong, 2001) and the winding up of Film Four in 2002, with Channel 4 resuming responsibility for film production. Nevertheless, hits like Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) and Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) brought a much needed rejuvenation to the British film industry. In the 1980s the results of Film on Four in terms of viewing figures and Box Office successes were disparate. Only a percentage of the films were fully funded, and otherwise funding tended to vary from 2-80%. Viewing figures were also diverse, with films that are today considered successful (such as The Draughstman’s Contract) pulling in lower figures than productions that are now largely forgotten. Also, despite the channel’s commitment to ‘difference’, most of the films shown were fairly conventional, and could probably fit nicely with the conventions of the single play. However, there were also some brave and inspired productions: Comrades, (Bill Douglas, 1986) The Dead, (John Huston, 1987) Mona Lisa,(Neil Jordan, 1986) In Fading Light,(Murray Martin, 1989) Riff Raff, (Ken Loach, 1991) Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes (Terence Davies, 1992).[8] Channel 4 might not have heralded a ‘renaissance’ for British film, but the relationship between film and television that was forged by the channel did go some way to ensuring the sustainability of the industry.

The Film on Four ‘hybrid’ has had a lasting effect. Today, British cinema is almost wholly dependent on television. There is a widespread knowledge that all films are destined for TV, as opposed to the days when films would be shot exclusively for release in cinemas. As David Rose said in a 1987 interview:

The film industry needs television and we need the film industry. We both need films but it’s really within the common grasp. It’s a partnership.[9]

2010 has been a bittersweet year for British film. The axing of the UK film council was a significant blow for the industry. However, this has come just a few months before Film Four’s announcement that it will invest a further £5 million in British film. Who knows where the partnership might go from here?


[1] John Walker, The Once and Future Film: British Cinema in the Seventies and Eighties (London, 1985), p. 157.

[2] John Hill and Martin McLoone, ed. Big Picture, Small Screen: The Relations Between Film and Television (Luton, 1996), pp. 3-4.

[3] Sight and Sound, Vol.2 Issue 7, November 1992, ‘Writers Television’ p. 30.

[4] Dorothy Hobson, Channel 4: The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy (New York, 2008), pp. 62-4.

[5] John Pym, Film on Four: A Survey 1982/1991 (London, 1992), pp. 13-14

[6] Christopher Williams, ed. Cinema: The Beginnings and the Future (London, 1996), p. 193.

[7] Hill and McLoone, Big Picture, Small Screen, p. 178.

[8] Geoff Andrew, ‘Four Better, Four Worse’ in  Broadcast: Ten Years of Channel 4 (London,  1992), pp. 29-30.

[9] Hobson, Channel 4, p. 64.