British Universities Film & Video Council

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Histories of Channel 4

A Licence to be Different: The Story of Channel 4 by Maggie Brown (BFI Publishing, October 2007), 368 pages, ISBN: 9781844572052 (paperback), £16.99; ISBN: 978-1844572045 (hardback), £50.00

Channel 4: The Early Years and the Jeremy Isaacs Legacy by Dorothy Hobson (I.B. Tauris, October 2007), 228 pages, ISBN: 978-1845116132 (paperback), £15.99

About the Author: Justin Smith is principal lecturer and subject leader for Film Studies, University of Portsmouth. His publications include monograph, Withnail and Us: Cult Films and Film Cults in British Cinema, 1968-86 (I. B. Tauris, 2010) and (with Sue Harper) British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure (Edinburgh University Press, 2011). He is the Principal Investigator on the Channel 4 and British Film Culture project.

The Channel 4 story has been told before. In 1982, producer Stephen Lambert (then a research student at Oxford), wrote a scholarly account which heralded the arrival of the newest kid on the broadcasting block: Channel Four: Television with a Difference? That survey of its origins, published by the BFI, was complemented by what was subtitled ‘An alternative report’: What’s this Channel Four? (Comedia, 1982), edited by media historians Simon Blanchard and David Morley. If one documented quite precisely the terms of the difficult gestation, the other provided the clarion call to seize the opportunity this broadcasting revolution presented. Yet both titles raised questions – questions which, though apposite, couldn’t possibly be answered at the time. Now, twenty-six years later, they can.

Journalist Maggie Brown and academic Dorothy Hobson share the prevalent view that the innovation Channel 4 pioneered, and the influence it had upon what Hobson terms the ‘ecology of broadcasting’, has also led, in our present deregulated, multi-channel climate, to the very loss of that which made it distinctive. Brown highlights the 2007 Celebrity Big Brother débâcle as evidence of this demise – one which, paradoxically, was the product of the Channel’s own irreconcilable divisions. From where did that identity crisis stem?

For Hobson, Channel 4’s sense of identity was synonymous with the character and vision of its first Chief Executive. Jeremy Isaacs’ single-minded determination, his astute appointment of the first commissioning editors and senior managers (many from non-television backgrounds), and his shrewd handling of critics from ITV, the IBA and the media at large, nurtured and sustained the Channel’s distinctive personality. Notwithstanding the breadth of her interviews with key personnel and her ethnographic study of audience groups, Hobson’s narrative itself wanes as Isaacs’ star leaves the firmament. This is a pity, because the early years don’t really end with Isaacs, but rather with the 1990 Broadcasting Act, which ushered in the satellite era and permitted Channel 4 to sell its own advertising space from 1993. It is often difficult in a medium famously defined as ‘flow’ to define the ‘commercial breaks’, but there should certainly be one here. The one after that, also missing from Hobson’s account, was the departure of Michael Grade in 1997, and the abolition of Channel 4’s original funding formula the following year. To that extent her story, while intimate and engaged, doesn’t go far enough.

Maggie Brown is shrewder about the Isaacs legacy, well aware that his achievement was to hold together aspects of the Channel’s identity, which were divided all along. She articulates that split in personality terms between Isaacs and the first Chairman Edmund Dell, who was always concerned that the Channel’s alternative should not mean merely oppositional. Brown casts Lord Attenborough, the first Deputy Chairman, as wise counsellor and peacemaker here and Justin Dukes, Managing Director, as level-headed pragmatist. Brown’s narrative is journalistic, revelling in ego-driven tussles over policy and the Machiavellian shenanigans of succession. But it is the more thorough and readable for that. And she was clearly blessed with a better proof-reader than Hobson. Her account, while purporting to deploy a range of methodologies, eschews the social scientist’s ‘usual attempts at objective research’, yet feels the need on occasion to make amends by recourse to bolt-on theory. While this approach, where it works best, enables her to achieve a certain intimacy with her subject, too often it feels like twenty-year old material being given a lifestyle makeover.

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