British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

Channel 4, British Film Culture and me

In November 1982 I was working as Assistant TV Acquisitions Officer in the National Film Archive at the British Film Institute and freelancing for Time Out and a range of magazines and newspapers about film and TV.  I hadn’t been involved in any of the lobbying for the new channel, but awaited it with some enthusiasm as a critic and viewer. But the connections between people like me and those making programmes for the new channel, or indeed commissioning such programmes, seemed closer than had ever been the case during the duopoly. I was on the Screen board with John Ellis, co-founder of Large Door; I had co-founded another TV magazine, Primetime, with John Wyver, who had been Time Out’s TV Editor and commissioned many of my pieces for the magazine and for its offshoot City Limits, and was co-founder of Illuminations. Meanwhile Paul Madden, who commissioned programmes from both companies, had himself been the NFA’s TV Acquisitions Officer before being appointed to commission C4’s Media programmes by Jeremy Isaacs. So I sometimes found myself reviewing programmes commissioned by Paul Madden and made by John Ellis (among others). If this sounds nepotistic or incestuous it wasn’t – I barely knew John Ellis and hadn’t even met Paul Madden at that time. It was simply symptomatic of the small (screen) world that was then C4  – for all the opening up to new voices for which it was rightly championed.

I even previewed a few Visions programmes for the Sunday Times and wrote about TV’s (including C4’s) cinema programming among other things for Time Out, The Listener, The New Statesman and other publications. I also wrote (often rudely) about some of the channel’s drama commissions, including opining unsympathetically on what seemed to me the channel’s commitment to cinema over and above TV. I also programmed some of C4’s films for the Locarno TV Film Festival that I covered for The Guardian for several years in the early 1980s.

Amidst the freelance writing and a full time BFI job I never for a moment imagined I would myself get a job in television. I wasn’t Oxbridge, had never been involved in any form of production and was happy enough to have lucked my way into a paying job connected to film and TV. But through co-editing a book about MTM, which came out of journalistic writing about Hill Street Blues, I was invited by John Wyver to research a documentary about MTM for C4 – which was already running several of that company’s series.  (Ironically Isaacs had wanted to avoid both cop shows and American imports on the new channel, so I was pleased to get a documentary through which celebrated aspects of both.) I got a few weeks leave of absence from the BFI and flew off to Hollywood for the first time to film interviews with MTM’s key executives and programme-makers. We completed the documentary, Cat Among Lions, it was transmitted in December 1984 (as centerpiece of an MTM night on C4) and I went back to work at the BFI. But early the following year I was contacted by another independent producer who had shared an office with Illuminations whilst we were making the MTM documentary.  His name was Michael Jackson, and his company, Beat Ltd, had a commission for a series of documentaries about British television in co-production with the BFI, and I was offered the job as Archive Researcher. I left the BFI and spent the next twentysomething years in TV. A number of my BFI colleagues – Steve Jenkins, Scott Meek, John Stewart and others, like Paul Madden before us, also made the move into film and TV about this time as had several other contributors to Time Out; without wanting to oversell it, it felt a little like a Cahiers du Cinema moment in British film and TV culture.

Jackson’s next series for C4, for which I again started out as researcher, was The Media Show, which among other things replaced Visions’ cinema coverage with something rather less academic/avant-garde but which, at its best was, I’d argue, at least as imaginative, culturally astute and intelligently critical – and far more accessible. We made pieces about body horror movies, the US military’s relationship with Top Gun, New Canadian cinema, the cinematic techniques of suspense, indigenous African cinema, the Happy Valley films about Africa made by – and for – the west and many other cinematic subjects. My three year stint at The Media Show led to an offer (from the same Michael Jackson, by then at the BBC) to set up and run a new weekly cinema magazine series for BBC2 – Moving Pictures, which ran from 1990 to 1996. It was when that finally came to an end that I began to make film programmes for C4, bringing several of my Moving Pictures colleagues with me as directors and researchers to Barraclough Carey Productions. At that point Janey Walker was the C4 commissioning editor responsible for arts programming, including cinema, and my first commissions included Actors Call the Shots (C4 30.3.98) about actors turned directors, which I produced (to launch a season of films) and an eight part magazine series Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (8 x 40’ for C4 13.10-1.12.98) presented by Charlie Higson, for which I was executive producer. The Channel had already tried another cinema series – imaginatively called the Film Programme in 1997 (replacing Johnny Vaughan’s Moviewatch which ran from 1993 to 1997), but they wanted something different and Janey Walker asked me to oversee it.  It is probably only fair to admit that Michael Jackson had arrived at C4 as Chief Executive in 1997.

At about this point, I think, Nick Freand Jones became responsible for commissioning film programming. The shift from an overall Arts to a film specific commissioner was both an encouraging sign but also a worrying one. I was taken out for an expensive lunch by Film4’s head of marketing and was made aware that marketing was very much what the commissioning (read promotional) budget was for. Money in those early days of Film4 seemed no object for a while and editorial control wasn’t a major issue either, although the commissions were very much channel-down rather than indie-up – the antithesis of the way C4 had been envisaged under Isaacs. Film4 launched on November 1st 1998 and so there was a new focus to the channel’s film programme commissioning and scheduling. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? was the film that launched the new channel and we were soon commissioned to make a documentary about the star Johnny Depp to ‘contextualise’ the season of his films both Film4 and C4 were scheduling. The result was What’s Eating Johnny Depp? (45’ C4 30.12.98) which I also executive produced. Similarly the documentary Nothing is What it Seems (C4 1.11.98) about the making of The Usual Suspects was commissioned to be scheduled together with the TV premiere of that cult thriller. Such documentaries today may look like predecessors of the DVD extras we’re now accustomed to. But they also followed the pattern of the tied-in screenings which had accompanied the weekly transmissions of Moving Pictures on BBC2 in the early 1990s (which ran under the title Moving Pictures Presents). But whereas Moving Pictures’ presentations were almost always afterthoughts – the scheduling of films as support for pieces we’d made for the series, from the library of features the BBC had under license – C4’s commissions started with films they were already scheduling and wanted to promote. (The BBC exception had been the network premiere of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet which we had been obliged to produce a piece about, to help legitimate the screening.)

The following year, a weekend season around film censorship led to the commission of two short partisan polemics for and against film censorship presented by Mark Kermode and Aminatta Forna: Don’t Look Now & Eyes WideOpen (C4 20/21.2.99). Similarly the decision to schedule a Withnail and I Night led to the commission of what turned into three different films, Withnail and Us (about the making of the film and its cult reputation), The Peculiar Memories of Bruce Robinson (2.8.99) and the Drinking Game (about the way in which the film’s infamous drinking game has taken on a ritual status among its fans). The last film programme I produced for the Channel in 1999, before leaving what was now Mentorn Barraclough Carey for October Films, was about Brad Pitt, Deconstructing Brad (C4 15.11.99) which launched a Pitt season. Nick Freand Jones commissioned two further film documentaries, to promote Ray Harryhausen and Stanley Kubrick seasons, and those two commissions helped me move from MBC to October. These two commissions became Working with Dinosaurs: The stop motion world of Ray Harryhausen (1 x 40’ documentary for C4 25.12.99) and The Man Who Would Be Kubrick (C4 4.9.99) about a conman who had pretended to be the late Stanley Kubrick.

The next pair of commissions – their pairing perhaps symptomatic of the budget cuts which were already beginning to cut at Film4 and in the film programming commissioning area generally – were a documentary about The Magnificent Seven and its spin-offs and a profile of Japanese auteur Takeshi Kitano. The economies were both in the locations (LA and Tokyo were crucial for both as the former film was a remake of The Seven Samurai and the latter director was then making his first film in Los Angeles)and inthe behind the camera talent, with me producing and Louis Heaton directing both documentaries simultaneously – though I directed some of the interviews for the former and directed some of the Tokyo on set footage for the latter.  The Kitano profile was called Scenes By The Sea (C4 2.1.01) and the Magnificent Seven tribute Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven (C4 13.5.00).

There then followed the last couple of commissions we got from C4 for film-related programming. The first was a piece for FilmFour itself about Pasolini’s hugely controversial Salo. The resulting film, Fade to Black, received multiple Film4 screenings over the winter 2001/2002. The other 2001 commission was a history of the British gangster film from Brighton Rock to Lock, Stock and beyond. The channel put up 10,000 pounds to hire Ray Winstone for a day to present it (and do the voice over) and the film, Big Shots, was transmitted to launch a season (C4 27.10.01). Jackson left C4 in 2002, with Film4 Productions scaled back and the commissioning budgets of C4 and FilmFour slashed. FilmFour Extreme and World were closed down in 2003 and in 2006, FilmFour became Film4 and the new Chief Executive, Mark Thompson, who had been the BBC 2 controller to cancel Moving Pictures (following Jackson’s departure to C4), was then the man to impose a virtual moratorium on film programming at C4 and its sister channels too.

Film programmes at C4 represented a kind of Trojan horse for the shift in commissioning from a range of independents pitching ideas (the original process) to commissioning editors who then chose the projects they like best from that slush pile of unsolicited proposals, to commissioners actively offering subjects (films/filmmakers to be celebrated/contextualised etc.) to pre-selected production companies. This is the way more and more commissioning at both the BBC and C4 is done these days – bottom-down, rather than top-up (as it had been originally). Whether cinema programming was one ‘genre’ which helped pioneer that shift I’m not certain, but it is certainly a question that can be tackled in future, perhaps within the pages of this blog.

Paul Kerr is Senior Lecturer in Television Production at Middlesex University, and has published widely on television and film, in addition to his work in television production.