The history of channel 4: separate tables

Part of a series of irreverent sketches by David Lloyd, on his personal experience of Channel 4's early years. 

David Lloyd
22 June 2016

Channel 4 headquarters in Horseferry Road, London. Philip Toscano / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved‘Now, I have to warn you – this is not like the BBC at all; this is the Animal House programme review!’

My cautionary guide was Paul Bonner, as we descended the lift to the ground floor boardroom for the weekly lunchtime meeting of commissioning staff to review the past week’s channel output. Paul was the founding director of programmes and one of the few people at the channel’s original base in Soho’s Charlotte Street whom I had known back at the corporation. What sort of process was I about to witness? Could I ever fit in? This really mattered to a husband and father who had crossed London for nothing more secure than a three-year contract. Jeremy Issacs had decreed that no commissioning editor should stay longer for fear of becoming stale in the job, and as a patron, rely only on his cronies.

At the BBC’s programme review, heads of department sat around an enormous, gargantuan table and lobbed sophisticated verbal missiles at their peers and rivals, while defending their own programmes against all-comers in return; the only creative talents that were likely to survive this gruelling process were those whose reputations were judged un-trashable.

At Channel 4, by comparison, word was out that the previous week the commissioning editor for Science and Religion (sic – thus were Dawkins and Darwin combined) had jumped upon the table and recited from the Book of Revelations at some length, before being argued out of his unconventional stance. Sadly, on this occasion, I was not to be treated to any such display, but the differences between W1 and W12 still amounted to far more than the size of the table. Looking across that reduced woodwork, I took the opportunity to identify and assess my new colleagues: most refreshing about them was that they did not all hail from television backgrounds, nor were they all careerists, in the strictest sense; the effect on the resulting quality and range of conversation was dynamic indeed, not least because – incredible to relate by today’s standards – reference to the audience achieved, at least as a defence of the programme, was ruled out of bounds. Television culture is, and has always been, inherently solipsistic, having regard only to itself, and comparing itself for reference points likewise. But around this table were film-makers with little experience of television itself, former members of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a team of two to look after animation, who had already scored the channel’s first big coup with The Snowman, academics with a sociology pedigree put to audience research use, and only the occasional former member of the Open University’s production arm. The most professional corps was assembled under the Entertainment banner, who had already gained notice for The Comic Strip Presents…, and for discovering lasting new talents such as Jennifer Saunders, Ben Elton and Harry Enfield; Jonathan Ross was soon to follow.

The most significant broadcaster with a BBC history was Paul himself, but he was sidelined in his office, the reason for which was something of a puzzle, even though a quick peak through the porthole in the door to his sofa-lined office confirmed little sign of activity. In the absence of hard fact, it was generally believed among the commissioning team that he had mounted a coup to displace Jeremy Isaacs as chief executive and there were even dark rumours that the founding chairman, Edmund Dell, had put him up to it. Those rumours were, as it turned out, false. The most comforting thing about these shenanigans was that, for a young company, barely transmitting for three years, Channel 4 was already showing its media mettle by taking its place as the epi-centre of gossip and rumour both dark and opaque, imaginative and outlandish, normally the province of more veteran broadcasters. So yes, I COULD learn to fit in here, after all! But my attention was already wandering from programme review. The mantra that bonded this disparate assembly of talent could have been, though was not so described at the time, ‘courageous and outrageous’ – a talisman that was to survive to this very day. And if one were looking for a single intellectual attitude that defined this gathering, one could do no better than ‘iconoclastic’ – in whatever programme genre. This helped to define a particular ‘spirit’ that I have experienced only within commissioning, rather than production, cultures. (While the BBC came, after some while, to catch up with it, and is now predicating its entire future upon it, across both genres and media, Channel 4 remains, quite simply, the better, more professional and more experienced commissioning operation, understanding the methods and obligations of a publisher/broadcaster, because that is its founding mission).

But there was one other refugee from the corporation, whose presence was already proving to be even more significant: Channel 4 head of drama David Rose, the originator of major BBC hits including Z-Cars, was charged with the extraordinarily bold ambition to bolster and ‘re-boot’ the British film industry, under the banner of Film 4 – long, long before BBC Films had even thought of pinching the idea. And the portfolios of other colleagues reflected similarly unconventional strategies: there was, for instance, a commissioning team for Independent Film and Video, which, in effect, catered for ‘all those polemicist film-makers who couldn’t be house-trained to believe in fairness and regulation’ and, more important, who proselytized for lesbian and gay rights. Recognising now how LGBT issues have become mainstream – indeed part of orthodox reportage – and same-sex marriage legalised under a Conservative administration, one can only marvel at the sheer boldness of this initiative a full thirty years ago.

No less prescient was the founding of a multi-cultural department, long before ‘multi-culture’ was in the everyday lexicon. Indeed, not solely identified with hunting down racial inequality or justice, the multicultural department was responsible for one of the channel’s biggest, and funniest, audience successes – the sitcom Desmond’s, about a British-Caribbean barber shop starring Norman Beaton. Thus had Jeremy Isaacs translated parliament’s statute to ‘cater for minorities’ and – in public service terms – this original commissioning structure has always placed it several leagues in the vanguard of contemporary culture, diversity and tolerance – so much in its DNA that it has survived, even prospered under, the many boards and chief executives that have followed. One final – some might say delicious – irony from my first programme review meeting: while Channel 4 can be described, and has proved itself, as one of the great triumphs of Mrs Thatcher’s founding administration, I numbered around the table no fewer than two self-confessed, and very proud, Marxists.

This is an edited extract of a chapter from WHAT PRICE CHANNEL4? Edited by John Mair, Fiona Chesterton, David Lloyd, Ian Reeves and Richard Tait. Published by Abramis. Price £19.95. Copies are available to OurBeeb readers for £15.00 from [email protected]

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