It's time for Channel 4 to set the indies free - again

Somewhere between childhood and early middle age, Britain's Channel 4 lost sight of the importance of giving its indie producers free rein. Today's leaders could learn a lot from the legacy of the channel's founder, Jeremy Isaacs. 

Bernard Clark
3 May 2016

The Channel 4 headquarters, London. Image: Philip Toscano. Press Association. All rights reserved

It is easy for me to remember when Channel 4 went on air, because it was the very night our first son, Sam, was born. So instead of being underwhelmed by the first night schedule of Book 4, Walter and In the Pink, I was at the Royal Berks Hospital in Reading being overwhelmed by a very different kind of birth. That odd coincidence has meant I have always known exactly how old Channel 4 is. Right now, thirty-three and half; and if Sam’s experience of life is anything to go by, it’s well-adjusted, happily settled down in multicultural Britain, financially stable, ambitious, liberal with a small ‘l’ – and always having to protect its independence, especially from the perpetual nonsense of outside interference.  

From the early 1980s, my journey as an independent producer reflects Sam’s journey of growing into an adult, as my fledgling company has built from the tiniest baby into a large and complex global entity, with a turnover of nearly £10 million, and more than a hundred staff handling thousands of hours of programming. Although being an indy has a precarious harshness that superannuated corporate staff would not abide, it has been an exhilarating, hugely creative, if perilous, 30 year expedition through every high and low that a life in television can offer, with some wonderful, crazy characters, and great programmes to boot – most of which would never have happened without Channel 4.

I first heard about Channel 4 after a BBC cricket match next to Anthony Smith’s house near Minster Lovell in the late 1970s. I was a young reporter at Lime Grove and until that evening my expectation was that the impending fourth channel would be ITV2; but as the wine flowed, we were joined by some of the radical thinkers actually working at ITV, who didn’t have that view at all. Indeed, perhaps because of their time at Granada or LWT or Thames, they were fiercely opposed to ITV having anything to do with any new channel. ‘A thousand flowers will bloom’, they said, ‘if it could be a truly new, properly independent channel – a commissioner broadcaster, with the programmes made by companies that would be personally owned by the producers.’

I could hardly sleep that night, so exciting was that vision. 

Until then, there were few, if any, real opportunities for independent producers. The ‘Duopoly’ as they were known – a self interested and self perpetuating alliance of the BBC and ITV – treated third party interlopers, especially producers, with a we-know-better, patronising disdain; and worse, if an outsider had the temerity to set up a company, they would be frozen out as if carrying an infectious disease. 

So across the whole of television few people understood how companies worked, let alone had actually been in business. The great and good had a sniffy word for such grubby folk – ‘traders’, people who are ‘not us’. Therefore, it was all the more surprising to find that the greatest enthusiasm for a Channel 4 came from cerebral people whose radical left-wing credentials seem to have marked them out as anti-business, most of whom had embraced the existing highly politicized TV unions. Confused? Yes, we all were.

But none of that mattered, because the vision that Channel 4 began to expound was quite remarkably positive – that not only would a savvy producer with a good idea get a contract after perhaps just one chat with a commissioning editor, but the channel would help you set up a company, sort out the budget and provide the necessary cash-flow financing upfront, then leave you alone. It seemed too good to be true, but my very first experience put it to the test. 

Crash course in running a company 

By then I was working as an executive producer in the BBC’s Music and Arts Department. The writer and journalist Bernard Levin, a good friend, had the idea to follow the route of Hannibal from the South of France to Italy, which had been commissioned by BBC2 controller, Graeme McDonald. However, a couple of days before the final green light, Levin’s column in The Times deeply angered McDonald, and he cancelled the programme. When I called Levin he cursed: ‘Damn it, damn it; that was my summer fun. Isn’t there somewhere else?’ 

Of course, in the past there was not, but now there was Channel 4. I had one meeting with the commissioning editor for documentaries, John Ranelagh; Jeremy Isaacs talked to Levin, and we had a commission, literally, the next day. It really was that direct. But better was to follow. The lawyer at C4, Don Christopher, and the cost controller, Peter Flood, then sat down to give me a crash course on how to set up and run a company – something I knew virtually nothing about. The simple contract was about twenty pages long, but ‘the only bit that matters,’ Don said frankly, ‘is the one-page cover sheet that has all the dates, figures and names on it; the rest is just guff’. 

He was completely right. The Channel 4 budget form was even more revealing. Again, about twenty pages long, each page was an itemised list of possible costs across any conceivable kind of production – from drama, through entertainment and sport, to current affairs and documentary. So all we had to do was go through it line by line, filling in the boxes with resources we would need, then totalling them all up, to provide a final budget figure. Like shopping in a virtual supermarket, going aisle by aisle, picking ‘32-days camera crew’, or ‘20-nights hotel’ off the shelf, all added up at checkout. At one point, Peter and I couldn’t agree on how many days of hire-car we would need shooting in the Alps. He thought fifteen, I thought twenty, but we both agreed there was no way actually to know. ‘Toss you for it,’ Peter suggested, to break the impasse. ‘Done’, I agreed. I won, so we got twenty. Subsequently, we used only fifteen; a small agreed windfall that stayed with my new company.

It was also liberating from a creative view point. Questions like: ‘will we have an extra day’s filming/editing, or hire an extra researcher?’ were now entirely in the hands of the production crew, along with decisions on personnel, timetabling and accommodation. For instance, I decided that, instead of booking hotel rooms for eight times forty days en route, we’d rent a huge mansion in the Rhone Valley. Apart from saving a small fortune on hotels, the crew’s families could visit from the UK, so the whole shoot became a wonderful six-week party, all paid out of the company budget – and not a whisper of overtime on the many long days, and even longer nights. The almost-Trotskyist TV Unions wouldn’t have approved, but no one told them and, in any case, they were fast becoming irrelevant.

Certainly, the ACTT, a breathtakingly cynical trade union that had mercilessly fleeced ITV for decades, had it coming, but as the independent movement flourished, now many of the most rampant transgressors of union diktats, were exactly the people who had previously been the most fervent enforcers of union strictures. My theory is that their previous unrestrained activism had been driven by a sense of disenchanted disentitlement. Now that they had their own companies, and owned their own means of production, in both the Marxist and enterprising sense, their creative instincts were able to take charge. There are many ironies to the advent by Channel 4 of independent production, but the destruction of the radical media unions by politically radical producers, who went on to build highly profitable companies, is among the greatest.

My original plan had been to make Hannibal’s Footsteps for Channel 4, and then return to the BBC. But such was the joy of this form of production, the liberated exhilaration, and sheer fun, that I never returned to Auntie. Until then, I had been working from the small back bedroom of our house near Henley, with only a very early portable photocopier (a £500 Panasonic – by far my best ever capital purchase) and occasional typist, but now C4 wanted to discuss a second Levin series, a 180 minute current affairs programme and a season of material from Japan, so I had to take the plunge, and rent a London office.

54 Tottenham Street was a semi-derelict terraced house, a hundred yards from Channel 4’s front door on Charlotte Street, chosen partly because I felt daunted to be embarking on such a long term responsibility, and being next to C4 would somehow be reassuring -but mainly because it was cheap. Half a dozen of us had to spend a whole weekend clearing rubbish, scrubbing floors, painting walls and rewiring before it was even vaguely habitable. After which, it was our very own production office, with eight desks, a U-matic edit suite, a phone system, fax machine and Clark Productions on the door. Another plus to being so close to The Channel (as C4 had become known) was the number of commissioning editors who discovered on their way home that we had a well stocked fridge, so we often knew more gossip than Charlotte Street.

To me, that’s how Channel 4 started, pulling hundreds of Britain’s most enterprising producers, and then their companies, along in its wake. A thousand flowers did, indeed, bloom, and many are still blooming as our cottage industry became a confident indie sector and then a major global industry. And there I was, in at the beginning – what a privilege.

Jeremy’s visions 

There are many people to thank. Anthony Smith, the channel’s intellectual father, canny and patient and, what is more, a natural born optimist. While many around him had doubts, Anthony never quavered or wavered; I often think he never considered the possibility of failure, the true quality of the institutional innovator. Willie Whitelaw, the movement’s political leader, with a very large ‘P’, a man who conducted competing parties like an orchestra leader, so that everyone thought it was their own tune. And then, of course, more even than them – Jeremy Isaacs. Even in the early days of the channel no one used his full name, he was just ‘Jeremy’. His ideas – ‘visions’ they were nicknamed, and there were many of them – went beyond the schedule or the programmes, but to the core of how a wholly different, but complementary, channel might function, from the doorman to the director of finance. Nothing was ‘a given’, every aspect was subject to looking anew, finding a different way.

Over the years I’d heard pronouncements like this many times before: the difference with Jeremy was – he really actually did them. Like… commissioning editors didn’t necessarily need experience of working in TV (Jeremy appointed several such ‘rookies’, including head of news and current affairs Liz Forgan, who was rumoured, perhaps unfairly, not even to have had a TV). Like… Channel 4 should remain lean and mean. During Jeremy’s tenure, there were never more than three hundred people to run the whole channel. Like… No commissioning editors should be in post for more than four years. This was to engender freshness, and continual innovation, a splendid idea, but one which inevitably did not survive Jeremy’s own leaving. And, overwhelmingly the most important: Jeremy genuinely believed, to the depths of his soul, that C4 should be a publisher broadcaster, i.e. the channel was primarily there to publish/broadcast other companies/producers programmes.

And this went beyond not making the programmes, it included not interfering with the process of production. After a simple commissioning process, the Channel would schedule and broadcast what they were given by programme-makers, with maybe (but not always) a quick viewing to check for legal compliance. There was a recognition that it was the producer’s programme all the way along the chain to the viewer. A long-running series would be ‘owned’ by the production company; the commissioning editor didn’t decide what was in each programme; they often weren’t even consulted. 

Ultimately, that was the concept, more than anything, that gave the channel its distinctive originality and, to me even more importantly, built the hugely successful UK independent sector, with a capital ‘I’. However, Jeremy’s brave, unprecedented vision was being watered down even while he was still chief executive – and then almost fell of the proverbial cliff after he left. Sadly, the channel controllers, the finance holders, the marketing maestros, and - absolutely and unforgivably – the schedulers took over, and the producers were banished well below the salt by the bosses who controlled all the money and owned all the airtime. And, boy, did they let us know who was in charge of our next project.

Micro-management on an industrial scale 

After a very long period of meetings with an assistant commissioning editor, a commissioning editor, a head of genre, an assistant head of department, indeed, almost everyone who wasn’t actually making the decision, a small development might be agreed, which down the line might lead to a commission, albeit with a detailed and onerous contract. Next, pre-research outlines, pre-filming scripts, interview questions, sign off by the channel of all the talent, and much of the production team, after which came post-filming reports, pre-edit scripts, music and graphics approval, oversight of contracts, viewing of rough cuts (there may be many), narrative notes, the fine cut, and finally, after several further edits – delivery. Except, the finished (well, almost) programme would then be viewed upstairs and a whole new batch of scripting/editing/narrative notes would float down, with re-re-re-re-cuts right up until an hour before transmission. Think I’m kidding? Sadly, no.

This was micro-management on an industrial scale, and Channel 4 did it because it could. And is still doing it, but more self-consciously these days. Caught in a vortex of too many commissioning staff and over centralisation of decisions, us producers can see in their eyes that their hearts are elsewhere, away from the bureaucratic tyranny of upwards referral, hankering back to the past for a creative future. Oh how desperately do they need Jeremy, or a 2016 equivalent, to bark, ‘for God’s sake, set them free to make their programmes, or otherwise we should make them ourselves.’ 

Channel 4, conceived in the intellectual and creative high ground of British inventiveness, moved from extraordinary promise, to being yet another channel, but – and here’s the lifelong optimistic programme maker in me – with a fantastic inheritance and, crucially, a wonderful remit still intact. Now, when I look back on those gorgeous, heady, all-too-few years from conception to age seven or eight, I am not only grateful to have been there, but have a sense of optimism for what might yet be achieved, because the basic building blocks are still there: Channel 4 has no significant borrowing, no shareholders, no overbearing charter, surprisingly few enemies and no commercial competition within its niche. So if it positioned more towards its original purpose, of being experimental, catering to different audiences and complementary to the rest of the TV business, it will not only be more financially stable, the Channel will be left alone and not privatised.

There are signs this is happening again, with a realistion that the remit is not only a creative boon, it’s good for business too – but not so good that the suits and hedge funders will want to take the train set away. ‘Leave us alone,’ the bosses at Channel 4 seem be saying to the Government at last, ‘and we will enrich the landscape with different kinds of programmes, and behave in a different kind of way’, which, if true, underlines the genius of its founders four decades ago. I would also echo that back to the present managers. On behalf of the independent producers, the people who are really behind the Channel’s success – yes, the people who actually make the programmes: ‘Leave us alone. Don’t micro-manage us. Don’t interfere with our creative passions. Trust us. Be a commissioner/publisher broadcaster again, as the channel was designed to be. Otherwise, what really is the point of indistinctive middle aged you – why not pack you off to privatisation?’

After all, because of all that work forty something years ago, Channel 4 has an unrivalled freedom to be what it wants to be, and to do what it wants to do. That’s part of its magic, and the recipe for its success. But it’s now time that it allowed, as it did in its early years, the most important ingredient of its success – the producers – to have part of that freedom, too. 

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 on 7 June. Price £19.95

Advance copies are available to OurBeeb readers for £15.00 from [email protected]

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