The history of channel 4: spirit and purpose

Channel 4 was born with a remit to innovate and experiment, values that are now under threat. No drastic changes should be made without a wide-ranging public debate. 

Jeremy Isaacs
22 June 2016

Channel 4 headquarters in Horseferry Road, London. Philip Toscano / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.What was Channel 4 going to be like? I was asked before we went to air. Cartoonists had a ball. Mark Boxer’s Stringalongs in Hampstead were worried it was going to be ‘too much our kind of channel’. Mel Calman’s little man hoped ‘it won’t be too good for me’. The best target I could manage was ‘a channel all would watch some of the time, and no-one for all of the time’. Viewers would pick and choose.

Kelvin MacKenzie’s Sun persisted in tagging C4 as ‘The channel that nobody watches’. I wrote to warn him that he was doing what an editor should never do – telling his readers what they knew from their own experience to be untrue. Many Sun readers, lured by Countdown or Brookside or a raft of Golden Oldies or NFL’s American Football, were watching us appreciatively. He took the point and asked me to lunch.

In an early edition of Voices, Al Alvarez chaired a discussion on ‘The Arts under Dictatorships’, with Mary McCarthy, George Steiner and Joseph Brodksy. Claus Moser, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and Chairman of the Royal Opera House, wrote to thank me: ‘Jeremy, that was exactly what television is for!’ Well, up to a point, dear Claus. Everyone has their own idea of what television is for.

C4 owed its existence to what, for some, seemed a miraculous conception: a closely argued, lengthy dialogue between senior officers in the Independent Broadcasting Authority, Colin Shaw and Brian Young, and their equivalents in the Home Office. The crucial notion of the broadcaster as publisher, rather than programme producer, came from Anthony Smith. But the channel’s structural relationship to ITV was forged by the IBA/Home Office partnership, and was to find expression in Willie Whitelaw’s Cambridge speech in 1979.

Q: ‘Mr Whitelaw, what proportion of the channel’s programming do you expect to come from independent producers?’

A: ‘The largest practicable.’

In the legislation that followed, Channel 4 was to pursue ‘innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes’ and to provide ‘a distinctive service’.

In November 1982, it came into being. Foreign broadcasters, amazed, flocked into Heathrow to find out how it had happened; could we, they wondered, have one too? What amazed them was that it was the government’s doing, and a Tory government at that. And Mrs Thatcher approved. ‘Stand up for free enterprise, won’t you, Mr Isaacs!’ she urged. I told her some of our programmes would. ‘Not nearly enough!’ she complained later. But she knew by then that hundreds of entrepreneurial programme makers had found a living by it, and was grateful.

It would be odd, ironic and regrettable, if another Conservative government put an end to that. Channel 4 has always been about programmes – their endless, pluralistic diversity. David Rose, cheered on by David Puttnam – ‘The important thing is to get the film running through the camera’ – gave us Film on Four, beginning with Stephen Frears’ Walter, proceeding to My Beautiful Laundrette and beyond. Naomi Sargant, responsible for the 15 per cent of our airtime that had to be educative, launched series after series of what she called ‘life-skills’ programmes: sewing, gardening, baking, building etc. You can see her mark everywhere today. Quilts in Women’s Lives, denounced unseen by some who should have known better, remains a landmark. Mike Bolland, hopping from youth programmes to new comedy, brought entertainment that I, for one, never expected to see on the screen. Saturday Night was ‘Live’ indeed. Liz Forgan expertly helped grow ITN’s Channel 4 News, and the current affairs shows that attended it. People told me that an hour-long news would never work. I knew they were wrong; a near-prototype existed on PBS in the United States. After a dreadful start, it was kicked into running order by Stewart Purvis and has never looked back; it’s a far better thing today than it ever was then, offering a different take on what’s happening to those offered by Sky or the BBC.

But the main thing is that this range of output happens outside the building, and has many different makers, of all shapes and sizes. The channel has grown and prospered under every – well nearly every – succeeding chief executive. It is in excellent hands today. Michael Grade, who now believes that the time for privatisation has come, distinguished himself in office, combining skilfully with his Chairman, Sir Michael Bishop, to fend off a previous move to sell the channel off. For that, we are in his debt. And now? ‘Perhaps’, someone said to me, ‘Grade wants to buy it?’

For me the most painful blemish in the channel’s offering over the years was the hugely popular and lucrative Big Brother from Endemol. (Stand up, Peter Bazalgette and take your bow.) Tim Gardam did well to commission it. The first few years brought an involving novelty to our living rooms. Two, three years, fine; five years, well, ok. Seven years? That was enough, surely.

Big Brother went on and on for thirteen years and spread, like a rapacious weed, over the schedule in peak-time, seven nights a week, for thirteen weeks a year, keeping, as became apparent, lots of other possibilities off the screen. The channel became known as The Big Brother Channel. The tail was wagging the dog. When the belated great axe swung, C4 came to life again.

Of course it is a good thing for our society if we take a long hard look at Channel 4 today, and ponder whether, in a fast changing world, the channel should alter also. But it is doubtful that the spirit and purpose that still distinguishes it could survive ownership by a body that aims at dividends for share-holders, properly entitled to expect maximum profit. It is not clear how that spirit, if the transformation were effected, could possibly be protected. Many will say outright that it could not.

What is certain is that no drastic step in that direction should be taken without a wide-ranging public debate, collecting the voices and opinions of those who watch it, and, also importantly, of those who make a living by it. Well, here we are. With this series of essays, let’s begin.

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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