Thirty years on

4th November 2012

Even though I was giving a paper at the Channel 4 and British film culture conference on Friday, the thirtieth anniversary of the switch-on rather snuck up on me. Then it was 4.20pm and I realised that it was indeed exactly thirty years since I sat down with Michael Jackson, a future channel chief exec, to watch this…

[Wipes away tiny tear.] As I lived the moment once more (a) I felt the most intense pang of nostalgia (of course), and (b) I recognised (again) that television never has and never will mean as much to me as it did in those first years of Channel 4.

Maggie Brown has written a good Guardian piece about why the current Channel 4 chose to let the moment pass without notice (‘the current executive team prefer to look to the future’). Nor do I want to spend time lamenting that things are not what they used to be. On the other hand, an occasional moment of clear-eyed retrospection can be fruitful, and what I want briefly to reflect on here is quite why Channel 4 was once so important to me.

As truly strange as it may now seem, I grew up with just three channels of television. My earliest memories of the small screen include the very first episode of Doctor Who on 23 November 1963. (There are many who make this claim but I’m secure in my knowledge that I was most definitely in front of the screen that fateful Saturday afternoon – and that as a result I had considerable kudos in the playground for the whole of the following week. Until, that is, the BBC mounted the live first episode again, as a consequence of the clash with coverage of the assassination of JFK.)

My whole television universe – as a viewer and then later as a journalist (I was Time Out‘s Television Editor from 1977) and as an aspiring producer – was bounded by BBC1, BBC2 and ITV. It is hard now to recapture how that felt, for it was not exactly constraining since we had never known anything different. But I think that we were aware both that this duopoly protected many great public service offerings and that television might be so much more.

Which is why there was so much excitement when the Annan Report in 1976 and the subsequent public debate suggested that a fourth television channel might be a ‘publisher’ of programmes and not simply another vertically integrated producer-broadcaster. Here was the prospect of independent producers (although no-one quite knew what such might be) making programmes for a service that would be new and different.

Along with many others, I was deeply involved in the debates from 1978 on towards whatever this fourth television channel might be. I wrote in Time Out about the lobbying and position-taking. I was in Edinburgh in August 1979 to hear Jeremy Isaacs use the MacTaggart lecture to outline a vision for the proposed fourth channel (and to lay down his marker as the man to run it).

And I was a signatory, along with hundreds of others, on ‘An open letter to the Home Secretary’, published that autumn in The Times, urging that the Independent Broadcasting Authority ‘follow through the Government’s challenge [and] demand a radically different approach to broadcasting in this country’. Which is, thanks to the strangest of alliances between Thatcherite free-market forces and visionary creatives, pretty much what we got.

Then we watched as Jeremy Isaacs was appointed as Chief Executive and as he began to assemble a commissioning team, many of whom had no previous television experience, and as the team started to finance the first programmes. Many of us involved in the debate started to form independent production companies, at least six hundred of which quickly came into being, including Illuminations (formed as a partnership between myself and producer/director Geoff Dunlop).

In the summer of 1981 Time Out was engulfed in a bitter dispute. The ‘chapel’ of the National Union of Journalists supported the staff’s concern to retain the principle that everyone on the magazine – from receptionist to editor – be paid the same salary. We spent twenty weeks locked out of the offices and most of us went off to form City Limits. Discussions about Channel 4 continued in my columns there, as they did when the following summer I went off to write a book about the production of Tony Palmer’s Wagner film.

Before 2 November 1982, Illuminations had received its first commission – from Michael Kustow, newly responsible for the arts on Channel 4 – and we had shot four dance works with Siobhan Davies and Ian Spink at Riverside Studios. We were also preparing to record a major Talking Heads concert at Wembley Arena. All of which perhaps gives a sense of my deeply personal investment – which was mirrored by countless others – in this new service. And why that moment thirty years ago, just before the very first Countdown, was quite so significant.

Channel 4 was ‘my’ channel in a way that no such service has ever been again. And it was ‘our’ channel – for almost everyone I knew felt a proprietorial relationship with it. Indeed, for years it was simply ‘the channel’, a much-loved friend and partner, often exasperating, occasionally hopeless, often surprising and always stimulating. The output, yes, was patchy and sometimes amateurish, but it was also challenging and provocative and truly innovative – and it’s important to remember those achievements and to recall the triumphs.

So to take a liberty or two with the play that dominated our summer,

Here was a channel. When comes such another?


  1. Lovely post, John. I remember reading the plans for Channel 4 around 1980 and being awestruck by just how different it was shaping up to be (for some odd reason I was particularly taken by the promise they made of screening international soap operas). We don’t get different TV now, despite the plethora of channels – we get offered different platforms. Something has been lost.

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