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An Open Letter to the Home Secretary

Clipping from The Times, advertisement by The Channel Four Group

On the desk in front of me as I as write is a half-page advertisement from The Times of 10 October 1979. This treasured clipping, now creased and yellowing, is headed ‘The Fourth Television Channel: An Open Letter to the Home Secretary’. Below a block of italicised text there is a signature list of more than three hundred and fifty individuals and organisations. Along the bottom runs the line: ‘Published by The Channel Four Group, 17 Great Pulteney Street, London W1D 3DL’, together with a telephone number.

This relic from more than thirty years ago is an important reminder that there was nothing pre-ordained about the form and framework of Channel 4. When the new service came to the air just over three years later, every aspect of it – including its radical relationships with British film culture – had been argued about, lobbied for and fought over by (in many but not all ways) a remarkably diverse range of voices.

This letter was organised a coalition of those voices which had come together under a title – The Channel Four Group – that anticipated the official name of the new service at a time when everyone was still referring to it as the Fourth Television Channel or TV4. The work of securing approval from all of the names was coordinated by the group’s administrator, Michael Jackson, who would of course later be the channel’s third Chief Executive.

Many of the voices from the debate are present in the signatories to the Open Letter, which was addressed to Home Secretary of the new Conservative administration, William Whitelaw. The text welcomes his recent statement that

… this new channel must find new ways of serving minority and specialised audiences and that it must give due place to innovation.

The letter continues a list of the principles that are necessary ‘to protect the independence of the new channel’, including a management board answerable to the Independent Broadcasting Authority, a Programme Controller quite separate from the BBC and ITV (this is long before the appointment of Jeremy Isaacs) and ‘a majority of the channel’s programmes to come from sources wholly independent of the BBC and ITV’. The final flourish is as follows:

The Fourth Television Channel must accord with the Government’s stated view that it should “extend and enhance” the range and quality of British television.

Which is pretty much what was to come into being three years later.

The signatories to the letter include many of the notable names of the film and television industries of the 1970s: mainstream directors Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, producers Tony Garnett, Barry Hanson and David Puttnam, cinematographers Ernest Vincze, Nic Knowland and Chris Menges. Veteran Edgar Anstey is present; so too is David Attenborough. M.P.s Philip Whitehead and Tony Benn are there also, and John Pilger.

There are also significant organisations of the time, including The Association of Independent Producers (a distant forerunner of today’s PACT), The Greater London Arts Association (long gone) and London Filmmakers Co-op, now subsumed in LUX. Notably absent is the Association of Cinematograph and Television Technicians (ACTT), the main union at the time which had an – at best – ambivalent attitude to the new service and to the likely casualisation of a rigidly controlled closed-shop.

As a product of the late 1970s, the list of individuals is overwhelmingly male, and there are vanishingly few Black and Asian figures. There is, for example, no sign of the Black filmmakers and collectives, like the Black Audio Film Collective and Sankofa, who were – with the crucial support of Channel 4 — to make such a mark in the following decade.

Just two years out of college, I was Time Out’s Television Editor at the time – and, yes, my name is there in the penultimate spot. Like many others in 1982 I was able to call myself an independent producer, to start my company Illuminations (with my colleague Geoff Dunlop), and to begin working for television in new ways with new forms driven by new ideas. Over the coming months I’ll be pleased to offer some further thoughts to this blog, and to what I think is an immensely welcome research initiative.

What I want to stress here is how the channel as it began was the product of not only many opinions but also several distinct and in some ways contradictory imperatives. There was the entrepreneurial impetus represented by organisations among the Open Letter signatories such as The Robert Stigwood Group Ltd and Cygnet Guild Communications. Companies like these wanted Margaret Thatcher’s new government to offer new commercial opportunities in broadcasting and to bring about the fragmentation and partial privatisation of the BBC and ITV duopoly.

At the same time there was a strong strand of radical and experimental filmmaking that had been nurtured through the 1970 by minimal support from the BFI and the Arts Council. Cinema Action and Film Work Group, both among the signatories, were exemplars of this, as were film artists like Peter Gidal and Malcolm Legrice. When we consider Channel 4’s encounters with British film culture, it’s vital not to forget the impact of this tradition on the thinking of the new channel and also the work that was created in the early years in strands like The Eleventh Hour.

Thirty years on, it can also be easy to forget just how new and different was the whole notion of a fourth television channel. For those who have grown up in a multi-channel, multi-delivery system world, it’s impossible to imagine how extraordinary and thrilling it was to sit down in front of a television on the afternoon of 2 November 1982. Here was a whole evening of a quite new service – and a service with which we identified, which was in a real sense ‘ours’. This, after all, was a service committed in its founding statute to ‘encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes’. That’s a feeling to be returned to in a future post.

John Wyver is a writer and producer with Illuminations, where he contributes regularly to the company’s the daily blog.

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One Response to “An Open Letter to the Home Secretary”

  1. John this is a great piece, thanks a lot! I agree about the ‘contradictory imperatives’. Teasing out those diverse strands – and the editorial conditions that fostered them – is one of the key objectives of our project.

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The University of Portsmouth's Channel 4 project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run in partnership with the British Universities Film and Video Council.
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I think the real difference [between films for television and cinema] is the kind of subject liable to be financed by Channel 4, which leads to some of the new British films being a bit lacking in the ambition one associates with a cinema film. There is a certain restriction of imagination or idea, rather than the feeling that if you make a film financed by television you have to restrict it in terms of technique and style. — Lindsay Anderson, 1989 (quoted in Block, Houseley et al. 2001)