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The revolution was televised: why didn’t the radical TV of the 1980s last?

The Guardian logo The Guardian 6 days ago Stuart Jeffries

FILE - In this June 9, 1983 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher leaves the Castle lane, Westminster, England polling station with her husband, Dennis, after casting their votes in the general election. Most hosts would be quite happy to have Paul McCartney come to a shindig. But that wasn't the case with Denis Thatcher in 1988 when planning a gala reception at 10 Downing Street. Papers released on Saturday, July 21, 2018 show that the late husband of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put a question mark next to the former Beatle's name on a proposed guest list he was reviewing. (AP Photo/Kemp, file) © ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE - In this June 9, 1983 file photo, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher leaves the Castle lane, Westminster, England polling station with her husband, Dennis, after casting their votes in the general election. Most hosts would be quite happy to have Paul McCartney come to a shindig. But that wasn't the case with Denis Thatcher in 1988 when planning a gala reception at 10 Downing Street. Papers released on Saturday, July 21, 2018 show that the late husband of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put a question mark next to the former Beatle's name on a proposed guest list he was reviewing. (AP Photo/Kemp, file) In a sense, it was all Margaret Thatcher’s fault. “If she hadn’t hated the BBC so much,” says Stewart Mackinnon, “she would not have created Channel 4. But she did.” Mackinnon, the man behind the hit Amazon series The Man in the High Castle, thinks it’s one of the greatest ironies in British TV history: “The most ideologically rightwing of prime ministers gave a platform for radical voices that had never been heard on television – people who stood for everything she despised.”

Back in the 80s, Mackinnon was certainly one of them: a leftwing, ex-art school rebel film-maker for Newcastle-based Trade Films. This outfit was responsible for the prescient 1986 documentary Farewell to the Welfare State, a Marxist analysis of the Thatcherite project teeming with geordie accents. The documentary is one of a clutch of Channel 4 films from the 80s screening as part of the Barbican’s Television Will Be Revolutionised season. It’s a cute title, riffing on the classic song by Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, which portrayed TV as a medium so divorced from everyday life it had become a stupefying irrelevance.

Arguably, between 1982 and 1990, Channel 4 gave the lie to that thesis. It revolutionised broadcasting by funding and screening work by 44 co-operatives, giving film-makers from diverse and regional backgrounds the chance to share their stories. Many of those films – screened after 11pm – expressed views and represented lives hitherto largely airbrushed from telly.

Recently published Downing Street memos reveal that Thatcher conducted a covert war against the BBC, which she thought had become a state within a state, pumping out biased and irresponsible news. Channel 4, she hoped, would redress the balance. She even considered introducing TV sets that showed only ITV and Channel 4, forcing BBC stations to run advertising.

Margaret Thatcher, Leader of the Conservative Party, who is being interviewed by Brian Walden for London Weekend Television Weekend World programme, 18th September 1977. (Photo by Arthur Sidey/Mirrorpix/Getty Images) © Mirrorpix Margaret Thatcher, Leader of the Conservative Party, who is being interviewed by Brian Walden for London Weekend Television Weekend World programme, 18th September 1977. (Photo by Arthur Sidey/Mirrorpix/Getty Images) It could be said that, in breaking up the duopoly of ITV and the BBC, Thatcher unwittingly transformed the idiot box into a Pandora’s box. “Throughout the 70s and early 80s,” says Caroline Spry, “there was great pressure for TV to be opened up to voices – feminists, black people, people from the regions.” Channel 4 and Spry would provide a platform for the unheard. She joined Channel 4, working as a producer on the late-Monday-night slot The Eleventh Hour, excited by the channel’s visionary first chief executive Jeremy Isaacs, who sought to transform British broadcasting.

“If we are a pluralistic democracy,” Isaacs once said, “we must allow people to be exposed to others’ coherent views.” Before he set up Channel 4, Isaacs had been struck by the BBC’s decision not to broadcast a talk by Marxist historian EP Thompson , thinking it symptomatic of a broadcaster that had become cowardly and conformist. “Channel 4 was formed to create individual programmes for individual tastes,” he says. “If other people didn’t like it, that was too bad.”

Among the first films was a challenging, though elegant, skewering of how the media exploits its subjects. Acceptable Levels was made by people from the Belfast Film Workshop who were sick of the Troubles being narrated by outsiders, usually Oxbridge poshos lacking in understanding or empathy. It dramatised the arrival of an English film crew to the Divis Flats, a notorious and now demolished estate that was plagued by joyriders and oppressively patrolled by British troops. The film they make is cynically sensationalist, exploitative and sentimental.

Acceptable Levels effectively threw down the gauntlet. If TV was to be truly radical, if film-makers were to properly represent a community, they couldn’t be interloping outsiders. They needed to be part of that community. Menelik Shabazz and the Ceddo film and video workshop picked up that gauntlet. Their 1986 film, The People’s Account, focused on police behaviour towards the black community in Tottenham, London, before, during and after the 1985 riots in Broadwater Farm. Many of its makers lived on the estate. “They wanted to respond to how the mainstream media had depicted the riot,” says Spry. “They were shooting from the other side of the barricades.”

Major riots break out in Brixton, South London, after an earlier shooting incident involving the police in 1985. © PA/PA Archive/PA Images Major riots break out in Brixton, South London, after an earlier shooting incident involving the police in 1985. But The People’s Account has never been broadcast on Channel 4. Why? “We were going to show it and then the IBA [Independent Broadcasting Authority] demanded changes,” says Spry. “But Ceddo was adamant that they wouldn’t make the changes. So the film was never shown on TV.”

According to Shabazz, the sticking point was what the film argued about the police shooting of Dorothy “Cherry” Groce. Although The People’s Account dealt principally with the Broadwater Farm riots, it also looked into the causes of the Brixton riots in the same year. Groce was shot and paralysed during a police raid on her home by officers looking for her son, who was suspected of firearms offences.

The film argued that this incident triggered the Brixton riots and that the raid was evidence of police racism. “They [the IBA] objected to that,” Shabazz has said. “But we stuck with our guns because we said there was no legal reason why that cannot be said.”

Today, you can see The People’s Account, just not on telly. It will be shown as part of the British Film Institute’s Black, British, Banned! season. It bears comparison with more recent documentary The Hard Stop, about the police killing of Mark Duggan that precipitated the 2011 Tottenham riots.

Mark Duggan's aunt Carole Duggan (left) and mother Pamela Duggan lead off a march on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, London, on the third anniversary of his death. © Chris Radburn/PA Archive/PA Images Mark Duggan's aunt Carole Duggan (left) and mother Pamela Duggan lead off a march on the Broadwater Farm estate in Tottenham, London, on the third anniversary of his death. The Black Audio Film Collective fared better. Their angry and poetic 1986 work Handsworth Songs, with its deliberately fractured and impressionistic structure, attempted to give voices to those black and brown people of the Birmingham neighbourhood whose experiences before and during the 1985 riots had been otherwise ignored.

Handsworth Songs still makes bracing viewing, notably during a scene in which a Thames TV presenter preparing to conduct a discussion about the riots in a hall filled with Handsworth residents gets a nervous call from his London-based producer. The producer is concerned that there are too many black faces in the audience.

The director John Akomfrah, currently making a film for the Imperial War Museum, recalls how Channel 4 got involved. His multi-award-winning film was not commissioned by the broadcaster. Rather, two of its commissioning editors heard the film was being made, liked the rough version they saw, “and agreed there and then to provide us with the funds to complete it”.

“That was a very radical curatorial gesture, even then,” says Akomfrah. “And what was even more remarkable – and certainly would be unheard of now – is that there was no commissioning overview to adhere to; no advice on structure, commentary, or shape of the final piece; no sign-off notes.”

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with then-Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit at the 1983 Conservative Party press conference in London. © PA/PA Archive/PA Images Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher with then-Employment Secretary Norman Tebbit at the 1983 Conservative Party press conference in London. Spry laughs. “That’s how it was,” she says. But there was a problem. The Conservative government thought Channel 4 was broadcasting the wrong kind of material by the wrong kind of people. Isaacs recalled Norman Tebbit, Thatcher’s employment secretary, complaining that “we were doing programmes about Northern Ireland and gays when we should have been covering golf or yachting”.

In 1990, the Tories took their revenge on Channel 4 for effectively becoming the new enemy within. The Broadcasting Act of that year, says Spry, “was about deregulating, more union-bashing, and crushing the ethos we had created in favour of making Channel 4 chase advertising”. The TV revolution was over and the channel’s decline had begun, becoming not so much a public service broadcaster with a radical agenda, as a cynically creative commercial TV content provider capable of contemplating a so-called “wank week” – a season of masturbation-themed programmes.

By the time that happened, Spry had long gone. So where are the radical voices on TV today? “I don’t think there are any on terrestrial TV,” she says, adding that she was struck by veteran Channel 4 news anchor Jon Snow’s mea culpa at the Edinburgh television festival last year when he conceded he was part of the “out-of-touch elite” that didn’t understand public feeling. “That’s true of a great deal of television today,” Spry says.

But isn’t this television’s golden age? “No,” says Spry. “Television’s driving perspective today is not really broadcasting different perspectives or unheard voices. Instead, there’s a conventional way of making programmes and telling stories that’s ubiquitous. It doesn’t involve much time or creative thought. At the beginning of Channel 4, we made difficult films that tested the medium. That’s unthinkable now.”

• Television Will Be Revolutionised is at the Barbican, London, 13-16 September.

Related: Remembering the much-loved TV comedians of the 1960s & '70s (Mirrorpix)

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