Modernism for the Masses: The Lost Glories of Film on Four
While clearing boxes from my childhood bedroom this summer, I stumbled upon a decades-old pamphlet that plunged me into an unexpected reverie. It was an annotated filmography – A5 format, its pages mostly still images and synopsis – devoted to the director of the New Wave François Truffaut. Produced in April 1986 by Channel 4 to accompany its mini-retrospective of the filmmaker, who died 18 months earlier, the brochure cost the price of a stamped, self-addressed envelope.
I had sent him for it smacked and tottering after watching the still unmatched The 400 blows (1959), autobiographical portrait of Truffaut of a Parisian adolescent finding refuge in the cinema of his troubled family. I had never been to the cinema myself or even seen a movie with subtitles. No one I knew had been to Paris. And yet, there in my parents’ living room in Gloucester, on a free TV channel, one mundane homework night, Channel 4 was showing me things I didn’t know I wanted to see. He offered me a passport out of the province – a roadmap from my old to a new me.
The current Conservative government is eager to privatize Channel 4. Is it any wonder? In 2019, its head of current affairs and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, called Boris Johnson a “known liar.” That same year, Channel 4 News replaced Johnson with a slab of melting ice after refusing to participate in a climate change debate. For decades, Tories have characterized the channel as being overrun by left-wing, sexually permissive and politically correct Londoners.
Its advocates have highlighted its success in drama, investigative reporting and youth programming. However, little has been said, except in an advertising campaign, of one of his most enduring achievements: his contribution to cinema. When the chain started in 1982, cinema in the UK was near an all-time low. Countless cinemas went bankrupt. Perhaps the best decision ever made by Channel 4 founding CEO Jeremy Isaacs was to hire David Rose, a well-respected BBC producer who had directed the works of screenwriters Alan Plater and David Rudkin to the ‘screen.
Rose oversaw a new film component, whose mission was to encourage new and beginning filmmakers, promote innovations in form and content, and give titles the chance to be shown in theaters as well as on television. His record, with modest budgets, is astonishing: over the next eight years, he gave the green light to 130 films, including that of Richard Eyre. The plowman’s lunch (1983), by Neil Jordan Mona Lisa (1986), Alan Clarke Rita, Sue and Bob too (1987), by Mike Leigh High hopes (1988) and Stephen Frears Strain out your ears (1987).
At one point, Channel 4 funded the projects of Wim Wenders, Andrei Tarkovsky and Agnès Varda
In the tradition of the BBC’s Play For Today (which ended in 1984), C4 films have offered a mirror to the nation. Rose offered opportunities to dissidents and heretics: Margaret Tait, Sally Potter, Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway, Laura Mulvey, Marc Karlin, Derek Jarman. by Jarman Blue, an extraordinary meditation on blindness and death from AIDS, was shown one evening in September 1993. It all consisted of a voice speaking on a single blue screen.
This work corresponded to the ethos of opposition that prevailed at Channel 4. The network was made up of men and women sympathetic to feminism and gay rights, multiculturalism and class politics. It was public radio for a post-punk generation, its sensibility in tune with Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council, the Womad International Music Festival and alternative weeklies. Perhaps his most famous title, My beautiful laundromat (1985), a film scripted by Hanif Kureishi about the love affair between a young British Pakistani and a skinhead, was decried by Oxford history professor Norman Stone for his “general feeling of loathing and rottenness. “.
The channel gave screen time to avant-garde artists who by the 1970s had worked in fine art circles or marginal cooperatives; young practitioners of video and digital art; filmmakers from the working class and neglected parts of the UK. His commitment to animation has earned him over 150 festival awards, while Nick Park’s Oscar-winning film Creature comforts started off as a five minute short film in a series titled Lip sync.
The audience size may have been small by television standards, but it was huge compared to what was possible on the repertoire circuit. It was modernism for the masses, the democratization of experimentalism. Among the people who possibly watch and record these programs are those who went to fine arts school in the late 1980s and early 1990s – Sam Taylor-Johnson, Jeremy Deller and Steve McQueen – and who would later direct films backed by Channel 4. The weird and wild schedules of the 1980s were crucial sources.
Channel 4 also offered platforms for young black British voices, notably the Black Audio Film Collective, whose formally difficult characteristics have sparked ongoing debates about what is and is not considered a ‘minority’ story. . Most surprising from today’s perspective was his relative indifference to American film culture. She financed the projects of Wim Wenders, Andrei Tarkovsky, Agnès Varda; seasons featured on Arab, Vietnamese and African cinema; enabled Nasreen Munni Kabir to produce a 46-episode series titled Mahal movie which introduced many South Asian immigrants to the riches of Indian cinema. Considering the growing globalization of cinema since the 1980s, it is a real shame that British networks are now also transatlantic.
Growing up, I found a lot of these films confusing. They dealt with themes and stories that I knew little about; their stories were fragmented or dense or just elusive; and their rhythms much slower or (less often) much quieter than anything on the BBC or ITV. Most of the time, however, I was intrigued by their very existence. How come no one I know has never heard of it? Did someone protect them from us? Tentatively, I started to think of culture as a landscape in which borders and barriers are built – as a public space that often feels privatized, as an invisibly segregated contact zone.
Film on Four closed in 1998. There were iterations of the last days, the successes of which included The Last King of Scotland (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). But Channel 4, like so many other British shows, has changed. The older I get, the more I miss the old Film on Four. It wasn’t the result of data optimization or an attempt to cater to an advertiser-friendly demographic. He was driven by a vision rather than a desire to spruce up a brand. Unlike the content of the streaming behemoths, his films felt deeply rooted in places and communities. They took me to Newcastle, Nicaragua, Johannesburg. I saw again The 400 blows Last week. I was still shaking.