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What Channel 4 had to do

By Farrukh Dhondy

The People’s Account, dir Milton Bryan, UK, 1985

In this essay Farrukh Dhondy gives us an insight into the commissioning process at Channel 4 during the UK’s Black Film Workshop Movement, where he worked in the Independent Film and Video department.

I was afforded the privilege of being appointed the Commissioning Editor for Multicultural Programming at Channel 4 from 1984, but started work there at the end of 1983 because my predecessor – who had laid the absolutely necessary foundations of such programming – had joyfully quit and asked me as her successor to fill the gap and learn on the job.

There was an untapped world out there to explore, a new dimension of life, reality, creativity and imagination seeking new forms of representation on the small screen. The UK had dramatically changed. Following the Second World War, England had welcomed immigrant labour from the Caribbean, from the Indian subcontinent and from Africa. In the sixties the feminist movement asserted itself in new ways. There were new ‘awarenesses’ growing in the changing world of the sixties and seventies; new attitudes towards gay and lesbian people, and towards disabled people, with even the terminology used in speech and writing being insistently challenged. Throughout the same decades, television had become the conversation of the nation, its conscience and reflection, if not the purveyor of its values.

Channel 4, though originally initiated by a liberal Labour government, was finally established in 1982 during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Its remit was to bring the neglected voices and even activities of a fast-globalising world into this national conversation.

On starting my job, I became aware that in a very strict sense I was being asked to discriminate and define, editorially, what this difficult word ‘multiculturalism’ embraced.  To start with this meant assessing the programmes that the BBC and ITV had broadcast before Channel 4 was entrusted to make a difference.

There were the earlier patronising attempts to teach Asian immigrants who might not have a full grasp of English or British conventions how to adjust to their new environment. Then, the determinedly liberal attempts to include Black and Asian characters in situation comedies and dramas (unfortunately, they were for the most part represented as crooks or as objects of fun and derision because of their accents or assumptions).

And then of course, deviating from this kind of condescension, there was its successor – the mission to complain. The broadcasters allowed ‘radicals’ to say tough things about discrimination in institutions and about racism in general. But however justified these programmes were, they didn’t reach their ideal targets – the conscious or unconscious racists. They also became predictable, boring and a natural turn-off.

Omega Rising Women of Rastafari, dir  D. Elmina Davis, UK, 1988

The ‘multicultural’ (I suppose I must learn to call it ‘diverse’) population of the country was branching out in all directions; some positive, some political and some artistic. And the lives of these new communities in all their diversity and richness, and with all their traditions, be it Bollywood melodrama and fantasy or Calypsonian rebellious journalism, begged to be represented.

So how to do it? Yes, commission documentary series and even feature films made by Black and Asian initiates, very many given their first TV break, to bring their intimacy with the life of these communities to the screen. Then there was the necessity to have weekly programmes with the distinguished journalists Darcus Howe and Tariq Ali exploring news and current affairs in Britain and the wider world which would interest or concern a ‘multicutural’ population and bring in a wider TV audience.  And then, the arts series and genres which Channel 4 espoused.  It was part of joining the public conversation.

I was aware before I signed up to Channel 4 that there was a department which occupied the cubicles next to mine called the Independent Film and Video department. I had seen their output. These were commissioned programmes from Black collectives such as Sankofa, Ceddo and Black Audio.

What these artists brought to the screen was, to my mind, a cultural and artistic leap further than I had encountered in my acquaintance with Black and Asian culture in Britain. Yes, there was very prominent black and Asian music. There were painters and poets. There were writers with distinct voices.

My friend the philosopher CLR James insisted that the consequence of slavery was that the contemporary black population of America and the Caribbean were inheritors of and part of the Western intellectual tradition. I think he meant Aristotle and Marx and perhaps Titian, Picasso and Dali. In terms of imagistic representation, the Independent Film and Video department attempted work in this tradition.  

In my job as multicultural commissioning editor I did what I thought needed to be done while recognising that the radical department of Independent Film and Video in the next office cabins, under the leadership of the late Alan Fountain and the irrepressible Rod Stoneman, were going beyond the remit of multiculturism into the dimensions of visual art on screen.

What Channel 4’s commissioning of Black independent artistry achieved was the recognition that there were black film makers inventively following in the European tradition. Their inventiveness embraced the unconventional narrative. Their output defied all categorisation by genre. It was and continues to be ‘art’ and conveys its meanings through new idioms of imagery and sound.

Alan’s department had, I thought, called itself ‘Independent Film and Video’. That, perhaps accurately, left the other commissioning departments of Channel 4 with the stain, or at least the label, of dependency. Their department was charged with crossing the boundaries of TV genres and the works of the Black Film Workshop Movement with its anti-hierarchical membership did just that with distinction.

Farrukh Dhondy has been active in Britain as a fiction writer, playwright, media executive and activist since the mid-1970s, especially known for his provocative young adult fiction, and his role in shaping British television viewing habits. From 1984 to 1997, Dhondy worked as Commissioning Editor, Multicultural Programming, for Channel 4, where he commissioned and brought to screen iconic shows like Desmond’s and The Bandung File. Dhondy currently works as a commissioning consultant on the Indian MXPLAYER web Channel.

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