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The History of Channel 4 and The Future of British Animation
(continued from page 1)

The Creation of Channel 4
History might provide some answers. Change is not new to the Channel, which has gone through a number of profound changes in its seventeen year life. It even came into being at a moment -- under the new Thatcher Conservative government and in the wake of the political dissent of the 1970s -- which shaped its identity, and which helps explain why it got involved in animation at all.

For those who don't know, Channel 4, which began broadcasting in November 1982, is one of the five national terrestrial broadcasters in the UK (although the fifth Channel only arrived very recently, a couple of years ago). Of the others, two are the non-commercial British Broadcasting Corporation channels (BBC1 and 2) financed through licence fees all TV owners in the UK have to pay. The other three channels are funded by advertising. However, Channel 4 is unique amongst these three in that it is non-profit, and was created by an Act of Parliament with various missions or remits governing the nature of its programming.

For Britain, the 1970s was a decade of change and unrest, with many challenges to the social and political status quo from both left and right, from feminism and ethnic power movements, from subcultures like Punk as well as ultra-nationalist and neo-nazi groups. First the conservative government of Edward Heath, and then a Labour government under James Callaghan, were destabilised and toppled by economic instability, galloping inflation, and labour unrest which included major confrontations in industries like coal-mining and the press.

When a fourth channel was first mooted in the early 1970s, the then Conservative government wanted to make it simply another commercial station. Then in 1974, the Conservatives lost the general election to a Labour government. It also happened to be a time of great political and cultural ferment in British film and television, with a politically active independent sector, as well as much pent-up frustration among film-makers inside the existing channels, who could not make the kinds of programmes they wanted. The Labour government, in view of this, questioned whether the fourth TV channel should indeed be like the other three, and set up a committee of inquiry. One of its members, Anthony Smith, in a newspaper article coined the memorable phrase that the new channel should, by encouraging independents, 'allow a thousand flowers to bloom.'

Independent film-making in Britain is a tradition which goes back to the 1930s and John Grierson's documentary film movement. The underlying politics of Grierson's thinking was its concept of state funding as a benign alternative to the vested interests of monopoly capital, especially that of Hollywood. Popular cultural traditions, documentary 'realism,' and experimentation were all seen as alternatives to the domination of the American film industry. Interestingly, animation had an important place in Grierson's concept of independent cinema, and he fostered such talents as Norman McLaren, Len Lye and Lotte Reiniger in Britain in the 1930s, before transferring his energies to Canada, where he founded the National Film Board on similar principles, and included an animation unit there, too.

Grierson's own career waned in the conservative political climate of the 1950s, but the 1960s and '70s in Britain saw a major revival of the idea of independence in cinema. There were diverse groupings of interests, such as the avant-garde sector crystallised around the London Film-makers' Co-op, various left-wing agit-prop groups like Berwick Street Collective and Cinema Action, and a collection of broad-based individuals who formed the Independent Film-makers' Association (IFA).

One thing which characterised the idea of independence, inherited from Grierson, was it more or less included some concept of the state or public sector as a benign alternative to funding from capitalist or big business sources. This idea of the State as a benevolent force is, I'd suggest, different from the way the state is viewed in not only former Soviet and Eastern bloc countries, but also the USA, where it tends to be regarded with suspicion. In Britain, this idea of independence in cinema was innately political, and lobbying government was therefore a natural thing to do.

While Grierson's critique was mainly aimed at the Hollywood Film Industry, the criticism in the '70s was directed at the way British television was run. In this film-makers were joined by various left-wing radicals and journalists. After 1974 under a sympathetic Labour government pressure groups formed, including the IFA, the Free Communications Group, and the Channel Four Group, which lobbied the government for the fourth channel to be different.

In 1979 the Labour government fell and the Tories came in again, this time under Margaret Thatcher. Thanks to support from one of her more liberal ministers, Home Secretary William Whitelaw, however, the fourth channel when finally incorporated did embrace many of the values the lobby groups had fought for, and was to operate on a different basis from the other channels.

The government charter determined that Channel 4 would commission its programmes from independent production companies; it must encourage experiment and innovation, include educational programming, and address the interests of minorities not represented within the schedules of other broadcasters. It also, incidentally, in its first decade was subsidised by the profit-based Independent television channel, which had to sell Channel 4's advertising and make up any shortfall from its own revenues.

This background is important to the understanding of Channel 4's interest in independent animation.

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Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to editor@awn.com.