40 years of Channel 4: 10 C4 gems currently streaming

40 years of Channel 4: 10 C4 gems currently streaming

Four decades ago, Channel 4 began with a mission to be ‘different’, to go beyond the mainstream programming offered by the other broadcasters (at the time only BBC and ITV), to serve under-represented communities and bring new voices to British broadcasting. The burgeoning channel achieved this with innovative magazine programmes, edgy comedy and extensive current affairs programming, which followed the flagship Channel 4 News bulletin.

But Channel 4 was not only innovative in the plans it presented to the public; the whole set-up of the channel and the way it commissioned programs created a growing new field for independents Television manufacturers i Great Britainand Channel 4 began to change the face of British cinema with Film on Four and its funding for independent film workshop collectives.

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As one of our major broadcasters, Channel 4 may now feel like more of an institution than an outlandish outlier, but it’s still pushing the envelope, especially with its recent Black to Front initiative and online launch, which is home to some of our best-loved comedies , like Chewing Gum and We Are Lady Parts, had its original start.

To celebrate Channel 4 turning 40, our curatorial team have selected some of their favorite titles from Channel 4 programming on BFI Plays and wealth of archive material available on Channel 4 online (formerly All 4). Featuring animation, artist moving pictures, period drama, sci-fi and comedy, it reflects the reach of Channel 4 from past to present and shows how it remains a major force in British film and television. Many good returns!

Majdhar (1984)

Majdhar (1984)

One of the very first features made through the pioneering Workshop Declaration, which awarded regular funding to film collectives in return for broadcasts on Channel 4 and negotiated union awards, Majdhar radically updated the representation of Pakistani women on television. Made by South Asian film collective Retake, it told the story of Fauzia (Rita Wolf), who resists pressure to return to Pakistan when her arranged marriage falls through. Instead, she slowly reckons with an unfamiliar and often hostile London, which is becoming increasingly political and independent.

With its varied location shoots – notably visiting the important Pentonville Gallery – and the ways in which it pushed traditional drama into unexpected new directions, Majdhar felt rooted in the fabric of contemporary Asian British life, illustrating the dynamism of London life in the 1980s seen from the perspective. by filmmakers who are usually marginalized in the industry.

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The Victor (1985)

Violence induced, control terminated, operational response? From the start, Derek Hayes and Phil Austin’s dark science fiction tale of experimental drugs, gory violence and Billy Bunter – yes, that Billy Bunter – feels somehow familiar and yet very different. The opening titles are reminiscent of a classic television action series, while the animation brings to mind Saturday morning cartoons. But when the first blood spills from a pool ball to the face, and the scene melts away into dreamlike surrealism, it’s clear that neither the characters nor the audience are on solid ground.

Produced by distinctive talent encouraged to explore sophisticated narrative, razor-sharp design and political message, The Victor represents much of what was so commendable about Channel 4’s commitment to animation in its first two decades.

Six of Hearts (1986)

Six of Hearts: Andy the Furniture Maker (1986)

In its first decade, Channel 4 embraced LGBTQ+ programming, with Paul Oremland’s eccentric agitprop doc One in Five (1983) airing just weeks after launch. Groundbreaking beach Out on Tuesday (later OUT) ran from 1989 to 1994, and queer cinema was given a controversial platform (see Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane).

Co-developed with Caroline Mylon, Oremland’s 1986 series Six of Hearts presented a genre-bending fantasy of community and creativity, politics and partying; life lived fiercely despite the Thatcher government, the AIDS crisis and the tabloids’ virulent homophobia. Combining drama, documentary and musical revue, the six films range from the life and times of lesbian feminist comedian Carol Prior and influential music journalist Kris Kirk to a bittersweet celebration of cruise culture. The best-remembered issue is “Andy the Furniture Maker,” which invites us into the enchanting world of this unlikely art star and fixture on London’s burgeoning queer scene, with Jarman among the mentors who take him under his wing.

The Orchid House (1991)

The Orchid House (1991)

Adapted from Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s novel, The Orchid House is a visually sumptuous period drama set on the post-World War I Caribbean island of Dominica. The series tells the story of the decline of a wealthy white family from the perspective of the children’s black nanny Lally (Madge Sinclair), and reflects the corrosive effects of colonialism through a series of complicated and passionate characters.

Horace Ové (the pioneering director of the first black British fiction feature, Pressure (1975)) filmed the series on location and drew on his West Indian background to present the shifting dynamics and politics of Allfrey’s heavily autobiographical novel. Allfrey was a founding member of the Dominica Labor Party, and the political dimensions of the story are particularly reflected in the character of Baptiste, played by Lennie James in his first major television role.

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A Dance to the Music of the Times (1997)

A Dance to the Music of the Times (1997)

Channel 4’s challenge to BBCthe dominance of the advanced literary adaptation reached its peak with this ambitious translation of Anthony Powell’s 12-volume epic charting the progress of a group of English public school graduates from the 1920s to 1971. Hugh Whitemore’s distillation down to four two-hour moves is remarkably absorbing, and follows the central figure of Nick Jenkins (James Purefoy/John Standing) as he moves through the decades and observes the foibles of those around him with love and amusement.

Inevitably episodic and sprawling, the narrative is held together by Nick, supported by a spectacular cast of British actors who create character studies that generate emotional power or light relief. The most tragic is undoubtedly Stringham, beautifully portrayed by Paul Rhys, who is emblematic of the central theme: the fragility of the upper classes in a changing Britain.

Ultraviolet (1998)

Ultraviolet (1998)

Sophisticated, dark and moody supernatural thriller Ultraviolet is a strikingly original six-part series about the struggle for existence between vampires and a shadowy government team hunting them, as the former battle against unwelcome human interference in their food supply. The story is built through the eyes of a reluctant recruit to the vampire hunters – Michael, a detective sergeant trying to sort out the good guys from the bad guys.

Written and directed by Joe Ahearne, with a cast including Jack Davenport, Idris Elba and Susannah Harker, Ultraviolet demonstrated many of Channel 4’s unique strengths in the way it sidestepped the clichés of the horror genre, while reflecting current concerns such as pedophilia, global warming, CJD and AIDS. This overlooked series attracted audiences because of its slow build over six weeks, but is now perfect for binge-watching.

Anna (2008)

The intimate possibilities of broadcast television were explored across four 3 Minute Wonder shorts created by artist Luke Fowler after he won the first Jarman Award in 2008. Anna, one of four works televised by Channel 4 over successive nights, illustrated Fowler’s sensitivity with 16 mm. camera and captured a small part of his world and life experience in a flat in a Victorian tenement in Glasgow’s West End.

The connection between Channel 4 and the Jarman Prize was and remains important, signaling both the channel’s radical history and the powerful new forms and traditions being realized through contemporary artist filmmaking today. Fowler’s tactile approach to creating moving images challenges expectations of what film and television should look like in our technology-saturated world.

Kids on the Edge (2016)

Kids on the Edge (2016)

Kids on the Edge is a seemingly simple hospital documentary series, in line with Channel 4’s well-trodden penchant for broadcasting health and social inclusion issues. However, this series tackles mental health issues affecting young people treated at the Tavistock and Portman Emotional Wellbeing Clinics, and does so with a level of tact and care not always seen on television.

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The first episode, ‘The Gender Clinic’, follows two children as they navigate gender dysphoria and make treatment choices as they enter puberty. “Last Chance School” deals with the education of children who are excluded from regular schooling, and “Troubled Girls” is a moving portrait of teenagers who harm themselves. It’s one of the more compassionate shows airing at a time when kindness can seem in short supply.

Red Flag (2022)

Red Flag (2022)

Channel 4 has been running short, online-only Comedy Blaps for over a decade. The Blaps have provided the incubator for new talent, including Michaela Coel in Chewing Gum (2015 to 2017) and a certain London Greek Cypriot rental agent called Stath. It’s worth remembering that not all Comedy Blaps get picked up for series, and on Channel 4 online there’s a wealth of pilot sitcoms and sketch shows not available elsewhere.

Since it first debuted earlier this year, we don’t yet know if Red Flag will air. The program is a delightful handful of sketches that poke fun at modern life, written and fronted by Kiell Smith-Bynoe (best known as the incredulous straight man Mike in Ghosts). It has a chaotic and somewhat surreal quality arguably not seen in a Channel 4 sketch show since Smack the Pony (1999 to 2003).

Foresight shorts (2022)

Foresight (2022)

Since its foundation, Channel 4 has always supported innovative short filmmaking. From its early independent film and video division to experimental shorts programming on The Eleventh Hour and artists’ film commission string Random Acts, the channel has encouraged filmmakers to use shorts as a test bed for transgressive narratives. Now it looks like tomorrow with Foresight, a bold new anthology series of sci-fi shorts by five new Black British directors who imagine an alternative future for the Black and Brown protagonists.

Spanning stories of off-world colonies, climate collapse, and surveillance technologies, the series uses speculative fiction to explore themes of displacement, parenthood, rehabilitation, and survival, while challenging the dominance of white perspectives in the genre. While all the narratives allude to a present of instability and uncertainty, the series as a whole confirms that the future of sci-fi filmmaking is in talented, imaginative hands.

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