PRINT May 2023


View of “People Make Television,” 2023, Raven Row, London. Photo: Marcus J. Leith.

ANYONE INTERESTED in the history of experimental television in the United Kingdom will inevitably encounter a familiar narrative: It begins in 1982 with the advent of Channel 4, founded with a commitment to innovation and a mandate to reach underrepresented audiences. In its first decade, the station’s Independent Film and Video Department spent fifty million pounds on work that commissioning editor Rod Stoneman described in 1992 as a “range of political and personal-documentary, experiment, access and community programmes, low-budget fiction and third-world cinema.” For this, it has become legendary. Forget all the talk of “quality television” today; it is the early years of Channel 4 that truly deserve the label.

But even here, the old rule still applies: The start of something is rarely its true beginning. This January, London’s esteemed nonprofit gallery Raven Row resumed its public-facing activities after a five-year hiatus with an exhibition that shed light on a lesser-known moment in the history of radical broadcasting in the United Kingdom—one that preceded the celebrated era of Channel 4 and prefigured something of its ethos. Curated by Lori E. Allen, William Fowler, Matthew Harle, and Alex Sainsbury, “People Make Television” revisited the country’s first forays into public access in the 1970s. The exhibition’s spare design kept the everyday experience of TV in mind, with the town house space featuring numerous living-room setups and viewing stations that allowed visitors different ways of perusing almost ninety hours of material. Nothing, thankfully, was anachronistically shown as a projection.

The core of “People Make Television” was the presentation of more than a hundred of the 243 episodes of the television show Open Door, a program produced between 1973 and 1983 by the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Community Programme Unit. In the words of BBC director of programs David Attenborough, Open Door aimed to be a place for “stylistic innovations” and would welcome “voices, attitudes and opinions that, for one reason or another, have been unheard, or seriously neglected, by mainstream programmes.” Against television’s usual function as a tool of consensus, it made space for antagonism and idiosyncrasy. At a time when only three terrestrial channels existed, it opened a crack in the programming grid through which a different repertoire of images and voices could sneak in.

Contrary to the US public-access television that inspired it, which was narrowcast on local cable stations, Open Door was broadcast nationwide on a channel with a directive to act in the interest of the country. Anyone could propose an episode so long as they were not promoting a political party. Those selected were paired with a producer and crew for technical assistance but ostensibly retained full editorial control. Prison abolitionists, sex educators, fox-hunt saboteurs, punk fanzine–makers, single parents, vegans, community-theater enthusiasts, trans advocates, supporters of Palestinian liberation, women suffering from cystitis: They all reached millions. (This last group, the U & I Club, received thousands of letters from viewers.) Not all causes showcased were progressive. While individual episodes of Open Door were free from the requirement of “balance” mandated by the BBC charter, when taken as a whole, the series was meant to be inclusive of a wide spectrum of opinions. Absent from “People Make Television” was a 1976 episode by the British Campaign to Stop Immigration, a group linked to the extreme-right National Front party. Included was one by the Campaign for the Feminine Woman warning of the dangers of “unisex culture,” something “more menacing and damaging . . . than either communism or fascism.” 

“People Make Television” felt like a pendant to Raven Row’s 2015–16 exhibition “The Inoperative Community,” which presented more than fifty hours of experimental moving-image practices connected to the so-called long 1970s (i.e., 1968–84). Both shows imposed similar durational demands and returned to the same moment, but whereas “The Inoperative Community” dealt specifically with political modernist aesthetics, “People Make Television” exited the field of art to propose a different idea of image politics. With the panel discussion as a dominant format, Open Door embraces the immediacy of direct address and is exemplary of a realist aesthetics under attack at the time by prominent film theorists and practitioners such as Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen. For instance, whereas the Cleaners’ Action Group’s episode includes lengthy studio-based conversations, the Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners (1972–75)—a film concerning the same campaign for unionization, made by a group featured in “The Inoperative Community”—deploys avant-garde techniques such as optical printing and the insertion of black leader to insist on the opacity of mediation, advancing a politics of form alongside a politics of content.

That said, it would be too simple to set up any sharp divide between Open Door and the independent-filmmaking sector. Several cinema groups contributed episodes, among them the London Women’s Film Group, who nestled excerpts of their The Amazing Equal Pay Show (1975) within a studio discussion featuring member Claire Johnston, a theorist renowned for her opposition to realism. Moreover, a critical reflection on television is threaded through the series. Several episodes playfully appropriate the conventions of news and advertising; others attack the medium outright. One produced in support of The Other Cinema, an alternative exhibition venue under threat of closure at the time, begins by declaring, “The space of cinema is being obscured by the presence of television,” decrying the latter’s function as an “instrument of cohesion.” (Responsible for this striking work—albeit uncredited—were filmmakers Stephen Dwoskin and Marc Karlin, the latter a member of the Berwick Street Film Collective.) A 1973 episode made by a group of Black teachers takes the BBC itself to task over interviews with schoolchildren that had aired a few weeks prior, underlining that although these conversations were ostensibly conducted to document the problem of racism in schools, they in fact subjected Black children to the same.

Such cannibalistic gestures point to a fundamental tension at play in Open Door: To jab back at television, groups agreed to be on television. To reach audiences, they entered an institution that had historically excluded them and that, for all the other hours of the schedule, kept on doing so. Was Open Door a co-option of dissent, thereby eroding the counterpublic sphere forged by independent filmmakers like the Berwick Street Film Collective and by places like The Other Cinema? Or was it a Trojan horse of the airwaves, offering an unprecedented vehicle to smuggle in critique? The second option feels like the best way of describing “It Ain’t Half Racist Mum” (1979), made by the Campaign Against Racism in the Media and cohosted by Stuart Hall and Maggie Steed. This piercing analysis takes inventory of TV’s racist stereotypes and indicts the BBC’s representation of minority communities, dismantling the broadcaster’s claim to balance. Its account of presenter Robin Day’s conduct was incendiary enough to elicit an apology on behalf of the BBC to the BBC—a remarkable event that encapsulates how thoroughly Open Door muddled distinctions between inside and outside. More than fifty years on, this experiment poses emphatically contemporary questions: Are institutions better changed from within or without? What are the stakes of refusing mass visibility, and what are the compromises involved in attaining it? Is it enough to communicate political content to as wide an audience as possible, or is it also necessary to intervene at the level of aesthetics, to forge oppositional languages of representation?

Open Door, 1973–83, still from a TV show on BBC2. “It Ain’t Half Racist Mum,” 1979.

“It Ain’t Half Racist Mum” had a significant life beyond its initial broadcast; buoyed by Hall’s celebrity, it became a teaching tool. The same can’t be said for most other Open Door episodes. “People Make Television” marked the first time many had been shown publicly since their initial broadcast, but this shouldn’t be surprising: Writing of television’s status as a medium of transmission rather than storage, Mary Ann Doane has observed that TV “thrives on its own forgettability.” Through the creation of a public médiathèque, the exhibition pushed back against this ephemerality and did so in a way that an online database never could. In place of the fleeting “now” typically associated with broadcasting and the atomized instantaneity of the internet, it activated a different sense of liveness, one that might be better described as an untimely, collective aliveness. Debates over gender norms and immigration, grassroots opposition to extractivism, worries over the closure of cinemas: Are we in 1973 or 2023? Encountering this archive engendered no nostalgic feelings of plunging into bygone glory days—something that tends to color discussions of Channel 4. But nor was there the smug reassurance of historical amelioration. In an essay accompanying the presentation, “The Furthest Edge of the BBC: Watching Open Door,” curators Fowler and Harle nicely describe Open Door as a “visual history from below that frustrates our teleological urges and sense of political and cultural time.” One such urge is to assume that things have gotten better; another is to assume they have gotten worse. As one immerses oneself in “People Make Television,” the inadequacy of both narratives became clear. Crowds gathered around the viewing stations and squeezed together on sofas, caught in a temporal tangle out of which discussion might emerge.

Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College, London.