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British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor

Clare Kitson

(Indiana University Press; US: Feb 2009)

Channel 4 today rests on its laurels of its history of providing “alternative” programming. True, its news and current affairs reporting and some of its drama like Shameless remains strong. But the continued banality of Hollyoaks, The Paul O’Grady Show and Big Brother, as well as vacuous music programming like the mobile phone advertising (Joy Division referencing) “Transmission” (how’s that for grim postmodern irony kids?!), it is hard to see the more noble roots of the United Kingdom’s fourth TV channel in its current incarnation.


These days, C4 seems a bit afraid of being a bit weird; it wasn’t always this way. Established in 1981 in the early days of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government with a mandate to provide alternative programming, the nascent television channel did just that—despite being caricatured by some tabloid media as, by turns, self consciously arty or self consciously blue.


Under the stewardship of Jeremy Isaacs, a character full of hubris and a desire to make his mark on the televisual world, they sought to attract open-minded, eclectic employees. These late 20s to 30-somethings would put together a schedule radically different from their competitors’ -– be it the BBC’s fusty old fashionedness or ITV’s more populist attitude.
 
Clare Kitson, a former head of animation at the channel from 1989 to 1999, was there. Her glossily printed book is a combination of a cultural history of British animation and the coterminous development of Channel 4, and individual analyses of key works which premiered on the channel from 1982 to 2006. In the early days, the task of commissioning animation fell to Paul Madden, an “inspired generalist”.


Madden’s role was that of the naive enthusiast, willing to try and fail in his commissions rather than fall back on safe options. Attempting to balance the “cultured” and the popular was the goal, to create innovative programming which would also reach a decent sized audience, whilst balancing the books with entertaining but more formulaic shows like Countdown and bankable American imports.
 
The cultural history section of Kitson’s book is written with the insider authority you would expect from a former head of animation at the channel. However, this can become a little rambling and tedious, her style a bit too discursive and not edited enough, particularly when writing on the ins and outs of channel funding. To be fair, the author forewarns in the introduction that her style is very personally detailed.


The book’s strengths are in the more focused history of the channel and its animations as well as its chronological analysis of “some key works”. The breadth and eclecticism of these pieces (centrepieces, maybe) is amazing. Jimmy T. Murakami’s When The Wind Blows (1985) was a cutting edge combination of shots previously only used in live action cinema (Murakami worked in Hollywood previously) with handmade micro-sets and warmly animated characters, in Raymond Briggs’ story of an ageing bourgeois couple coping with nuclear fallout.


It was also made with a considerably higher budget (£1.3 million) and profile (soundtrack by David Bowie, no less) than later works. Czech eccentric Jan Svankmayer’s Alice (1987) used live action and stop motion to create a non-literal, almost Dadaist version of Lewis Carroll’s classic story.


Other works like Sarah Kennedy’s Crapston Villas (1995) and Candy Guard’s Pond Life (1996) were absurd but grounded accounts of the nature of mid-‘90s proletarian and lower middle class British life, Joe Orton’s late 1960s drama transmuted into animated expression.


In contrast, Sylvie Bringas and Orly Vadin’s Silence (1998), a sombre short based on a poem by a World War II survivor named Tanya Ross. Ross has resolutely repressed her memory of her experiences, and suffers flashbacks in her daily life which remind her of the horror in her subconscious. This work was a serious catalyst for Sweden to rethink its own attitude towards WWII, and the morality of its neutral stance. Accompanied by these case studies are good quality screenshots, often annotated, which give the reader an idea of the look and feel of some of these lamentably hard to find pieces.


Conflicts over scheduling are a big deal in the story of Channel 4 and British animation—because of the short length (15 minutes) of commissioned episodes, they often had to be slotted into odd positions. For example, Pond Life was put right after Ricki Lake in the early evening, forcing it to be edited more heavily and distanced from an older, more receptive audience.


The commercial pressures on a channel trying to be progressive were indeed great, especially since after 1990 when the network was responsible for selling its own advertising, ITV having previously taken care of that. Yet for Kitson, this reached a greater low after Michael Jackson’s appointment as head of the Channel in 1998, highlighting the importance of a curatorial attitude to animation based on a real enthusiasm for the medium from the top down.


On this note, Kitson quotes film-makers the Quay Brothers’ response to her question of whether they think of the audience’s reaction to their work. They responded that no, they didn’t, because it’s impossible to predict what an audience will respond to, and that if you consistently give the people what they want, they’ll be bored. Jackson, Kitson seems to think, was more concerned with the latter, in the understandable context of a more competitive TV environment.


For fans of animation, certainly students, and for an account of the conflict between commercial and artistic concerns, this book is definitely worth a look—despite the sometimes rambley style, it captures the conflict between keeping audience and advertisers happy and bringing into view new creative expressions.

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