About the Centre
Research projects
Contact us


Summer 04

Twenty years of artists' film and video on UK television
David Curtis

Channel Four was surprisingly slow to risk giving airtime to work by artists, given its charter commitment to ‘encourage innovation and experiment’. Unusually in the British context, the Channel was designed as a publisher-broadcaster with no studios or production staff of its own, and was instead largely dependent upon ideas submitted by independent producers. One of the first artists’ series on-air was Alter Image (1983), a showcase for visual and performance art assembled by Jane Thorburn and Mark Lucas, commissioned by the Youth Programmes editor, Mike Bolland.

Michael Kustow, the Channel’s first Arts editor and former director of the ICA, was probably its most adventurous, if infrequent, patron of artists. His commissions included Anna Ridley’s series of original works for television Dadarama (1984) with contributions from John Latham and others, and her multi-episode version of Ian Breakwell’s diaries, The Continuous Diary, which started its transmissions in the same year. He also commissioned John Wyver’s series Ghosts in the Machine (1986) which included the first showing in any British context of videotapes by Bill Viola, Gary Hill and others, and Peter Greenaway’s innovative graphic ‘video-paintbox’ collaboration with the painter Tom Phillips A TV Dante (1987).

Alan Fountain, the Channel’s Independent Film and Video editor, was an Independent Filmmakers Association member and former Film Officer for the East Midlands, and was responsible for the Channel’s substantial workshop investment. While the majority of his commissions went to social and political filmmakers, one early commission (made through the partnership with the Arts Council) resulted in four interview-based profiles of artist filmmakers shown in 1983, each followed by the transmission of several of the artist’s works,1 Fountain’s workshop funding had included equipment given to London Video Arts, and the series Video 1.2.3 (1985) assembled by Terry Flaxton and critic Sean Cubitt, featured the work of many LVA artists.

Rod Stoneman, as Fountain’s assistant, proved more open to work by artists. From 1988-94 the Arts Council and Channel Four jointly ran an open submission scheme that funded four or five works each year, The 11th Hour Awards (named after the 11pm graveyard slot in the evening schedule into which most of Fountain and Stoneman’s commissions were shoehorned).2 Open submissions were nothing new to the Channel, but here the novelty was that the selection of projects was made by a group of artists and critics, with Stoneman as the Channel’s sole representative, in a position to be outvoted, (though the Channel of course retained the ultimate veto, which was not to transmit). Some forty works resulted from this partnership, which provided the model for the Channel’s ‘new talent’ scheme with the BFI, the BFI New Directors, which incidentally funded work by some artists, despite its emphasis on narrative and even – in its final incarnation – response to a given theme.

The diverse collection of material that resulted from these schemes was showcased in the more alluringly titled transmission slots Midnight Underground, The Dazzling Image and (less happily), The Shooting Gallery. Commissions to artists remained rare outside these schemes, but Stoneman notably directly-funded Gad Hollander’s The Diary of a Sane Man (1985), David Larcher’s EETC (1986) and Granny’s Is (1989) and Le Grice’s Sketches for a Sensual Philosophy (1988). Other partnerships with the Arts Council included a scheme for experimental animation Animate! (1990-to the present), the High Tec Awards which involved brokered access to professional digital post-production technology, and Black Tracks (1995) which commissioned music-related subjects from new Black artists and filmmakers.

In these partnerships, there were surprisingly few ‘no-go’ subject-areas for the broadcasters. Erect penises worried them, but less so than total silence, or (the ultimate taboo) no image. But to its credit, Channel Four even permitted that as it transmitted Derek Jarman’s last work Blue (1993) - 70 minutes of an empty blue screen, but with a rich soundtrack – which also remarkably involved a simultaneous broadcast in stereo by BBC Radio 3. For their part, artists tended to bring to these schemes whatever projects they were working on at the time, grateful for the exposure to a wider audience, but rarely showing real interest in the television context. An exception was the unfailing attraction to artists great and small of the idea of making false adverts to be placed among the real ones, or ‘advert’-like unexplained interruptions to the flow of TV’s evening schedule. Artists were often surprised to discover these were not new concepts, having been achieved in 1969 by David Hall and others.3

Advert-scale works were, however, the subject of the Arts Council’s first funding relationship with BBC television, One minute Television (1990-93), which commissioned eight works each year to be dropped into BBC2’s late night arts programme The Late Show. This was followed by several partnerships with the BBC based on the idea of pairing creators from different disciplines, which include Dance for the Camera (1991-2003) and Sound on Film, to which artists such as John Smith, Jayne Parker and Mike Stubbs contributed. One of the last of these was Expanding Pictures (1997 only), ostensibly pairing film artists and performance artists, which memorably provided the first broadcast outing for three artists of the YBA generation, Gillian Wearing, Sam Taylor Wood and Mark Wallinger. The fragility of the concept of a ‘limited edition’ – the convention that restricts the copying of photographs, prints and tapes to a fixed number to protect their monetary value - was nicely demonstrated when a number of the works resulting from this scheme were offered for sale in West End galleries in editions of three or five copies, in the same week as their BBC transmission. Half a million viewers saw them on the box, and no doubt many legally recorded them off-air for their own personal collections, slightly expanding the authorised edition.


Hoi Polloi (1990) by Andrew Kotting


1 Jeff Keen Films, Margaret Tait Filmmaker, Normal Vision: Malcolm Le Grice, Seeing for Ourselves: Women Working in Film (Circles), directed by Margaret Williams for Arbor International.

2 From 1992 called Experimenta; the Channel contributed three-quarters of the budget and gained rights to two transmissions. The artists retained copyright. There were no obligatory themes or required lengths; just a maximum budget.

3 Proof that interruptions could still happen in the ratings-conscious 90s included David Mach’s The Clydeside Classic for Channel Four (1990), four apparent inserts into the evening schedule, David Hall’s spots for MTV (1993), and more surprisingly, Tyne Tees TV supported Search (1993) by Wendy Kirkup and Pat Naldi.


A Short History of the Wheel (1992) by Tony Hill


back to Newsletter Contents
Previous page
Next page

Last modified 24 November, 2004 ; web@bftv.ac.uk