Channel 4 tries to do the reverse of what most other channels do in this area: we don’t make programmes about artists; we commission artists to make programmes about us. In other words, we ask artists (in the broad sense, i.e. singers, dancers, photographers etc. too) to author the films. And we ask them not to turn their attention inwards on the arts world (a profile of a dancer; a documentary about the staging of a play; a survey of Renaissance painting), but instead to look outwards at the world at large - to take as their subject matter broad, non-arts stories and themes of the kind that might appeal to a peak-time audience on a terrestrial channel. Our most successful arts programmes see them tackle a subject, story or setting that might otherwise be commissioned as a 9pm or 10pm documentary series, but open up it up in a new way through their work.
Recent commissions have therefore taken as their subject matter the General Election and democracy in the UK (The Vote); Essex women (Grayson Perry’s Dream House); modern masculinity (Grayson Perry: All Man) and the legislation of gay marriage (Our Gay Wedding: The Musical). In each case, seeing these subjects and stories through the eyes of the artists involved has made us understand them differently. Going further back, James Rhodes gave us a different perspective on mental health by taking his piano into a psychiatric hospital (Notes from the Inside) and video artist Marcus Robinson showed us what the construction of the new World Trade Center meant to those building it through an epic, decade-long filming project (Rebuilding the World Trade Center). This kind of engaged arts programming that jumps straight into the middle of the national conversation without compromising the seriousness of the work is part of a long Channel 4 tradition - think of Penny Woolcock’s version of The Death of Klinghoffer, Jeremy Deller’s and Mike Figgis’ Battle of Orgreave, and Steve McQueen’s Hunger - and it’s one we’re keen to continue.
There are several reasons for this approach: we think art is at its most exciting and engaging when it makes us see the world afresh, and we think TV is at its best when it’s capturing action on camera rather than finding pictures to illustrate an essay. We see the channel’s role in a landscape of hundreds of TV stations as providing an alternative and maintaining a distinctive voice. And we think it’s a waste to take the country’s most creative, subversive and imaginative talents and make them simply the passive subject of films. Far more interesting to put them in the driving seat and see where they take us…
That means we’re looking for (a) stories, subjects and access that you could imagine playing in peak-time on the channel and drawing an audience, whether in an arts programme or not and (b) artists (in that broad sense) whose work is engaged with the world in a way that might make them see that subject matter as an opportunity to do something new and exciting. We’re not going to do anything historical, nor are we interested in conventional biographies and profiles or competitions. All those are being done well elsewhere. And for the same reason, we want our arts presenters - where we have them - to be practitioners not critics or commentators.
The best way to tell us about an idea is to e-mail a top line and a short description to John Hay (firstname.lastname@example.org) cc-ing Naomi Rose (email@example.com). If it doesn’t capture our interest as a paragraph, it’s unlikely to capture viewers’ interest when it appears in the listings. If it does, we’ll pursue it with you in more detail as quickly as we can.
A few post-scripts:
- All the above applies to our long-form arts documentaries. We also commission c.200 short-form films from artists and other creatives every year as part of our Random Acts strand. It operates on the same principle - films by artists not about them - but can be purer and more experimental in form. More detail on the Random Acts page of this site.
- In putting artistic talent in the driving seat, we’re not undervaluing the roles of producer, director and exec – on our kind of arts projects, those jobs are even more crucial, usually more interesting from a creative point of view and often more testing.
- Most of us have a sense of what feels - tonally - like a Channel 4 idea. But if in doubt, please remember the channel’s old motto: ‘Make trouble; do it first; inspire change’. That ought to be truer of our arts coverage than of anything else.
Head of Specialist Factual and Arts
Editor, Random Acts
Production Executive, Random Acts
Programme Coordinator, Specialist Factual