British Film Series

The series Film On Four was announced on the opening night of Channel Four in November 1982, and helped to immediately draw attention to the distinctions between this and the three existing British television channels. Ostensibly, Film on Four occupies a curious position within British television. It was established by Jeremy Isaacs, Channel Four's first Chief Executive, following a European model, to encourage mainly new, independent filmmakers by offering funding for fictional, mainly feature length films. This was intended to lead to cinema distribution in many cases, where a film might gain a reputation before transmission on Channel Four. Film On Four is often considered to be particularly significant within film culture for providing vital financial support and for commissioning many films which have gained high regard. Indeed, Isaac's film investment policies made little economic sense in strictly television terms. He managed to secure around 8% of Channel Four's total programming funds and allocated it to fictional one-offs which would fill only 1% of air-time. However, it would be constrictive to overlook Film On Four's integral position within television culture, particularly during the 1980s.

Traditionally the BBC had been the prime producers and supporters of television drama. However, in the period leading up to the early 1980s, it became increasingly difficult for the BBC to produce the single play for reasons involving changing production values, censorship and declining resources. The first head of Film On Four, David Rose, whose background was in BBC regional drama, commissioned a series of films which collectively represent a renaissance of highly contemporary drama. The films Rose promoted followed a writerly formula of neo-realism with socially displaced characters firmly positioned in a regional landscape. The resultant work, including Neil Jordan's Angel (1982) and Colin Gregg's Remembrance (1982), has been defined as being uncompromised by television's institutional modes of representation or by cinematic demands of impersonal spectacle.

Film On Four's only early success in the cinema was Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract (1982), and although the series had been established to encourage new ideas, in the early years the media argued that most of its products brought little that was innovative to television. Media support, credibility and international acclaim started to be gained three years on, primarily by Rose's investment in Wim Wender's art-house classic Paris, Texas (1984) and his funding of the surprise success, My Beautiful Launderette (Stephen Frears, 1984). Rose was awarded a special prize at Cannes (1987) for services to cinema and was heralded in Britain as the savior of the film industry. Film On Four's successful output began to multiply with films such as A Room With A View (1985), Hope And Glory (1987), Wish You Were Here (1987) and A World Apart (1987) doing well at both the domestic and international box office. In addition to promoting new directors such as Stephen Frears and Chris Menges, Film On Four encouraged the work of established filmmakers including Peter Greenaway, Derek Jarman and Agnès Varda. After touring the festival circuit and cinema distribution the films were transmitted on television to respectable, although by no means outstanding, viewing figures--audiences averaged three million per film in 1990.


Film on Four: Shallow Grave
Photo courtesy of Channel Four

As only a minority of Film On Four products succeeded in returning any money to Channel Four, a general agreement was reached at the end of the 1980s that a large portion of the budget needed to be diverted to higher-rated, long-form drama. Rose was succeeded by David Aukin who continued to implement the recent policy of deliberate under-commissioning. With its much reduced budget Film On Four could not keep up with massive inflation in production costs. Additionally, a sense of a general decrease in the quality of new projects and emerging talent surrounded the organization. Aukin showed less interest in promoting the film industry than in television itself, and aimed to concentrate on films a television audience would want to watch, rather than cinema award winners. For Aukin, it is almost incidental that the best drama is produced on film because film remains the medium of choice for the greatest talent.

Whilst Film On Four necessarily cut its budget, the more financially secure BBC entered into a new phase of fiction making in the 1990s. With the appointment of Mark Shivas, the BBC reformed its policies on feature length dramas in imitation of Film On Four. Its ambitions were in a higher budget area of filmmaking than Channel Four's, and consequently it accepted the risk of compromising artistic integrity for the demands of overseas financiers, in total contrast to Channel Four's puritanical policies. The BBC expounded its conviction towards the more mainstream, commercial category, and achieved theatrical successes with Truly, Madly, Deeply (1992) and Enchanted April (1991).

Channel Four continues with its film successes, principally Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) and continues to offer less mainstream viewing with Film On Four and its related series Film On Four International-- which buys domestic and foreign films post production--and Short And Curlies--a fifteen minute slot presenting a short film, a type made only by Channel Four. Film On Four was original in that it promoted films with a socio-cultural importance, and allowed them to escape from the former confines of television drama as transient product. Whilst its main impact may have been to inject new life and creativity into British cinema in the 1980s, it is equally valid to claim that Film On Four, having been established so integrally to the channel's schedule, has more than anything else given Channel Four a unique identity, both in England and internationally.

-Nicola Foster


Saynor, James. "Writer's Television." Sight and Sound (London), November 1992.


See also British Programming; Channel Four