5. Educational Broadcaster

In June 1992, I went to Channel 4 as deputy commissioning editor for schools television programmes, working for and with my friend Paul Ashton, who had been appointed the channel’s first schools commissioning editor the previous September. I knew almost nothing about how television is made. I needed a job because my previous post, at the Language in the National Curriculum project, had been for a fixed three-year term. I had never (and have never) made a television programme myself. Fortunately for me, the channel needed someone who knew something about the school curriculum, and who could give educational advice on what programmes it should commission production companies to make. It decided that my want of knowledge about television could be rectified on the job.

There then followed nine years of intense pleasure. Schools broadcasting had been transferred from ITV to Channel 4 under the Communications Act 1990, and Paul and I set up the new service. Michael Grade, the channel’s chief executive, and John Willis, its director of programmes, were the best possible top bosses we could have had. Paul’s and my job combined considerable power with a breathtaking autonomy in the exercise of that power. Essentially, we were given about £10 million a year to spend on schools television, and left to get on and spend it. Almost never did anyone question our judgement. The job carried a modest glamour, a generous salary, and a sense of virtue that we were helping to educate the nation’s children while providing schoolteachers with resources which would make their lives easier and more satisfying.

Meanwhile, my friends and colleagues back in schools, local education authorities and university departments of education were being forced, by government legislation and edict, to submit to ever more stringent and mechanical forms of accountability, whose effect was to reduce the professional self-respect which should go with the honourable, often profoundly satisfying but rarely glamorous calling of teacher. So there was a touch of guilt in my pleasure. I had found a place to play.

The challenge which Paul and I undertook was to marry the prosaic written requirements of the school curriculum with the poetic visual possibilities of television. We wanted to use all the genres of television which educate, entertain and inform the general population, and put them to use for the benefit of teachers and their pupils. But we knew that if the programmes were not perceived by teachers as being relevant to their increasingly tightly constrained needs, they wouldn’t use them, so there would have been no point in making them. It was a tricky tightrope to walk, and we walked it.

When Channel 4 started in 1982, it was the UK’s first ‘publisher-broadcaster’; that is, it made none of its own programmes. The job of its commissioning editors, in each department, was to spend their budgets wisely and imaginatively, choosing the independent companies best able to make the programmes, and supervising the production process from commission through to delivery of the finished programme or series. That, essentially, is what we did. We commissioned about 80 hours of new programmes a year. We had inherited from ITV some popular, long-running series supporting the big curriculum subjects; these we extended and improved. We invented new subject-specific series where there was a lack. We filmed on every continent on earth (Antarctica included). We commissioned dramas, historical, classic and contemporary; documentary programmes of all kinds; animation; a weekly news programme made in the Channel 4 News studio and presented by Jon Snow; arts programmes; a high-volume series for 3- to 5-year-olds which took a relaxed, play-based approach to early learning. We constructed the broadcast schedule of about 330 hours a year of new and repeat programmes (Monday to Friday mornings in the school terms). We had a team of education officers, each of them expert in a particular area or areas of the curriculum. They advised us on the content of future commissions, worked with the commissioned companies to make sure that the educational content of the programmes was sound, and promoted the service to schools. We had a small publishing house which sold videos, books, CD-ROMs and other resources to accompany the programmes. When Channel 4 opened its website, we had a place on it, and began to commission audio-visual resources which would be available to teachers and pupils from the site.

Occasionally, dramas we commissioned also played in the channel’s main schedule. Examples of these were versions of Alice through the Looking Glass and Cinderella, and adaptations of two of Jacqueline Wilson’s novels, Double Act and The Illustrated Mum.

In 1995 I attended an international conference in Melbourne about children’s television. Broadcasters were there from all over the world, and I realised how great was the disparity of wealth between those of north America, Europe, Japan and Australia and those of Latin America, Africa and Asia (apart from Japan). So a small group of us, including Anna Home, the head of children’s television at the BBC, founded a little not-for-profit organisation called Children’s Television Trust International. The idea was that broadcasters from rich and poor countries would co-commission productions, sharing the cost in proportion to their wealth. The poorer countries would thus get high-quality content for a fraction of the cost of production. The co-commissioners would hand the distribution rights to CTTI, which would distribute the programmes to broadcasters beyond the co-funders, spending any profits on supporting worthwhile initiatives in children’s television in poorer countries.

It was a brave idea, which we promoted further when a group of us organised the next international conference about children’s television, in London in 1998. CTTI’s most significant achievement was the production of 39 fifteen-minute animated versions of traditional stories from around the world, entitled Animated Tales of the World. These are beautiful little films, using a wide range of artisanal animation techniques, made by studios around the world. And we did spend the profits from their sales, and from the sales of other smaller series, as we had planned. CTTI had only a short life, mainly because the key people involved later retired or left for other jobs, and their successors didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the idea. But it was worth doing.

In autumn 1999, Paul moved sideways to a post commissioning projects for schools in the new computer-based media, and I took over his position. We still worked closely together. Throughout the years of our collaboration, we never forgot how fortunate we were to be doing the job, even when the pressure of work was intense, and even when, as once or twice happened, we got angry with each other.

The principal highlight of my work in 2000 and 2001 was my involvement in the filming of all 19 of Samuel Beckett’s stage plays. Beckett on Film was a magnificent project, a co-production between Channel 4, the Irish broadcaster RTE, the Irish Film Board and Tyrone Films. In the course of my work as the channel’s commissioning editor on the project I met some of the best actors, directors and cinematographers working in film, television and the theatre. I became good friends with the project’s two producers, Michael Colgan and Alan Moloney. Here’s an entry in my diary, describing the events of one remarkable afternoon.

17 April 2000 Kerfontaine

Last Friday I had one of the experiences of my life, in the course of the Beckett project we’re doing. We were filming a short, late play called Catastrophe, which is set in a theatre. The shoot was in Wilton’s Music Hall off Cable Street, near where Helen and I used to live. The action of Catastrophe has a theatre director and his assistant arranging the appearance on the stage of a silent, still figure, an actor somehow reduced to a stage prop, who is called the protagonist. David Mamet was the (real) director. The theatre director was played by Harold Pinter, and the protagonist by John Gielgud. I went down to the shoot on the last afternoon, and watched filming for about two hours. During the course of that time Michael Colgan, one of the producers, told me that Gielgud’s agent, Duncan Heath, had told him the previous day that Gielgud had decided that this would definitely be his last professional performance. Today was his 96th birthday.

The first hour involved takes which didn’t require Gielgud in person, and they used a stand-in. Then he appeared in a wheelchair. I had lost track, as so often happens when great people quietly disappear from regular view towards the end of their lives, of how old and frail he has become. They lifted his wheelchair on to the stage. He got out it when he needed to, with help, and stood with a stick while they prepared the shot, and then managed without the stick while they filmed. He worked for about an hour. The feeling of nervousness and reverence in the crew was palpable. Two or three mistakes were made, necessitating reshooting, because the normally imperturbable riggers and electricians knew what a delicate and extraordinary moment this was. We were watching John Gielgud give the last performance of his career, a career which had spanned more than 80 years. We were witnessing the last representative of his great generation of actors saying goodnight. David Mamet directed him very gently, but with a precision which indicated that this was still a professional contract, not an old folks outing. When the shooting was done, there was a photo-session for a minute or two, with Gielgud back in his wheelchair, and Mamet, Pinter and the other actors standing around him. Then there was prolonged and spontaneous applause, and Sir John left. It was deeply moving, and I kept thinking how extraordinary it was that in some way I was connected with this man’s last professional engagement.

Then, as if that wasn’t enough, Michael Colgan brought Pinter over to meet me. We had a two-minute conversation, with nothing extraordinary said, but I simply told him what an honour it was to meet him, and how much I had enjoyed The Room and Celebration, the double bill of his first and most recent plays, which are on at the Almeida at the moment. As Pinter left the theatre when he had completed his part, David Mamet called out, in what must be an American convention, ‘It’s a work finish on Harold Pinter, ladies and gentlemen,’ and we all applauded. Mamet himself was charming when I met him, and his directing style was calm, confident and affirming. His wife Rebecca Pigeon, who played the director’s assistant, was nice too. All in all, it was an extraordinary afternoon, and I returned to C4 for a humdrum meeting at 4.30 in a state of elation.

Beckett on Film is the only work in the visual media in which I’ve been involved which will have any longevity; the only significant cultural landmark to which I’ve made a contribution.

At its foundation, Channel 4 was given a constitution which was then, and I think is still, unique in the world of broadcasting. It would be both a commercial and a public-service organisation. It would make money from advertising, but the money would go round in circles, paying for the best television programmes the commissioning editors and independent producers could think of, thus attracting more revenue. There would be no profits, in the sense of money needing to be paid out each year to shareholders, because there would be no shareholder other than the UK government. There would be a strict Chinese wall between the commissioning executives and the people collecting revenue from advertisers. Never let an advertising executive suggest to a commissioning executive what he or she should commission.

That was the bold conception. It was a vision still in active operation during the first years of Paul’s and my time at the channel. Then Michael Grade and John Willis left, and less impressive people took their places. In summer 2001, the Channel 4 directors made a dreadful error. They launched a new arm of the channel, called 4Ventures. This was to be an explicitly profit-making undertaking, which would contain the channel’s wonderful feature-film production arm, its retail book sales operation, a new horse-racing venture, numerous other departments and… the schools service. For the first time, Paul and I would have our commissioning judgements checked by people who were looking not at how well we were serving the schools, but at how shrewd our ‘investments’ were, from a profit-making point of view.

The directors appointed City bankers to run 4Ventures. These men were deeply ignorant of the nature of our work. Some of the time they knew the price of everything and the value of nothing; most of the time they didn’t even know the price of anything. Young acolytes with recently acquired MBAs appeared. They kept making appointments to see us, so we could explain what we were doing. The idea that we were spending about £10 million a year of Channel 4’s money (a figure which had dropped from about 5% of the programme budget when we started in 1992 to about 2% now) trying to improve the quality of learning and teaching in the UK’s schools, and that profit margins on sales were not our highest priority, was incomprehensible to them.

The person who had become my immediate boss, once Paul had moved sideways and I had been promoted, left. The top banker told us that head-hunters would be hired to find a replacement for her. I asked him whether internal candidates would be given the chance to apply for the position. The thought had obviously not occurred to him. In the event, the position was advertised on Channel 4’s internal website. It went up there on a Thursday evening, with a closing date of the following Monday for receipt of applications. I had an active weekend. I and one other internal candidate (not Paul) applied. We were both interviewed. Neither of us got the job.

Paul left Channel 4 in May 2002, I in June 2003. Our glorious long moment was over. We had been given the enormous privilege of spending a lot of money on doing some good in the world, working within an organisation whose spirit was close to ours: studiedly non-hierarchical, insouciant, but under cover of that tone determined to produce the very best. And we did. But now the people who thought they knew about management and money, but who didn’t actually know much about either, had caught up with us and decided that we were shambling do-gooders who could no longer be trusted, as once we had been under an old regime. So it was time to go. Our place to play had been found out.

During the two years between summer 2001 and the day I left the channel, I experienced, for the first time in my life, a bad kind of stress, which I knew was damaging me. It was a stress which comes from a loss of power, and from being directed by people for whom one feels no respect or, in some cases, active contempt.

Despite these bad feelings, in this last period I commissioned numerous projects of which I am proud, in particular a film of Twelfth Night starring Chewetel Ejiofor, Parminder Nagra, Claire Price, David Troughton and Michael Maloney, directed by Tim Supple; and the film based on Jacqueline Wilson’s novel The Illustrated Mum, directed by Cilla Ware and starring Michelle Collins, which I’ve already mentioned. It took cunning, with both these films, to get to the point where they were legal contracts which couldn’t be cancelled. The people who thought they knew about money couldn’t see that they would make enough. I enjoyed the practice of that cunning. In each case, once shooting began, I had no anxiety at all; I knew the films would be good.

4Ventures turned out to be a financial catastrophe, and was closed down. The bankers left, clutching hundreds of thousands of pounds of severance pay. The schools service returned to the main body of Channel 4. The only schools television programmes and other educational materials which for a few years remained profitable to the channel in the UK and abroad were those which Paul and I commissioned. The shambling do-gooders knew a thing or two about making a little bit of money (two or three million pounds a year, which is not much by television standards) after all.

Alas, if you look now at Channel 4’s Monday to Friday morning schedule during the school terms, you won’t see anything that looks remotely like a schools television programme, even though, so far as I know, the channel’s legal obligation to provide a schools service still exists. There must have been some kind of collusion between the channel’s management and Ofcom, the regulator, to allow this illegal state of affairs to continue.

In October 2004, I went to work at Teachers TV, a new venture set up by the Labour government. This was a specialist professional-development channel with a mission based on a simple idea: to commission and broadcast television programmes for teachers featuring interesting and often inspiring classroom practice, with the intention that viewers would carry that interest and inspiration into their own work. Teachers TV was also a publisher broadcaster. We worked with several of the companies that Paul and I had commissioned at Channel 4. The budgets were much more modest and the whole operation less glamorous than at Channel 4, but the six years I spent there were happy ones. Paul was there too. Andrew Bethell, who had run a production company, Double Exposure, which had made many programmes for us at Channel 4, was our boss. Andrew, like Paul and me, was a former London English teacher. By this time, the internet was a fully fledged technology, so Teachers TV published all the programmes on its website, for streaming and downloading, as well as broadcasting them.

There were difficult politics to be negotiated between the channel and the government, its funder. Andrew bore the brunt of these burdens. Despite the excellence of the original idea (David Miliband, then schools minister, takes the political credit for it), later education ministers and/or officials made the foolish decision to introduce a buffer organisation between the education department and the channel. This made communication unnecessarily difficult. The buffer organisation understood little about education or television, but felt a constant need to impose on the channel a regime of negative short-term accountability, so that it could show its masters in the education department that it was earning its keep (which was considerable). And then the consortium which had won the bid to run Teachers TV was obliged, after four years of successful operation, to bid again for the right to continue to run it. (I don’t know whether or not the government imposed this obligation because of EU procurement laws.) This required an unwelcome and distracting expenditure of energy. However, I suggested to Andrew that our friend Mike Raleigh, recently retired from HMI, was an ideal person to write a persuasive bid, and so it proved.

Despite these difficulties, Teachers TV was a hit with teachers. They loved the authenticity and practicality of the programmes, which were far removed from the government’s own generally wooden and patronising training videos for teachers. They watched our programmes in large numbers, and wrote appreciatively to say so.

Sadly, the innovation was not to last. Ed Balls was education minister during the latter part of Teachers TV’s life. He made the foolish decision to deny the service its television channel, so that the operation became ‘just’ a website. Balls had been persuaded by his officials that the internet was the coming thing, that television was an old-fashioned technology, even though two thirds of the viewing of Teachers TV’s programmes still took place on television. So the Labour government in its last years damaged the thing it had created. It required the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government which took power in May 2010 to completely destroy it. Michael Gove as education minister had a truly baleful effect on schools in England, and on the morale of teachers generally. He closed Teachers TV down, as part of the government’s economically disastrous austerity drive, even though it was enormously popular with teachers, with about 700,000 individual streams and downloads of programmes per month. I think that Gove was minded simply to throw the programmes away, but it was pointed out to him that about £100 million of taxpayers’ money had been spent on them, and that this expenditure shouldn’t be wasted. So organisations or consortia which were willing to make the programmes freely available online to users in the UK were given the right to exploit them for profit in other markets, and the library of about 3,500 programmes limped on for a few years. But with no marketing, no single, memorable website address and of course no new programmes, teachers made only slight use of the resource. Government stupidity and vandalism had managed to destroy something which government imagination had conceived in the first place.

A few other countries, however, had seen and liked the idea. Thailand soon had its own Thai Teachers TV; Finland and Australia adapted the model. The Gates Foundation, the wealthiest not-for-profit enterprise in the world, decided that it would like to do something like Teachers TV for teachers in the USA. It set up Teaching Channel. Unfortunately, it made a poor first choice of chief executive, and that person had to leave. In something of a panic, the Foundation asked Andrew to go across to rescue the project. Andrew said that he would be glad to do so as long as he could take me with him as director of programmes. So in December 2010 he and I spoke in San Francisco to the leaders of eight production companies based around the country and gathered there by Erin Crysdale, who had been with Teaching Channel since the beginning and who became my deputy for the time I was there. In March 2011 Helen and I went across to live in San Francisco, and I flew around the country for a few months commissioning programmes and supervising production. Teaching Channel had a partnership with WNET, the public broadcaster for the New York area, which was easily the largest of our production companies and which would also broadcast some of the programmes. It was a great time for me: the only extended period in my life when I’ve worked in a foreign country, with the pure luck that the operation was based in one of America’s most glamorous cities. For most of the time there, my office was high up in a skyscraper in the financial district, with a wonderful view over San Francisco bay. Erin had a friend called Mark who owned and lived on a boat moored at Sausalito. On summer evenings we used to take the ferry across the bay, and Mark would sail us around, past Alcatraz and the other islands, right under the Golden Gate bridge but no further out into the Pacific. ‘The ocean is brutal,’ Mark said, and he was very proud of his boat.

For good personal reasons, Andrew knew that he couldn’t stay on as chief executive for very long. Unfortunately, the Gates Foundation made another mess in appointing his successor, and I knew as soon as I met the new chief executive that there would be trouble if we were together for very long. So I made a diplomatic exit in August of that year. The person in question didn’t last long at Teaching Channel, and the organisation was soon onto its fourth chief executive in its short life. However, it’s still going strong in 2018, so far as I can see from its website.

And that, in all probability, will be the extent of my activity in the world of educational broadcasting. I wandered into it because I needed a job. When I arrived there, I discovered that a skill I already had — the ability to make good critical judgements about literature — could be adapted to the critical process of helping a writer, producer or director to make a good programme better (and occasionally to salvage a programme which was otherwise heading for disaster). Television production is an essentially collaborative endeavour; talents and skills of all kinds are needed, and the accents you hear on a shoot belong to people of all classes and backgrounds. There is a cynical, self-deprecating phrase sometimes used in the profession: ‘It’s only television.’ There are sectors of the industry, more glamorous and more expensively budgeted, where there must be a ‘So-what?’ feeling sometimes; thousands of shows on scores of channels, there to entertain us for an hour and then forgotten about. The educational value of the visual media is longer-term than that: hard to quantify, but real nonetheless, and I’m glad that for nearly twenty years I played a part in it.