Whatever happened to the Channel 4 archive? 

14 April 2023 tbs.pm/78841


Channel 4 press photo of Robert Dougall

Robert Dougall

It’s not possible to answer the above question without at least some historical context.

There is very little doubt that when Channel 4 hit British television screens in 1982, it was a truly ground breaking enterprise. The channel’s brief was to serve audiences that had felt neglected by the BBC-ITV duopoly, and that mission can be seen almost as a watermark in its early years. The same channel that broadcast anarchic comedy such as The Comic Strip Presents, also had former newsreader Robert Dougall presenting Years Ahead, which was essentially Blue Peter for pensioners.

In truth, the first fifteen or so years of C4 gave rise to some of the most richly diverse programming in British broadcasting history. It was prepared to take risks, leading to both spectacular failures and extraordinary successes.

For the serious historian of television, one very important factor in making sense of C4’s unique DNA, is the significant reliance on independent producers to create much of its output. Whilst there had been such producers working for both BBC and the ITV regional companies since at least the 1950s, only with the advent of C4 did these collectively become a force to be reckoned with.

It wasn’t meant to be so. The ITV companies were intended to do most of the heavy lifting for the new channel, with the “indies” having a much smaller supportive role. Jeremy Isaacs, C4’s first supremo, felt obliged to make sure that every ITV company got at least one slot in the first year’s output. Each was having to contribute 12.5% of their revenue to the station’s running costs, and it was felt wise to give them something in return. Many of these “political” commissions were perceived as failures, perhaps the most notorious being TSW’s Cut Price Comedy Show, which was just as bad as it sounds.

Added to this, companies like London Weekend Television were ending up supplying drama and comedy at a loss, as the hourly budgets Channel 4 were offering were minuscule compared to ITV. It quickly became evident that the independents could – and would – make content at a fraction of the price, and very soon they became a cornerstone of the Channel’s production strategy. Freed from the top-heavy corporate structure of the ITV regionals, the growing band of independents found entirely new ways of making television. There is a strong case to be made that the indies were the real driving force in C4’s reputation for innovation. Initially they comprised a myriad of relatively small companies, many of which were literally one-man bands. In later years C4 increasingly used a smaller pool of preferred contractors, but it is likely that thousands of different production companies worked for C4 in its first couple of decades.

The programming collectively created by the indies in those early years is arguably a body of work that was unprecedented in both its scope and ambition, and yet, as this article will aim to show, is now demonstrably the most fragile part of the C4 archive, in terms of survival and accessibility.

Which brings us to the question – what exactly has become of C4’s early archive? We can ignore the many imported shows, such as I Love Lucy, that were always part of the monthly schedules. Our interest is purely in British-made product that was created with C4 in mind. There are three categories: (1) ITV-made programmes; (2) producer-funded programming; and (3) C4-funded programming.

Firstly, what happened to the ITV chunk of the C4 archive? The rights to ITV-made programmes remained with the various regional ITV companies that made them, C4 only having UK broadcast rights. A lovely little example would be the Tyne Tees 1988 production The Industrious Bee, a filmed six-part step-by-step guide to beekeeping, possibly the only one of its kind ever made for British television.

London Weekend were also key early suppliers, with such pieces as the sitcom No Problem!, and the classic period drama Mapp and Lucia. Mostly these programmes are now owned by ITV plc, and safely held in their Leeds-based archive.

There are a number of exceptions, however. By way of example, Fremantle now owns most of the former Thames Television archive, including their many C4 productions; and TSW’s archive is now held by Plymouth-based organisation, The Box.

A far more complicated and unhappy situation exists with the C4 productions made by former ITV company Television South (TVS). Because of a series of commercial mergers over the last 30 years, it is no longer clear who owns the rights to TVS archive, much of which is also missing. Some of their C4 programmes, but not all, are held at the British Film Institute national archive. One example of a “lost” C4 programme would be the 1983 documentary series The Spice of Life, made by TVS subsidiary, Blackrod, at the cost of £1.2 million, which is no longer believed to exist in broadcast quality.

The copyright “limbo” that surrounds TVS’s C4 productions means that even those which do exist in broadcast quality are unlikely to see the light of day.

The second category of C4 programmes are those that were solely funded by the original production companies. Essentially, from C4’s point of view, this was a very similar arrangement to the one with ITV. C4 would pay a licensing fee, likely to include up to three screenings in a certain period. Otherwise, ownership would remain entirely with the producers, many of which had been set up to serve the new market which had opened up with the advent of C4. This was the case with one of C4’s early comedy-drama successes, The Irish RM (1983-85), which was producer-funded, and is still being actively marketed to this day.

There were also some shows where C4 provided finance as part of a co-production arrangement, one such being A Woman of Substance, made by Portman-Artemis, and partially funded by C4. It incidentally won the channel’s highest-ever ratings of 13.8 million, a record which stands to the current day.

In the intervening decades, many of these production companies have long since been dissolved or absorbed, and the whereabouts and rights-status of their programming consequently clouded in obscurity.

Copyright board for 'Dream Stuffing'

Dream Stuffing

One example of this would be the 1984 sitcom Dream Stuffing, which was made and rights-owned by the now defunct Limehouse Pictures Ltd. Some episodes are available as off-air copies on YouTube, and a single example is held on broadcast quality tape at the BFI, but most of the series is whereabouts-unknown. Likewise, it seemingly appears to be a copyright “orphan”, with no clear rights owner. Very many other early C4 programmes have suffered this same fate, either lost, “orphaned”, or both. C4 would have been under no obligation to retain tapes for such programmes beyond the period for which they had transmission rights, which is one key reason why the whereabouts of the master materials for many of these shows is unknown.

Adding to the problem, many of the producers and directors who made these programmes as independent producers are no longer with us. The net result being that, even with extensive research, it is almost impossible to track down the current legal owners of much of the programming in this category.

Finally, we come to content that was both commissioned and funded solely by C4, of which there was a lot.

Peter Clayton presenting 'Jazz on 4'

Peter Clayton presenting ‘Jazz on 4’

One of the glories of those early days of C4 was that it commissioned and solely funded an extraordinary range of programmes that would never have been made elsewhere. A perfect example of this would be the Jazz on 4 strand, which featured a wide range of performances by British and American jazz musicians, many of which are now regarded as culturally important by jazz historians. These were usually broadcast around midnight, often for one transmission only, and mostly remain under the control and ownership of C4.

The situation with these C4-funded programmes is complex, to say the least. In a nutshell, we don’t know for sure how much of it still exists. Again, some historical context is required here. The industry magazine Broadcast noted in 1986 that “a contract with C4 ensures that all its programmes will be deposited with the [BFI] Archive when transmission rights expire.” [“Just For The Record” – Broadcast, 20 June 1986].

The BFI does indeed hold a great deal of C4’s early programming, and according to their online archive catalogue, started to receive tapes in great quantities in the early 1990s. Certainly, a great many C4-funded and owned productions from the 1980s/90s are to be found at the BFI, and many of these have been digitised. Some are available for viewing at the BFI’s Mediatheque facility. However, the reality is that a significant proportion of the BFI’s C4 holdings are still held only on the original 1” broadcast master tapes, many of which are 35-40 years old, and increasingly fragile. It is not clear if there is any specific selection policy on the part of the BFI that has determined which tapes have been digitised; and which left to gather dust. Either way, it is received wisdom within the industry that there is only a limited amount of time left in which to save programming held on these obsolete analogue formats.

Another part of the archive is still held by C4 themselves, and partially administered by the clips agency, ScreenOcean. Information about this secondary archive is scarce, but it is known to comprise a mixture of programming that has been digitised, and material held only on tape. Some interesting early C4 curiosities can be freely screened online, such as a very early 1983 appearance by Peter Capaldi on the magazine programme Loose Talk. Again, it is unknown why some programmes have been digitised, and some not, or if there are plans to completely digitise the ScreenOcean holdings of C4 programming.

Copyright board for 'Who Dares Wins'

Who Dares Wins

What does seem to be clear is that there are gaps in the C4-funded archive. A small example of this is the 1980s/90s sketch show Absolutely. When it was released as a complete box-set in 2008, one episode from the first series had to be included as an off-air copy, as the master had could not be found. A very similar situation exists with another 80s sketch show, Who Dares Wins, also missing an episode. It has been reported that a great many editions of The Big Breakfast are lost, but in truth it is impossible to state with certainty how many hours of C4-funded programming are missing.

The situation gets even more complicated. Over the years, C4 allowed the rights for some shows to revert to their original makers. At one point this was a matter of policy. In 1986, C4 executive Bill Stephens made it clear that rights to programmes which weren’t likely to sell abroad could be returned to their makers. [“C4 Adopts Direct Pitch Abroad to Keep Them Happy at Home” – Broadcast, 25 April 1986]

An example of a company that has acquired rights to its own back catalogue is Open Media, producers of C4’s well-remembered chat show After Dark. The whole series is now being offered for clips licensing.

Some producers who have managed to regain rights have shown a commendable willingness to make their programmes re-available. The Secret Life of… series, is now legitimately free to view with new footage on YouTube, having been rights-reverted from C4.

Anecdotally, however, in more recent times a number of roadblocks appear to have been put in the way of C4 indie producers who wish to make some new use of their programming. It seems that the station will no longer readily consent to rights reversion of older programmes, even for material that is unlikely to have any obvious commercial potential. Added to this, producers wishing to obtain master copies of their programming from the BFI are asked to pay hundreds of pounds per tape for digitised copies. For small-scale releases, such fees are likely to be commercially prohibitive.

Yet another factor which has made exploitation of the early C4 catalogue difficult was the sale of Channel 4 International in 2007. As part of the sale, the overseas rights to almost all C4-funded programmes were sold to the Digital Rights Group. Following a number of acquisitions, the rights are now believed to be owned by All3Media International. One significant consequence of this is that a very large bloc of early C4 output now has two entirely separate rightsholders, which is far from ideal in the age of global streaming.

The net result of all the above factors is that the greater proportion of C4’s older back catalogue remains behind closed doors. There are a few exceptions to this of course. There is a little classic C4 content on the 4oD and BritBox platforms; and there are of course still a number of DVD releases of older C4 programming available, such as Porterhouse Blue. In an unlikely development, every episode of Brookside is now available on the STV Player.

But these are very much the exceptions. Much of the archive is unaccounted for; much of it is undigitized; a fair chunk of it is in copyright hell; and some is simply lost. And almost all of it is unavailable for the general viewer to enjoy, which is arguably a cause for great regret, given the rich and extraordinary range of programming that C4 made in its glory days.


“Philip Renfrew” is a pseudonym


You Say

4 responses to this article

NEIL COLLIER 14 April 2023 at 5:37 pm

I spent ‘most’ of my broadcasting life archiving 2 inch videotapes to digital betacam format.My department was meticulous in not just technical expertise but also logging data into computer systems (Paris was one).My company decided the data side transfer of it was cheaper left to the’library’operatives,transferring all our paperwork (which took as long to write up as it did to get the damaged tapes to play,usually first time only chance before the tape snapped !).The day eventually came when ‘ALL’ the 2 inch archive had been done,they thought ? We had just been taken over by media moguls,(coincidence ??),300 sacked and the rest offered ‘voluntary ‘ redundancy.When I asked what what was to happen to the ageing 1 inch tapes I was told there was NO Budget,and everything was to be sent to BFI and only archived if required (somebody’else’s budget paid for it).As a VTR Supervisor I asked what was to happen to the department ?,Reply :- “Staff reductions,freelance operators (NOT Engineers). I saw the light and retired. Now perhaps future generations will understand ??

Christian Bews 18 April 2023 at 1:50 pm

if you look back at the channel’s early years,when the advertising were funded by the 14 ITV companies and was owned by the IBA all ITV companies did make shows for them and were held in ITV or STV’s archives.i think the 3 companies made the most programming for C4 in its history were yorkshire,TVS & LWT.although ‘network 7’were done by LWT on their behalf it was billed in TVtimes & credited as made by sunday productions.when they did ‘night network’ as a late-night companion for N7,it looked liked it was a programme made for C4,but it was only broadcast in the ITV areas LWT,anglia,TVS & channel until it was nationally-networked on all stations except central in september 1988,until it was finally-being axed in march 1989 due to poor advertising revenues as some stations showed it with a ‘back soon’ caption and some with adverts for TVtimes & oracle as they could’nt afford advertising overnight during the breaks.’who dares wins’started out as a one-off called ‘who dares wins a week in benidorm’in november 1983 produced by holmes associates.when it was turned into a series in 1985 it was credited as a ‘who dares wins’ production rather than the name of ther company producing but the programme itself.it was during the filming of the final series in 1988 when one of the show’s stars jimmy mulville & the series’ producer denise o’donoghue began forming ‘hat trick productions’ which went on to become one of the most successful independent production companies in the UK & WDW became the inspiration for the company’s 2 most successful and long-running projects which were ‘drop the dead donkey’ & ‘have i got news for you’.

Finn Taylor 9 June 2023 at 2:04 pm

Fantastic article. I have an old VHS copy of a compilation of Who Dares Wins; it was a fantastic show and I regret wiping my VHS broadcasts.

As for Brookside, STV are releasing 5 episodes a week of this, which I am very much enjoying. It does however state that these episodes are only available for another 7 months, by which point the show will hit early 85, I think.

David King 9 June 2023 at 10:08 pm

The broadcast tape copies of the 13 programmes of the TVS/Blackrod series, “The Spice of Life”, mentioned above, are at The Wessex Film and Sound Archive.

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