Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The glory days of Channel 4: Remembering "After Dark"

"Channel 4 in the 1980s is widely credited with breathing fresh life into British television, particularly in comedy, drama, youth programming and scheduling," says Mark Duguid, Senior Curator (Archive Online) of the BFI National Archive.

As quoted on the Open Media website, he continues:
Less often acknowledged is the extent of innovation in the channel's non-fiction output, which included opinionated current affairs documentaries .... One of the most successful innovations was also the simplest: a late-night, open-ended discussion programme treating a single topic in detail, with no filmed reports, aggressive interviewers, studio audience, political soundbites, computer graphics or video effects.
If this show is remembered at all, it is for a drunken appearance by Oliver Reed. But that is a travesty. Because the programme Duguid is talking about, "After Dark", was proof that talking heads can make the most thrilling television of all.

Open Media shows that the series ran on Channel 4 between 1987 and 1991, with specials being shown as late as 1997. There was also a revival of the format on BBC4 in 2003.

It wasn't just that the format was exciting: it was that the participants were so good. Surfing through them, my favourite is the programme on football screened on 15 May 1987. Its participants included both the philosopher A.J. Ayer and John Fashanu.

The show above on freemasonry last three hours - I do not suggest you watch it all - but it is worth sampling the contributions of T. Dan Smith. He was the Labour boss of Newcastle upon Tyne who ended up in prison and was one of the inspirations for the television drama "Our Friends in the North". You can read about him in an old issue of Lobster.

In the days when I was on the Liberal Democrat federal policy committee I was invited to a Channel 4 breakfast. I took the opportunity to remark what a shame it was that "After Dark" was no longer running.

"Oh," he said airily, "we like to end formats before they become jaded" and I let it pass.

What I should have said, of course, was something like:
"Jaded? Jaded? I suppose those stupid programmes you show on Saturday evenings now aren’t jaded? Britain’s 100 greatest comedy sketches. Britain’s 100 greatest reality outtakes. Britain’s 100 greatest 100 greatest programmes. A load of comedians you have never heard of saying things like “Spacehoppers: What were they about?” and “Blue Peter was for posh kids: We watched Magpie.” And Paul bloody Ross too! Do you think that isn’t jaded, you with your poncy Oxbridge education and your achingly fashionable clothes? Well, do you? Do you?"
Then I could have forced one of his own croissants up his nose.

It is annoying how often one thinks of a witty retort only when it is too late to use it.

Thanks to The Needle for the link to the episode of After Dark.

1 comment:

Frank Little said...

I agree, in spades. The open-ended format produced some marvellous discussions. I remember in particular an edition featuring Bernadette McAliskey relating her personal experiences, unstridently because she did not have to battle with a star interviewer.