Part One: “I Want To Subvert Mainstream TV”
By Ian Jones
First published October 2001
For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. If you stick a new signpost on something that’s always been there, chances are it will become more ignored. Designer television is much like designer labels: your target market is never what’s left at the end of the day, being alternately entertained, alienated and patronised.
A fundamental dilemma that progenitors of “youth TV” forever acknowledge but never unravel is reconciling boardroom philosophising with audience expectation and demand. That lucrative media industry “holy grail” – the 16 – 24 age group – have always exercised erratic, unpredictable viewing habits. But is that because they are forever searching for their ideal transmission, the one that speaks to them in language and attitudes they understand, or merely because they enjoy all kinds of telly rather than sectional, niche broadcasting?
Flagging up output as self-conscious “alternative” programming for “young adults” is demonstrably dangerous. It can appear that the powers-that-be are dumping shows in a ghetto, raising the barricades to casual viewers, helpfully ring-fencing just the kind of television your discerning teenager would never ever want to watch, and merely replacing one set of stereotypes with another. Yet throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s vast quantities of cash, time and ink were spent pioneering what was considered valid, original and exciting youth television. Channel 4 fired the starting pistol with Network 7, followed by Wired, Club X and The Word. For the BBC, its CV of brave if worthy achievements – such as Something Else and The Oxford Road Show – were all airbrushed out during its own Year Zero: 1988, with the arrival of Janet Street-Porter as editor of youth programming and her twice-weekly BBC2 early evening strand DEF II.
Within 24 hours of becoming Controller of BBC2, Alan Yentob placed a call to, in her own words, an “illiterate cockney with big teeth”. Would Janet be interested in not simply producing one programme, but a whole portfolio of networked output? It took a couple of days for the current editor of Network 7 to jump ship, and at the beginning of December 1987 Janet Street-Porter was confirmed as the Beeb’s new youth television boss. She was officially charged with looking after strands on both BBC channels, and to be developing and presenting popular arts programmes on BBC2.
Though this was enough to send many veteran BBC personnel into blind fury, Janet was no broadcasting novice. Conversely she used her long-established reputation – uncompromising, emotional, and conceitedly hip – as a weapon to make progress through the rarefied, chauvinistic world of British television. A journalist in the 1970s, then broadcaster and producer on local radio, LWT and Channel 4, Janet stamped her personality on a succession of programmes, culminating in Network 7, co-created with Jane Hewland and launched on Channel 4 in May 1987.
The nature and significance of youth TV’s “history” has always been vehemently contested. Contemporary commentary implies its time has been and gone; people voice their opinions resolutely in the past tense. In Jonathan King’s opinion it was only ever, “an excuse to make bad TV and get away with it;” and while Janet Street-Porter now views it as “a brave attempt to raise the standard of journalism to talk to young people about their world in a way that they could understand.” Paul Ross argues “Great youth TV is nothing at all to do with popular journalism, or issues, or trying to inform people. It’s about giving somebody a party in their front room, and maybe squeezing in a bit of information, but only if it’s entertaining.”
But even back in 1988, a clear “history” was already being discerned and debated. Stephen Garrett, then commissioning editor for youth programming at Channel 4, reflected “Before Channel 4 there was The Oxford Road Show, Riverside and Something Else. They all had energy but suffered from the assumption that what young people wanted to see was other young people being bouncy, mildly inarticulate and preferably with a regional accent. At the same time these programmes contained the germ of factual programming which climaxed, in every sense, with Network 7.” Crucially Garrett went on to identify how he, Channel 4 and the BBC were, “now in the second phase, with Network 7 and DEF II; where there is also risk of being patronising by thinking that what constitutes good youth TV is rapid editing, crazy camerawork and relentless graphics.”
Network 7, a brash assortment of topical features, interviews, music and gossip certainly shook up a fazed, navel-gazing broadcasting industry. Its appearance on screen, never mind its content, was outrageous. It was brazen in its use of fast captions, graphics, shaky camerawork, high speed editing, amateurish presenters and its awareness of its own mechanics as a TV show. It also had its self-conscious sloganeering (“News Is Entertainment, Entertainment Is News”). Network 7 upset a lot of people, opened a lot of eyes, closed a lot of minds and made a lot of careers, and all the while it seemed that key audience – 16 – 24 year olds – were actually watching.
They saw Trevor Ward clumsily explaining the US execution system: “If they don’t kill him first time, they will fire into his head”; the first on-screen gay wedding; a reading from the banned Spycatcher book (in Japanese); Sankha Guha cheerfully scamming money from cash machines; Magenta De Vine prancing around celebrity parties in voluminous frocks; Jaswinder Bancil confronting evil businessmen; and tons more, all over Sunday dinnertime. Janet’s strategy? “I got my ideas from everywhere, I was a complete plunderer. I’m not ashamed of that, that’s how I’ve always worked.”
Stephen Garrett noted that youth programming had consequently become: “The university of television, the only place to research and experiment. They can take the risks that the mainstream can’t. Young adults are the most demanding audience of all, with so many stimuli outside TV; from starting work to relationships to just going out, their lives are changing rapidly. They want soaps and programmes in which young people are not just represented as satellites of the adult world, but have strong youth characters and you see the world through their eyes.” Thinking along the same lines, a canny Alan Yentob chose not to order his staff to work up a batch of second-rate Network 7-pastiches. Instead he swiftly imported the entire ethos in the guise of Janet Street-Porter herself – then let her pretty much do as she liked.
Janet seemed clear on what she hoped to achieve: “I don’t want to create some dreadful youth ghetto. I want to subvert mainstream TV.” Her stranded programming was supposed to “act as a broad banner that means a certain type of person can tune in and expect something that they will like. Basically you can have a youthful 50 year-old and a senile 25 year-old. What I’m trying to do is show that the BBC is worth tuning in to;” and in formulating her ideas she implemented the same “rule book” that had been so rigorously applied to the evolution of Network 7. This legendary document, devised along with Jane Hewland and others, ran:
1. Fact is fun.
2. No old people – everyone must be young and beautiful.
3. Experts must appear in white jackets.
4. No green.
5. No beards or moustaches.
However not only did Network 7 supply the agenda, it also provided the personnel. Magenta De Vine, former PA and rock music publicist; Sankha Guha, ex-BBC radio journalist; Jaswinder Bancil, formerly of C4’s Eastern Eye and Club Mix; and Sebastian Scott, ex-Harper’s columnist with experience on That’s Life! and Day to Day all found new homes at Janet’s BBC. Some, though, did not. Another key Network 7 member, Charlie Parsons, ex-student activist, potato picker and researcher on The Six O’clock Show and South of Watford, chose not to defect, and instead moved on to take responsibility for the most noted of C4’s “youth” output: Club X, The Word, and, of course, The Big Breakfast. Jane Hewland, meanwhile, joined LWT before setting up her own production company and pioneering shows such as Wanted, Games World and, much later, Dream Team.
Lastly, Janet decided upon a creed. Her programmes were to be aimed not at a specific age group, more an “attitude of mind”. It was also important, “to create a variety of programmes, instead of making one that solved everything. Young people already watch Neighbours and Blackadder and certain kinds of drama but factual programmes have to be packaged to make them appealing.” How was this radical makeover to be completed? “Not by simply making items last only six minutes or festooning things with endless graphics,” – precisely the type of programming she was most readily identified with. “The audience is not going to persevere if something’s difficult.”
Transferring these visions onto screen proved a frantic and unbecoming process. Yentob cleared a space on BBC2 from May 1988 onwards – less than six months after Street-Porter’s appointment – for the strands to begin. Janet behaved, she claimed “like a terrorist – going in and grabbing the slots and then the money.” Her haul amounted to roughly 90 minutes on Monday and Wednesday evenings, starting at 6pm, to run all year round and go under the title DEF II.
Early evenings on BBC2 were traditionally the preserve of a jumble of programming. Since the start of 1988 viewers had enjoyed various film seasons (“RKO Ladies”, “Children’s Classics”, Sherlock Holmes), sports (International Pro-Celebrity Golf, One Man and His Dog, World Bowls and Snooker) and numerous repeats including The Rock’n'Roll Years and Face to Face. With the arrival of DEF II, most of these were to continue, but ordered into more fixed slots (such as Tuesdays for films) or moved to earlier in the afternoon.
As for the name, the exact meaning of DEF II was deliberately left unclear. When pressed, Janet and her cohorts mumbled either about “def” being a slang term akin to “radical” or “hip”, or even an old blues musicians’ word meaning “definitely”, i.e. “the real thing” and “where it’s at”. This was all highly stylised and striking, but was it also too self-indulgent, establishing precisely the kind of ghetto Janet professed to dislike?
DEF II tumbled onto air for the first time at 6pm on Monday 9 May 1988. With hindsight the strand didn’t debut with all guns blazing. In fact none of the shows that were to emblematise DEF II – Reportage, Dance Energy and so on – would turn up for months, even years. Instead the first few weeks were ragged, a little unadventurous, and suggestive of rushed planning and production. The opening night began with Babylon 2: “alternative” celebrities introducing archive clips from cult and historic TV shows. A familiar format by today’s standards, this venture was deeply out of step with Janet’s own hatred for “retrovision” and though it featured the likes of Stephen Fry, Harry Enfield and Danny John-Jules hosting, it disappeared suddenly after five weeks.
Monday nights continued with the more substantial Behind the Beat. This was a new Pebble Mill-produced black music show intended to profile everyone from James Brown and Eddie Murphy to LL Cool J and Public Enemy, mostly via live recordings. But to begin with the flashy titles and token interviews didn’t really gel. Getting Public Enemy to talk about street slang rather than their obvious political concerns seemed ignorant, and the on-screen graphics (“LL stands for Ladies Love!”) could only look ridiculous. After that, in a complete change of mood, was Open to Question, an established BBC Scotland kids-grill-the-stars format whose previous victims had included Ben Elton, Edwina Currie and Ian Botham. Now a live show, wielding the mike was John Breakfast News Nicholson while up for inquisition during its five-part run were US Senator Gary Hart, Tom Robinson, and a clutch of models including Linda Lusardi and Gail McKenna. Familiar faltering, embarrassing exchanges ensued, though being live at least guaranteed an edge the previous series’ had lacked.
Meanwhile the Wednesday strand began extremely poorly. Repeats of Battlestar Galactica – which had already been running on BBC2 since the new year – were followed by international cartoons in Animation Now that had no obvious place in DEF II. They were followed by the BBC Scotland indie music series FSd. If anything typified the dodgy teething period for DEF II it was this unwieldy, irritating show. Its title reflected the objectionable notion that if you couldn’t think of a name then a few meaningless initials, one in lower case, would suffice. Wilfully obscure bands (The Hook’n'Pull Gang, The Blood Uncles, The Dog Faced Hermans) showed up alongside Hue & Cry and Ricky Ross, interspersed with ropey features on the music business. A hand-written scrawl ran up the side of the screen, which at least distracted attention from rather clichéd performance films and sloppy editing. In addition FSd was commissioned before Janet arrived, and this coupled with its blatant (bad) imitation of Network 7 in style and presentation was bound to anger her. It did. She hated the show, and made sure everyone knew. It ran for six weeks.
There was one final ingredient. It was decided to use guest continuity announcers – but of a deliberately unlikely kind. Susie Blake was recruited to reprise her role as bitchy anchorwoman in the recent series Victoria Wood – As Seen on TV. Hardly a particularly “hip” choice – think someone from Coupling turning up in character to introduce Robot Wars – Blake appeared for the first few weeks, before giving way to Ruby Wax, then veteran BBC announcer Peter Haigh. Here again was the DEF II ethos writ large: combine the Corporation’s oldest continuity face with its youngest, unfamiliar strand and wait for the fireworks. Whilst intriguing, this didn’t reap the comedy benefits intended, and the whole idea of having guest continuity was quietly dropped by July.
Initial responses from viewers were inevitably varied and confused. Aside from half a dozen predictable letters in Radio Times suggesting Doctor Who immediately take the place of Battlestar Galactica, it transpired most were not that aggrieved, though not especially thrilled, with what they saw. But the media continued their dotage on the BBC’s newest recruit. “Janet provided them with the ammunition,” reflected Stuart Cosgrove, later Channel 4’s head of programmes, “and provided them with the target as well. She was perhaps older than they would have wished a youth TV guru to be; she had her particular kind of style which didn’t suffer fools gladly; she was someone who liked to dress young. All of those things the media don’t like.”
Jane Hewland always insisted: “A youth programme has to be hated to work. So if the press are slagging you off, well that’s absolutely terrific.” But the mixed press response entertained some pertinent criticisms: poor management, an absence of imagination, and a preponderance of hyperbole. Both FSd and Behind the Beat also had the misfortune to appear concurrently with Wired, C4’s latest Tube offspring, which though often po-faced at least tackled music and “issues” with a little more subtlety, and importantly had an obvious, if unlikeable, frontman: Tim Graham. On top of that DEF II had been cursed by scheduling issues. It had not been made clear that live sport would always take precedence; and in fact just three weeks after its launch, programmes were dropped for test match cricket.
However after a fortnight’s break for the Wimbledon tennis championships the gloves came off. The Rough Guide to Europe, which began on Monday 4 July, was an eight-part travel series deftly presented by Magenta De Vine and Sankha Guha. It had an obvious angle: uncovering the side to destinations the holiday companies and other programmes don’t show; chose obvious places: Amsterdam, Paris, Dublin, Milan, Madrid, Copenhagen, Ljubljana (the one wild card) and London; and, in a first for DEF II, made obvious sense.
Janet explained how, “Rough Guide is different to traditional travel shows that put the viewer on the outside. I wanted to know the way that the people in the place lived their lives, and understand about the place from the inside, not the outside.” The fact that each programme boasted a different producer/director meant it was all the more surprising the whole series displayed a uniform style and felt a coherent whole. Its creator was very proud: “Look, there it is at 7pm, not tucked away after midnight like Night Network, apologising for being there.”
Sankha and Magenta made an effective duo, sweeping round the continent with just the right amount of knowing humour and flair and unafraid to jump from the most serious to the most trivial of topics in seconds. There were some great moments. Sankha pressed the daughter of French far-Right leader Jean Marie Le Pen, Caroline, on anti-Semitism, causing her to throw the film crew out of her apartment. Fumbling attempts were made to cover Amsterdam’s drug culture, with the Beeb allowing shots of signs denoting “cannabis-for-sale” but not scenes of eager sales staff waving the weed at the camera. The pair expressed some reservations over content, Magenta complaining, “We did have a shoot lined up in a Dutch lesbian bar but we didn’t get time.” With tie-in booklets available to accompany each programme, the series performed well and stayed true to its agenda, avoiding obvious restaurant/hotel fodder and bravely, if awkwardly, trying something new.
It was the first accomplished offering DEF II had delivered, and which operated on its own terms. But it still suffered through association with its less impressive bedfellows. Mission Impossible replaced Battlestar in the cult slot; while a promising new series, That Was Then, This Is Now which profiled the careers of major chart acts such as The Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode, was hampered by more sporting scheduling disruptions. In September a bizarre one-off Animation Week featured animated videos, Yellow Submarine split into three arbitrary chunks and short documentaries, none of which seemed particularly original or exciting.
A short run of the US kids drama Degrassi Junior High plugged more holes. This conveniently accommodated two episodes, “Rumour Has It” (dealing with homosexuality) and “The Best Laid Plans” (contraception), deemed too “adult” for screening in the usual Children’s BBC strand. Open to Question returned, now hosted by 18-year old Krishnan Guru Murphy in a giant suit, with Jimmy Savile and John Prescott among the guests. Repeats of Popeye cartoons and mini-dramas from the Daytime On Two staple Scene padded out the strands still further. It all felt terribly like treading water.
Events elsewhere, though, portended otherwise. At 11pm on BBC1 on Thursday 20 October a new series imported from France began. Janet Street-Porter had spotted this eccentric music show and reedited it for British TV retaining all the original performances and distinctive Jean Baptiste-Mondo titles. Rapido boasted a host in the shape of Antoine De Caunes: a man in his mid-30s with a ludicrous Franglais accent but an impressive track record including the French punk TV show Chorus in the late ’70s and the later influential Les Enfants du Rock. This seemed potential future DEF II fare, but for the time being remained stuck on BBC1 in the witching hour.
Then, on Wednesday 2 November, the second big DEF II creation emerged. The current affairs show Reportage came “live” from the BBC North offices in Manchester and gathered up a ragbag team of Network 7-ites and other Janet protégés (Magenta, Sankha, Jaswinder, Michael Douglas, John Holdsworth, Laura Walsh) to front phone polls, music and investigative exposés. On screen it appeared like the presenters were linking the show via a cheap security camera mounted on the office wall, which they spoke up to uneasily. Calling 061 814 3222 brought viewers into direct contact with DEF II for the first time, whose responses were then catalogued in special “updates” each following Sunday. Its title music, meanwhile, was by Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order and was later reused, not without some controversy, as the basis for the hit single World In Motion.
The programme hadn’t been received at all well by BBC management. Colin Cameron, features and documentaries editor of BBC North West, complained at the time of a, “desperate competition for resources in a very overstretched North West. Particularly with the start of Reportage, hosted and part-staffed by us. It is eating up everything in sight, including goodwill, so I hope it’s worth it.” “My whole background has been in factual television, not pap,” Janet reassured, but this first series was notoriously eccentric and inconsistent. Reportage became famous for cutting off interviews too quickly, and for grappling with issues – telephone chat lines, football hooliganism – with verve, if brevity.
Nonetheless DEF II was bolstered still further by the arrival of two more new shows in January 1989. The A-Z of Belief was a BBC Northern Ireland production that attempted to address the issue of spirituality in contemporary young society. Each show featured a “celebrity” believer outlining their faith, before half a dozen young people earnestly discussed belief systems in a stylised disused warehouse. Christianity, Rastafari, Mormons, the Pentecostal church and Buddhism were all explored in a somewhat vain attempt to make religion seem interesting. To give the series credit, no one else was trying this at the same time – perhaps just as well.
Far better was the second new offering, Snub, an unashamed indie/new music outlet presented initially by Jeanette Lee. Coinciding with a particularly vibrant period of British pop and rock, the show aired performances from the prevailing “Madchester” contingent, plus acts such as KRS One, Sonic Youth and The Wedding Present. Journalist Brenda Kelly and video maker Peter Fowler conceived Snub in 1987, and after a sole 14 part series was networked across America by the USA Network cable service the pair had tried to sell the format to Channel 4 before Bill Hilary, Janet’s number two, bought up the format.
The show adopted new approaches to the presentation of live music on television and its blend of live footage, cheap videos and interviews seemed to go down well at the top. “I think the first series did everything they (the Beeb) hoped it would,” Fowler would reflect later. “But it’s a bit difficult knowing what they hoped it would do, because on one hand you have the BBC saying ‘Ratings aren’t important’, and then again you know if you’ve got no viewers you’ll soon be off the air.” Snub’s threadbare appearance was partly out of necessity, and partly by design: the BBC only allowed it a few thousand pounds per show, a situation compounded by the problems dealing with indie acts that often had no videos of any kind at all, meaning Snub had to fork out for that too.
“It’s just brilliant for us to be able to do things on our own terms,” Fowler would conclude. “If anybody says that Snub’s a pile of shit, we know it’s a pile of shit because we made it a pile of shit.” Within 12 months of its birth DEF II seemed to have chanced upon a small but notable collection of programmes that appeared to be innovative and stylish, if not especially popular. Some had long-term potential, some still needed improving, yet all seemed to muster a degree of commitment and above all pride from their producers and presenters. But DEF II was by intention a rolling concept. To pause for too long to reflect or to consolidate risked just the kind of ring-fencing and ghettoising Janet Street-Porter professed to detest. The task of renewing the purpose and energy of DEF II was to prove even more significant and melodramatic than the strand’s dynamic conception and troubled birth.