Dear Commissioning Editor: 10 Years of Channel 4

By Anne Cottringer

Dear Commissioning Editor,

Thank you for your letter and suggestions regarding our experimental musical of Das Kapital which we plan to start shooting in the autumn. We have managed to track down all of Eisenstein’s notes on mise-en-scène for his proposed film version of Das Kapital which we will incorporate into some of the studio sequences and which we hope will help strengthen the Brechtian approach.

I agree that we should stick to Volume 1. Who knows? If it is successful, we could follow with Volumes 2 and 3!

I think you are right about the problems of presenting the concept of surplus value, but hopefully the dance number in the factory, in conjunction with the interview with Ernest Mandel in front of a video monitor replaying parts of Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar will help enormously in getting over this problem. The replaying of the surplus value thematic images will also help to establish it in people’s minds and give it resonance in the capitalist accumulation and commodities section.

Ronnie Barker has agreed to play Gradgrind for the Hard Times section which provides a counterpoint to the archive section on the Industrial Revolution. The Bradford & Bingley Brass Band are going to provide the music for that section. Some of the musicians will also be playing small non-dancing parts in the Industrial Revolution number.

We have negotiated to use sequences from October and Strike. There was also talk of running these as the late-night movie on the two successive nights of the broadcast of Das Kapital, which seems like a good idea.

PBS in the States were only interested in a co-production deal if we agreed to make it a little more ‘Upstairs Downstairs’. I assured them we could not.

I still think the shooting schedule is a bit tight. By giving us that extra week, bringing it up to 10 weeks, we could spend more time with the non-actors (many of whom come from Borstal) – get them used to the studio and the actors. Maybe we could talk about this at our next meeting before the finance committee meeting.

We plan to do a massive publicity campaign through the TGWU and other unions and hope to show the programme in a series of seminars at Ruskin College.

The collective is moving into our new workshop space in Camden next weekend after a painting a decorating party. We are organising an evening to welcome Garth, who is giving up his City Limits job to work full-time in the collective, so I’ll send you an invite when the date is set.

Yours sincerely,


June 1983

Dear Commissioning Editor,

Your letter was on my desk when I arrived back from the Leipzig Festival where we won first prize for the film Behind The Flag about popular resistance between the Wars. Thanks for all your support. It’s going to be shown in competition at the Havana Festival in a few weeks.

We are almost finished editing the miners’ wives film and there is some pretty powerful stuff there. Next Thursday would be a good day for you to view it. Dutch television have already expressed an interest in buying it. By the way, Garth has left the collective to become a producer with Gazelle Productions who are doing a 13-part series on the history of locomotion.

See you on Thursday.

Yours sincerely,


December 1985

Dear Commissioning Editor,

Just a few notes to give you an update on the ‘Sport & Sexuality’ series which should be ready to start shooting in June. We are now waiting for the Dutch and Japanese co-production deals to be finalised. Norway is putting up £20,000 on the condition that we include cross-country skiing in the second programme on ‘Masochism & Sport’, which looks into the masochistic tendencies of training and how that relates to sexual identity. I’m sure we can work something out... maybe bring in Sacher-Masoch and ‘Venus In Furs’.

The Spanish have also finally signed on for £50,000! So now bull fighting will feature largely in the third programme, ‘Sport & the Macho Image’. That’s OK – it fits – although I’m sure we will have the animal rights people at our throats.

What may be slightly more difficult to incorporate is the NBC ‘family entertainment quotient’ for the American audience, which certainly wouldn’t work with the Norwegian ‘Venus In Furs’ section. NBC want us to use Muppets to explain some of the more difficult concepts. I’m not sure some of the ‘experts’ would be very happy about having their interviews paraphrased and then spoken by the Cookie Monster. Since the Americans are putting up 50% of the budget, I’m sure we’ll think of something.

There were rumours that the Dutch want the Dutch-language version dubbed, not subtitled. (Kermit in Dutch?) Can’t wait to hear what the Japanese want for their £50,000! We have decided the structure of the collective was much too cumbersome and time-consuming and so we have now become a limited company. I’m the executive producer, while Sean and Deborah will be producer-directors. We are taking on a part-time production manager and a brilliant secretary called Kelly.

The new video editing suites are being installed next week, and wait till you see the stunning new slate-blue carpets! Deborah has done a wonderful job of interior design. I think she’s in the wrong business!

Yours sincerely,


April 1986

Dear Commissioning Editor,

In response to your interest in our tender for the new arts series, we have come up with some additional ideas which you may also be interested in. I think they will have genuine popular appeal. Innovatory in form and content, they will be radical in defining ‘art’ in exciting new ways:

WOT ART?! (or ART ATTACKS) – This will be a regular feature where people – plumbers, housewives, secretaries, as well as critics, rock stars and celebrities – talk about a work of art that particularly annoys, irritates, drives them crazy or brings out hitherto unknown psychopathic tendencies!! A copy of the ‘piece’ will be put at their disposal in their workplace, home or whatever (a chance to see art out of context!). A range of artists, critics, historians and a psychologist will be asked to comment. And finally the subject will be offered the opportunity to do whatever they want to the work of art, providing in most cases, we hope, a cathartic climax involving axe attacks, blasting paintings with shotguns and many more imaginative ways of disposing of artistic pet hates.

IN GOOD TASTE – A short weekly item in which art and food experts talk about the representation of food in art in everything from Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ to Woody Allen’s Bananas. In some cases, experts will advise the audience how to re-create (for their own consumption) some of the more memorable repasts: a ‘Déjuener sur l’herbe’ in your own garden (or living room, depending how modest you are!).

IM-MEDIA-TE EXCESS – This could be a separate late-night half-hour LIVE programme. A very NOW set-up in which ten crews are dispatched simultaneously to ten different ‘events’: from opera performances, to wet T-shirt competitions, to hip-hop clubs, or a family’s evening at home in front of the box – a true cross-section of late night culture!! Fast, pacy and full of the latest video wizardry with a tendency towards CHAOS!  

BESTSELLERS! – A real-people slot where ordinary people are invited to adapt and bring to the screen their favourite best-sellers from the last five years. Shot on camcorders, the budget for each half-hour slot will be tight, so imagination will be at a premium!! Hopefully the adaptations will be so unrecognisable that we won’t have any copyright problems!

With regard to personnel – we have lost Deborah from the series. She has gone to join Jasper Conran and his team! Garth has agreed to come back as a producer (as long as he can have his own office – he says he’s losing his ability to concentrate in open-plan offices!).

How about a Sol and Zou Zou’s on Wednesday? We can talk about it.

All the best,


April 1988

Dear Commissioning Editor,

Here in more detail is the idea I mentioned on the phone for Cutting Edge:

PROS AND CONS? is an intimate portrait of a high class brothel somewhere in Mayfair. (We cannot divulge the location, of course.) We have been given exclusive access to this Mayfair establishment whose clients run the gamut from MPs to stockbrokers to local government officials.

Behind the opulent and luxurious trappings, the ‘girls’ (many of whom have been together for some years) form a sort of community where they bring up their children, cook beans on toast and watch ‘Neighbours’ as they get ready for their evening’s work. For the past two months they have been filming their own video diaries for us, recording the everyday life of a high-class prostitute – the trips to Harrods, picking up the kids from school, wiping snotty noses and the languid afternoons of small talk and make-up as the house mascots, a small dachshund called Wiener and a Jack Russell called Buttocks, romp around creating havoc. Among the fascinating cast of characters are:

JENNIFER – self-appointed, but generally acknowledged ‘mother’ of the house, who is famous for her home-made pasta and pesto as well as being the actual mother of six children (two of whom she claims are heirs to the throne!) who all attend exclusive private schools. We will talk to them about their life with ‘mother’ and how they view living off immoral earnings.

NONA – 18 years old and newest member of the group. She is a refugee from ‘Suberia’ (her name for the suburbs) and sees being a call girl as a chance to add to the ‘rich experience of life’. She wants to write a novel before she is 25.

‘HYPO’ – ex-junkie who was taken in by Jennifer. Now she spends all her free time and earnings at Brent Cross shopping centre, except during September, which she devotes exclusively to IKEA.

Now they have agreed to give us the uninhibited inside story of their night-life. Thanks to the advances in surveillance technology, never before has so intimate a portrait of a brothel been possible! We are installing miniature cameras in the chandeliers and tissue-boxes, while the girls themselves will have micro-lenses implanted in their bellybuttons. We are at the moment doing tests to see how effective these will be. Post-coital interviews with punters will help to shed some light on the reasons why many men seek out this kind of prostitute, while commentary from the girls will provide some light ‘relief’!

The film will also include interviews with four prominent MPs – three men and one woman – who have agreed to talk about their experiences at the brothel, revealing how the pressures of Parliament (especially since it has been televised) have driven them into the arms of prostitutes.

Among the important questions the programme will be asking are: should legislation on brothels be relaxed, and does society need to change its attitudes? Also, should MPs’ allowances be extended to include the kind of ‘sexual therapy’ offered by girls? Are these girls any different from the millions of wives who never get paid for their services?

The programme offers a unique opportunity to provide insight into thee women’s lives, while at the same time probing into very important social (and, ultimately, political) issues.

I can foresee one problem cropping up. With the tabloids willing to pay such huge amounts of cash for kiss-and-tell stories, some of the girls are getting greedy. I think it’s a problem we can overcome.

We can discuss the budget details when we meet up on Wednesday. Garth, unfortunately, won’t be able to attend – he’s negotiation some co-production deal in Los Angeles... something he calls a ‘Tequila Sunrise’ industry.

Yours sincerely,


April 1992

PS. Perhaps we should also have lunch to discuss the upcoming series on MI5. I suggest we run it as a weekly series shot entirely with remote-control surveillance cameras within MI5’s own offices. This would require someone to collect the tapes at the end of each day, doing away with a crew entirely and thus saving enormously on labour costs.

PPS. I think I have something you might find very interesting for Secret Histories. Recent discoveries have uncovered diaries belonging to Kant, Schopenhauer and Hegel revealing how they indulged in ‘wild’ sexual behaviour which led them to some strange philosophical conclusions – which were never included in their published writings. I will soon have access to them and I think they could make for a very interesting programme: how about ‘The Great Philosophers: Were They All Bonkers?’

Dear Commissioning Editor,

Phew! Finally made the move into the new premises after a weekend of painting and decorating. They are a bit cramped, but we have let Kelly go, and Sean has agreed to work at home while he shares child care; as a result there is a bit more room.

It looks like WHAT THE DICKENS!? series is going ahead. It will offer an innovatory approach to social issues – providing a more light-hearted look at Dickensian conditions that still exist in London and other big cities in Britain – and a chance to get away from the ‘victim of society’ syndrome. Every programme will have its own song (along the lines of Oliver!) which will be sung in a final musical number by the subjects of the film, along with a chorus of trained musicians.

Garth was going to be executive producer, but his ‘Tequila Sunrise’ industry has got the better of him. He’s been in and out of various clinics and is seeing various psychiatrists but, ever the trooper, he has volunteered to be the subject for the pilot of our new ‘show’: I BLAME MY PARENTS.

Part-confessional TV, part-courtroom encounter and part-Oedipal drama, each programme will feature an aggrieved personality and their parents. They could be an alcoholic, a neurotic over-achiever, a common thief or a game-show host. What they have in common is that they blame their parents for their situation and their personality.

Emceed by the ever-popular Claire Rayner and Anthony Clare, the ‘victim’ and parents will face each other across a studio (designed as a cross between a family home and a courtroom) in front of a live studio audience! The ‘victim’ will bring his or her accusations against their parents, and the parents will have the opportunity to defend themselves. Both ‘victims’ and parents will be able to call witnesses – relatives, friends, teachers – to support their arguments.

Stories of abuse, neglect, pain... a moment of recognition, a sudden realisation – the opportunities for ‘real live’ drama are endless – these are real people, real lives!! Conflict, combined with the ‘confessional’ will ensure a real possibility of empathy for both the live and TV audience – and there is always the chance of a reconciliation and a happy ending!

At the end of the programme the studio audience will act as the jury and decide who is the guilty party through an interactive computer system which has been specially designed for the programme.

We think I BLAME MY PARENTS is a winner with all the ingredients for popular appeal. I think it has a chance of topping ‘Coronation Street’ in the ratings. Now that would be a coup!

Let me know what you think. Garth is getting impatient to have a go at his Mum and Dad!

Yours sincerely,


April 1993

PS. It could prove to be a useful therapeutic outlet for unemployed television executives!