The Mind of a Commissioning Editor

By Michael Chanan and Margaret Dickinson

Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4 Senior Commissioning Editor for Independent Film and Video, talked to Michael Chanan and Margaret Dickinson.

Stuart Cosgrove, who has taken over the position of Senior Commissioning Editor for Independent Film & Video at Channel 4, says he has followed three career paths. He grew up in a big housing scheme on Tayside, where at the age of 15 he joined a theatre outreach project. He went on to study Theatre and English at the University of Hull, and then won a scholarship to study drama and media in the USA. Back in Britain he became a lecturer in film and media at the Roehampton Institute and then the University of Reading. At the same time he began writing about soul music and joined the NME, where he soon became media editor; later he had a spell as one of the presenters of The Late Show on BBC 2. A friend of his who had become a TV producer asked him to collaborate on a programme about black music, and his third career got under way, as he and Don Coutts returned to Glasgow and set up a production company, Big Star in the Wee Picture. Five years on, Channel 4 recruited him – after a head-hunting exercise – to replace Alan Fountain, by then the only survivor of the original team put together by Jeremy Isaacs in 1981.

Vertigo began by asking Cosgrove whether he thought the Channel was still driven by the same things as when it started.

Stuart Cosgrove: If Channel 4 was driven by the same things as it was when it started out, I’d never have joined. I don’t believe in that fossilisation of the moment, the belief that there is a set of absolutes given in all perpetuity. Because, remember, the moment the Channel emerged it was seen as a significant statement in British broadcasting – we were being given some kind of choice. Since then hundreds of channels have come on stream on satellite and cable, and frankly, I can’t understand the logic of the idea that Channel 4 doesn’t have to adapt to those realities. The idea of fossilising the remit in its early 80s cognition is wholly inappropriate; I find that conservative in the extreme. It’s a non-debate. I’m in charge of the department of innovation and change, not the department of preservation.

Vertigo: But those hundreds of channels are different. Channel 4 is a public broadcaster.

SC: I wouldn’t want to renege on that. Perhaps I should state some basic ground rules. I think there’s an immense onus on C4 to take seriously, to preserve and to perpetuate, its relationship to public service broadcasting, and that means serving the public in all its manifestations and all its diversity. But there are a lot of ways in which the words ‘public’ and ‘the people’ are complex, fractious and exciting political concepts, because out of the concept of the people emerges a concept of the populace. One of the central tensions in how people perceive the managerial changes within Independent Film and Video is inevitably around that concept.

I don’t make any apologies for this. I think in the past the department has sometimes over- served certain elites within the populace. I am much more committed to populist broadcasting. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in diversity, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in the representation of minorities, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe in film -makers who come from non-mainstream traditions. Populism and the popular to me are political concepts, they’re proud concepts and concepts I deeply believe in.

V: You’re talking about a public. Commercial TV talks about audiences or consumers. How do you see the difference?

SC: It’s the difference between night and day. It’s like saying what’s the difference between John MacLean getting 100,000 people to a rally in Glasgow and Benito Mussolini getting 100,000 to a rally in Milan. You’re dealing in different values – one’s communist and one’s fascist.

The big difference is in theories of the popular. The trajectory of the things which have interested me in the 20th century as a writer and an academic have emerged out of the materialist theory of culture and practice. Crudely, and to take the example of theatre, the lineage goes from Meyerhold and Bertolt Brecht, through to British playwrights like Trevor Griffiths, Hare and Edgar, and even street culture. All of them have engaged with the popular as a problematic, as something that has to be wrestled with and argued for, in which you have to also try to continually question and shift the nature of cognition and representation. Brechtian theories about representation are premised on the idea of wanting to question pre-existing and dominant notions of representation and yet at the same time finding a large audience. The idea of finding a changing language is important and that changing language has to be within the politics of the popular.

I’ve no desire to deal in minorities and elites when that minority is purely defined in terms of an algebra of numbers. If that minority can be defined culturally, and it is likely that it has a racial or ethnic or subcultural agenda, so it can be seen as a group of people who need a voice, then I can see how that fits in with concepts of popular.

V: What do you mean when you talk about the culture of the 90s?

SC: This is a key issue in the department. All right. A producer sent me two proposals. One was a piece which sought, through relatively conventional arts journalism, to explore the work of that group of male British playwrights who came to prominence in the 70s and 80s – Edgar, Hare, Griffiths – and to explore what happened to them and where they are now. His other idea was the fact that in several cities around Britain the entire policing of the cities is done through surveillance cameras and closed-circuit TV. One of them to me is a 90s idea – the surveillance one. The other is something that needs to look back. It’s retrospective, it can only be told by looking back. I want a department that looks to the contemporaneity of experience.

In Independent Film & Video there’s only 7.5 million pounds to be spent and there has to be coherence about how it’s spent. The logic of how we’ve divided up the money is so crude as to beg belief. What we did is we played a game called how to spend 3 million pounds. Caroline Spry, Robin Gutch and myself were allowed to go home and come up with 3 million pounds worth of programming that we were really committed to (the 9 million is more than we had but that seemed the best way of dividing it).

Caroline has a strong emphasis on Gay and Lesbian and feminist programming; she maps out her spend and says I’ll have a series of ‘Out’ and a series of ‘First Sex’ and I’ll have one or two one-offs and a series of gay programmes in the summer and that’s it, that’s the 3 million gone.

Robin wanted to do something that accessed other voices, he wanted to do something in international Third World areas, and his spend very quickly got taken. He’s made the decision in the first six months to emphasise South East Asia and then he’s doing some things on Latin America and that emphasis will change on a six-month cycle. The rationale behind that is that you can focus your acquiring, you can focus your commissioning, and broadcast the output as a series called Secret Asia, say, so it’s a series that can have press and get trailed.

I wanted to spend a lot of my share in the UK and to a lesser extent in the USA and Canada, and that took up my 3 million really quickly. I wanted to spend nearly all of it on late-night TV. The department had historically been put into what used to be the 11th-hour slot. I wanted to ask how you could make late-night TV work for an audience rather than being there just because the scheduler didn’t like it.

V: You recently used the phrase ‘rebel culture’, but you haven’t mentioned it here. What did you mean by it?

SC: ‘Rebel culture’ was a term I used at a public forum in London, to signify the sense that resistance is not necessarily the province or the domain of specific histories. I think – this is not a criticism of Alan Fountain and Rod Stoneman – but there was the perception that the department had a fairly narrowly defined notion of political resistance, defined by the trajectory of largely Marxist materialist, left-liberal politics. This is obviously something I feel close to and I don’t have any huge problem with that. But it’s also important to recognise that there’s a hell of a lot of other notions of resisting the state. One of the really interesting things about any form of resistance is that it doesn’t necessarily have to happen in a clearly political way. It could be argued, for instance, that the poll tax riots and the films made by the department around them, was as much a resistance in cultural terms as it was in political terms, because the people who were at the heart of that riot were the forerunners of the people who are now resisting the Criminal Justice Bill, and it was carried over into things like attitudes towards nomadic culture, the war against domesticity, the rave scene and life-style resistance. Quite a lot of people saw themselves as travellers; other people saw themselves as part of an anarcho-punk life style; thousands of the people at the poll tax riots had come down from Scotland where the poll tax had been in a year earlier, and many of those defined themselves as nationalist with a small ‘n’. All these things belong to rebel culture.

V: In what other ways has the department changed?

SC: We have taken over a hugely important responsibility for Channel 4’s regional development policies, and that’s also part of the 90s agenda. Easily the most ill-conceived part of Channel 4’s historic policy was its relationship with production outside London. In this connection, Alan Fountain was by far the bravest and the most ambitious person in the channel, by proposing the franchised workshop sector.

That experiment has been and gone. There’s no point in us mourning the passage of significant revenue investment in workshops, because Alan and Rod gave that their very best shot. It’s sad that it coincided with the most brutally commercial, consumerist culture we’ve ever had. I don’t want to do that again, but I do want to raise questions about how we can find more producers and voices from outside London. This will be vitally important for what the department does, and for this reason our money’s increased for the first time in many years. We’ve taken over a huge development fund for the English regions and for Scotland and Ireland – over a quarter of a million pounds of development spending.

I expect a fruitful tension to develop over the next two years. It’s difficult to give figures about how the department’s money is spent but it reflects broadly the Channel as a whole, where 84% of spend (on 100% commissions) is spent in London, and only 15-18% out of London. Independent Film and Video’s performance was better than most but not markedly different, and the figures will change over the next few years. Inevitably some of the people who might perceive themselves as losers are in London, and I expect there might be a wee backlash there. I’m not certain what I can do about that. I keep encouraging people not to see us as the department of regional broadcasting because we’re not. The truth of the matter is that the Channel can do a lot more in certain areas: there aren’t enough black film-makers working at C4; there are probably more women film-makers than at any time in the Channel’s history but there still aren’t enough; there definitely aren’t enough programme-makers from outside London. Now if you make those commitments then something has to give. And the main thing I would like to change is that I would like to see us becoming more risk-oriented, and trying a broader spread of production companies.

The really difficult thing is that you’re managing a department which because of its name is all things to all people, so they all come to you and 98% have to be rejected. What hurts is that people interpret the rejection of a particular film-maker as being something to do with a policy that is brutalising the department, as if I posed a threat. The only threat I pose is to elitism and bogus ideas. If you think I’m sitting up there in my corporate headquarters thinking ‘How can I do something that will get a great audience-share, and get me really popular with the advertising sales department’, then you’re joking. It’s more likely I’m thinking, ‘What can I do here that will cause trouble and get me sacked, that will spark off debates, that’s a really significant piece of broadcasting?’

V: So you’re practising rebel culture. In that case, tell us something you’d like to do but think you wouldn’t be able to?

SC: There’s lots of things you couldn’t do. You couldn’t do a viewer’s guide to paedophilia.

V: But that’s not something you’d want to do, is it? Let’s stick to something you’d want to do.

SC: If I was in the children’s department I might want to do it. I think it’s a taboo which has yet to be explored on TV. Are we talking about things that would be seen as too morally or politically contentious?

V: Politically. Or something you think has a place on TV but might not be wanted because it wouldn’t bring the audiences.

SC: What’s plain is that there are ideological pressures from outside the Channel for us to do certain things and not other things.

V: Like?

SC: Reservoir Dogs is a really good example. It doesn’t have a public license in Britain. C4 have the rights to it. Do they broadcast it or don’t they? Romper Stomper – banned in quite a number of cinemas – do you go with it?

What there definitely isn’t in C4 is any blanket orthodoxies about any subject. I’ll tell you one thing that did go out, and I was involved in making, was a film called Fire Bug about three young arsonists, talking about how they were compelled by fire. It was done using images and techniques which owe some kind of homage to youth programming – heavily post-produced and colourised. I think in lots of ways the film was quite amoral, and there was a lot of criticism, but it was put out – no one stopped us making it.

V: These are areas where the difference of interest is between a commercial lobby and a moral lobby, and they are all high-rating topics. Are there other areas which are not the thrusting points of commercial interests?

SC: Well, I’m really struggling. There are certain areas that I wouldn’t do, but I’m not sure if I’d be stopped. We are commissioning programmes that will probably get us in to trouble, but even so we’ll be allowed to put them out. It’s a difficult one. I’m convinced there’s got to be an answer. I’ll find an answer.

V: Maybe you should just think about it and when you’ve found the answer, do it.

SC: Maybe Vertigo readers should write in to the magazine and suggest a strong political programme that couldn’t be shown by Channel 4. If it’s a good idea, we’ll commission it.