Archive for the ‘7/7’ Tag

Digital Britain: grit in the oyster

pearlWith the publication of the Digital Britain report today it’s an apposite time to reflect on the role of Channel 4 in Britain’s Public Service landscape. After listening to former BBC Chairman Christopher Bland asserting (this morning on Today) that the UK can only afford one public service broadcaster and after reading a spiky response from BBC Trust Chairman Sir Michael Lyons jealously guarding the BBC’s cash, I reflect on last night’s RTS Education awards. I went along with The Sex Education Show presenter Anna Richardson and the Sexperience team from Mint Digital and Cheetah. During the evening I caught up with Tanya Byron who was presenting the awards and served on the Digital Britain steering group (I worked on the DB Being Digital / digital media literacy work group, whose outputs Tanya polished. I also helped her a little with her government Review of Children and New Technology last year and have been busy trying to get it implemented this year via the UKCCIS). At the end of the ceremony she spoke of how she had been inspired by watching all the nominations with her family and picked out Sexperience,  Chosen and Troubled Minds for special mention.

Just playing the numbers game, the BBC with its pots of cash for education scored 2 awards. Littl’ ol’ Channel 4 bagged 5. And some 5…

For Educational Impact in Primetime  Chosen (True Vision for More4) – three courageous men disclose the abuse they suffered at school. Turned down by 17 commissioning editors before More 4 had the balls. Talking of Balls, one of the three protagonists, Tom, drafted a set of recommendations taken up almost in their entirety by Secretary of State for Education Ed Balls when he reviewed this area in the wake of this film. The jury said: “A revelatory and dignified film… which explored paedophilia by allowing three highly articulate middle-aged men to tell their own stories of having been groomed and serially abused by teachers in the same public school as they were growing up.”

For the 11-16 Years category KNTV Sex produced by Tern Television (whose trusty leader Harry Bell – he knows a good Rioja when he sees one – I caught up with in the bar afterwards) – a lively, funny animation (punctuated with weird archive from Eastern Europe) tackling tackle and other forbidden subjects. The jury said: “A witty and uncompromising look at a subject of great relevance to its target audience. It uses first-class entertainment devices and characters to deliver tough content. An engaging and fun watch with real take-home for the viewer.”

For Campaigns Jamie’s Ministry of Food (Fresh One for Channel 4) – love him or loathe him, you have to admire Jamie’s commitment. I was lucky enough to work on Jamie’s School Dinners which in many ways set the gold standard for mainstream Public Service TV. The jury said: “The winning series was utterly brilliant – it truly enriched the lives of the people involved and gave the viewer a rare insight into other people’s lives.”

For Factual Education 7/7: The Angels of Edgware Road (Testimony Films for Channel 4) – driven by one committed film-maker, a story of people who risked their lives to save others. The jury said: “not only a deeply moving account of the appalling events on the London Underground in 2005 but challenged its audience to consider their own responses if faced with the dilemma of whether to save themselves, or try to save others.”

For Educational Impact in Primetime (Series) Can’t Read Can’t Write (RDF Media for Channel 4) – teacher extraordinaire Phil Beadle (who I worked with on The Unteachables) again teaches the ‘unteachable’, this time adults who have never grasped reading and writing and had given up. Now two of the featured contributors have written books! The jury said: “powerful storytelling and memorable sequences within this important series which highlighted the shockingly high numbers of British adults who cannot read or write. The jury was genuinely surprised by the extraordinarily brave characters whose stories were at the heart of the series, finding them engaging, surprising and honest.” Compare that one for example to BBC RAW for flair, passion and imagination.

Sexperience lost out for Innovation in Education to the BBC’s School Report which marshals the whole BBC machine – BBC News, Radio 4′s Today, the network of local radio stations, the Full Monty/Aunty – to encourage children to try out news journalism. Laudable and solid. But an exact replica of Channel 4′s Breaking the News for a different audience (Newsround age as opposed to 14-19) which won an Education RTS in 2005, a year before School Report was launched. Yes, a strange choice given Raw’s Battlefront was the other nominee.

All of this illustrates how Channel 4 is the grit in the PSB oyster. The BBC would be even Blander (scuse the pun) without the boundary pushing of C4 and its discovery and nurturing of talent. On BBC Jamie cooks and makes a dish, on C4 he campaigns around food and makes a difference. (He was discovered of course by an ex-C4 PA who followed her passion straight out of Charlotte Street to become a highly successful exec producer, Pat Llewellyn.) Digital Britain has highlighted and backed C4′s place in British media and started rolling an exciting updated remit:

Championing and promoting creativity and new talent across all digital
media, by:
●● Investing in a wide range of original, innovative, high-quality audiovisual
content, including film, which provides alternative perspectives
and reflects the cultural diversity of the UK.
●● Providing audio-visual services and programming that can stimulate
learning and which will inform, challenge and inspire people, particularly
older children and younger audiences.
●● Maintaining a strong commitment to distinctive national and
international news and current affairs.
●● Enabling through partnership the development and reach of other public
service content from British cultural organisations.
●● Developing new services and applications to support its overall role,
embracing the potential of all digital media to connect with audiences
in new ways and to encourage the wider take-up of and participation in
new digital media by audiences.

Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

Steve McQueen directing Hunger

I have to admit I was a bit worried when I heard Channel 4 were making a film about Bobby Sands and the Maze hunger strike. Having sat through shite like Ken Loach and Rebecca O’Brien’s ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ I feared the worst. But ‘Hunger‘, by Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen, is an artist’s film of intense emotional impact and real insight. And it belongs on the big screen, its compositions and rhythms fill the space. That it is a London born film-maker, a black film-maker, that provides such insight into so fraught and sensitive an Irish story is all the more remarkable.

It was commissioned by my colleague Jan Younghusband, Commissioning Editor for Arts and Performance at Channel 4. She is a woman with a purist and committed approach to art, as I learned from working with her on projects like Big Art Project and 4mations. ‘Hunger’ was five years in the making and conception. Through her work on the Turner Prize Jan came into contact with McQueen, hooked up from time to time in a cafe on Old Compton Street and gradually homed in on this most demanding of subject-matter. Film 4, in the person of Peter Carlton (who I worked with last year on My Movie Mash-up/Faintheart, which amply demonstrated his ballsy approach) came in to back the film as a theatric offering. I have to say, having just emerged from a viewing of the finished film, I couldn’t be prouder to be part of an organisation that creates a work like this.

I walk past Bobby Sands regularly in the form of a Christ-like statue of him in Newry, the town in County Down where my wife was born. She grew up in Northern Ireland in the 70s and early 80s – I can hardly imagine how she and her sisters will watch this film. Whatever you feel about the politics behind Bobby Sands (of which most of our (British) population is incredibly ignorant, and was so back in 1980 – as a suburban London teenager it was right off my radar beyond what I gleaned from Stiff Little Fingers) the portrayal of political conviction and of inhuman bigotry is as powerful as it comes. Thatcher’s voice, heard in voice-over punctuating the film from time to time, comes across as truly monstrous. Everything about its coldness and stridency speaks of the huge cultural gulf between the Lincoln grocery and a family gathering in West Belfast or Gweedore, Donegal (where the key flashback scene of the film takes place) or pretty much anywhere in Ireland or an Irish home.

My wife recalls how her life and the lives of all around her were overshadowed by the hunger strike. A time punctuated by the staggered deaths (they deliberately spaced the starts of their hunger-strikes two weeks apart to maximise the impact of their sacrifice). Looking back from the last few years it is only now she truly recognises what a troubled, hard childhood she and her contemporaries lived through. A couple of years ago we were in the (old) Tate with the children. They were copying some of the pictures in the Pop Art rooms. As we emerged from the gallery I noticed my wife was really upset. I asked her what was up and it turned out walking through a room of Richard Hamilton images of soldiers on the streets of Belfast [The State 1993] had really disturbed her and awakened ghosts. (Richard Hamilton of course also portrayed Bobby Sands draped in blanket in his picture ‘The Citizen’ [1981-83].)

When I first visited Newry in 1986 I was greeted by the most surreal of experiences – walking down the high street I watched British troops, armed with machine guns and equipped with radios, ducking in and out of shop doorways between little old ladies struggling along with their shopping bags. Nothing in my North London childhood had given me the slightest clue that such dark comedy was to be had on the streets of ‘my country’.

On my way out of the screening I met a woman who looked pretty shaken by the experience (naturally enough). It turned out her daughter works at the Channel and she comes from Crossmaglen, Co. Armagh. Needless to say she knew the one family I know in Crossmaglen, as that is the way of Ireland. I knew the hospital she was born in in Newry, Daisyhill aka Crazyhill, as my wife was born there too. I knew her school in Kilkeel as my wife went there too. It’s a small, connected place. In her family home this woman I got talking to has some of the tiny notes smuggled out of the Maze – that’s how connected it is.

I thought the starvation in Sean Penn’s ‘Into the Wild‘ was painful to watch and moving but it goes nowhere near the forensic observation of this film. The skeletal bodies are resonant of Auschwitz – and the crucifixion. And yet the film captures something incredible, something transcendent about the human spirit and will.

Towards the end of the film we see a flashback of the Belfast boy on a coach traveling over the border into Donegal to attend a cross-country race put on by the Christian Brothers (purveyors, as Pete McCarthy amusingly put it, of “the carrot and stick method of Education – only without the carrot”). Behind the face of the young Bobby is a blurred swoosh of gold, low sunlight on the ferns and bogland. It represents a paradise to the starving man.

Recalling when I first went to that place – Gweedore – brings a smile to my lips. I’d followed the roadmap and came to what I thought was not far from Gweedore. I stopped at a junction, reminiscent of where Cary Grant gets off the bus in ‘North-by-Northwest’ and gets attacked by a crop-spraying plane. There was a small shop at the junction, outside of which stood an old fella in a flat cap. I wound down the window and asked him where Gweedore was. You’re in it. Where? All around. He was trying to explain the concept of a ‘townland’ which was foreign to me. ‘Town’ I get. ‘Land’ and ‘country’ I get. But this was something in-between, half way to the imagination, between the word on the map and the ground beneath me was a cultural gap and an imaginative leap. ‘Dhun na nGall’ (Donegal) means ‘fort of the foreigners’ – foreigners have given the people there a tough time since way back – from the marauding Vikings (who probably explain my wife’s love of the battle and fighting scenes in ‘Gladiator’) to the screws beating the living shit out of Bobby Sands and fellow prisoners with their truncheons and tattooed knuckles. The same shit these men smeared on the walls of their cells in an astonishing act of defiance for over 4 years, the shit McQueen turns into a kind of circular abstract painting in one scene. The ability of people to survive that kind of degradation and brutality for the sake of an idea is ultimately uplifting. The ability to inflict that kind of degradation and brutality is to be the subject of one of my next posts (bet you can’t wait ;-) inspired by Philippe Sands‘ recent book Torture Team about torture in Iraq, where Steve McQueen served as a war artist in 2003.) So shifting Sands from Bobby to Philippe – not easy subjects but then 7/7 isn’t an easy day…

Osama Loves

Farrah and MasoodThis morning two young British Muslims, Farrah and Masood, set off on a 50 day mission right across the Islamic world. Their goal: to meet 500 Osamas. Why set out to meet so many people with the same first name? ‘Osama’ conjours up the most prevalent cliches of Islam in the minds of most non-Muslims. By seeking out 500 people with that name – people of all ages, shapes and sizes, backgrounds, hopes and loves – Osama Loves seeks to undermine the cliche and put a human face on Islam, whilst showing the diversity of Islamic culture across the globe.

The project came about when my fellow Channel 4 commissioner, Aaqil Ahmed, came to ask me if I had any ideas about how to give his Islamic culture TV season (The Wonders of Islam) an online dimension. He had commissioned a very special documentary about the Qur’an, a series about the Seven Wonders of Islam and some other programmes, all highlighting the diversity of Muslim culture beyond the Middle East. So that was the brief: show how varied Islamic culture is across the world.

I had been talking to Andy Bell at Mint Digital for a long time about doing a project together but it never quite happened, the right thing hadn’t come along. From chatting to Andy I knew he had recently married a Muslim woman, that he had a strong interest in things spiritual, and that he had insight into both worlds. We bounced a few ideas around, brought in other colleagues from Mint, combined a few themes and merged some ideas until we had the participative journey that is Osama Loves: Searching for 500 Faces of Islam.

So today that journey starts and Farrah and Masood are going to need all the help they can get… If you know an Osama or can help them on their travels in any way please do let them know via the site’s blog comments.

The question came up while we were developing the Ed Spec, what if they find That Osama (the cliche one)? We wrote into the Specification that if that were to happen Mint definitely get a second series with a decent budget ;-)

Another important question is why are our young travelers bothering to cross continents in search of names and faces? Let me briefly tell you Farrah’s story. She was doing her medical training in East London when one day she finds herself in an operating theatre into which is wheeled a patient for an amputation. It struck her as odd how young this patient was – usually there are years of artery furring abuse behind an amputation like this. To cut a long and sad story short, the patient that day was one of the victims of the 7/7 bombings in London. Suddenly the reality of that outrage, committed by men with very similar backgrounds to Farrah herself (a fact that quickly struck her), that outrage shook her identity to the core. Now she’s on a mission and this time it’s personal: to prove that That Osama does not represent her community, to explore what Islamic culture and belief really means to her, and to provide insight into the day-to-day realities of Muslim communities, their concerns and hopes, their perspectives and loves. “Osama” and “Loves” are not two words you often hear together, or expect to. This initiative is yoking them together whether That Osama likes it or not.

Talking of Thes and Thats, for now I’ll leave the last words to Matt Johnson of The The. I met him once when I was working with Tim Pope and Pete Goddard who made some of their best promos – Matt made me a cup of tea the first time he came into the office in Marshall Street – tea-making was my realm at that point in my first job so it was a generous gesture which hasn’t been forgotten. Writing the last paragraph punctuated with “Loves” reminded me of this song of his about two people walking away from death and conquering with love:

Me and my friend were walking
In the cold light of mourning.
Tears may blind the eyes but the soul is not deceived
In this world even winter ain’t what it seems.

Here come the blue skies, here comes springtime.
When the rivers run high and the tears run dry.
When everything that dies
Shall rise

Love love love is stronger than death
Love love love is stronger than death

In our lives we hunger for those we cannot touch.
All the thoughts unuttered and all the feelings unexpressed
Play upon our hearts like the mist upon our breath.
But, awoken by grief, our spirits speak
How could you believe that the life within the seed
That grew arms that reached
And a heart that beat
And lips that smiled
And eyes that cried
Could ever die?

Love love love is stronger than death
Love love love is stronger than death

Shall rise, shall rise
Shall rise, shall rise.

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