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Experimental TV’s Long Revolution

Colin Perry looks back at Channel 4’s groundbreaking programming of the 1980s, and in particular Stuart Marshall’s Bright Eyes, one of the first documentaries to confront the AIDS crisis.

In early November 1982 a new television channel was launched in the UK that transformed British video art. Channel 4 was unlike the other three channels then available to UK audiences: two of these (BBC1, BBC2) were cast in a socially conservative and patriarchal mould of educating the public (an impulse little changed since the days of John Reith, the BBC’s first Director-General in the 1920s), while the third (ITV) was a purely commercial enterprise. Channel 4 was established following a parliamentary bill that aimed to open up broadcasting to minority groups and, separately, to encourage independent experimental film and video production. Among the programmes created in this early experimental period was Stuart Marshall’s Bright Eyes (1984), one of the first full-length documentaries to confront AIDS and the media hysteria surrounding it.

Bright Eyes was broadcast on the weekly ‘Eleventh Hour’ slot, which showed programmes by directors, artists and writers ‘who hadn’t worked in British TV before and had different things to say’.01 Marshall, who wrote the script and co-produced the 78-minute-long programme, was a video artist, and co-founder of the London Video Arts in 1976, a ‘pressure group’ run by video artists supporting the promotion, distribution and exhibition of video art. Although produced for television, Bright Eyes can be seen as an extension of the quasi-narrative video art that emerged in the late 1970s in the UK in the work of Marshall, Ian Breakwell, Ian Bourn, Catherine Elwes, Tina Keane, Tamara Krikorian and others. These artists used video in ‘a critical relation to dominant technology’ – television – ‘and its representational practices’. Marshall, as a gay activist, was particularly interested in working with television in order to maximise his audience.

Marshall’s social concerns dovetailed neatly with Channel 4’s educational and experimental remit. The commissioning editors at the channel were particularly receptive to such material; indeed, the channel was home to a ‘dissident intelligentsia’ that carried ‘late sixties radicalism into the broadcasting of the Thatcher years’, as Rod Stoneman, a commissioning editor for Independent Film and Video at Channel 4, wrote at the time. Michael Kustow, the Channel’s first Commissioning Editor for Arts, wanted to challenge the public with a range of tricky programmes that ‘mixed genres’, which, he argued in a fantastically Brechtian phrase, would ‘wrong foot people into illumination’.02Programmes broadcast on the channel in the early years were experimental in terms of both form and content: they include Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs (1986), a lyrical disassembling of the causes of recent riots in Birmingham and London, and Michael Clark and Charles Atlas’s ‘docu-fantasy’ pop-ballet film Hail the New Puritan (1985/6), as well as films by Derek Jarman, Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway.

Bright Eyes can be seen as an attempt to fuse Williams’s theories with the concerns of avant-garde video and film, and activist politics in order to meet Channel 4’s prerogative to ‘wrong foot people into illumination’. Bright Eyes is in many ways indicative of this convergence between video and televisual concerns, both from the perspective of its commissioning institution and of the arts community from which it came. Marshall understood television to be a medium that needed to be deconstructed, while video art was a critical medium that should use television in order to undermine its own normative habits. Marshall would make several more documentaries for television – Desire: Sexuality in Germany 1910-1945 (1989), Comrades in Arms (1990) and Over Our Dead Bodies (1991) – but he would also continue to exhibit his work in art galleries, as he had done since the early 1970s. His analysis of television follows Raymond Williams’s concept of ‘flow’: the smooth transition between programmes that oblates critical reception in favour of an uninterrupted flow of entertainment. Although this appears to be an argument based on the idea of the coercive spectacle, Williams asserted that technologies (such as television) had the potential to become ‘the contemporary tools for the long revolution towards an educated and participatory democracy’.03 For Marshall this might be achieved through a disruption of television’s ‘flow’.

Marshall’s programme begins with a series of parodic vignettes. The first section opens with a shot of an ambulance speeding down a city road, following an AIDS patient who is being rushed into hospital. An orderly tows the man down the hospital corridors on a trolley bed, brusquely pushing bystanders away and shouting: ‘Stand back! This man has AIDS and it’s highly infectious!’ A pounding synthesised soundtrack can be heard, and a title appears in blocky red lettering that reads: ‘MORAL PANIC PRODUCTIONS PRESENT… BRIGHT EYES’. Next, a newspaper clipping is shown bearing the headlines: ‘What The Gay Plague Did to Handsome Kenny’, ‘menace that looms in Britain’, and ‘Gay bug kills gran’. The scene changes again to reveal an actor playing a nineteenth-century doctor, who discusses medical classification and the truthfulness of photography; we then see early black-and-white photographs with labels reading ‘mad woman’, ‘an hysteric’ and a ‘moral imbecile’, and learn about the criminologist Cesare Lombroso’s attempts to classify types of criminals by physiognomy (the homosexual’s eyes are ‘nearly always bright’).

Apart from parody, Marshall employs other disjunctive methods. The most pronounced of these are the frequent re-use of the same actors for different roles, the muddying of identities (and with them racial and class assumptions) and the delaying of explanatory information. We do not, for example, learn the source of the aforementioned newspaper headlines until a few scenes later (Sunday People, 24 July 1983). In another dramatised scene set in a television studio, we see a technician refuse to hook a microphone to a man with AIDS, but we do not learn that this is a real event that occurred in San Francisco until the end of the scene.

Over the length of the programme, Marshall corrals these disjunctive elements into a set of themes that trace the confluence of contemporary and historical social attitudes. In the first of three thematic sections, Marshall explores science’s early classification of homosexuality as a disease and criminologists’ attempts to photographically classify types of human abnormality. In the second section another theme emerges: censorship. This strand begins with a scene in which an actor plays Magnus Hirschfeld, an early twentieth-century socialist Jewish doctor and champion of gay rights. Hirschfeld sits in a cinema watching footage of books being incinerated as he narrates, to the camera, the events that culminated in the Nazis ransacking his Institute of Sexual Science in Berlin, and burning 12,000 books and 35,000 photographs. Later in the programme, in an interview with Linda Semple, manager of Gay’s The Word bookshop, we learn that British customs police recently closed the shop (on a seemingly spurious charge of illegal imports from the USA) and confiscated a range of books, which would eventually be incinerated.

In the final third of the programme, Marshall presents a series of straight-to-camera interviews. The last and most moving of these is a speech read by Michael Callen, a gay rights activist in New York who tells us: ‘At the age of 28 I wake up each morning to face the very real possibility of my own death.’ Callen’s are the last words in Bright Eyes. The strength of these interviews lies not in disjunction or parody (as is the case in the first half of Bright Eyes) but on the veracity of the individual witnesses.

The question arises of why Marshall feels the need to disrupt the forms of conventional television before moving to this personalised political format. The answer is, in part, to do with Marshall’s interpretation of television as a medium both to be challenged and as one that held activist potential. Bright Eyes draws its techniques from the two separate histories of video and film art as they had developed in the UK, where moving-image makers were either organised into activist or avant-garde art collectives. Marshall argued that the critical concerns of video and film art, and the prerogatives of activist video and film, were beginning to converge in the 1980s, and that television was at the heart of this convergence. In an essay published in 1984 Marshall noted that:

‘For the last ten years the two major independent video communities – video artists and social action/agit prop video workers – have been separated by major ideological differences. In Britain this gap is now beginning to close as community video workers increasingly question dominant televisual forms […] It is also becoming evident that the historical distance between independent film and video producers is beginning to close….’04

The problem, of course, is that such television might simply wrong foot audiences into turning the television off: the programme seems too difficult, dense and complex, to have held the public’s attention for long (it might, too, have contributed to The Sun newspaper’s description of the channel as ‘Channel Bore’). The unashamedly highbrow nature of the station’s programming changed in 1987, following the retirement of its original visionary chief executive Jeremy Isaacs (although experimental works would continue to be broadcast and supported for another decade, when the Arts Council’s Film, Video and Broadcasting Department was shut down in 1997).Bright Eyes occupied a unique historical position at a crossroads when the avant-garde directly confronted a mass audience, using theory and artistic achievement in order to contribute to Williams’s ‘long revolution’.