The Independent Archive: Channel 4 `could still be a rather good delicatessen'

September 1989 Jeremy Isaacs, in an interview with Michael Leapman, reveals how the BBC turned him down

Monday 20 September 1999 00:02 BST

IN HIS cavernous office across the road from the Royal Opera House, where he is the general director, Jeremy Isaacs stretched his small frame in a deep black leather armchair.

"I certainly don't feel like Charles de Gaulle sitting at Colombey-les- Deux-Eglises, waiting to be proved right and waiting to be summoned," he insisted. "But I do think I'd have had some things to give the BBC."

Mr Isaacs's rejection by the BBC Board of Governors for the post of Director- General, after he had been encouraged to apply for it, is the climax of his book Storm Over 4. The appointment would, appositely, have sealed his career, after his initially bruising but ultimately triumphant years as the founding chief executive of Channel 4.

In his book, he drops hints of the grilling the BBC governors gave him in 1987. He was challenged about whether he was amenable to discipline and whether he could stop unsuitable programmes from being aired. In our interview, he elaborated on the ordeal.

"I don't think there was a single governor who really favoured my appointment," he said. "The interview was very much concerned with stopping mistakes - how can we avoid one cock-up after another? It was a question of finding a way of saying what new system of controls should be introduced. It's absolutely true: I'm not known for a tendency to go and see what people are doing and telling them to stop. Rather the opposite: I like to get things on the air."

It seems likely that he is better out of it. An entrepreneurial talent for innovation is not, today, part of the job description of the BBC's DG. It was very much a qualification for the inaugural head of Channel 4, and his book is largely devoted to listing the channel's achievements, with justifiable pride.

Under the new Broadcasting Bill, Channel 4 will sell its own advertising for the first time but will still get guaranteed funding from the ITV companies to ensure it can maintain its level of programming. Dedicated free-marketeers - of whom Rupert Murdoch is the most articulate spokesman - would like to see it eventually earning its living like any other commercial company. Mr Isaacs thinks it could survive such a discipline, albeit in a necessarily modified form.

"Even in the great plethora and proliferation of channels there's going to be, there will be room for somebody buying very cunningly and backing their own judgement, to come up with a channel that presents itself as the one that discriminating viewers in search of pleasure on television will be able to enjoy. But it will be very difficult to fund the making of great strands of difficult and enterprising work like Film on Four. It could still be a rather good delicatessen, but there will be some lines it will not be able to stock. It's always easier to fund purchasing work than make it."

Like all unreconstructed public service broadcasters, Mr Isaacs contests with ferocity the scathing view of British television articulated by Mr Murdoch at last month's Edinburgh Television Festival.

"We have a genuinely popular culture in this country, well represented on television - not just the crinoline stuff that Rupert Murdoch was poking fun at. Can you imagine The Boys from the Blackstuff being commissioned in Hollywood? It came from a writer's involvement with his community and a broadcasting system's ability to put that writer's searing account of things on the screen. And that's genuinely popular high art."

Since Mr Isaacs left Channel 4, its ratings have stayed largely stagnant and are still not regularly breaking the 10 per cent barrier - 10 per cent of the total audience - that has been the target since it began broadcasting in November 1982. It is no secret that he disapproved of the choice of Michael Grade as his successor; indeed he wept, and threatened to throttle him if he betrayed the trust. Yet he does not blame Mr Grade for the channel's current desultory performance.

"Michael Grade is a very skilled scheduler and a very capable programme executive. It's a question of whether he and his colleagues can succeed in a very competitive world. I see no reason yet to carry out my threat to throttle him. I wish him well."

From the Media page of `The Independent', Wednesday 20 September 1989

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