Docs

Channel 4 (UK): Risk as a way of life

Risk taking is written into Channel 4's remit. And while the channel hasn't always lived up to the billing, it is currently populated by executives who have great expertise in fusing genres. Peter Dale, now in charge of C4 diginet More4, has a great track record as a documentary commissioner. But, more recently, it is his factual entertainment hybrids that have earned plaudits.
June 1, 2006

Risk taking is written into Channel 4′s remit. And while the channel hasn’t always lived up to the billing, it is currently populated by executives who have great expertise in fusing genres. Peter Dale, now in charge of C4 diginet More4, has a great track record as a documentary commissioner. But, more recently, it is his factual entertainment hybrids that have earned plaudits.

Wife Swap and Supernanny, for example, came out of his department (not, as you might expect, entertainment). So did Jamie’s School Dinners, which saw a TV celebrity chef force the government into action over child nutrition.

It was also Dale who, in partnership with head of drama Tessa Ross, greenlit critically acclaimed docudramas such as The Government Inspector and A Very Social Secretary, both of which dealt with recent UK government controversies.

While Dale is one of the rocks from which C4 is hewn, the recent wave of positive press about the channel can largely be credited to the impact of director of programs Kevin Lygo. An entertainer by trade, it is Lygo who perfected the idea of innovating outside traditional genres. Head of entertainment Andrew Newman is Lygo’s representative on earth, commissioning innovative shows like Rock School and various vehicles for the famed mentalist Derren Brown.

Other key C4 names include Danny Cohen, now head of C4 diginet E4, but until recently head of C4′s docs. In that position, Cohen oversaw Supernanny, Fat Kids and the innovative docudrama Born With Two Mothers. Julian Bellamy and Sue Murphy, who oversee a range of factual output between them, are also smart and perceptive commissioners who are vital to the health of the channel.

But the term risk taking is best applied to an executive who is no longer one of Lygo’s flock – former head of science Simon Andrae, who recently departed to American network Fox. Andrae caused a stir by enabling controversial anatomist Gunther von Hagens to perform an autopsy live on air. He also brought C4 viewers a live exorcism and documentaries such as Jump London, which followed a team of French Free Runners as they performed death-defying leaps from rooftop to rooftop across London.

Andrae’s willingness to court controversy in search of greater truths is shared to some extent by Simon Dickson – now deputy head of documentaries. It was Dickson who commissioned the award-winning film The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off and now oversees strands such as ‘Only Human,’ which housed an acclaimed film about autism called Make Me Normal.

There are also high hopes for Dickson’s new boss, the recently appointed head of documentaries Angus Macqueen (Cohen’s successor). Known for his bold, uncompromising approach, Macqueen’s credits as an indie include The Last Peasants, about three Romanian families torn apart by migration, and Cocaine, a three-part series about the human cost of the South American drugs trade.

Strategically, C4′s approach to risk taking is evident in the fact that it recently launched broadband channel FourDocs, and it commissions many more new shows each year than its main commercial rival, ITV. It’s also worth highlighting the fact that head of religious commissioning Aaqil Ahmed is Muslim – a bold appointment in a predominantly Christian country. Ahmed has greenlit a number of attention-grabbing docs, such as Immigration is a Time Bomb, The Cult of the Suicide Bomber, Tsunami: Where was God and Gay Muslims.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.

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