There are plenty of critics who can’t abide the direction C4 has gone under current CEO Andy Duncan. But there’s no question that it airs some of the most talked-about TV in the UK. And the impetus comes from a number of quarters, not just the channel’s shrewd and provocative head of content Kevin Lygo.
Darlow Smithson’s acclaimed Falling Man, for example, was commissioned by Hamish Mykura, head of history, science and religion. Deputy head of docs Simon Dickson, meanwhile, has made his name with shock doc strands such as ‘Only Human’ and ‘Body Shock.’ Over on sister channel More4 (run by Peter Dale and Katie Speight), the strand ‘True Stories’ has had a good hit rate with films like Vixen’s Sisters In Law.
Of them all, Dickson is currently the most flamboyant. Current projects on his slate include Firefly’s The Family, a six-hour observational series that promises to ‘reflect family life like never before.’ His recent stand-out shows include ‘reverse anthropology’ show Tribes, in which indigenous peoples from around the world were brought to the UK to see how they’d get on.
Speaking to indie producers, Dickson has outlined his preference for ‘high-impact, high-end, popular human interest shows such as The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off.’ Asked what he was missing, he replied: ‘I am missing frightening things. We should embrace things that make us think ‘Should we really be doing this?’ Throw us a grenade with a pin out to bounce around.’
The call for controversy comes from every corner of C4′s commissioning department. While Dickson wants to be frightened, ‘Cutting Edge’ chief Meredith Chambers has told producers: ‘I need to feel threatened by the stories, and find a star performer with real tension.’ That said, Chambers also appears to have a more sentimental side. His breakout series to date is the Rose D’Or winning The Secret Millionaire, in which five millionaires went undercover for a week before handing over a lump sum of cash to deserving folk who were down on their luck.
C4′s divine mission to dissent has its critics – with some people arguing that the channel’s thirst for controversy leads executives to defend the indefensible. Andy Duncan’s attempt to rationalize the Big Brother racism row was a case in point. Mykura also ran into trouble over his decision to commission Martin Durkin’s The Great Global Warming Swindle. In the face of a savage critique by environmentalist George Monbiot, Mykura’s defence of Durkin’s film probably fell short. He argues however that ‘the debate the film has started is to be welcomed’ – C4′s auto-response to apoplectic opponents.