At Raven Row

Georgie Newson

‘We’ve made this programme for Black parents,’ Mike Phillips said, introducing ‘Black Teachers’ on BBC2 in 1973. ‘We’ve got no intention of wasting our time on proving things that we all know.’ The programme went on to discuss why Black children often perceived themselves as less capable than their white peers, and one answer was that popular culture, in particular television, was to blame: the patronising, coercive tone with which documentary-makers addressed Black subjects; the slurs and stereotypes regurgitated in comedies like Love Thy Neighbour; exoticising accounts of the Caribbean. But ‘this programme,’ Phillips said, ‘is for us.’

‘Black Teachers’ was an episode of Open Door, a product of the BBC’s Community Programme Unit, founded a year earlier to profile groups and causes that had been ‘unheard or neglected’ by the media establishment. The CPU was one of the earliest success stories of the public access television movement, spurred on by the rise of ‘community channels’ in the US and the portable film and video technologies that had made them possible. Its archive has been inaccessible for decades, but People Make Television, an exhibition at Raven Row in Spitalfields until 25 March, aims to change that, presenting a tightly curated – but still vast – selection of the material produced by the unit and its offshoots.

The bulk of the material is gathered from Open Door, the CPU’s first and longest-running series, in which organisations and individuals could apply for half an hour or so of essentially unmoderated airtime. It was designed as a corrective to the assumption – no less justified now than it was in the 1970s – that the world of broadcasting was largely a carnival for Oxbridge graduates. Successful candidates were given the opportunity to broadcast to audiences far larger than their existing base, if not necessarily as rapt (episodes were initially screened at 11:30 p.m.). The working title for the series was ‘Open House’, but someone scotched that: open the door, but don’t let them all the way into the house.

The department soon became known by internal detractors as the ‘Communist Programme Unit’. The featured organisations included the Wages for Housework Campaign: women are ‘always workers, and every mother is a working mother’. The anarchist collective of Corby told viewers that ‘the police pose a threat to whatever semblance of freedom exists in Britain today.’ One May Day, the Birmingham Clarion Choir performed a roster of socialist folk songs interspersed with rousing commentary: ‘The grandchildren of the old Chartists will enter the line of battle.’

Still, the programmers strived to maintain the BBC’s commitment to ‘balance’, devoting episodes to the Campaign for the Feminine Woman as well as the Transex Liberation Group, the Anglo-Israeli Friendship League as well as Palestine Action, the Small Landlords Association as well as a selection of local tenants unions. In 1976 the CPU accepted an application from the Campaign to Stop Immigration, who dedicated their show to ‘the silent majority who … because of a sinister veil of censorship, have never had the opportunity to give their views’. It seems the BBC has always struggled to separate its commitment to ‘impartiality’ from the indulgence of bigots who like to lambast the free-speech credentials of the institution that’s broadcasting their views.

While many of the activists profiled in Open Door saw themselves as heirs to a history of British radicalism that stretched from Diggers and Levellers to hippies and punks, some conceived of their projects as more targeted, local affairs. One of the most remarkable things about the political culture documented in the series is the prevalence of left-wing organising tactics among communities who would not have regarded themselves as especially radical. Housing associations, neighbourhood committees, worker’s co-operatives and unions provided a means not only of leveraging power but of bringing into being political identities, many of which – the unemployed, renters, retirees, the young – have long since lost any ideological cohesion. Presented with such a wealth of activist ferment, it’s easy to feel nostalgic: not for the Britain of the 1970s, which comes across throughout Open Door as stubbornly conservative, parochial, unequal and restless, but for the future that many of its inhabitants imagined might be just around the corner.

Nostalgia might also seem an appropriate response to the CPU’s vision of an open-access media landscape freed from the constraints of centralised broadcasting. In some ways this vision was realised, and not only through the early experimental programming efforts of broadcasters such as Channel 4. First-person, experience-led, unpolished (or pseudo-unpolished) broadcasting techniques are alive and well among reality television producers, vloggers, Twitch streamers and TikTokers, who don’t need public broadcasters to provide them with a ‘platform’. But a corollary of these new forms has been the collapse of the public sphere on which Open Door’s model relied. Amid the clamouring of the reaction economy – from whose demands the BBC is not exempt – there is little space for the slow, sincere, cause-led broadcasting that characterised the CPU’s early years.

Why did the bulk of this material all but disappear from public view? The short answer is that the BBC assumed nobody would be very interested in it. The BBC archive is both a national public resource and a profitable commercial asset. Given that there was never much hope of retroactively monetising the CPU’s output, it was left to a cluster of archivists, researchers and educators to unearth and circulate the material. One upshot of the Raven Row exhibition’s success is the increased likelihood that some or even all of its contents will be made accessible via the BFI National Archive. In the meantime, most of this astonishing catalogue, along with the political dynamism it captures, seems fated to remain out of reach.