The People Make Television exhibition at the Raven Row gallery in London has brought to light a history of TV in Britain that many would be surprised to learn had a home on the BBC. Tom Schofield visited the exhibition and writes about what it indicates about the links between cultural production, state broadcasters and political organisation.

Exhibition view, Raven Row, London, 2023. People Make Television. Photo: Marcus J. Leith

People Make Television is an exhibition composed of television sets, displaying around 100 or so programmes made at the BBC’s short-lived community TV production unit in the 1970’s. It takes place at Raven Row, a gallery well-known within British art circles for politically ambitious curatorship and the independent funding it receives from left field art patron, Alex Sainsbury. The show raises questions about our orientation towards the British welfare state in a way that feels pertinent to a post-Corbyn political-cultural left.

The stylish wood-panelled television sets at Raven Row display episodes of BBC’s Open Door programme. This was a highly unorthodox fixture in popular broadcasting, with one-off shows produced by campaigning and affinity groups in collaboration with the BBC’s Community Programme Unit (CPU). Between 1973 – 83, Open Door gave groups a budget and technical studio assistance to present, record, and relay videos about the issues that mattered to them most. The unit worked with the explicit aim of empowering underrepresented groups under the slogan, ‘have your own say in your own way’.

Relative to its continental competitors, the post-war British state’s investment in a national moving-image culture was directed towards the development of television rather than film production. In 1962 a leading light of continental ‘New Wave’ filmmaking sniffily noted the ‘contradiction in terms’ between England and cinema. This was in part because Britain’s film industry, going back to the 1920s if not before, became an offshore base for Hollywood’s production studios, resulting in what Michael Chanan calls ‘the chronic crisis of British cinema’.

Yet much work that was recorded in public television studios and transmitted directly into people’s living rooms was often just as boundary-pushing as the independent continental cinema work, some to the extent that its makers were blacklisted from the industry. This heyday of British television is now seeing renewed interest, as shown by the recent DVD re-issue of the BBC’s Play For Today episodes, and of course by the People Make Television exhibition, which has offshoot events at the Bishopsgate Institute and Cafe Oto. American public television may also be experiencing a revival, as shown by Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival’s recent re-screening of Helena Solberg’s politically committed documentary work, originally funded by PBS and the American National Endowment for the Arts.

The Open Door programme in frame is indicative of a pre-Thatcherite social democratic permissiveness, an accommodating nook of civil society, whose existence would have conditioned expectations about the state’s role in social change. With it, we are transported back into the drawn out evening of ‘Western Marxism’ and ‘Eurocommunism’, a surreal twilight landscape formed from the historical impasse thrown up by the failure of working class revolution in 1920s western Europe. Here the state is considered so deeply enmeshed in the institutions of everyday life, the logic of its givenness so hegemonic across all of society, that a well-timed flash of revolutionary verve to bring about its absolute undoing seems impossible.

The relative security of life in effectively unionised public sector workplaces during these post-war welfarist years led to what A. Sivanandan described as a left wing ‘stupor’ leaving militants unprepared for the advent of neoliberalism. To view TV programmes in which black teachers, council estate residents, or transgender advocates rigorously hold state and society to account in their own terms on a mass platform may reasonably prompt pangs of nostalgia. But as Perry Anderson wrote in 1972, this cultural climate is also one of ‘pessimistic quiescence’, ‘impotence’, ‘consolation’, perhaps complacency. To have faith that a state institution such as the BBC might permit a slow revolution through community programming is to possibly underestimate the recurrent tendency of capitalist managers to violently shock workers with cuts and redundancies.

The recent resurgence of trade unions may have prompted this exhibition, or at least some of the thinking that has gone into its presentation. In answer to the question of how something so permissive could have existed in what many now call ‘rainy fascist island’, comes the refrain that ‘unions had more power back then’. There is an increasingly dawning sense that, with the defeat of Corbyn’s Labour Party, trade unions offer the greatest hope of reviving a situation in which decent standards of mass cultural production can be upheld.

In People Make Television, one of the most interesting episodes is an Open Door round-up show where previous participants in the programme are prompted to reflect on their experiences with it. Asked if pleased with the outcomes from their broadcast, the subjects candidly and unanimously announce their near complete demoralisation and disappointment. Things did not change because of their programme.

For the CPU, this perception of failure may seem catastrophic, though in truth their decision to produce and air this record demonstrates their integrity as broadcasters. It becomes apparent through their self-criticism that the problems at play go far beyond job-performance. The criticism is turned toward the inertias and active forces beyond the immediate control of any individual involved, is redirected, through the relation of bitter experience, against the state.

In 1979, writing in a context of the welfare state’s ongoing decline, The Edinburgh Weekend Return Group documented how public sector workplaces remained deeply unsatisfactory because the forces of exploitation placed any highly set standards for labour conditions under constant pressure. The often excellent and socially useful work being performed was never enough to match the disintegrating forces thrown up by capitalist state management. Referring as well to the raced and gendered discrimination that always leaves significant numbers of people under serviced by state works, they wrote, “People sometimes make their own (not capitalist, but libertarian) alternatives where they can, just because the state’s provision is not only materially inadequate but actually oppressive.”

Industrial action opens the possibility for a more effective socialist praxis in institutions that are markedly dependent on consent and patronage from the bourgeois state. To bring this on might involve organising as a form of direct action to change the direction of work performed, finding ways to conduct work that shifts attitudes toward protest (as is the case with Open Door), or using the relative stability of unionised workplaces as a base to produce anti-capitalist alternatives outside of work. A plurality of tactics seems appropriate to the conditions of life in liberal democracies, where it seems unclear how a political break might come about… but to what immediate end?

In an article for Tribune, Chris Maisano stresses the need for ‘class formation’ and ‘party building’, though warns that attempts to change bourgeois institutions from the inside “can suck socialists away from the work of class formation and into the rarefied world of bureaucratic combat”. He elaborates the point with reference to Leo Panitch’s argument that people need to pick up democratic “skills that can only be learned through the practice of building socialist organisations and cultures within capitalism”.

In this respect, a British Labour Party so thoroughly dominated by anti-democratic actors would surely be a poor starting point for any would-be socialist endeavour to take on the task of mutual education in democratic practices. Insofar as they remain genuinely open to rank-and-file organising and not subordinated to repressive leadership groupings, the trades and renters unions appear to offer some hope, or a revolutionary organisation filled with experienced socialists might offer a very good structure through which to build those skills.

The possibility of social democratic revival in Britain seems improbable, as the climate crisis and other shocks are already stirring authoritarian tendencies of governance in the liberal West. The relative freedom of public broadcasting in welfarist state societies appears an irretrievable object. This is not to say that artists should shun what few opportunities still fall from the malnourished old tree, or abandon the fight for its better maintenance. Only that they should begin to embrace the necessary uncertainty of pursuing media strategies independently of those institutions, taking with them as much as possible as the lights go down.

For now, this practice continues in the most part to look like a hybrid. The curators of People Make Television keep well-established positions at major public institutions (Tate, BFI, Camden Art Centre), and have been facilitated in their work here by private philanthropy (Raven Row). Far from the 100 plus programmes having been found in one convenient repository, much effort was expended in tracking down the scattered non-art-world-famous holders of these obscure tapes. The exhibition space, free to access between Weds-Sun 11am – 6pm until 26th March, feels like a communal luxury, as might be found in certain libraries and public building foyers. As state institutions undergo managed decline, experiments with alternative sources of both funding and exhibition content will imprint uniquely upon the art of this generation.

People Make Television is running at Raven Row gallery until Sunday 26 March.

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