Majestic 2

Screen Industries Category

Investigating the Impact of Channel 4’s Move to Bristol: Part 4

by Andrew Spicer

This fourth and final blog will describe aspects of Channel 4’s establishment of its new headquarters in Leeds, following a visit on 14-16 November 2022; a separate interview with Nations and Regions Controller, Sinead Rocks; and ‘Channel 4 at 40: The TV Revolution and Bristol’, an ‘anniversary’ event held at the Arnolfini Gallery on 3 December, co-organised by myself and Professor Rod Stoneman. There were a number of such events around UK cities – including Belfast and Cardiff – and centrepiece celebrations in Central London during November. In the conclusion, I reflect more generally on the process of relocation and on Channel 4’s future as a public service broadcaster.

The Leeds Headquarters

As befits a headquarters, Channel 4’s operation in Leeds is much larger than those in the Bristol or Glasgow hubs. It currently houses over 200 staff – expected to rise to nearly 300 – that includes the nations and regions staff and the 150 who compose 4Studios, the broadcaster’s in-house digital content team that has grown rapidly since relocation. 20 of the 120 news staffers are located in Leeds, alongside the team responsible for Steph’s Packed Lunch – a daily lifestyle and chat programme presented by Steph McGovern – which broadcast out of a different studio close-by in Leeds city centre. Senior staff located in Leeds include Sinead Rocks as Head of the Nations and Regions team and her deputy Kevin Blacoe, Head of Partnerships; Caroline Hollick, Head of Drama, and Pete Andrews, Head of Sport.

As in Bristol and Glasgow, Channel 4 chose to occupy an iconic building, The Majestic, a Grade II listed former cinema – one of the ‘picture palaces’ that were constructed in the 1920s – before it was closed in 1969 to become a bingo hall then nightclub. Badly damaged by fire in 2014, The Majestic took three years to convert once the decision to have Leeds as the new headquarters had been taken. Channel 4 initially used offices in Westgate before moving in to The Majestic on 6 September 2021. It is an imposing building, a stone’s throw from the main railway station, though there is no external indication of Channel 4’s occupancy of the top three floors, 27,000 square feet, of this seven storey building. However, during the renovation a huge banner was hung round the building – ‘Didn’t think Channel 4 knew there was life outside the M25’ – registering the broadcaster’s consciousness of its perception as a metropolitan organisation.

The office space is open plan, collaborative and spacious, the general décor neo-modernist, mirroring those of Bristol and Glasgow. Overall there is a sense of a prosperous organisation, the majority of whose staff are young, informally dressed and used to working flexibly. This is partly because the majority are 4Studio staff – the biggest department outside London –consists of young creatives (20-24 year olds) employed to work on digital content, either original or repackaging existing programmes, targeted at 16-34 year-olds who do not have an affinity with Channel 4’s terrestrial presence. The work goes on E4, More4 and various online platforms – Snap Chat, Twitter, Tik Tok etc., with Facebook the biggest market and YouTube a priority (Channel 4.0) because of its monetising potential. 4Studios is a key element in the broadcaster’s acceleration strategy to create, adapt and distribute content across social media channels and to become the UK’s most viewed social branded partner with upwards of 11 billion views of Channel 4 content across digital media. Its growth also serves to create numerous opportunities for emerging performing talent. A deliberate decision was taken to recruit locally, working with local colleges and universities; approximately 85 per cent of its staff are from the north of England. 4Studios adheres to C4’s core remit by commissioning 90 per cent of its work from mainly local indies and freelancers. In addition to locality, the recruitment emphasis was on diversity (under-represented groups) and on offering genuine possibilities for career progression. Channel 4 runs a local apprenticeship scheme – eight or nine places a year – as part of the Content Creatives Programme. There are some additional more specialist, niche roles where the hiring is national, including London.

Some of my discussions were with staff from the partnership organisations which were involved in Leeds’s bid to host the city that was led by Leeds City Council, the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, the City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council, West Yorkshire Combined Authority and Screen Yorkshire. The region’s deliberately informal Gogglebox-style ‘Be the Spark’ campaign, like those of Bristol and Glasgow, emphasised youth, diversity and the dynamism of a range of digitally-savvy local indies. It argued that having Channel 4’s headquarters would generate an additional 1,200 jobs and £1 billion additional income for the region over the next decade. In addition, the bid emphasised that Leeds had very broad geographical reach; Sally Joynson, then Chief Executive of Screen Yorkshire, focused on what she argued had been the heavy ‘consolidation’ of media location on the western side of the UK – Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow – and therefore that locating Channel 4’s in the North East would help redress, or ‘rebalance’ to use Ofcom’s preferred term, the UK’s media ecology. It would help soothe the age-old Manchester-Leeds rivalry a decade after the establishment of MediaCityUK in 2012. Crucial to the bid was presence of Bradford, whose diverse and rapidly growing community has 120 nationalities speaking 200 languages. Mahon commented that Bradford was ‘of particular interest to us because of ethnic diversity and social mobility and because of the youth of the city’.[1]

Channel 4 also enjoyed support after it ‘landed’, including rates relief on renting the Majestic, help from the locality with staff relocation and providing introductions to key figures in the region – fast track relationships or ‘speed dating’ – designed to connect the broadcaster into existing networks. However, expectations were high: the anticipation that Channel 4 would play a very active role in partnerships with stakeholders. The consensus during my visit was that Channel 4 had been an excellent partner, interviewees citing 4Studios regional recruitment, and its support for Bradford’s 2025 City of Culture. There is a specific Screen Strategy for Bradford, which half funds a Screen Hub with Channel 4. Interviewees argued that the decision to invest in new television studios on Whitehall Road only got over the line because of Channel 4’s presence. As elsewhere in the organisation, relocation was slowed up first by the pandemic and then the threat of privatisation, which made partners reluctant to convene future-facing strategic meetings for 12-18 months. Nevertheless, the arrival of Channel 4 has enabled Leeds to attract further major businesses, including media ones such as Sky. PACT has moved its nations and regions office to Leeds, which now has a branch of the National Film School.

The opening of Channel 4’s headquarters in Leeds was judged to be a very significant moment for the city, placing it firmly on the UK’s media map. As in Bristol and Glasgow, Channel 4’s presence was seen as a ‘great big deal’ for Leeds and Bradford’s cultural and business communities, a statement of worth, esteem, status and confidence in the future.

Interview with Sinead Rocks, Head of Nations and Regions, Channel 4[2]

Sinead Rocks was appointed to the post of Head of Nations and Regions at Channel 4 in 2019 and is now based at its Leeds headquarters. Her role is to ensure that the broadcaster delivers on the ‘4 All the UK’ strategy and to encourage commissioners to work with a wide variety of indies across the UK. A further core activity is to diagnose the barriers impeding the growth of the production sector outside London and to attempt to redress these through training and skills initiatives and to open up the industry to those who had never considered a media career might be possible. In the majority of cases these take the form of partnerships and placements with experienced staff in existing companies. Channel 4’s national 4Skills training programme also involves regular meetings with other providers – the BBC, ITV, Sky, Amazon, Netflix etc. – ‘because we actually need the same thing, a healthy sector right across the UK’. Over the last five years there has been evidence of an evolving culture of co-operation, including co-productions, rather than head-to-head competition, which act as the catalyst for sustained growth with a wide geographical reach.

Cumulatively these developments will lessen the industry’s dependence on London and facilitate a wider range of voices being hears and represented in the UK’s broadcasting landscape. Rocks emphasised that the budgets are held by the senior genre commissioners as they need to ‘balance the slate for the genre’, rather than in particular localities. She is convinced that relocation was necessary to help Channel 4 become ‘much more reflective of the UK as a whole in all its different facets and flavours … We need to know that we are representing the unheard voices and provide the level of challenge that Channel 4 was set up to deliver. And we will do that more effectively if we are not all based on one building.’ Relocation has enabled commissioners build ‘really close relationships with independent production companies in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had those commissioners been based in London’, facilitating an ‘ongoing dialogue and conversation’.

Rocks considers that the move out of London has meant ‘attracting people to join our organisation who really are fired up about changing how things are done within broadcasting’ and sends out a resounding message that building a media career does not necessitate spending a period in London. Despite the pandemic-enforced proliferation of Zoom or Teams meetings, she welcomes the possibilities of returning to face-to-face encounters that are less time pressured and thus better able to create the conditions in which a genuine and potentially transformative exchange can take place: ‘the depth and richness of relationship building that actually turns a piece of coal into a sparking diamond’, thus the difference between ‘being functional and adding value’. She emphasised that a responsive regions and nations’ strategy is one that recognises and helps to nurture particular cultural specificities not a one size fits all – ‘different part of the UK need different things’ – which is reflected in the different ways in which the various ‘hub days’ are organised up and down the country.

Channel 4 at 40: the TV Revolution in Bristol – Arnolfini Gallery, 3 December

The schedule for this event was as follows:

11.00-11.30 Professor Andrew Spicer: Welcome & Introduction: Channel 4 and the TV Revolution

11.30-12.00 Professor Rod Stoneman: Bristol and Channel 4 – The First Phase: Early Bristol film activity; Co-operatives and Independent Workshops (Bristol Bands Newsreel)

12.00-12.30 Channel 4, Bristol and factual television –

David Parker: Cut Throat Business & Colin Thomas: The Dragon Has Two Tongues

12.30-13.00 Channel 4 and Animation

David Sproxton: Aardman Animations’ early commissions

13.00-13.30 Channel 4 and Drama

Martin Kiszko: Zastrozzi (1986) – Channel 4 Films

13.30-14.30 Lunch

14.30-14.45 Channel 4 in 2000s (i): Andrew Spicer: Skins (2007-13)

14.45-15.15 Channel 4 in 2000s (ii): Jeremy Routledge, Calling the Shots: Random Acts (2013-17)

15.15-15.45 Sacha Mirzoeff (Head of Hub): The Work of Channel 4’s Creative Hub in Bristol

15.45-16.15 Break

16.15-16.45 Tamsin Summers/Sophia Thompson: Drummer TV (The Plinth + A Very British Job Agency (extracts)

16.45-17.15 Michael Jenkins and Mena Fombo: Blak Wave (with extracts: Shadow of Slavery and Chance to Shine)

17.15-17.45 Plenary discussion

17.45-19.00 Break

19.00-20.30 Harvey Lilley (Proper Job Film) – The Falklands War: The Untold Story (2022) + Q&A

In the opening overview, I discussed Channel 4’s origins, its founding remit and in what ways its establishment and subsequent history might constitute a ‘TV Revolution’. I emphasised how it was constituted as unique entity, a publicly owned but commercially-funded not-for-profit company, with no shareholders and with no direct dependence on the government, as the BBC does, through a licence fee. Channel 4 had licence to be different. Its statutory remit required Channel 4 to:

  • Appeal to tastes and interests not generally catered for by ITV
  • Encourage innovation and experiment in the form and content of programmes that would lend it a ‘distinctive character’
  • Ensure that a ‘substantial proportion’ of its programmes were made by independent production companies – i.e., not the ITV companies.
  • Have a central and extended scheduled slot for news

This was the birth of the ‘TV Revolution’, a broadcaster constituted to be radical, subversive, challenging, reaching out to an increasing diverse, multicultural UK society. Its core demographic was and remains 16–35-year-olds who might wish to see something different on their television screens. And, as a publisher-broadcaster, Channel 4 would not produce its own programmes but commission them from other companies, which encouraged numerous small, independent companies to make television programmes with fresh, diverse and innovative content; in its first year of operation, these new indies took 61 per cent of the initial commissions, four times what had been anticipated.

In view of the presentations to come, I focused on Channel 4 News – slap-bang in a mid-evening position and a full hour in length, which afforded the opportunity for greater range and depth of journalistic coverage, especially foreign events. Its investigative approach resembled that of a broadsheet such as the Guardian. The News come to stand for core Channel 4 values: hard-hitting journalism, irreverent and anti-Establishment. I then briefly discussed the early anarchic supplement, The Friday Alternative, made by David Graham, who’d set up a small company, Diverse Productions, recruiting a varied cross-section of personnel to make radical news programmes. Channel 4 News continues in its original position and stays true to its founding remit, flanked by occasional programmes for Unreported World that sustains the legacy of radical and fearless journalism and the determination to seek out stories from across the globe.

If a different approach to reporting the news constitutes an important aspect of Channel 4’s TV Revolution, I argued that other aspects include the extraordinary growth of the independent production sector, which changed from cottage industry to big business and is now worth around £3.5 billion. It has become the norm for television programme production globally. Jeremy Isaacs, Channel 4’s first CEO, was adamant that it should support the UK’s indigenous feature film industry, an unprecedented move by a UK broadcaster. Channel 4’s first fiction commissioner, David Rose, encouraged innovative productions, soliciting films, often by debuting writers or directors, such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985),Comrades (1986) and Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988), Although there have been ups and downs, by common consent, Film4 injected fresh life into what was a moribund British film industry, helping to create a rejuvenated national cinema, producing or co-producing some of the UK’s most celebrated films since the 1980s, including The Crying Game (1992), Trainspotting (1995) and 12 Years a Slave (2013), another ‘revolution’.

I then discussed two central themes of these blogs – relocation and privatisation – before sketching Channel 4’s Future Four strategy, the ‘pivot to digital’, of which 4Studios, discussed above, is a core component.

In the second session, Professor Rod Stoneman explained the ways in which a nest of emerging small independent filmmakers and micro-companies provided a fertile creative, cultural and highly politicised environment in which talent could develop and which helped to create and shape Channel 4. Notable was the Independent Filmmakers Association, an alliance between varied forms of filmmaking, various traditions of political documentary, agit prop, innovative narrative forms, avant garde aesthetics and micro-budget fiction filmmaking. All of these activities were a reaction to the existing constrictions of ‘fortress television’. The first ever festival of independent British cinema took place in the Arnolfini in February 1975, organised by David G. Hopkins, which provided a forum for and encouraged the cross-fertilisation of these different forms of independent film practice. Rod discussed the Independent Film Workshops in Britain, which stretched over seventeen different centres across the UK in 1979 and the IFA’s dialogue with Michael Meacher, then a Junior Minister at the Department of Trade. When Labour was defeated in 1979, that dialogue was transferred to the debates and lobbying that eventually led to the formation of Channel 4 and informed its particular remit, outlined above. The creative talent that was fomenting in these groups – that were activist collectives – forged an independent sector from which Channel 4 could draw in its early commissions and also led to the 1982 Workshop Declaration, an agreement between Channel 4 and the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) that supported a number of existing not-for-profit groups up and down the country through to the early 1990s.[3] Rod showed an extract from the Bristol Bands Newsreel (1980) by Mike Gifford and Mike Leggett, a community collaboration between filmmakers and some of the bands and venues active in Bristol at that time. Rod became one of the founding commissioners in Channel 4’s Independent Film and Video Department led by Alan Fountain, which connected immediately with the ‘radical pluralism’ that the spectrum of IFA practices represented. He showed a short extract from one of its commissions (co-funded by the BFI Production Board), Richard Kwietniowski’s Flames of Passion (1989), which transformed the famous film Brief Encounter (1945) into a witty contemporary gay melodrama.

The next section featured two of these community-based co-operatives that emerged from this early period and which attracted Channel 4 funding. David Parker produced Cut Throat Business (1986) for his co-operative Forum Television, a documentary about the closure of a chicken processing factory at Bridgewater in Somerset in 1985, as seen from the viewpoint of those who worked there and who took part in abortive industrial action to save the plant. It brought the voices of hitherto unrepresented groups to the national television screens. Colin Thomas showed a brief extract from his monumental thirteen-part series The Dragon Has Two Tongues (1985). Rather than provide the conventional synthesis or ‘balance’ between different viewpoints, the series shows an irreconcilable clash between its co-presenters, the patrician Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and the man-of-the-people Gwyn Alf Williams, the latter rejecting Thomas’s mystical continuity from pre-historic times to the present by emphasising a Marxian sense of breaks and ruptures as the essence of Welsh history. Both Parker and Thomas emphasised the trust that was shown by Channel 4, the lack of interference and editorial control, which gave then an empowering autonomy to make the programme they thought appropriate to the subject.

David Sproxton revealed the crucial role Channel 4 played in enabling Aardman Animations to develop into what is now a global company, commissioning a series of ‘Down and Out’ animations that would multiply the company’s 1978 pilot episodes about the demi-monde for transmission soon after the Channel’s launch. These programmes – ‘On Probation’, ‘Sales Pitch’, ‘Palmy Days’, ‘Early Bird’ and ‘Late Edition’ – transmitted almost a year later, were scheduled at 9 pm across week-day evenings, unheard of positioning for animation that had been confined hitherto to children’s programming. Sproxton opined: ‘Those commissions allowed us to practise our craft, to build our skills, to develop a pool of people who contributed massively to these films; model-makers, set-designers, camera-crew, editors, etc etc, a great many are still working with us today or have carved out successful careers of their own. It also gave [Aardman] exposure on a respected broadcasting channel and supported us during the making of these films. All this built the studio’s credibility and stature.’ The programmes had an immediate impact, establishing Aardman’s distinctive ‘clay-animation’ style and attracting interest from advertisers, which provided the cash flow that enabled the company to expand, including the famous ‘Lip-Sync’ series. Sproxton quoted his co-founder Peter Lord’s observation that Channel 4’s commissioning practices help grow ‘a diverse and dynamic animation culture which in style, voice and content was aggressively, unmistakably British’ – an animation revolution. He ended with a short compilation tape of snippets from many of the programmes Channel 4 commissioned from Aardman.

Channel 4’s contribution to radical drama was represented by Martin Kiszko’s discussion of Zastrozzi, a four-part mini-series broadcast in 1986. This production was based on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1810 Gothic horror story, an overheated story of revenge, betrayal and thwarted or misplaced love. The action, partially transposed to the present day, is highly stylised, operatic and poetic, an extraordinary fusion of the compositional beauty of the filming – written and directed by David G. Hopkins – and Kiszko’s sensuous and evocative music. The whole production exemplified – in the most uninhibited way – the possibilities Channel 4’s ‘TV Revolution’ created, encouraging radical experimentation in the formas well as the content of programming.

After lunch I introduced Skins, the Channel 4 series that many people most strongly associate with Bristol. Skins was a highly successful – seven series (2007-10 and 2013) – and controversial comedy drama that followed the lives of a group of teenagers in Bristol through the two years of their sixth form. Each episode focus on a particular character and the struggle s/he faces, which included dysfunctional families, various forms of mental illness, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexuality, identity, substance abuse, bullying and death. Parents are depicted as annoying, usually foul-mouthed, goons who have no idea about the experiences their offspring are going through. Skins, now also a ‘cult classic’, was a critical success, credited with the depth of its understanding of youth problems that were not usually addressed on British television and very different from the slick American fantasy-lifestyle teen series such as Dawson’s Creek and Gossip Girl. Several of the Skins cast, including Dev Patel who plays Anwar, went on to have successful acting careers.

Skins was commissioned by Danny Cohen, head of E4, then a tiny, experimental digital channel, who gave writer Bryan Elsley and his son Jamie Brittain, aided by several ‘teenage consultants’, a free hand. Cohen liked the idea of a teenage show written from their perspective, not an adult one. Produced by the London-based Company Pictures, but with a largely Bristolian crew, Skins was shot almost entirely in Bristol, including the John Cabot Academy as the fictitious Roundview College, and scenes around College Green, the docks and other, for locals, instantly recognisable locations. I then showed the opening of the first episode of Series 1.

A contrasting series, Random Acts (2013-17) was profiled by Jeremy Routledge, co-founder of the Bristol-based company Calling the Shots. The series supported the talent of communities and emerging storytellers from Bristol and the South West, helping filmmakers use modest funding from the Arts Council, the BFI and Channel 4 to produce innovative and often experimental short films. Screening on Channel 4 provided a national showcase for these productions.

The next set of presentations represented voices already profiled in these blogs: Blak Wave, Drummer TV, Sacha Mirzoeff as head of Channel 4’s Bristol hub and Harvey Lilley, co-founder of Proper Job Films (see Blog#3), who introduced the concluding evening presentation: a full screening of The Falklands War: The Untold Story, first broadcast on 27 March 2022, another fortieth anniversary but of a rather different event. This compelling and probing 68-minute documentary features a range of interviews from senior commanders and also other combatants who now feel able to discuss the ‘other’ Falklands War, unreported in the media and the jingoistic tabloids, which showed how close Britain came to losing the conflict and explores the physical and mental trauma that the veterans experienced, which they movingly reveal to the camera.

Together these currently active companies showed how the reach and influence of Channel 4 remains potent, retaining a commitment to the unusual, the innovative and the provocative. Overall, the day demonstrated that despite the transformative changes in the media landscape over these forty years, Channel 4 remains a distinctive and significant aspect of Bristol and the UK’s media ecology, which relocation has helped enhance.


If we look across the piece, there are distinct limitations to Channel 4’s relocation strategy, which eschewed a radical realignment of the UK’s broadcasting locations in favour of targeting established ‘hot spots’ with developed infrastructural networks in ‘first tier’ cities. Only the development of its Leeds headquarters could be said to have made a limited impact in addressing the ‘geographical imbalances’ in the UK’s broadcasting that Ofcom discerned. Within its chosen cities, Channel 4 has played safe, siting its offices in areas already on the up rather than attempting to spearhead more extensive urban regeneration.

However, throughout the four blogs, I have shown that relocation has had been a positive and progressive change both for Channel 4 itself, which has shifted from working with companies to working in partnership with its host cities to realise the vision set out by Mahon in ‘4All the UK’. Each city has benefitted significantly from the broadcaster’s arrival, especially Leeds as its new headquarters, and Channel 4’s presence has enhanced each city’s ‘brand’ creating spill-over investment, infrastructural improvements and additional business arrivals.

These positive impacts have been slowed by two unrelated factors. The first was the pandemic – almost as soon as the new offices were open, they were closed to comply with lockdown. The second was the Conservative government’s determination to privatise Channel 4 in the face of overwhelming opposition from the industry, academia and most informed opinion. Thankfully, at time of writing, December 2022, newspapers have been reporting that privatisation has been ‘quietly shelved’.

Thus if relocation does not constitute a ‘TV Revolution’ comparable to Channel 4’s birth in 1982, it appears to be a progressive force for democratic change that contributes both economic and cultural value. Commissioners are forging closer relationships with local indies and training schemes are becoming more responsive to local needs. £5 million has been invested in 4Skills and there are plans to double that investment alongside an increased focus on the nations and regions, including greater penetration into local schools and colleges. The regional centres are gradually becoming more attractive to senior staff who no longer feel they need to be in London. Increasingly a media career that takes place entirely in the nations and regions seems possible, even desirable.

However, it is a change that will take time – and consistent political support – to realise completely. Especially as locating production in a particular place does not also mean that that locality will find itself represented on the screen. In many ways that is a more significant challenge. Although there is a perception in some quarters that Channel 4 is not moving fast enough, perhaps in the longer term Channel 4 will become a fully devolved, regionally embedded broadcaster, shedding its London premises, one that, like the old ITV franchise holders, promotes a diverse range of voices from across the UK, affording them genuine autonomy that can develop and promote the locality and its culture, traditions and specificity and make its voice heard. If that is so, Channel 4 can become an even more important element in a responsive, accountable media ecology no longer so dominated by London.

Perhaps the last word should be given to David Plowright, one of Granada Television’s most perceptive and far-sighted executives: ‘The greatest asset ITV brought to national broadcasting was the distancing from London of a major part of the creative input into television. The change was not only desirable in itself but part of a revolutionary policy designed to give the regions hope for the future. Regional independent television brought an entirely new scrutiny to bear on British society’.

I write in the expectation that Channel 4 will continue to give the UK’s nations and regions ‘hope for the future’.

[1] Quoted in Helen Pidd, ‘Channel 4 opens new HQ in Leeds as it fights against privatisation’, Guardian, 5 September 2021.

[2] Zoom interview by author on 15 August 2022.

[3] See Peter Thomas, ‘The British workshop movement and Amber Film’, Studies in European Cinema, 8: 3, 2012, pp. 195-209.