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Issue 235

‘People Make Television’: Enter the BBC’s Archive

The inaugural show at London’s reopened Raven Row presents episodes of ‘Open Door’, a radical 1970s media production model 

BY Juliet Jacques in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 23 FEB 23

In 1973, BBC 2 issued a call for proposals for Open Door (1973–83) – a Monday night slot for which groups who did not work in television could make shows using the equipment, expertise and funds of the broadcaster’s Community Programme Unit. The series ran for ten years, airing 243 episodes of varying length and subject matter: around 100 feature in ‘People Make Television’ – Raven Row’s first show after a five-years hiatus – curated by Lori E. Allen, William Fowler, Matthew Harle and Alex Sainsbury, where they are presented as primary sources for a history of 1970s social movements, a substantial achievement of post-war cultural democracy and independent works of art.

On the ground floor, curated highlights appear on 12 screens, showing hours of footage on a loop. Visitors are issued headphones connected to a mobile audio device that picks up the nearest transmitter, circumventing a problem common to such exhibitions by allowing many people to watch a screen simultaneously. When I went, I joined several others enjoying The Basement Project Film Group’s East End Channel 1 (1973), one of various episodes to provide a voice to London’s Black and Asian communities. Upstairs, there are surviving programmes from local cable channels – in Bristol, Milton Keynes and Swindon – that showed works made with portable cameras, inspired by US public-access television and radical artist-activist filmmakers, such as Videofreex. On the top floor, computers offer a searchable database of the exhibition’s content, reminding us of the progression from three-channel television to the contemporary multi-channel and internet media environment.

People Make Television
Black Teachers, 1973, ‘Open Door’, film still. Courtesy: BBC and Raven Row, London

The best-known programme here is It Ain’t Half Racist, Mum (1979), an unflinching critique of racist tropes and assumptions in British television, co-presented by academic and writer Stuart Hall, that has been available on YouTube for years. Several other episodes are also online – some uploaded by their makers, who were given copies – but the exhibition offers access to many more that provide similar insight. In 2018, the BBC archive released a discussion filmed by the Transex Liberation Group and broadcast in June 1973. Now, trans people on current affairs shows are obliged to participate in bad faith ‘debates’ about the validity of their identities that generate far more heat than light. Here, however, five transsexual women spend 50 minutes calmly exploring their physical and social challenges without today’s sensationalist stupidity. The pitfalls of liberal ideas about ‘balance’ surfaced more often in commissioning, as groups such as the Campaign for the Feminine Woman, a conservative Christian outfit whose programme appears here, and the British Campaign to Stop Immigration featured alongside the Wages for Housework campaign, Palestine Action and the Black Workers’ Rights Group.

People Make Television
North West Spanner Theatre Group, Born Free Trapped Ever After, 1980, ‘Open Door’, film still. Courtesy: BBC and Raven Row, London

Now, campaign films and political arguments can be easily shared online, offering theoretically infinite ruptures to mainstream discourse. In recent years, establishment horror at the public choosing undesirable outcomes (and especially party leaders) has led to a reaction against wider democratic participation and the use of legacy media to drown oppositional ideas under an aggressively manufactured consent. But the near-ubiquitous condemnation of former UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s 2018 Alternative MacTaggart lecture – in which he referenced the kind of radical theatre groups who made formally inventive and politically progressive Open Door episodes and talked about how low trust in the media may be restored by opening it up to more diverse groups – was instructive. 

People Make Television
Street Farmers, 1973, ‘Open Door’, film still. Courtesy: BBC and Raven Row, London

Cultural gatekeepers now insist that such programming is ‘elitist’ and uninteresting. It’s certainly true that some of these programmes are dry and dated quickly. But, ultimately, they understand the egalitarian potential that large media organizations, and especially a national broadcaster, offers – so brilliantly illustrated in this archive, which will hopefully become more widely available – and sought to ensure it was never again unleashed. At a time when political possibilities are being narrowed in the face of an obviously collapsing infrastructure, ‘People Make Television’ is a welcome reminder that this cultural terrain is well worth fighting for.

People Make Telelvision’ is at Raven Row, London, until 26 March 2023

Main image: On Behalf of the People, Swindon Viewpoint, 1984, Open Door’, film still. Courtesy: BBC and Raven Row, London

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. She lives in London, UK.