C4 Case Studies for Broadcast
During November 2012 Will Strauss was commissioned to write four case studies for a Broadcast produced supplement celebrating 30 years of Channel 4.
The printed pull-out showcased the best of the publisher broadcaster, illustrating how it has successfully adhered to its public service remit by constantly pushing the boundaries of television through innovation.
Will’s case studies explored four recent shows and how they had helped to break new talent. You can see the case studies in their published form in the digital version of the supplement. Or you can click on the image below to see a high res version. Or, if neither of those two options suit you, why not simply scroll down for the full copy.
By Will Strauss
Channel 4 has always taken pride in helping to break and nurture new talent. Yes, it’s part of its PSB remit but in the 30 years since launch, it has stuck to its task with the kind of gusto that would shame even Sarah Beeney
Channel 4 has showcased new comedians, given new writers their first terrestrial commissions and taken risks on unknown actors and presenters.
What would Big Brother have been like without Davina? BBBM without Russell Brand?
T4 provided a leg up for the likes of Dermot O’Leary and Vernon Kay and dramas such as Shameless and Skins have made household names of both their cast and writers. Scour the CVs of some of the UK’s most established and well-loved stars and you’re likely find C4 on there somewhere. The sign of a job well done.
Synopsis: Comedy drama series about the painful truths of being a student.
Production company: Objective Productions and Lime Pictures
First TX: September 2011
Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s comedy drama Fresh Meat is one of the most recent drama offerings to break and support new talent. Series one saw Jack Whitehall in his first dramatic role as JP. Because the show had to work as an ensemble, when it came to casting the producers saw 200 actors per role. Head of film and TV at Objective Productions, Judy Counihan says: “Every time we’d find someone that we thought was one character, they wouldn’t work another one.”
“We’d looked at a lot of posh boys,” she adds, “and casting posh is incredibly difficult. Then Jack Whitehall approached us and although he divided people at first it turns out that he is nice and funny AND he can act.”
As well as bringing Zawe Ashton to a C4 audience, the show also stars Inbetweeners’ Joe Thomas and Kimberley Nixon, now appearing in BBC comedy Hebburn.
When series one of Fresh Meat was commissioned drama producers at C4 had only just started making comedy (and vice versa); there was a chance that Fresh Meat could have been a disaster. “It was unspeakably frightening,” admits Counihan. “There is an incredibly fine line when it comes to comedy. One degree this way and it’s funny and one degree the other way it’s a hideous Polish soap opera.”
Which is ironic as that’s almost exactly how the 8 x 45’ show started life. Rejected by one broadcaster when originally pitched as a “comedy soap”, it was only when the idea landed on the desk of Channel 4 drama that Fresh Meat truly found its identity. “They defined it for us,” says Objective’s head of comedy Phil Clarke. “It’s not a soap, it’s a comedy drama.”
THIS IS ENGLAND ‘86
Synopsis: Gritty drama about friends growing up in 1980s Sheffield.
Production company: Warp Films
First TX: September 2010
As a general rule, film-to-TV spin offs don’t work. This Is England ’86 is the exception. Director Shane Meadows’ four-part drama, which picks up three years after the film left off, attracted audiences of more than 2.5m viewers.
For executive producer and head of Warp Films Mark Herbert the success of ‘86 stems from the depth of the characters that were created for the movie. “Shane puts so much work into every character, not just the main ones, working so hard on the back story in rehearsals and that comes out in their performances,” he says. “But with the film we could only focus on the young boy, Thommo. That meant these other amazing fleshed out characters like Lol, in particular, didn’t get the screen time that they deserved. ”
With festival audiences also asking ‘what happened to the rest of the gang?’ the idea of continuing the story was casually mentioned to Channel 4. “We were having a meeting with Film4, discussing something else and This Is England [the film] had just had record viewing figures,” continues Herbert. “While discussing that with then head of drama Liza Marshall, Shane happened to mention that he had thought about taking it further and that perhaps TV was the answer.”
In the film, these other amazing fleshed out characters didn’t get the screen time that they deserved
Successful though it was, This Is England wasn’t without its risks, says Herbert, not least because Meadows was new to TV and as a film director was notorious for over-shooting. “I think it was nerve wracking for [Channel 4] at first because of the way Shane works,” he says. “But during the course of the shoot, once they started to see the rushes, they could see how this mad process would work. And they stuck with it. It was a leap of faith for them and I really appreciate what they did.”
THE LAST LEG
Synopsis: Daily catch-up coverage of the 2012 London Paralympics
Production company: Sunset + Vine
First TX: August 2012
Initially Channel 4’s daily Paralympics late night show was going to be a conventional highlights offering. Once relatively unknown Australian comedian Adam Hills was confirmed as the presenter, however, it became clear that there was a chance to do something that played to his comedic strengths and utilized his perspective as a funny man with a disability.
“Between us we established pretty early on that as long as we stuck to the principle of celebrating the Paralympics first and foremost, we could have a bit of fun, and push a few boundaries at the same time,” explains producer Pete Thomas.
Having fronted Paralympic coverage for Australia’s ABC, Hills was very comfortable in the presenting role. But from a comedic point-of-view it was decided that the show would be better if he had someone to bounce off. Another relatively new face, Josh Widdicombe, was chosen because of his passion for sport along with Alex Brooker, one of Channel 4’s ‘new talent’ for the Paralympics.
“I always found Alex hilarious,” says Thomas, “and he was never shy about confronting issues or laughing at his own disability when the situation called for it, so he already had the tone of our show nailed.”
Alex was never shy about confronting issues or laughing at his own disability
For those that still weren’t sold on the format, the pilot came up trumps, says Thomas. “Off the cuff Alex ended up playing paper, scissors, stone with Adam and had everyone on the crew in hysterics, and more importantly had them at ease with the subject matter. The executives at Channel 4 saw this and loved it, they gave us some really positive and constructive feedback, and I think it gave everyone a real boost, that what we were planning to do had real potential.”
So much potential in fact that, following critical acclaim, Hills was handed a one-year deal and a full series of The Last Leg.
CUTTING EDGE – KATIE: MY BEAUTIFUL FACE
Synopsis: Inspirational story about a young woman re-building her life
Production company: Mentorn Media
First TX: October 2009
Just a few days into his job, Channel 4 documentary commissioner Mark Raphael was presented with the story of Katie Piper, a model disfigured in a deliberate sulphuric acid attack ordered by a boyfriend who had previously raped her.
With an on-going court case and a colleague warning that ‘it was too tough to show on TV’, it wasn’t an easy commission. But having been shown a taster tape, and hearing that Katie herself was keen to tell her story, he greenlit a Cutting Edge special about her harrowing but inspirational recovery.
“The idea was clearly something that fitted well with their PSB remit,” suggests Mentorn Media chief executive John Willis. “It was a powerful story with an affecting personality at the heart of it. But more than that it was Katie. She shone through in a way that was unusual not least as it was a tough subject, particularly for her.”
What followed was as remarkable as Katie herself. 3.3m viewers tuned in to that original broadcast. But not only that, Piper received more than 7,000 emails from people showing support, sharing stories and asking for help.
The profound rallying cry that emanated from the film and the response it evoked prompted a host of TV follow-ups. That year Piper read Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas message quickly followed by a four-parter, Katie: My Beautiful Friends, in which she helps and supports other people with disfigurements. A two-year deal was subsequently struck with the broadcaster.
“Even during the edit of that first film we could tell there was something exceptional about Katie,” concludes Willis. “She’s a very ordinary young woman in one way but through the tragedy of what happened she became extraordinary. She found a different Katie that had probably been there all the time but had been buried in the life she [previously] led. She is just one of those people that simply cuts through the screen.”