What is a “spoof documentary”? I ask because according to the Daily Mail, that’s what Channel 4 has just commissioned – a film about the “imagined” first 100 days of a UKIP government after a stunning victory from Nigel Farage in the 2015 general election.
But what is this a “spoof” of? UKIP? Farage himself? The unintended comedies of the electoral process? Or, more mundanely, perhaps it’s meant to predict a future reality, costumed in “spoof” garb. I get the impression that “spoof documentary” is one of those phrases that enable newspaper sub-editors to cosily classify their stories. It sounds a bit funny and doesn’t tell us much.
So here’s a bigger question: why has Channel 4’s “100 Days of UKIP” commission caused so little controversy? There’s been no discernible outcry from UKIP, despite its members’ frequent indulgences elsewhere in elaborate conspiracy theories about high-placed subterfuge. And there’s been nothing at all, really, from the main parties – no one loudly complaining about how such a film might legitimise the very idea of a UKIP-led government.
And yet the 2015 general election is already shaping up to be truly nasty. The emergence of UKIP has upset the political balance so badly that no one really knows which way the scales are going to tip. With so much at stake, the negative-campaign daggers will be out – and slung with some expertise now that both main parties have outside help from those with experience from the Obama campaigns – and therefore special training in political knife throwing.
So Channel 4’s decision to drop a provocative piece of commissioning into this unstable brew, with so little reaction, seems puzzling. It may be that, for different reasons, both the established parties and UKIP see this as a win-win: the former because they’ll expect the film to make Farage look foolish, and the latter because they hope it’ll make Farage look statesmanlike.
Both may be seriously mistaken. It could be that this will be a good, old-fashioned piece of Channel 4 contrariness – the kind that lent the broadcaster such pleasing notoriety in its early days.
It’s become an article of faith these days to say that the channel has abandoned its provocative, outlier roots – and in many respects that’s true. The Benefits Street controversy found a channel seemingly giving way to stereotyping sentiments – although the offence seemed rather more in the title than the series itself. If you look at its peak-time schedule after the enduringly superb Channel 4 News, it’s stuffed to the gills with formatted “factual entertainment”. Property shows (of various kinds) rule, along with cookery programmes and series about people watching TV, going to school, having babies and turning up bleeding in casualty.
On the face of it, there’s little here that says: this can only be on Channel 4; too often, the peak-time schedules for C4 and BBC2 can look pretty interchangeable.
Some of this sameness may be attributed to the fact that there’s now a revolving door among TV executives – BBC and C4 commissioners routinely trade places on a narrow and increasingly cliquey merry-go-round. These executives might not have the firm stamp of channel allegiance in their DNA that they once did – and for perfectly good career reasons.
The rise of the indies
But a lot of the homogenised blandness of C4 is not really the channel’s fault. In 2004, Ofcom fundamentally altered the balance of power between British broadcasters and independent production companies with the introduction of new “terms of trade”. This happened pretty invisibly to anyone outside the industry, but the effects were profound.
Under these terms, indies retained more of their rights – meaning, among other things, that the most successful of them became richer. And the richer they became, the more attractive they were as takeover targets. The results were a weakening of the broadcasters’ budgets and power, and the creation of super-indies which became ever more dominant suppliers to those broadcasters. These conglomerates of production companies were (and are) themselves sometimes owned by some the world’s biggest media players.
In programming terms, this meant one thing above all – and something that certainly was noticeable to audiences. Anything made by the newly empowered super-indies needed to be commodified. Hence the rise of the “franchise” – a One Born / Educating / Location / Grand / 24 Hours behemoth.
To give a sense of how corporate this has all become in the past ten years, one particular C4 factual entertainment show required up to nine executives to sign off on the edit. Most of these execs were in the production company, not C4.
But every once in a while the channel gets to take a risk with its dwindling viewers and financial resources – and commission something different. Or rather, something that makes it feel like the good old days – the days when it truly called the shots (or, more importantly, allowed talented directors to do so) and paid all the bills.
So Farage’s “imagined” 100 days may just have the creative room as a film to do something that’s genuinely distinctive and politically unsettling. That’s probably bad news for UKIP – and the main parties. I have a feeling the film will cause enormous, dustbin-lid-banging controversy and will upset just about everyone.
Most of all, though, it’ll be a test, in testing times, of whether C4’s trouble-making soul still stirs amidst the franchised rubble.
Do C4’s executives remember any of the old tunes? And will they hold their nerve when the real yelling and screaming begins? I hope so.