Skip to main content

Research Repository

Advanced Search

Maintaining a Critical Eye: The political avant-garde on Channel 4 in the 1990s

Presence, Steve



Laura Mee

Johnny Walker


This chapter explores the oppositional documentary broadcast on Channel 4’s Critical Eye series (1990-4). Published research on aesthetically and politically radical film broadcast on the channel focuses almost without exception on the Independent Film and Video Department and the work they broadcast during the 1980s, as part of The Eleventh Hour (1982-8) and People to People (1983-7) series. Implicit in this is the assumption that after the close of that decade such oppositional material virtually ceased to be broadcast on British television. In this chapter I want to provide a corrective to this assumption, asserting Critical Eye as a prominent exhibition platform for the genre in the 1990s.

Following an assessment of the existing literature on the topic, the chapter explores the reasons behind the dearth of attention given to oppositional film in this period (not the least of which was the shifting political and economic climate to which the channel was adapting), before considering a handful of films indicative of those broadcast on Critical Eye, including The Battle of Trafalgar (Despite TV, 1990), Operation Solstice (Neil Goodwin and Mayassa Al-Malaszi, 1991) and Proud Arabs and Texan Oilmen (Platform Films, 1994). Not only are these films indicative of a wider culture of oppositional documentary at that time, they also demonstrate a strong sense of continuity from radical filmmaking traditions of the 1970s and 1980s, traditions which continue to the present day. Despite TV, for instance, were one of the precursors to the Undercurrents video-magazine (1994-99), making radical newsreels in the late 1980s as well as key films on the Wapping Dispute and Canary Wharf development. Platform Films, meanwhile, have intimate links with earlier collectives such as Cinema Action and the Berwick Street Collective and were the driving force behind the classic production of the Workshop Agreement, The Miners Campaign Tapes (1984). Both organisations remain active producers of radical left-wing documentary to this day.

The work broadcast on Critical Eye in the 1990s was thus part of a prominent tradition and constituted one of the most exciting periods in the contemporary history of oppositional British documentary, yet this is scarcely acknowledged in the historical record. While The Eleventh Hour and People to People series broke new ground in the broadcast of radical moving image work in the UK, such a focus on the achievements of the Independent Film and Video Department in the 1980s has resulted their continued and important efforts in the 1990s being overshadowed to the point of obscurity. In contrast to the critical and popular assumption that the broadcast of oppositional documentary in Britain ceased in the 1980s, I will argue that Critical Eye provided a popular platform for oppositional documentary until well into the 1990s, and that even after the demise of the series such work continued to be produced and circulated, albeit without the major broadcast platform Channel 4 had previously provided.


Presence, S. (2014). Maintaining a Critical Eye: The political avant-garde on Channel 4 in the 1990s. In L. Mee, & J. Walker (Eds.), Cinema, Television and History: New Approaches, 85-101. Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Acceptance Date Apr 12, 2013
Publication Date Jan 1, 2014
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Pages 85-101
Book Title Cinema, Television and History: New Approaches
ISBN 9781443853798
Keywords Channel 4, oppositional film, radical film, political television, independent film and video, Alan Fountain, Rod Stoneman, avant garde, Critical Eye, Despite TV, Battle of Trafalgar
Publisher URL