Community Video/Community TV

Not TV for the masses, but masses of TV created by masses of people

by Ed Webb-Ingall

LUX Writer in Residence Ed Webb-Ingall continues to draw out the development of community video practices in London between 1968 and 1981.

“Significantly for the development of British independent video practice, it was in the art schools the voices of dissent were most clearly heard… At the same time that students of Guildford and Hornsey Colleges of Art were occupying their colleges and arguing for a restructuring of art education in favour of a network or non specialist system, the arts themselves were entering a new phase of experimentation and cross-fertilisation.”1

Whilst teaching at Goldsmiths University, Malcolm Le Grice of the London Filmmakers Co-op borrowed video equipment to make up part of a video installation at the Arts Lab and in 1972 Maidstone College of Art in Kent introduced video into an art education context with the establishment of the first time-based media course lead by David Hall2. Hall has been credited with making the first interventions on British Television specifically on video. Entitled Ten Interruptions, the work consisted of ten short videos, commissioned by the Scottish Arts Council for the Edinburgh Festival. They were transmitted by Scottish Television, unannounced without credit over a ten-day period in 19713. However, what is less well known is that a year earlier John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins and TVX had been invited to organise a ‘happening’ in a small TV studio at BBC centre in London, and produced an eighteen-minute piece titled Video Space. Hopkins here expands on the process:
We did quite a lot of preparation for it in assembling source material, but if you can imagine, in those days to run Super-8 film and 16mm film and 2-inch video and a light show and a dancer and some musicians, all mixed up with bits of dialogue because there were conversations going on at the time, it was something that no-one had seen before, especially on this side of the Atlantic, which was a way to try and use the medium of broadcast TV…in a way which conformed more to art than to documentary or conventional programming.
In a recent interview4 Hopkins claims that Video Space wasn’t broadcast but that it did lead to the commissioning of a number of shorter video pieces being made and broadcast in October 1970 for the BBC. He has since compared their form to that of music videos, each running the length of a typical music single (approximately three and a half minutes). An article published in Friends in October 1970 describes the broadcast of one of the commissions:
BBC to Broadcast Video Cassette Material in Pop Programme: A four minute sampler of TV in the future will be broadcast as part of Disco 2 on Saturday 24th October at 7.30pm. Called the ‘Electric Newspaper’, it is a video tape by TVX of a track from the LP by the American group ‘Area Code 615’. Cliff Evans of TVX describes cassette material: ‘It will have the information density of 30-100 times that of existing studio-made TV. Creating it in the first place requires concentration and skill similar to that of a pop group making an LP. We are pioneering these techniques in TV, with a little help from our friends and working five years ahead of the market which is planned for 1975-1976’.5
The other piece they made was called ‘Tell Me You Love Me’, also made and broadcast in 1970 and three minutes long, shot on two-inch video and commissioned by the BBC. Described as a ‘visualisation of a track by Frank Zappa and Band’. This piece garnered a complaint from Mary Whitehouse due to the inclusion of imagery of anti-racist activists the White Panthers6 and resulted in the BBC terminating the contract with TVX. Hopkins reflects with some regret at the outcome of TVX’s short lived relationship with the BBC; ‘we were rather brash and I think rather stupid at the time, because there was the possibility of opening that crack in the wall of the establishment, to get more high-quality broadcast TV done from an artistic basis, and I think in retrospect if we’d behaved differently and not so aggressively, we might have got further with the BBC.’7
Contrary to Hopkins’ concerns, the relationship between community video practices and television continued and Hopkins was once again invited into the BBC in 1973 to contribute to Open Door by the Community Programmes Unit. 1972 saw the establishment of BBC2’s Community Programmes Unit and the formation of local, cable access television networks in the UK. In December 1972, BBC director of programming, David Attenborough wrote a note to the BBC’s board of management suggesting the following:
Access’ or ‘community’ programmes, which are spoken of so frequently in the current debates about broadcasting, are taken to be programmes which are made by viewers who have applied for airtime, and for which professional broadcasters supply the technical facilities necessary for production and transmission, but play only a minimal part in editorial decisions. Two of the elements that such programmes can bring to a network are believed to be – (i) voices, attitudes and opinions, that, for one reason or another have been unheard or seriously neglected by mainstream programmes; – (ii) stylistic innovations, new ways of handling film or videotape which professional broadcasters have either ignored or rejected; new editorial attitudes that do not derive from the assumptions of the university educated elite who are commonly believed to dominate television production.8

Film still
Film still

At Attenborough’s suggestion, the BBC’s Community Programme Unit (CPU) was established to make ten new programmes as part of the newly launched Open Door strand on BBC2. This was described in the Radio Times as a slot ‘where people and groups are given a chance to have their own say, in their own way’.9 As with open cable networks there was a focus on access and the application of newly developing portable video technology. Initially programmes made for Open Door were live studio broadcasts. These subsequently progressed to include location recording and recorded material, each approximately half an hour in length and attempting to represent the position or point of view of a specific community group, covering issues relating to current identity or social politics. In this way the CPU began to operate like a community video facilitator both approaching potential groups and receiving applications to make a programme: successful groups would then be allotted a producer and assistant as well as use of the research capabilities of the BBC and editorial control was enabled for the ‘accessee’ through every stage of production from planning, scripting, filming and editing.10 Projects produced by and for Open Door and screened in 1973 ranged from black teachers discussing the effect of the English education system on black children, the Transex Liberation Group presenting a discussion around Transexualism, The Bootstrap Union (a group of teachers and parents) discussing problems in schools in deprived areas and a meeting of the Gypsy Council with fellow gypsies, friends, and non-sympathisers for discussion, ceremonies, songs and dancing.
In the same year the Conservative government granted its first license for the origination of programmes on a local television network, and over the following two years another five projects were granted permission. With this came the promise of equal access and democracy for those wishing to be represented on a medium that had previously ignored or misrepresented them. However, the social and political aims of these developments were bound up in wider governmental policies relating to the commercialisation and control of the airwaves. The first of the four networks granted permission in 1972 was Greenwich Cablevision in South-East London, following this were local television networks in Bristol, Sheffield, Swindon, Wellingborough and Milton Keynes. All but Swindon were commercially owned and driven.


Unlike community video, which comes from a bottom up model of supply and demand from within the community it sought to serve, cable television in the UK developed out of the ideas and models of large commercial corporations – whose priorities were profits, not the democratic control of the airwaves. In spite of this disconnect, two key factors continued to link the growth and development of community video with local cable network television, those of access and the funding and use of low gauge, portable video technology. The people who ran the networks in both Bristol and Swindon demonstrated an interest in attempting to redirect and distribute the potential participatory power of this new medium, with the realisation that access was needed in order for the project to be a success. One report written in 1980 on the impact and development of cable television notes that ‘these attitudes were very much dictated by who was put in day-to-day charge of running the individual stations.’11 The report goes on to discuss the conflict of interest that went on occurred at management level; ‘Many conflicts arose between these different sets of interests… most of them were to do with the workers, either individually or collectively, wishing to democratise the television service more and the management resisting these developments.’12 Whilst these issues eventually led to the dissolution of all the local cable television networks, this still remained an exceptionally funded venture:
They received more publicity than any other area. The ordinary workers at the stations have tended to hold similar views to those working with video in schools, community arts organisations and the street… cable stations had much more money spent on them than any other sphere of low-gauge video activity – approximately £100,000 between 1972-1978 – then technically they have tended to be at the forefront and therefore of interest.13
What proved problematic for both local cable companies and the BBC was the potential depoliticisation of activism through cooption and tokenism or instrumentalisation. On entering into these large and powerful institutions the participants ran the risk of giving over editorial control and losing the power to self represent on their own terms. By making these relatively small gestures they opened themselves up to accusations of attempting to legitimise a pervasively undemocratic and misrepresentative system. Neither the Conservative government who established the cable networks, nor the majority of staff at the BBC were making significant efforts to permanently alter the structure of the media.
This relationship between community video practitioners and large institutions is one that came to define much of their activity as the 1970s wore on. By 1974 it was clear that access to portable video technology was being used to develop new forms of self-representation and communication. Practitioners were beginning to establish different forms and contexts specific to this new medium, including those that they had previously been working outside of or in opposition to. Alongside Art Schools and television studios similar tensions can also be traced in the ongoing relationship between the Arts Council of Great Britain’s Community Arts Committee and the Association of Community Artists, the British Film Institute production board, which began funding a number of community video projects and thirdly the first inclusion of work by community video practitioners in an art exhibition as part of The Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 197514.

Catalogue cover
Catalogue cover

These paradoxical or hypocritical positions were argued for due to the potential to critique otherwise impenetrable institutions from within as well as state recognition leading to sustained funding and support. Such involvement was also argued against due to the potential for community video to become repurposed as a form of social welfare, meaning the practice of community video could no longer operate as an oppositional political platform and instead would come to serve the needs of the state.


1 Marshall, S. “Video: From Art to Independence.” Screen 26.2 (1985): p. 66-72
2 Many Community video practitioners in the early 1970s were using the Sony AV-3400 Vidicon Portapak Camera released in 1970 in Japan and the USA or the Sony AV-3450 which was released 2 years later at almost half the weight and shot clearer pictures with a longer battery life than the AV-3400. Although by 1971 Sony had developed and introduced the U-matic three quarter inch cassette system to the market, this didn’t arrive in Britain until two years later. The name was derived from the U-shaped figure the tape followed when seen from above. Cassette based technology allowed for greater ease of handling and editing, but community video makers in the UK did not immediately adopt U-matic technology. Hopkins and his team developed what they called ‘Trigger Happy’ editing, which enabled them to upgrade from a crude ‘back space’ system using a stop-watch and chalk to virtually frame accurate editing from half inch open reel onto U-matic. This was used up until the late 1970s when more people could afford full U-matic edit suites.

3 Spielmann, Yvonne. Video: The Reflexive Medium. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2008.
4 Interview with John Hopkins by Heinz Nigg and Andy Porter, 2014
5 Video – BBC to Broadcast Video Cassette as Part of Disco 2, Friends [London] Oct. 1970 Print.
6 The White Panther group were an anti-racist collective aligned with the Black Panther Movement
7 Interview with John Hopkins by Heinz Nigg and Andy Porter, 2014
8 Quoted from Paul Bonner, “Broadcast access television and its future development”, British Broadcasting Corporation mimeo (London: BBC, 1976), pp. 1-2.
9 Giles Oakley, ‘Opening Up the Box’, in Janet Willis & Tana Wollen (Eds.), The Neglected Audience (The Broadcasting Debate, No. 5) (London: British Film Institute, 1990), p. 16.
10 ibid, p. 18.
11 Nigg, Heinz, and Graham Wade. Community Media: Community Communication in the UK: Video, Local TV, Film, and Photography. Zürich: Regenbogen-Verlag, 1980. Print. p.27-28
12 ibid
13 ibid
14 Subsequent exhibitions which included videos made community video groups and practitioners followed including Film and Community Action at the ICA in 1976


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