Panellists: Filmmaker John Akomfrah; Channel 4 Head of Creative Diversity Naomi Sesay; Commissioner Sue Woodford-Hollick; Shyama Perera (chair).

Channel 4 has always connected with those communities who considered themselves unseen and unheard. The most interesting aspects of the political and social landscape in the 1980s were approached in radical ways as new voices emerged within the public space. ‘Radical pluralism’ was an issue internally, but a watchword externally. Our panel with the original Channel 4 Commissioner and programme makers discuss this issue and its legacy.

Extract from interview with John Akomfrah by Rod Stoneman and Alexandra Weltz-Rombach, March 2022
Rod Stoneman (RS): The first film the Black Audio Film Collective produced was Handsworth Songs (1986). It is a film about the riots in Handsworth and London and it is made with a very radical, poetic and experimental formal approach. But against all odds it was fantastically successful. Why?

John Akomfrah: Time worked a kind of magic here that you can’t really account for. And I mean that in one very specific sense. By the time we came to Independent Film and Video / Channel 4, we already had some of it together, but not enough. We needed this involvement to take it to another level. We had accepted by then that we’d lost one battle, which was the current affairs battle. Almost all the films that were made about the riots were already out and shown. It was clear that we needed to be more reflective because we had missed the boat by quite a bit. Not that this was a boat we ever wanted to be on!

RS: There is another thing which was unique, which was its direct speech, that it was clearly not ‘parachute journalism’. It came from an adjacent position, which enabled people to speak directly.

JA: It’s almost a kind of perverse version of radical ethnography. We were in London, we had friends in Birmingham, because for three to four years we’ve been going there to do courses and work on the film circuit, the Midlands Art Centre. And the minute the riots kicked off, they called us to ask us to come and start documenting it. People embed you into something and then you gain insights, as you are part of it.

And the first insight that we got, as we spoke to people, was that the events were as enigmatic to them as it was to everybody else. Even participants felt the sense of becoming or even arrival was an enigma. What was that? How did we get here? And that slowly, as you spoke to them, you also realised that they found it difficult to focus on the moment. Every time someone tried to speak about the moment, they would end up somewhere else, usually talking about an earlier event. I thought, of course, there really is no substance to the present at all. It’s just haunted, and overdetermined.

Alexandra Weltz-Rombach: Like you were talking to ghosts of the past there. How is it linked to the backstory of what happened in this place?

JA: Essentially, from 1945-65 the British state needed a certain amount of Black, foreign, colonial labour, as part of the process of reconstruction, but it was clear that by the 70s, that wasn’t necessary anymore. And my generation was clearly a generation born at a moment of realising that we weren’t necessary. We were surplus, the sort of cheap labour that our parents provided, was over. Britain wasn’t in a period of growth so we were going to make a project about what it felt to be a surplus underclass.

In Handsworth Songs, it became a way of fleshing out some of these themes of race or of Black youth as a kind of surplus underclass. You sensed it culturally. You didn’t know the form it was going to take so it was kind of a relief that Thatcherism developed into what it became because you could then see the clear outline of the neoliberal moment.

And part of the process was the acceptance that we had lost a political argument and that Thatcher had won. You had to then start from that defeat because she did something clever that the traditional left just couldn’t find an answer for.

She would ask people: ‘Well, what do you think happened here?’

‘Well, I think people are unemployed.’

And she replies: ‘Ahhh, but in Newcastle people are unemployed, and they don’t riot, do they?’

She found a way of sneaking race through the back door, forcing people to admit that this is something uniquely Black, uniquely racial, and the left felt stumped because it didn’t know where to go with it. And we decided – Okay, we’ll take it on. Yes, it’s Black. It’s really, really Black. You don’t know how Black this is! So, we decided that this was something you couldn’t hide from anymore. You couldn’t say, race has got nothing to do with it, it is just policing. As the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies was arguing, the policing took place through the lens of race.

Channel 4 Duty Log of calls received following the first transmission of ‘Handsworth Songs’

John Akomfrah is a hugely respected artist and filmmaker, whose works are characterised by their investigations into memory, postcolonialism, temporality and aesthetics and often explores the experiences of migrant diasporas globally. Akomfrah was a founding member of the influential Black Audio Film Collective, which started in London in 1982 alongside the artists David Lawson and Lina Gopaul, who he still collaborates with today. Their first film, Handsworth Songs (1986) explored the events surrounding the 1985 riots in Birmingham and London through a charged combination of archive footage, still photos and newsreel. The film won several international prizes and established a multi-layered visual style that has become a recognisable motif of Akomfrah’s practice. Other works include Mnemosyne (2010), The Nine Muses (2010), The Unfinished Conversation (2012), Peripeteia (2012), Vertigo Sea (2015), Purple (2017), Precarity (2017), and Four Nocturnes (2019). He was awarded the Artes Mundi Prize in 2017.

Naomi Sesay has been the Head of Creative Diversity at Channel 4 since February 2022. With over 20 years’ experience in television and media, Naomi has devoted her career to serving as a powerful advocate for diversity and inclusion, and trailblazer for social enterprise. Her previous roles include On Screen Diversity Executive and Interim Head of Diversity & Inclusion at Channel 4. She also worked as Head of Innovation and Diversity for Media Trust.

Sue Woodford-Hollick was the founding Commissioning Editor of multicultural programmes for Channel 4 and has made a significant contribution to supporting inclusion in the UK, in broadcasting and the arts.

Sue began her career as an investigative journalist and award-winning current affairs producer for Granada Television, where she spent many years as a producer/director of the flagship series World in Action before moving to help launch Channel 4. She was Chair of Arts Council England – London, and a member of the ACE National Council for many years, and was the founding Chair of the Stuart Hall Foundation, established in memory of cultural theorist, Professor Stuart Hall. She is a Patron of the Runnymede Trust, One World Media, and the Stuart Hall Foundation and an Ambassador for Reprieve, the anti-death penalty organisation. For seven years she was Chair of Index on Censorship, the international magazine for Free Speech. She is currently a trustee of the Hollick Family Foundation. Other organisations she is associated with include AMREF, the African Medical Research Foundation, Africa’s largest health charity, Leader’s Quest and the Leaders Quest Foundation. Sue was awarded an OBE in 2011 for services to the arts.

Shyama Perera first appeared on our screens with the launch of Channel Four’s Eastern Eye, made by LWT and alternating weekly with its sister programme, Black on Black. She later returned to newspapers and has subsequently stretched her large self thinly as a commentator and critic across print and broadcast.

Director: John Akomfrah
Production Company: Black Audio Film Collective
Producer/Production Manager: Lina Gopaul
Production Assistants: Clare Joseph, Reece Auguiste
Additional Crew (Birmingham): Don Shaw, Joseph Burgundy
Screenplay: Black Audio Film Collective
Director of Photography: Sebastian Shah
Additional Photography: John Akomfrah, Roy Cornwall
Studio Crew Camera (Photographs): John Mathieson
Studio Crew Camera (British Icons): Edward George, Trevor Mathison
Rostrum: Douglas Hines
Camera Assistant: Edward George
Studio Crew Lighting (Photographs): Dalton Campbell
Studio Crew Lighting (British Icons): John Akomfrah
Studio Crew Grip (Photographs): Glyn Fielding
Handsworth Photographs: Vanley Burke
Supervising Editor: Brand Thumim
Editor: Anna Liebschner
Video Editor: Hugh Williams
Assistant Editors: Avril Johnson, Rosalind Haber
Studio Crew Sets (Photographs): Trevor Mathison
Mural: Gavin Jantjes, Tom Joseph
Studio Crew Props (British Icons): Lina Gopaul
Title Design: Richard Morrison
Titles: Plume Design
Opticals: N. Gordon Smith, Howell Opticals (London)
Music: Trevor Mathison
Additional Music: Boys Own Battery, Robert Johnston
Sound: Trevor Mathison
Assistant Sound: Avril Johnson
Dubbing Mixer: Peter Hodges
Publicity: Edward George
Publicity Organiser: David Lawson

C4 tx 6.7.1987
58 mins


Music & Youth: The Tube + Discussion & Q&A
Fri 2 Sep 18:20
Comedy: Discussion & Q&A + The Comic Strip Presents: Five Go Mad in Dorset
Tue 6 Sep 18:15
Channel 4’s TV Drama Revolution: Discussion + Q&A
Sun 11 Sep 14:15
A Very British Coup + intro by author Chris Mullin
Sun 11 Sep 16:30
Diversity: Handsworth Songs + Q&A with John Akomfrah + Panel Discussion & Q&A
Mon 12 Sep 18:15
Out and Proud: Veronica 4 Rose + Out on Tuesday + intro by original
Channel 4 Commissioner Caroline Spry

Thu 15 Sep 18:15
Access / Direct Speech: The Work They Say Is Mine + Women of the Rhondda + Face of Our Fear
Tue 20 Sep 18:15
Channel 4: The Television Revolution
Fri 23 Sep 18:20
Controversy: Jesus the Evidence + V + Mother Ireland
Sat 24 Sep 18:00
Who Needs Channel 4?
Wed 28 Sep 18:20
Channel 4 Then and Now conference
Fri 23 Sep 10:00–17:00 and Sat 24 Sep 10:00–17:00

Regional screenings and events will be taking place at these venues across the UK (please go to for links): Arnolfini, Bristol; Filmhouse Edinburgh; Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast; Y Drwm, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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