Dissent, Diversity and the Unheard Voice: CPU's Contribution to Democracy
Giles Oakley

There is something quite strange about the very name Community Programme Unit, unlike any other BBC television department. It has a certain engaging charm, perhaps conjuring up romantic images of a small, rather cosy gathering in a village hall, meeting for some worthy objective. The reality was of course always more complicated than that.

In 1961, in her influential book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the sociologist Jane Jacobs discussed what it takes to hold communities together. She wrote that there is always a need for visible characters who keep their ‘eyes upon the street’ on behalf of the community as a whole. I like to think that’s what the CPU did, for over a quarter of a century.


In the late 1960s and early 70s there were only three television channels and pressure was growing to open up the airwaves to a wider range of viewpoints. The BBC was routinely seen as too stuffy and ‘establishment’, not fully reflective of the currents of change sweeping through society. This view was shared not only by alienated outsiders and disenfranchised viewers but also by significant numbers of people on the inside, some at surprisingly senior levels.

It’s worth recalling some of the bodies of opinion that felt excluded or marginalised by television. They included the women’s movement; campaigns for racial equality; those concerned with defending ‘family values’; sexual minorities of all kinds; working-class activists for social justice; left-wing intellectuals and trade unionists objecting to the perceived bias of TV news; representatives of small business; scientists with environmental concerns; penal reformers; hunt supporters; mental health practitioners and patients; people with disabilities; opponents of immigration; housing action campaigners; organisations for the poor, homeless and unemployed; and of course, local community activists. There were other, more general, undeclared influences, such as the underground press, which had a significant readership within the BBC, mainly among younger programme-makers.


The most significant element in the creation of the Community Programme Unit was the inspiration of ‘public-access’ programming in North American cable TV channels. During the 1970s a similar experiment was carried out in the UK, with access to cable broadcasting being given to local groups in some locations. I recall seeing the Bristol Channel in action in 1972, when I was a researcher on the BBC1 series Television and Society. I was amazed by the way that people could walk in off the street and book studio time to put over their own ideas. On that same series I also met and was deeply impressed by Rowan Ayers, the visionary creator of the CPU.

Rowan was the editor of the much-loved Late Night Line-Up on BBC2 – a programme combining comedy and satire with an unconventional view of current issues – which I viewed pretty well every night. He sent regular presenter Tony Bilbow to do some vox pops in a local Guinness factory canteen, mainly about what the workers there thought of BBC TV output. The team were staggered by the level of hostility and distrust, especially the assumption that the BBC would edit the film to make them look inarticulate. The discussion was filmed, and Rowan put it out in its entirety, un-edited, showing the clapper boards and all. It was a seminal moment. That small incident made quite an impression, at a time when ITV, with its bright and breezy populism, was creating an image of itself as somehow more in tune with viewers.

In 1972, Rowan persuaded the Director of Programmes, David Attenborough, and the Controller of BBC2, Robin Scott, both forward-looking men, to commission a 13-part series as an experiment in this sort of ‘community access’. The series, named Open Door, was a radical departure for the BBC. However that first run of access programmes was in some ways quite bland – nothing to set the pulses quickening, no great controversies. With hindsight, that was probably a good thing, as it reassured the nervously watchful hierarchy. The worthy, somewhat amateurish and even slightly dull early output nevertheless had a certain rough-and-ready charm and authenticity, and I was an avid viewer from the start. Above all, it showed there really was a multiplicity of ‘unheard voices’ who merited airtime on a consistent basis. And so, in the following year, 1973, the CPU was founded as an autonomous unit within the Presentation Department, with Rowan as editor.


The access framework was established from the start. Viewers were invited to write in to apply for a slot, then groups or individual members of the public were given a small BBC production team (in the early days typically a producer, a production assistant and a camera crew) and a small budget to make the programme, either in the studio or on film. The ‘accessee’ – to use the CPU jargon – was given editorial control. That meant they had the right to be involved all the way through the production process, including, critically, the editing stage.

What made CPU unique was precisely the ceding of editorial control to members of the public, offering, in the words of the Open Door opening titles, ‘Your own say in your own way’. Not surprisingly, in the more conservative levels of the BBC many disapproved. There was even at worst a barely hidden contempt for the ‘amateur night’ slot, with the additional smear that CPU stood for ‘Communist Party Unit’, something I heard whispered right up to the end of my tenure as Head of Community and Disability Programmes in 1998.

Our work in CPU over 25 years meant continually juggling with key concepts such as ‘balance over time’, ‘balancing existing output’, ‘neglected voices’, ‘communities of interest’, the ‘misrepresented, underrepresented and unrepresented’, and helping the BBC give ‘due weight’ to bodies of opinion. In the early days some very committed CPU producers were so keen to hand over editorial control they became almost too passive – whatever the group wanted, no questions. Many were young and inexperienced and lacked the confidence to push accessees in constructive ways, becoming so loyal to them they perhaps lost sight of the need to make the best possible programme to catch and hold the attention of possibly sceptical viewers.


The occasional need to push accessees had to be balanced against the risk of swamping or bullying them, and it must be admitted some producers were better than others. There was always a wider responsibility to present the best possible version of whatever body of opinion was being represented. The chosen accessee could well represent a very large ‘community’ in the world beyond, with few opportunities to see their views put across sympathetically on TV. We had to be fair to them, too.

It was also sometimes necessary to remind producers that handing over editorial control did not mean allowing accessees to contravene BBC Guidelines or to libel someone, nor could they misrepresent the views of others or distort matters of fact.

Some accessees were nightmares to work with, often because of a deep suspicion and hostility to the BBC, to a degree that might well have shocked a complacent BBC senior management. Some were difficult personalities as a result of whatever struggle they were engaged with, often with deeply personal emotional scars. Such people needed sensitive handling, but sometimes enduring friendships resulted from the working relationships that were formed. Some access groups came to a fundamental review of their aims and objectives, with galvanising effects on sometimes moribund campaigns. A good Open Door could also have enormous value to such organisations through the sale of video cassettes of the programme, which the BBC permitted.

When assessing the value of CPU output, and perhaps chuckling at the amateurish naivety of some old programmes, it should be remembered that budgets were always tight, throughout the Unit’s history. I remember having to make a half-hour film with an anti-developer campaign in Spitalfields in London’s East End in 1982 with just ten ten-minute rolls of low-grade 16mm Ektachrome film. (Mainstream producers would have 20 or even 30 rolls for a programme of the same length.) My last roll ran out in the middle of a heartbreaking shot of a small, sad-eyed Bengali girl who’d been badly bitten on the face by a rat when asleep in bed, such were the appalling conditions in which the family lived.


This shooting ratio of around three- to-one was then standard for Open Door, and much less than the average of eight- or ten-to-one elsewhere. Things improved with the launch of Open Space in 1983, but budgets were never huge. Today of course people can shoot almost infinite amounts of cheap material using digital cameras.

It has to be admitted that some early Open Door programmes became compulsive viewing for the wrong reasons. One old favourite was a programme with Chickens’ Lib, a decent-enough animal rights group. As the show went out live it was all too obvious that the chickens arrayed in the studio with the earnest presenter were keeling over under the hot lights. (I never liked to ask the producer whether they actually died.)

However, once CPU was more established and tackling heavier subjects there were some far more bruising controversies. These stemmed partly from the BBC’s prickly sensitivity when faced with criticism, but also from a profound unease at having to defend programmes it would otherwise never have made. Two of the biggest rows came from different ends of the political spectrum.

In February 1976 Open Door made a provocative film with the British Campaign to Stop Immigration which caused an absolutely predictable storm. As an apparently grass-roots attack on immigration and ‘race relations’ legislation, the film made much of laws preventing the free expression of opinion on the matter. There were angry questions in the House of Commons amid suspicions that the campaign was a front for the extreme right-wing National Front (as a political party ineligible for an Open Door slot). The BBC was placed in the uncomfortable position of defending the programme on the grounds of ‘free speech’. As a concession to the critics, a ‘right of reply’ Open Door slot was quickly provided to put over a rather anodyne case in favour of immigration. Nevertheless, for years there were people who thought Open Door was ‘that racist programme’.


The controversy surrounding the programme made with the Campaign Against Racism in the Media in 1979 was rather different because the BBC itself was directly in the firing line. Permission to use certain BBC clips was refused, which the programme itself made play of, making the corporation look authoritarian and obtuse. Clips were permitted showing Sir Robin Day chairing a studio debate on immigration in which he repeatedly turned to Enoch Powell – the notorious, grim-faced ‘Rivers of Blood’ anti-immigration MP – as though he was some sort of neutral, above-the-fray umpire. Day threatened to sue the BBC and although the lawyers said there was no case to answer, the BBC insisted on Open Door putting up an on-screen apology to Day. It was very odd to see one part of the BBC effectively apologising to another.

And it was interesting to see that the BBC learned from its mistakes over the use of clips. When I produced ‘Why Their News is Bad News’ with the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom in 1982, presented by Julie Christie and Julie Walters, I was grudgingly given permission to use all the news clips I’d requested, although the Ulsterman political editor John Cole did say, ‘If you traduce me, I’ll smash your fucking head against the wall.’

A large number of viewers responded to the invitation to apply for a slot, but it was sometimes essential to be far more proactive in finding unheard voices. In 1981, for example, when there were riots and uprisings in over 50 cities in the UK, notably in Brixton and Liverpool, CPU had not made a single programme in that year from the perspective of people living in inner-city areas. That was a failing I pointed out with some vigour when applying for a permanent producer job in CPU the following year.

Nonetheless, we did get hundreds of worthwhile applications, including some from quite big ‘headed notepaper’ organisations and charities desperate for exposure.


Open Door (and later Open Space) programmes were chosen at sometimes raucous and heated staff selection meetings with officially appointed outside advisors. These were drawn from a wide social and political spectrum. They included George Tremlett, Tory ex-Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council (GLC), John Cain, ex-Controller of Education at the BBC, and Sea?n Day-Lewis, liberal-minded TV critic for The Daily Telegraph, as well as several past accessees with experience of what the process involved. The advisors were there to ensure fairness in the selection process and balance over time, and perhaps to provide a kind of ‘heat shield’ for the Unit if controversy erupted over the choice of programmes.

As the department expanded, meetings became unwieldy, with as many as a hundred people notionally eligible to attend. In a uniquely democratic commitment to staff involvement they included admin and finance support staff. Eventually, the panel of advisors was dropped following orders from on high in the 1990s. BBC2 Controllers were becoming increasingly interventionist. They began insisting on final approval of selected programmes and even suggesting ideas themselves, often based on complaints about the mainstream BBC output that had gone straight to the top. At that point we became a useful safety valve for the Corporation.

Throughout the CPU years there was an ingrained understanding among staff that we were always looking for that ‘unheard voice’ or dissenting viewpoint, and we were obsessed with bringing much more social diversity to our screens, often with the hope of confounding popular stereotypes.

Following Rowan Ayers, each successive Editor across the history of the CPU – including Paul Bonner (who gave me an Assistant Producer attachment to CPU in 1977), Mike Fentiman (an extremely significant and inspirational figure who gave me my permanent Producer job in 1982), Tony Laryea (who first made me a Series Producer), Jeremy Gibson (who promoted me to Executive Producer), all the way through to me when I became the first (and last) Head of Community and Disability Programmes from 1993 to 1998 – we all had to fight continuously to keep our editorial autonomy and preserve the access ethos.

The growth of campaigning around such issues across the 1970s eventually led to the setting up of Channel 4 in 1982, with an explicit brief to cater for tastes and minorities not served elsewhere in television. I can remember challenging the then-Director-General of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, in an open meeting for staff, over how the Corporation was going to respond. His response was simply, ‘The BBC is there to serve the nation as a whole’, thereby ignoring the thrust of the question. The BBC’s official claim to address ‘the nation as a whole’ sometimes made it an uphill struggle for us, although the fundamental question was implicitly raised by Open Door and CPU output from the beginning. Why was there a need for this kind of programming, and why were so many people clamouring for airtime (even though they were in the low-budget, non-peak slots) if the BBC really was doing its job?

The ‘personal view’ tradition was maintained throughout CPU’s existence as Open Door became Open Space in 1983, and then Counterblast in 1997. These were the classic, ‘flagship’ public-access programmes, but the Unit also produced other programmes and short spin-off series. The 1970s and 80s saw such series as Write On, Grapevine, Split Screen, Something Else, Something Else Debates, Take the Mike, Network, Advocacy, Shaking the Heavens and Comic and Other Roots, many of which I worked on, some over more than one season.

Each new project was an attempt to expand and refresh the output, to show that access really had more to offer than just the old Open Door/ Space polemics.

Regrettably, for much of the time, the BBC supported the CPU and its ethos only in an uncomprehending, lukewarm manner. Particularly in those first two decades, there was an underlying feeling of marginality and precariousness. At one point in the 1970s Alasdair Milne was going to disband the Unit altogether, prompting a strong rearguard action by staff, BBC unions and BBC Governors, which saved the day.


In the 1980s we were seen as something of a loose cannon. The BBC itself was experiencing the full force of Thatcherite hostility, with the very real fear that public-service broadcasting would be fatally undermined, through the imposition of advertising perhaps or even through some form of privatisation. Indeed the Peacock Committee, which reported in 1986, was set up specifically to investigate the funding of the BBC. Ideologically the Corporation had never felt so vulnerable, and it was disinclined to provoke the wrath of the Conservative Party.

There was very marked concern over an Open Space programme devoted to the policing of the miners’ strike in 1984, at a time of bitter political polarisation. ‘Taking Liberties’, one of the most important programmes the CPU ever made, was a devastating indictment of the abuse of police power, together with damning revelations about the way the BBC had covered the strike. It was shown eventually but it had to be followed by a ‘balancing’ studio discussion, just as had been the case after ‘Why Their News is Bad News’ two years before.



First published in History Workshop Journal, Issue 82, 2016