Saturday 22 October 2022

NeTWork 21: The Story of London's Best Pirate TV Station

Ask most people in Britain about pirate radio and the majority will know what you’re talking about; the more culturally savvy will even exclaim “RADIO CAROLINE!” with great delight. But ask the denizens of this glorious isle what they know about pirate television and they’ll probably respond with “You what, mate? You mean like Captain Pugwash?”.

But this lack of insight is not without good reason. Pirate television is a relatively rare phenomena compared to the proliferation of pirate radio stations which have infiltrated our airwaves since the late 1950s. And, in Britain, pirate television has only hoisted its skull and crossbones on a handful of occasions. One of these was the forward thinking, almost political, art stylings of NeTWork 21 which emerged onto our airwaves in 1986.

Britain’s first dalliance with pirate television, however, emerged not from London, but Birmingham in 1984. Broadcasting from 151 Dudley Road, Telstar TV was Britain’s original Channel 5. Sort of. In an astoundingly audacious move, the station – ran by, and I quote, a local government officer, an unemployed self-trained electronics expert and a black businessman (Cecil Morris) and broadcaster – piggybacked its transmissions on BBC2 transmitters after the channel had closed down for the evening at weekends. And, for eight weeks before it disappeared, Telstar treated an audience of around 5,000 people in Rubery and Northfield to music videos and horror films. It was a fascinating first step into unchartered territory and demonstrated that there was room for more than just the BBC, ITV and Channel Four. And things were going to get even more interesting in London.

NeTWork 21, of course, was not London’s first pirate TV station. The first band of UHF liberators to emerge from the capital were known as Thameside TV. The organisers of the station had already been running the similarly illegal Thameside Radio since 1977 and, in early October 1984 they broadcast The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film alongside some music videos. And then, just 24 hours later, a further broadcast was made by Channel 36. This station was founded by Jim Young and acted as the backdrop for Waveview Holdings – a company looking to develop and sell a suitcase sized transmitter. Once the Department of Trade and Industry had issued them a test and development certificate, Channel 36 ceased their broadcasts.

Thameside TV were not finished, though, and their final broadcast came in December 1984. This rather grainy transmission saw Thameside TV founders Sarah and Bob sat by a Christmas tree as they introduced music videos. Much like Telstar TV and Channel 36 before them, Thameside were making bold statements about the lack of freedoms associated with television. The launch of the ‘alternative’ Channel 4 had, two years previously, been seen as an exciting revolution in television, but these illicit broadcasts were completely off the scale. The pictures and sound were far from perfect, but it was an exhilarating start and one which sent ripples through the industry. And, I don’t know if it’s just me, but who isn’t charmed by a pair of so-called pirates sat by a Christmas tree and introducing Do They Know it’s Christmas?

But, following this festive broadcast, Thameside TV disappeared from the airwaves just as swiftly as Telstar and Channel 36 had. Nonetheless, despite having a relatively small audience in North and West London, Thameside TV had contributed to a buzz which was building around the concept of pirate television. The only thing the pirate channels had failed to do so far, aside from a few continuity links, was deliver some original programming. But, just under two years later in April 1986, another pirate television channel would emerge. One which would embrace unique and innovative programming. And one for whom its identity would be deeply ingrained in every single second it was on the air.

Founded by fellow Europeans Bruno and Thomas, NeTWork 21 would be unlike anything seen on British television before. With a firm footing in London’s highly creative and underground arts scene, NeTWork 21 delivered a weekly half-hour programme at midnight every Friday for around six months. And when I say these packages were unlike anything that had been seen on British television, this is not hyperbole. It truly was innovative and unique.

credit: Andrew Czezowski/Susan Carrington

Would the BBC, or even Channel 4, have dared to feature a 30-minute tracking shot of 80s non-binary superstar Lanah Pellay going about her daily business? No, they wouldn’t. And it’s unlikely they even would now. But NeTWork 21 revelled in such content. Other delights along the way included a documentary on Spanish theatrical group La Fura del Baus and a discussion on Brion Gysin’s hypnagogic Dreamachine by performance artist Genesis P-Orridge.

And, if you wanted to watch all of this, all you had to do was tune your television into channel 21 on the UHF band, just below ITV’s frequency. Best of all, unlike the pirate TV stations which preceded NeTWork 21, numerous clips from these transmissions can be found on YouTube. And, as you will see, they defiantly eschew the “glossy” – as NeTWork 21 referred to it at the time – visuals of the mainstream broadcasters.

credit: Andrew Czezowski/Susan Carrington

Clearly, NeTWork 21 is an engrossing story and, indeed, it accumulated a healthy number of column inches from the press. And I could have constructed an absorbing article simply from poring over these old news reports. But that’s not really the Curious British Telly way. I like to get deep under the skin of these subjects. Naturally, speaking to those who were there is always the best way of telling these stories. So, I had to carry out a little bit of detective work and use a few internet tricks to track down those responsible for NeTWork 21. And, before I knew it, I was talking to one of the founders of NeTWork 21, Thomas.

How did NeTWork 21 get started?

Bruno and myself had known each other since 1979 and we were involved in quite a lot of the underground London arts scene. We had seen an article in 1984 where someone was trying to sell a television transmitter and they had already done some test transmissions. Bruno insisted that we pursue this guy. And we did for about a year because he wanted quite a lot of money and obviously we didn't have any money. Around the same time I had built a video installation for The Fridge nightclub in Brixton. At the time it was the most happening club in Europe and I had built this video installation all around the dancefloor. So, surprise, surprise they paid me and all of a sudden we had some money. We then bought the transmitter and that's how it started.

What was it that you were looking to achieve?

It was definitely about the programming and it was definitely about making a point that mainstream television wasn’t really doing a lot for who we were. And by ‘we’ I mean not just artists, but young people. We were in our early 20s and it was our generation. This was the time of the New Romantics and Boy George, it all tied into everything that was going on in London at the time.  Which is why we got a lot of support.

How easy was it to set up not only the equipment, but also a location from where you could safely transmit?

It was pretty straightforward as long as you had the aerial properly set up. The transmitter itself was just a box. You had three plugs for sound, aerial and the video signal (supplied by a VHS player). The only problem with this was that there was interference with the tracking signal for the VHS signal, so you had to place the VHS player quite some way away from the transmitter in order to stop any signal interference. And that was really it in terms of the technology.

When it came to location, we were lucky as a friend of ours was an estate agent in Crystal Palace, which is where all the television transmitters were. So, we were high up and had the keys to somewhere we could put the aerial up, transmit a half-hour programme, take it down and leave all within two hours. The aerial was big, about four times as big as a standard television aerial. If somebody was looking for it then they would have been able to see it. But you had to get access to the building and a key to get in to where we were. It would have taken the police a while to get in.

We weren’t worried, que sera sera! But the equipment wasn’t cheap and we wouldn’t have been able to replace it. That’s why the episodes were half an hour, our calculation was that this was how long it would take the authorities to track down where we were. But, by that point, we would be long gone.

What was the process for getting material for the programmes and the production side of things?

We were well connected within the arts scene in London, so we knew lots of independent film makers, up and coming pop artists and lots of people who were involved with producing videos and television broadcasts. And some of these were able to get hold of cut offs, material that wasn't transmitted on the main channels. Sometimes it might just be a five second clip, one that comes to mind was Margaret Thatcher saying “I don’t know about a facelift, I haven’t had one yet” and we put that in. You couldn’t plan any of it really. Some weeks, what came in, it was very thin and then we would use footage from old Andy Warhol films. But we did quite a lot of filming, so that was interesting.

We did an extended programme one time where we followed Lanah Pillay for half an hour, a continuous tracking shot. You had time to do whatever you wanted to do. This could be dipping into short clips or something quite in depth like the Lanah Pillay piece. Or talking about things that were normally reserved for highbrow arts programming, but then juxtaposing this with pop records. It was all really mixed up and you never knew what was going to happen from one minute to the next. It was our world put together and broadcast on the television.

What was the long term plan for NeTWork 21?

We were hoping that something would happen with it, or somehow we would get some kind of recognition but we never really got that. We never achieved this because it was positioned so far outside of how things were done; I don't think it would have made any sense to television executives. At the time, apart from Top of the Pops, there was very little that would qualify as youth television. And one of the things that did happen, after us, was Network 7 on Channel 4 with Janet Street Porter, who said that that the inspiration for it came from watching NeTWork 21. So I suppose, in a way, we did start something off.

Why do you feel that pirate television didn’t take off in quite the same way that pirate radio did? Do you think it was down to the financial aspect involved?

It's difficult to say. The difference between radio and television is that, at the time, we didn’t think you could run repeats like they do now on the BBC. As far as we were concerned, once you've done one idea that idea is done. And you can't do it again. Whereas radio was all about the playlist and it revolved around playing the same music again and popularising certain music and artists. A lot of it was black music which you didn't hear anywhere else. That's why pirate radio became successful.

Television, on the other hand, it took people like us who didn’t care about money. We were on the dole, doing oddjobs here and there, we were unique. As for the costs, well, they wanted £10,000 for the aerial and we only had £1500. We could get video editing done fairly cheaply, but even if you went in at midnight you had to pay the engineer something. The only people we got to help us were Mute Records, Wimbledon Theatre and we had a bit of a tie-in with Sigue Sigue Sputnik who featured an advert on their album. But we also did fundraiser nights at The Fridge, Limelight and Heaven which were jammed full of people, up to 2,000 at Heaven.

I believe that, at the time, NeTWork 21 was featured on the BBC, so what happened there and what was the impact of this publicity?

We got a really good plug on BBC2. There was a programme called Did You See? with Ludovic Kennedy and he showed a couple of clips from one of our broadcasts. We were actually contacted direct by the BBC who requested the NeTWork 21 title sequence and some footage. So, early on, it ended up on national television. And from then on it became major news, all over the press from The Guardian to Just Seventeen. It was so innovative that it went all around the world and was shown in art spaces in Amsterdam and Tokyo. Out of that, we got some contacts at Toshiba EMI and ended up making some pop videos.

In 1986, the internet was still several years off and something like YouTube would have been completely unthinkable. But was a platform like YouTube, where anyone could broadcast, your ultimate aim?

The aim was to get a television licence, something localised, and we showed that it was possible to do it. All the expensive television equipment which was available, that was seen as a necessity, we showed that it wasn’t really necessary. If you wanted to produce programming, you really could do it on the cheap. For instance, the cameras, we didn't pay for the cameras. Sony contacted us and said you can have two of these cameras provided you talk in the press about Sony Video 8. They knew this was a big thing and they wanted to get involved in it early on.

There were several press articles, in 1988, which stated that NeTWork 21 was planning to return with two-hour broadcasts. But these transmissions never materialised, so what prevented this?

We were looking for investment and there was also talk of broadening the broadcast spectrum at the time. There was a lot of discussion going on about deregulating the airwaves. And we were trying to position ourselves so that we might be able to get something going in the near future. While this was going on we also started a radio station which mostly played indie music. But then I got offered a very well-paid job running the best club in London. I had to take it on as it was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

How do you feel, 35 years on, about NetTWork 21? And would you do it all over again?

The whole of the 80s was a fantastic time. I would do it all again and do it exactly the same way again. Not many people know about it, but occasionally students get in touch looking for words of wisdom. But, these days, the conversation has moved on. But, looking back, I’m very proud of what we achieved.

Many thanks, Thomas, for what has been a fascinating and exciting chat.

So, that’s the definitive story on NeTWork 21. It’s a compelling tale and one which genuinely feels like a revolutionary step, a feat that few people ensconced within the safety of television’s status quo will attempt. Thomas and Bruno’s desire to bring about a cultural change is admirable and the way they achieved their vision is as daring as it comes. And it’s one that remains unparalleled in the history of British television.

credit: Andrew Czezowski/Susan Carrington

Audience figures for NeTWork 21 are difficult to estimate but it’s believed that between 50,000 to 100,000 viewers could have tuned in. The transmitter had a range of around 10 miles so, in a densely populated area such as London, this had the potential to garner a significant audience. And you can’t help but wonder what they would have made of this new frontier in programming. NeTWork 21 was young, exciting and enshrined in a do-it-yourself mentality. The channel espoused an artistic bent which was barely represented within the mainstream and brought it into people’s front rooms. Yet, whilst it was the highpoint of pirate television in the UK, NeTWork 21 appears to have been the final hurrah for such an enterprise. Since the channel made its last transmission there have been no further instances of pirate broadcasts reported in the UK.

But, crucially, the spirit of the channel is more prevalent than ever in the 21st century. All you have to do is hop on to YouTube and, within minutes, you can be broadcasting about anything, no matter how niche it is. All you need is a smartphone and you’re ready to go. Were Thomas and Bruno, therefore, the original YouTubers? Well, I think that may do them a slight disservice. Their path to transmission was littered with substantially more risk and hurdles compared to today’s bedroom broadcasters. Nonetheless, the desire to represent their generation and provide it with a voice is the same. And, fingers crossed, future generations will remain just as innovative and articulate.

Originally published in issue three of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

All photos in this article are credited to Andrew Czezowski/Susan Carrington owner/creators of The Fridge, Brixton and The Roxy, Covent Garden.

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