4creative’s Matt Berry and Eoin McLaughlin on keyboard warriors, Jamie Oliver’s sausage fingers and Big Narstie’s particular lunch preferences
Complaints are welcome at Channel 4, according to the British broadcaster’s latest big brand film. So if you don’t like what they’re doing with their programming, good. They’ve even helpfully included an email at the end of the 90-second comic romp, in case you feel the urge to tell them how much you hated it directly (rather than venting your bile on Twitter - the obvious destination for those who revel in taking offence).
Featuring some of the best talent the channel has to hand, the spot created by in-house agency 4creative gets the celebrities reading out real complaints that viewers have made about them, all visually amped up to levels of fabulous weirdness. It reminds viewers that why they love Channel 4 is quite often precisely why some people hate it.
LBB’s Alex Reeves caught up with group business director Matt Berry and creative Eoin McLaughlin to find out what went into making this extravaganza of outrage.
LBB> The idea of complaints being a good thing fits so neatly with Channel 4's mission and brand. Why was now the perfect time to use this idea?
Matt> Channel 4 is proud to be home to the best creative talent on British TV, who together help us deliver the distinctive popular programming we're famous for. At the moment we have lots of exciting new shows coming through the pipeline (as well as some familiar returners) so it was the right time to remind viewers that it's really the talented faces behind our shows that make them so brilliant and who - together - best sum up what Channel 4 is all about. It's in Channel 4's remit to challenge convention, to stimulate public debate and to encourage people to think about alternative perspectives. Sometimes this means we polarise, people won't always agree, and some go as far as to complain. But ultimately if we're receiving complaints we're OK with that because it probably means we're doing our job and fulfilling the channel's remit. By taking some of the more offensive complaints and subverting them with a dose of humour we're reminding people why our values remain relevant and distinctive.
LBB> How do you think the idea of complaints being a good thing fits into the broader cultural conversations going on today?
Matt> In many ways we live in the age of complaint, the age of the Twittersphere and the echo chamber, where keyboard warriors are free to say whatever they want from behind the anonymous safety of the screen. We're not fans of trolling and the film inadvertently makes that point. But we absolutely believe in healthy debate and of course complaints can be a great starting point for a conversation. If we can use humour to disarm some of the negativity of the complaint and respectfully listen to each other's arguments then we can unpack those complaints and get into a discussion.
Complaints are a great thing if they provoke and enable healthy open discussion, especially round more challenging subjects.
LBB> How did you flesh that thought out into what the film became?
Matt> The whole film is a provocation. An entertaining provocation in which we use real viewer complaints to start a conversation about why we make the sort of programming we make. By being open about the complaints we sometimes receive we're taking the opportunity to explain why we exist and to do it in a way that's inclusive, thought-provoking, and entertaining.
LBB> What the process of selecting complaints? You must have had to read some quite nasty stuff! How did you know when you'd landed on the right ones for the film?
Eoin> Being the kind of channel we are, we receive a large volume of complaints every day. Our Viewer Enquiries team respond to each one and also send them around the whole company each morning, so everyone can read them. Many of the comments and complaints are perfectly valid, others are amusing and some of them are pretty offensive. It was reading these daily emails that gave us the idea for the spot.
We spent a couple of months researching, trying to pick out the complaints that prove everything that’s great about Channel 4. The ones that show we’re progressive and represent a diverse Britain. Plus we had to include a few that were just plain funny.
LBB> What were the other key challenges or considerations in the creative process?
Eoin> I thought it would be harder to get everyone behind the idea. Not every company would want to make a 90-second TVC out of their complaints, with the complaints email address at the end. But everyone we showed it to pretty much immediately saw why it was right. It was particularly brave for certain presenters, like Big Narstie, Alex Brooker, Katherine Ryan, lots of them really.
That’s not to say the whole thing was easy. It was probably the most challenging project I’ve worked on at Channel 4. There were legal challenges, budget challenges and obviously twenty different agents to keep happy!
LBB> It must have also been a challenge to balance the various personalities in terms of making sure you have a good spread of representation across several dimensions. What was your thinking and process there?
Eoin> We definitely knew we wanted a mix of old favourites and newer faces. Then it was really just a matter of calling around and seeing who was available. We're lucky to have a very diverse range of on screen talent so we naturally ended up with a really great mix.
LBB> I feel like the humour is also really important to make sure it doesn't come across as preachy. What was key to getting that right?
Eoin> We wanted it to be funny. I think that’s when Channel 4 is at its best. When we’re making a serious point but not doing it in a serious way.
Hopefully the spikier or more heartfelt messages are more disarming when they’re placed next to a man that looks like a walrus. Classic wedding speech strategy.
LBB> How did the various actors and presenters react to the complaints you had them read out?
Eoin> I’ll be honest, it was pretty awkward sharing a few of them. Would you like to tell Jamie Oliver he has sausage fingers? Or point out to Sandi Toksvig that she looks like Tom Cruise?
A few people did ask to see alternative lines but for the most part everyone liked the first ones we picked. A few people even threw in their own complaints they’d heard about themselves. In some ways having an opportunity to reply to is probably quite therapeutic.
The only person I felt bad for was Prue Leith. We made her eat so much cake. Twelve or thirteen cakes. She must be so sick of eating cake.
LBB> Are there any moments from shooting it that will stay with you?
Eoin> My favourite moment was the kiss that opens the film. It was such an opulent setting, in a great hall with chandeliers and a banquet, and then Ste’s delivery just cuts through it all. Really made me laugh.
But I guess if one thing stays with me it will be Big Narstie’s extremely specific sandwich order. Let’s just say the man has very good taste in sandwiches.