No Twitter mobs, just intelligent debate: the time is ripe for the return of After Dark

Channel 4 trusted the show’s guests to discuss sensitive topics, at length, in a civilised way. Is there any hope of seeing its like again?

A typical edition of After Dark, from June 1988, discussing apartheid in South Africa
A typical edition of After Dark, from June 1988, discussing apartheid in South Africa Credit: Open Media Ltd

Public discourse in Britain, as in much of what we call the “free world”, is in a pretty shocking state. This is partly because of steadily lower and more partisan standards of education, particularly in the humanities, which prevent people from learning how to argue rationally and in a civilised way. It is also partly because of social media, which operates a form of mob rule over those misguided enough to take it seriously, and in which a dictatorial consensus is imposed about what subjects are or are not fit for discussion – thus pre-judging the outcome of those discussions. 

But it is also because one of the most influential arms of the media, television, has long since run up the white flag on intelligent discussion programmes, in which the public were not only invited to watch thoughtful and intelligent people having thoughtful and intelligent conversations, but could perhaps learn some of the skills of discourse from watching them in action. 

Like many of a certain age, I have fond memories of After Dark, the initiative of the television producer Sebastian Cody, which ran on Channel 4 from 1987 to 1991 and then returned for the occasional special until 1997. An attempt by the BBC to revive the format in 2003 failed, more I think due to weaknesses in the BBC’s mindset than in the nature of the programme. 

Cody borrowed the idea from Austrian television. A group of people with knowledge of a certain subject – and the subject matter varied widely, from pure political questions to those of morality, culture and philosophy – would sit in comfortable chairs in a group, and talk. A variety of people served as the chair. The programme went out live – without the customary seconds of delay in case someone uttered a profanity or a libel. 

It started, as the title suggested, after dark and finished when it finished – in other words, when everyone felt enough had been said. The subject matter was rarely boring: whether Thatcherism had been a success, with Teresa Gorman, then a Conservative MP, and Billy Bragg; about the prosecution of the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie; and about South Africa, where apartheid still operated, with Harry Belafonte, Breyten Breytenbach and Denis Worrall. Edward Heath, the former prime minister, appeared in 1989 and – justifying the EU – ridiculed the prospect of the end of the Soviet Bloc, which started to unravel months after he proclaimed its immortality. 

But After Dark was at its best when it covered timeless questions, such as marriage (with Mary Whitehouse and Shere Hite), “alternative medicine” (with Jonathan Miller), and the free press (with Lord Lambton, Tony Howard and Duncan Campbell). Notoriously, Oliver Reed – who had just won a libel action after being accused of beating his wife – turned up to debate “Do Men Have to Be Violent?” with the activist Kate Millett, on top of whom he tried to roll. He appeared drunk, but his manager claimed he was sober, and just acting.

Today, we live in a society where accountability is in short supply, and the results of that impunity are everywhere to be seen: the present fiasco about the A-level results is a prime example. The need for frank discourse is ever more essential. The absence of such programming encourages journalists such as Emily Maitlis, recently in trouble for editorialising on Newsnight, to start punting their own opinions at the public in the hope of provoking discussion – something a news anchor explicitly should not do. 

It is also ironic that in an age when half of young Britons experience higher education, there should be minimal opportunities for them to witness, let alone participate in, discourse about serious questions that affect us all. No-one appears to have made the link between those who rule us talking so little in the open, and engaging so little with interlocutors, and the frequency with which crises and problems now emerge. Perhaps if we talked and reasoned more we would fail less.

Writing three years ago, Cody suggested that After Dark, which worked “in the old days of monopolistic TV”, might not do so in our multi-platform age. He said, and perhaps to an extent he was right, that people don’t take television seriously any more.

But in Britain today, too many important forces are going largely unchallenged in a way they should not in a free society. The Government is one; but so is the Twitter mob, with its pompous and sometimes sadistic “calling out”, its advocacy of the “cancel culture” and its determination to destroy rather than to create. Such forces desperately need to be held to account, and television remains the ideal medium in which to do it. 

Irrespective of the slump in television audiences – a slump perhaps caused by the drivel that occupies much of the schedules – the time is surely ripe for the return of a programme such as After Dark. There will be no shortage of politicians, columnists, professors, writers and so-called “public intellectuals” who would fight to come on such a programme. (I’d be delighted to chair, or take part in, a discussion programme about whether there should be more discussion programmes, for example, or whether television audiences are now inevitably regarded as being in a permanent vegetative state.)

An episode on Bosnia, broadcast in 1993, hosted by Ian Kennedy Credit: Open Media

And it really doesn’t matter if only small numbers of people watch. The need for long-form rational discourse today is greater than ever; while the imbeciles who empty their polemical bowels via Twitter might not be interested – though I suspect they would be – that is no reason for television not to try to appeal to everyone else. 

There is a general sense that too much in this country, and in our culture, is now going by default. There are plenty who will have the argument if only they can get the right platform, and scores of thousands more who will greedily watch them have it. The people of this country are not inevitably so stupid and so vacuous, and with such brief attention spans, as many television executives imagine. The sheer novelty of turning on the television late at night and hearing a group of well-informed people discussing serious questions that (whether we realise it or not) affect all of us, might be just what people want today.