WHAT WAS THIS CHANNEL FOUR?

On this day in 1982, Channel 4 went on air. Its brief? To innovate, to serve minority interests, and, some thought, to swear. Certainly, it's kept changing of the original programmes only five have survived. David Aaronovitch reports

We were - all of us - a generation younger then. Mrs Thatcher sat on the throne, her victory in the Falklands won only months before. Michael Foot was wondering what to do about Militant. David Owen was an important politician, unemployment was well over two million and rising, once again there had been riots during the summer in inner-city Britain, and the first yuppies were appearing. It was a dislocated, fractious, angst-ridden and fast-changing country that in November 1982 welcomed a new television channel, the first since the launch of BBC2 in the Sixties.

In many ways, Channel 4 was the child of a liberal, cultural elite which felt its civilised values threatened by the Sun and the triumphant Tories, and that was only just beginning to realise that it was in for the long haul. Yet there were aspects of the New Britain that suited the project exceptionally well. The imperatives, to innovate, to serve minority interests and to diversify production, represented a fusion of free-market ideas with Sixties antagonism to fusty institutions like the BBC, which had - for many years - sat on as much talent as it had ever developed.

So, 15 years ago this week, the first Channel 4 schedule appeared. The biggest difference between this bit of paper and those issued by the press offices of the Beeb and ITV came at the end of each programme description, in the credits. For until 1982 the rule was that if you showed it, you made it. Channel 4, however, only made one programme - Right to Reply - the others were all commissioned in. And while a significant amount of material had been commissioned from the large ITV companies, there were also the names of a dozen tiny little companies: Brook, Gambles Milne, Comic Strip, Moving Picture Company, and many more. An independent production sector had been called into life in Britain, and it was nurturing talents that would have found it stultifying inside the BBC or ITV of the early Eighties: people like Michael Jackson, now boss of Channel 4.

Many of the pet obsessions of TV folk in the last decade and a half are foreshadowed in the schedule for week one. Most of the programmes (which aired from 5pm) I do not remember, like The Friday Alternative - "the news as seen not by the newscasters, not by reporters, but by the public" - a forerunner of the People's Parliament and all those other doomed "Let's do a show in which real people tell it like it is" attempts. Then there's Lucky You, Lucky Me: "Jonathan Dimbleby, with the help of George Cole, takes an original and humorous look at our attitudes to the Third World." A gruesome thought. I do recall Voices, with Al Alvarez arguing that "our culture is under pressure". Voices had very large armchairs and rugs on the wall, and was completely unwatchable.

But, for all this minority stuff, one of the greatest achievements of Channel 4 - and one almost completely overlooked by its snobby memorialists - has been its acquisition and promotion of the best shows from America. It started, really, with Hill St Blues, continued with thirtysomething, and lives gloriously on in ER, NYPD Blue, Homicide, Friends and Frasier. For most viewers this - not Voices - is Channel 4's most enduring legacy.

Very few of the original programmes and strands have survived the 15 years of Channel 4's life. For some of them, this culling must have been a blessed relief. But others were successful shows that were killed off by commissioning editors before viewers had a chance to get tired of them. Only five programmes - the ones described on the rest of this page - have lived to celebrate their 15th birthdays. Why these five? God knows.

BROOKSIDE

Created by Phil Redmond (left, in front of the original cast), Brookside began as it has gone on. In episode one, the first soap to be located "in a real environment" tracked the early-morning lives of the working-class Grants ("Come here, you soft lad!") and the distressed middle- class Collinses. The essential dramatic device - of alternating scenes of the Scousers and the gentlefolk, then manoeuvring the families into class confrontation - is still being used as we head for episode 2000.

In 1982, it was Paul nearly getting into a fight with Bobby because Damon had scrawled "bollocks" on the Collinses' bedroom wall. In last week's Brookside it was rather more complex, as the bereaved couple Max and Susannah (dead kids) approached Jacqui Dixon to become a surrogate mother. The end is always the same, people bawling at each other in irreconcilable Brooksidian rage.

It is interesting too to recall the fate of the first two families. If my memory serves me correctly, it runs: Grants - one rape, one murder, one suicide, one abortion (or was it two?) and one adultery; Collinses - one gay son (Gordon - who else?), one adultery, one death (or was that someone else?). Since then, unfortunate residents have been buried under patios, pushed off scaffolding, shot during sieges and slaughtered in multiple pile-ups. Of the Eighties families, only the Corkhills (top, celebrating Christmas with the Grants) are still represented in the Close (left, earlier this year), though Barry Grant is showing up for the C4 anniversary.

One thing, however, has changed enormously. In the first show, Bobby opened the fridge door to reveal a scene reminiscent of Brezhnev-ian consumer desolation. There were some eggs, a packet of marge, a carton of milk and a small bottle of Coke. For a family of five. In episode 1,964, Max Farnham (head of a small family, since they're all dead) practically walks into his vast refrigerator, packed with every goody that M&S or Harrods can possibly supply. We may be unhappier in 1997, but there's more to eat.

COUNTDOWN

The This is Your Life of Channel 4, Countdown consists of two games which were probably originally played round the log fire at a Mensa summer camp. One involves finding the longest anagram from nine letters; the other, discovering a way of using each of six numbers to arrive at a randomly chosen figure. And that's it. For 15 years. With the same presenter. And the same helper.

I am at a loss to explain the programme's success. Perhaps it's the funny binky-bonky music with its dribbly climax which marks the 30 seconds the contestants have for thought. Maybe the main pull is presenter Richard Whiteley, who has graduated from being a bland young man with a shiny face and a horrible line in puns to being a bland middle-aged man with a matt, ruddy face and an absolutely execrable line in puns.

Or could the explanation be that the very first Countdown saw the TV debut of a 21-year-old woman who "is a Cambridge graduate and works in computers"? Yes, it was Carol "Spooky" Vorderman, the Widmerpool of British TV, wearing purple eye-shadow, a khaki blouse and brown slacks, and looking like the most brainy and charming member of Ernst Rohm's stormtroopers (top, with Whiteley). Last week Carol was still there (above), as indeed she is everywhere. Incidentally, the first line was TNEMARHIB (giving "raiment" and "minaret"), and the first number was 424.

CHANNEL 4 NEWS

That this programme should still exist is much less of a surprise, though Channel 4's first breakfast-news show did not last long (it was succeeded by The Big Breakfast). But ITN's idea of screening an in-depth digest of the moment's most important stories rather than competing with the conventional bulletins was always a strong one.

Nevertheless, its first incarnation was - by today's standards - almost unbelievably austere. In a yellow studio (what was it with yellow in 1982?), Peter Sissons (top) read the day's headlines partly from a yellow folder and partly from autocue: "Mrs Thatcher plans her biggest-ever public-spending squeeze", and "Coal Board on defensive over pit closures". Then, without so much as a flicker of film, it was over to Sarah Hogg and her economics report, again delivered without the distracting aid of pictures. The half-term Congressional elections of 1982 (Reagan was in his first term), as reported by Geoffrey Hodgson, took up a very large slice of the first edition, beginning a tradition of reporting foreign stories in near-suicidal depth which continues to this day.

Fans also praise the programme's commitment to covering science and environmental issues, so often missing from the mainstream news bulletins. And in Jon Snow (above), it has a man that the Beeb (and many women) would love to give a contract to.

FILM ON FOUR

This, of course, is not a programme at all. Beginning on the first night with Walter, directed by Stephen Frears, shot by Chris Menges and starring Ian McKellen (top), Film on Four has showcased movies partly or wholly financed by Channel 4. Other early successes included My Beautiful Laundrette; more recent ones include Mike Leigh's award-winning Secrets and Lies and The Confessional, the first feature film made by avant-garde theatre director Robert Lepage.

But increasingly, this has meant helping to fund British films that are on general release long before they are on Channel 4. Which has been great for the domestic movie business, but has dissipated the value of the investment to Channel 4 itself. Sometimes the patron has reaped the reward of its largesse - in the early winter of 1995, Four Weddings and a Funeral got ratings of 12.2 million. But what will the ratings be when Trainspotting, the third most successful British film so far, is screened later this month to celebrate the channel's 15th birthday? Not only did the film, starring Ewan McGregor (above), hit the cinemas 18 months ago, but it has been available to rent on video for the whole of this year. It is doubtful, therefore, whether the viewer associates the film with the channel any more than it believes that BBC2 funded Spartacus.

RIGHT TO REPLY

From the beginning, Channel 4 was determined to forge a different relationship with its viewers. So, every Saturday, it would give them the opportunity to question and criticise the programmes that were transmitted, and the smooth bastards who were responsible for making them. Not only would this create a bond of ownership between the channel and its public, but it might also make for quite lively discussion.

That was the theory, and lively lefty Gus Macdonald from Granada (now a very rich big cheese in Scottish TV, lor' bless him) was put in charge of a horrid yellow set and a group of whingeing Christians going on and on about bad language - including Damon's bollocks. "The word 'shit' seemed to be in constant use," complained one, without irony. "Eileen Tonks," said Gus, gravely turning to a woman from Solihull, "you're part of the nation ... " She was, she agreed, and she was "literally scared", every time she turned on her telly, that someone would swear.

For 15 years now, the Eileen Tonkses of Britain have been afforded their tedious moment of complaint on Right to Reply, now hosted by Roger Bolton (left). For a period the programme used the fabled Videobox, into which aggrieved viewers could step from the street and make moan. It was discontinued at a time of rising homelessness, presumably because those without access to Channel 4 set up camp in the box.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable