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
Sunday 02 November 1997
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.
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.
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.
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