From a Brookside kiss to ‘sadistic’ foreign films: Channel 4’s 20 most groundbreaking – and controversial – shows | Television
When Channel 4 launched at 4.45pm on Tuesday 2 November 1982, Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian worried that some of the programmes were “trendy enough to make the teeth peel”. Yet Channel 4 wasn’t designed to be trendy. It was established by Margaret Thatcher to shake up telly and, in particular, nobble the BBC. She even contemplated TV sets that could only broadcast ITV and Channel 4. “If she hadn’t hated the BBC so much,” said the TV producer Stewart Mackinnon, “she would not have created Channel 4. But she did.”
Like many a Thatcher’s child, Channel 4 went rogue. After a sedate debut in the form of the gameshow Countdown – still going strong 7,500 episodes later, with a new host, Anne Robinson – it was soon effing and jeffing, going cold turkey and staying up late watching mucky foreign films. In the light of all this, the only surprising thing about the culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, dangling the possibility of Channel 4 being privatised is that it has taken the Tories so long to get round to taking it down.
The Liverpool-set soap launched on Channel 4’s opening night, but it was in 1994 that it really gripped the nation, when Anna Friel as Beth Jordache embraced Nicola Stephenson as Margaret Clemence. Britain’s first lesbian TV kiss was a chaste peck, certainly compared with, say, Mae Martin and Charlotte Ritchie’s romance in Netflix’s current Feel Good. But it was a beautiful retort to the institutionalised bigotry of the previous decade, when tabloids called Aids a gay plague and Thatcher’s government prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authorities.
The romance was one of several storylines that dared to go where previous soaps feared to tread. Mandy Jordache buried her abusive husband under the patio; Nat and Georgia Simpson had an incestuous affair. Brookside Close even had its own version of Covid, with neighbours divided over social distancing rules to protect themselves from an Ebola-like virus that killed off George (Brian Murphy) and Audrey Manners (Judith Barker).
Queer As Folk
Beth and Margaret paved the way for the unapologetic good times in and around Manchester’s Canal Street celebrated in Russell T Davies’s Queer As Folk, which Channel 4 broadcast in 1999. Davies told me once that after his dad went blind, his mum got so habituated to describing what was on telly, she would carry on even when her sighted son visited. “I’d have to say to her: ‘I know, Mum. I can see what’s happening.’ She said: ‘This is porn’ and I said: ‘Well, no, it isn’t.’” Rather, Queer As Folk was both Channel 4 at its socially subversive best and a redemption song for boys and girls who, like Davies, were closeted at school. As one Guardian critic put it: “It brought the hedonistic joys of a pre-Grindr world to mainstream viewing.”
In 1986 Channel 4 launched Red Triangle, a late-night strand featuring transgressive films such as Themroc, in which a working-class Frenchman opts out of modern society to live as an urban caveman, indulging in scenes of incest and cannibalism, and Héctor Babenco’s film Pixote, telling the story of street children in São Paulo including scenes of torture and sexual assault. It was one of many examples of Channel 4’s output condemned by Mary Whitehouse’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association. Broadcasts were preceded by a warning that said: “Special discretion required” with a logo of a red triangle. “It’s not good enough to slap on a warning symbol and then indulge in sadistic madness of this kind,” wrote Whitehouse of Themroc.
Channel 4’s founding chief executive, Jeremy Isaacs, wore the criticism as a badge of honour. “I am glad to see the home secretary’s unexceptional reply to your unnecessary letter,” he wrote to Whitehouse in 1984. Still, Red Triangle lasted only a year before being cancelled.
The People’s Account
In 1985, Menelik Shabazz and the Ceddo Film and Video Workshop – a film co-op – made a documentary about police behaviour towards the black community in Tottenham, north London, and that year’s riots in Broadwater Farm. It was called The People’s Account, and many of those who worked on it lived on the estate.
Then the regulatory Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) stepped in, ruling that The People’s Account should not be broadcast. According to Shabazz – who died this week – the sticking point was the film’s argument about the police shooting of Dorothy “Cherry” Groce. Groce was shot and paralysed during a police raid on her home in Brixton, south London, in September 1985, by officers looking for her son. The People’s Account argued that Groce’s shooting triggered the Brixton riots – and that the raid was evidence of police racism. “We stuck with our guns,” Shabazz explained. “There was no legal reason why that cannot be said.” The documentary was not aired.
In 1989, Channel 4’s new chief executive, Michael Grade, sought to make the channel’s cultural programming more accessible. High art and low entertainment were brought together in a shotgun marriage in a weekly 90-minute arts and culture magazine aimed at 18- to 34-year-olds.
Each week was themed around an avant garde art movement. Hence, for instance, at the show’s futurist dinner party, a waiter poured water over the music journalist Paul Morley, who, not unreasonably, punched him and walked out. Another week, naked women writhed in blue paint in homage to Yves Klein’s 1960 performance art Anthropometry. “Under-rehearsed, badly lit and with faulty sound, it might have caused more of a stir if anybody had been able to tell what was going on,” wrote one critic. Halfway through the show’s run of 23 episodes, presenter Fou Fou L Hunter died.
In the end, the show’s creator, Charlie Parsons, and Channel 4’s commissioning editor for youth programmes, Stephen Garrett, ditched the art. The result was The Word, a show that featured bands, interviews and wannabe celebrities bathing in maggots.
Alternative Christmas Message
At 3pm on 25 December 1993, the Queen gave her traditionally yawnsome Christmas message on BBC One, while on Channel 4 another self-styled queen, Quentin Crisp, offered his. He told viewers why he had left England 10 years earlier. “So far, I have only once been threatened in the streets of Manhattan, whereas in England I never felt safe for a moment. Indeed, it is my impression that everybody in the United States is a friend. In England, nobody is a friend … My advice to the British is pack tonight, set out tomorrow like the Portuguese explorers of old for the land of the blessed. We are waiting for you.”
Crisp started a yuletide tradition. Doreen and Neville Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered by racists; Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; WikiLeaks stalwart Edward Snowden; and Brendan Cox, the widower of the murdered MP Jo Cox, are among those who have offered their seasonal greetings courtesy of Channel 4. Last Christmas, it gave us a deep-fake queen, dealing with themes the real HRH dare not address on the other channel – Meghan and Harry, Prince Andrew and Jeffrey Epstein among them.
Each episode of Chris Morris’s scabrous 1997 satire revolved around a series of stunts that prefigured our era of fake news, and suckered bonehead celebrities and virtue-signalling politicians to join in confected moral panics. Paul Daniels and Britt Ekland condemned the abuse of an elephant in a German zoo they were told had been left with its trunk stuck in its fundament; the MP David Amess was duped into denouncing an epidemic addiction to a made-up drug called cake, memorably calling it a “big yellow death bullet”.
A 2001 Brass Eye special about paedophilia duped celebrities including Gary Lineker and Phil Collins to endorse a spoof charity, called Nonce Sense, while the Capital Radio DJ Neil “Dr” Fox told viewers that “paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me … Now that is scientific fact. There’s no real evidence for it – but it is scientific fact.”
Arguably, Brass Eye, for all its genius, was futile. Morris admitted as much a few years ago to Jon Snow on Channel 4 News. “You do a nice dissection of the way things are in the orthodox elite and the orthodox elite slaps you on the back and says: ‘Jolly good. Can we have some more?’”
Derren Brown’s Russian roulette
As time wore on, Channel 4’s radical reputation curdled. It seemed to be seeking controversy for its own sake. In October 2003, for instance, the self-styled mentalist Derren Brown did a Russian roulette stunt that drew 3 million viewers. The Broadcasting Standards Council rejected complaints that the show promoted gun culture. Police in Jersey, where the stunt was filmed, exposed the stunt as a hoax; he had used blanks rather than live ammunition.
Gunther von Hagens’ live autopsy
In November 2002, Gunther von Hagens performed the first public autopsy in the UK for 170 years before a 500-strong audience at a London theatre. Soon after it was broadcast on Channel 4, there were 130 complaints, at the time a record for the regulator, Ofcom. The German professor was in London generating publicity for his Body Worlds exhibition, which featured plastinated corpses of human beings, such as a skinned male body crouched over a chessboard with his cranium split open to show his brain, seemingly contemplating a move that he will never make.
Von Hagens was warned beforehand that performing a public autopsy would be a criminal act under the 1984 Anatomy Act; however, police officers attending the event did not intervene. The Independent Television Commission later ruled that the programme had not broken broadcasting rules
Julia Black’s 2004 documentary My Foetus was, arguably, even more difficult to watch. It showed footage of a woman having an abortion when she is four weeks pregnant, along with images of aborted foetuses. “I decided to include images of 10-, 11- and 21-week-old aborted foetuses in my film because, however shocking, repulsive and confrontational they are, they represent the reality,” Black wrote in the Observer at the time. Black, who’d had an abortion aged 21, argued that both pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners needed to expose themselves to the reality of what abortion involved. At the end of the film, she said: “There are the facts. No more secrets. Every woman who finds herself in a situation similar to mine can make up her own mind which path she takes. The battle for and against abortion can now begin. Which side of the fence you fall is up to you.”
Going Cold Turkey
In February 2006, Channel 4 courted more controversy with a week of programmes following three heroin users detoxing in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. There were many vomiting shots, and former heroin users were sceptical that anyone could kick the drug in five days. “It’s when the five days are up and you leave the clinic that the rattling really starts, and the viewers won’t see that bit,” said one. The growing worry was that Channel 4 had moved from subversion to sensationalism, broadcasting not a public service but a disservice, unreality rather than reality TV.
The long-running reality show had started in 2000 as a sociological-experiment-cum-game-show in which strangers turned housemates courted popularity among viewers to avoid eviction. But as ratings rocketed and Channel 4 became dependent on it for advertising revenue, it became more questionable. Viewers and critics worried that the programme was edited to maximise apparent conflict. In one notorious incident in 2007, the Bollywood actor Shilpa Shetty was subjected to racist abuse by rival housemate Jade Goody. Channel 4 bosses defended the incident, arguing it was “a good thing” it had provoked a debate. But, after questions were raised in the Commons and effigies of Goody were burned in India, Ofcom ruled the station had breached its code of conduct and ordered it to apologise.
The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston clearly thought Channel 4 was exploiting vulnerable people when reviewing a 2011 episode of Embarrassing Bodies about a man with an aggravated anus. “There is an alternative for David, Brenda etc,” wrote Wollaston. “It’s called the GP. But – and this is the really brilliant bit – they won’t then go and put your anus or your vagina on television. That has to be better, doesn’t it, for everyone?” Everybody, that is, apart from Channel 4.
But there is a narrative to tell other than Channel 4’s increasing reliance on exploitation. It cheered the telly up no end and made us celebrate the simpler things in life, such as Father Dougal. One December, for instance, Father Dougal opened the final door on the Advent calendar, saying: “Aah! Brilliant. A load of people in a stable! It’s the one thing I didn’t expect!” How lovely to be delighted by everyday things. Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews’ Father Ted was perhaps the leading example of Channel 4’s skill at commissioning great sitcoms. Others included Black Books, created by Dylan Moran and Linehan; Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s Peep Show; and the same writers’ Fresh Meat. Who can forget the channel also brought us huge American hits such as Friends and Frasier.
The Big Breakfast
Think too of The Big Breakfast, which started a decade-long run in September 1992, taking on BBC One’s Breakfast Show and ITV’s GMTV. It succeeded by being sillier than either. Typical was the segment in which Richard Bacon invited a member of the public to streak along their street wearing nothing but bacon-covered underwear in order to win their weight in bacon from their local butcher. Other segments included Show Us Your Behind, Court With Your Pants Down, Get Your Nobbly Nuts Out, and the late Paula Yates interviewing guests (including her future partner Michael Hutchence) in bed.
If Channel 4’s commissioning editors used to have a commitment to subversion, nowadays they are more likely to have a postmodern genius that in its own perverted terms deserves applauding. Consider Gogglebox, launched in 2013. The genius is to make a hit programme predicated on us watching viewers watching TV and commenting on what they, and probably we, see.
Location, Location, Location
Nobody has done a proper statistical analysis of the impact of Phil Spencer and Kirstie Allsopp’s Location, Location, Location – not to mention Sarah Beaney’s Property Ladder or Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs – on Britain’s hideously overheated housing market. My hunch, though, is that if Channel 4 had never broadcast these and the other property shows on which its schedules have come to depend, there might be a few more under-30s who could afford to move out of their childhood bedrooms. Thanks for ruining a generation’s life prospects, Channel 4.
“To be honest, we never thought it would last beyond the pilot, but it’s now been running for 20 years and 221 episodes,” Kirstie told me last year.
The Great British Bake Off
In 2016 Channel 4 bought the BBC franchise, and stunned both bakers and broadcasters by replacing Mary Berry with Prue Leith, and ditching Mel and Sue as comedy foils in favour of cuddly if out-there goth Noel Fielding and pint-sized feminist funnywoman Sandi Toksvig. Ratings rose like a thrice-baked soufflé. Channel 4 had clearly got its finger on the nation’s pulse, even if that pulse – I’m no doctor, but work with me – indicates a population physically enfeebled by overconsumption of baked goods and intellectually dulled by watching programmes about preparing them. Chris Morris was wrong: there is a drug called cake and, thanks to The Great British Bake Off, we are all addicted to it.
Channel 4 News
Besides Countdown, the only show to survive from that opening night in November 1982 is Channel 4 News. If there is good defence against privatisation, Channel 4 News is a leading part of it. It seems more necessary than ever now to ringfence quality TV news from catastrophic blowhards such as Piers Morgan or the rightwing bruisers of GB News.
It’s a Sin
Sometimes, it’s true, the 39-year-old Channel 4 resembles nothing so much as that elephant with its trunk stuck where the sun don’t shine. You hardly know what it’s for, nor whether it would benefit from corrective surgery or be better put down. We live in a different world from the one into which Channel 4 was born in 1982. We are more liberal and less shockable, and TV culture is more fragmented than the nationally cohesive, socially conservative one that Jeremy Isaacs sought to revolutionise. And yet Channel 4’s current programme director (and former Guardian deputy editor), Ian Katz, maintains it is still too valuable to warrant privatisation.
Katz points out that Russell T Davies’s hit 2021 drama It’s a Sin, about gay men romping in Thatcher’s Britain in the time of Aids, was turned down by every other broadcaster and would not have been made if Channel 4 had been sold off. The same, he maintains, is true of the recent, sweet sitcom We Are Lady Parts, about a Muslim punk band. It’s hard to imagine, too, something of the incisive satirical cleverness of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror (which was nurtured on Channel 4 only to be snapped up by Netflix) being greenlit by owners who prize profit above public service.