Compiled by Steve Williams, Ian Jones and Jack Kibble-White
First published November 2002
Dickie Davis was the unlikely host of new panel game Jigsaw … The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross became a staple of Friday nights … cerebral series State of the Art reviewed contemporary culture … and the notoriously badly-dubbed German mini series Chateauvallan began its 26 part run.
For advice on sexual and personal problems you were encouraged to Ask Dr Ruth … the open mike show Comedy Wavelength gave Paul Merton his first television exposure … and there was excitement aplenty during the Speed Chess Challenge.
John Wells starred in the surgery-based sitcom Rude Health … extracts from the Montreal Comedy Festival were featured in Just for Laughs … while Muriel Gray fronted The Media Show.
Jonathan Meades explored The Victorian House … and Don’t Miss Wax boasted its titular American hostess regularly swapping abuse with floor manager Norman Lovett.
After Dark kept C4 open until the early hours … Sunday lunchtimes were revolutionised by youth “infotainment” opus Network 7 … and Morwenna Banks aimed to make science more fun in Abracadabra.
Ian Richardson and David Jason led the cast of the exemplary comic drama Porterhouse Blue … the recent fortunes of Eastern Europe were charted in The Struggle for Poland … while organic gardening was investigated in All Muck and Magic.
Same Difference focused on disability issues … and Carol Vorderman shared her technical know-how in So We Bought a Computer.
Environmental campaigner Jonathan Porritt examined the Battle for the Planet … Business Daily became a midday fixture, followed half an hour later by kids’ programmes in Just 4 Fun … while the Open College, independent television’s version of the Open University, was represented by advice slot Open Exchange and various vocational educational shows.
Floella Benjamin erected A Houseful of Plants … Bernard Levin walked To the End of the Rhine … and C4’s new flagship current affairs strand began: Dispatches.
Damon and Debbie was the first “soap bubble” and marked the end for Brookside veteran Damon Grant … C4’s fifth birthday was commemorated with the transmission of Tony Harrison’s televisual poem V, which prompted a stream of complaints over its extreme language … US chat show Late Night with David Letterman received its first British airing … and Sesame Street made its debut on C4.
The death of C4’s first and arguably most influential music show was messy and painfully slow. The Tube, made by Tyne Tees Television, was already ailing by the start of ‘87 thanks to a tired format and declining ratings. Jools Holland’s accidental “groovy fuckers” outburst in January merely fuelled a deep-rooted and long-term despondency over the direction the show should be heading. At the start of March Tube producer Malcolm Gerrie and Tyne Tees director of programmes Andrea Wonfor announced their resignations. They cited a mixture of internal bickering, political pressure and “stifling bureaucracy and heavy handed moralism” as responsible. The IBA had been putting pressure on Tyne Tees since formally warning the company over Come Dancing with Jools Holland, a New Year’s Eve show that included sketches featuring nudity and general bad language. Holland’s more recent outburst had led to a second warning and a six-week suspension for the presenter. Wonfor later claimed she’d decided to leave back in December 1986, “before all the rumpus”, but in the end hers and Gerrie’s departure was an admission of defeat. The Tube bowed out just in time for Janet Street-Porter’s Network 7 to send youth TV off into an entirely new and much-needed direction.
Mike Smith was joined by a host of celebrities and musicians to provide advice and information on HIV in First AIDS in February … the first Dance on 4 season kicked off in April … schools programmes moved to C4 as of Monday 14 September … the landmark holocaust drama Shoah was screened in its entirety, without commercial breaks, from 8.15pm to 12.45am on 18 October and from 8.30pm to 1.20am on 19 October … and a three and half hour Salute to ATV on 30 December included archive editions of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, The Saint and Edward VII.
The success of The Last Resort made Jonathan Ross a ubiquitous star about town and an ultra-public ambassador for Channel 4. By 1987 Ross had already had a long association with the station, but behind the camera: first working as researcher on Loose Talk then as a member of the production teams for, amongst others, Trak Trix and Soul Train. It was his stint on Soul Train that introduced him to future collaborator Alan Marke, and with whom he conceived The Last Resort. While the template may have been shamelessly stolen from The Late Show with David Letterman, the pair added various elements that were distinctive and unique – not least an obsession with cult British telly and nostalgia, reflected both in their choice of guests and the hit-and-miss comedy interludes. They set up their own company to make the programme – Channel X – but hesitated over a choice of host, famously leading Ross to stand in at the last minute and inspiring the show’s name. For all that followed, including many more high calibre shows with Channel 4, The Last Resort saw its host display a freshness and energy he was never to equal. Its many memorable conceits – the entire show coming live from a viewer’s home, David Frost grappling with a blow-up doll, doorstepping George Harrison and John Peel in the pub – enshrined it as one of the most entertaining and influential shows of the decade.
Live, late-night and – crucially – open-ended, After Dark was groundbreaking in terms of content, scheduling, format and presentation. Made by production company Open Media and inspired by an Austrian programme called Club 2, After Dark was also typical of 1980s C4 by being alternately absolutely gripping and overwhelmingly boring. The first show was chaired by Tony Wilson and tackled the issue of freedom of information. The half dozen guests were deliberately picked to provoke argument, and often included a member of the public, but the contrivance ended once they were seated on a small circle of sofas and the cameras started to roll. Over four series Tony Blackburn and Peter Tatchell quarrelled over privacy; Billy Bragg and Teresa Gorman argued over how to reduce the number of unemployed; Garth Crooks and Sir Rhodes Boyson disputed the future of football; and Oliver Reed famously disputed “Do Men Have To Be Violent?” by mauling Kate Millet. The show ended proper in 1991 and a number of occasional one-off specials followed; but when Channel 4 went 24 hours in 1997 After Dark was no more.
• Nightime, a mixture of films and discussion-based programmes, extended C4’s hours until 3am on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 23 April.
• On 7 July Jeremy Isaacs announced that advertising revenue for the channel over the year 1986 – 97 exceeded costs for the first time in its history, providing a £20m profit.
• Michael Grade was appointed Isaacs’ successor as Chief Executive in November, assuming official control of the channel on 1 January 1988. On learning the identity of his replacement, Isaacs immediately warned Grade he’d physically harm him if he messed with his inheritance.
“If Channel 4 had any sense, it would not transmit this cascade of obscenities.”
- Teddy Taylor MP on V
“After Dark: not just the most intelligent, thought-provoking and interesting programme ever to have been on television; but the most extraordinary three hours on television.”
- The Daily Mirror
“I don’t look on C4 as my baby. I was rather pleased that the channel was so kind to me and felt that I had helped it at the start, but when you are in politics you get very cautious of describing anything that happens as your baby – it is a very unwise thing to do as like all babies it can turn on you and not do so very well.”
- Lord Whitelaw, former Home Secretary
“Jeremy Isaacs is a man of courage. Courage is the quality I admire most. He got together a group of people, many of whom had never worked in television, and told them: ‘I know you have never done this before and you may think you don’t know how to do it, but go ahead and give it a go.’”
- Richard Attenborough, Chairman, C4
“I have spent quite long enough in broadcasting. I would like to be remembered as the man who had a go and made some of it stick.”
- Jeremy Isaacs
My Favourite Channel 4 Moment …
Arthur and Phil Go Off … Around Channel 4 (1987)
My favourite Channel 4 moment – which until finally switching off the BetaMax signal in my old flat I used to have on tape – is not meant to be wilfully obscure. It came within a one-off comic documentary called Arthur and Phil Go Off … Around Channel 4. My best guess is that this programme was made to celebrate C4’s fifth birthday as it must have been on in about 1987. A self-referential hour-long piece, and markedly different from the formal way the BBC would celebrate itself, this was basically a clips show from the then-infant C4 archive, linked by Arthur Smith and Phil Nice, otherwise known, on the also-infant London cabaret circuit, as the duo Fiasco Job Job. Directed by Geoff Wonfor, this was a low-rent piece of telly, but they really made an effort, filming Arthur and Phil in various locations around C4’s HQ on Charlotte Street: editing suite, reception, Right to Reply’s video booth, even a skip outside in the street.
My favourite link was filmed in the toilets, where Phil discussed old-school (ie pre-C4) comedy’s reliance on the double entendre in a mock-intellectual way while Arthur sat up on one of the cubicles (no, really) making cheap double entendres, Sid James style, every time he detected one in Phil’s link (“Screw you up, screw you down, screw you round and round and round” is one line that has stayed with me). I loved this link then and I love it now – it was so cheaply miked up, with Arthur sounding very much as if he was, well, in a toilet, and the subtext of what was basically a functional link into a clip of some apparently upmarket, liberal reconstructed comedy (probably Stomping on the Cat!) was subtly courageous and multi-layered: C4 has been remodelling the comedy landscape for five years and yet, we still yearn for the old days of cheap innuendo. Arthur and Phil made, I think, two further Go Offs, one to Marbella, but what was presumably intended as a longer-running imprint ran out of steam. Pity. The partnership disbanded, with Smith graduating to his current position as playwright and honorary piece of Radio 4 rough, and Nice returning to mostly comic acting – Mr Bean, People Like Us, EastEnders.
- Andrew Collins