Lust for Life, the Early Days of Channel 4

Choose Life

Earlier this week, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party tried to get down with the kids by co-opting the much-imitated Choose Life mantra from Trainspotting. With the Scottish council elections pending in May, this was turned into an anti-SNP rant. While the result suspiciously resembled an April Fool that got lost in the post, more likely it was the last gasp antics of a worn-out comms team bereft of ideas. Their semantic wheeze was the press release equivalent of dad-dancing, that painful, try-too-hard shuffle by those who long lost sight of the zeitgeist, but who are still desperate to be hip.

The deliberate Trainspotting reference might arguably have also been a potential breach of copyright. The original words are the intellectual property of Irvine Welsh, author of the era-defining Edinburgh-set 1993 novel where they first appeared. Writer of the equally audacious 1996 film adaptation, John Hodge, director Danny Boyle and producer Andrew Macdonald could also be said to have an interest. Mark Blamire and Rob O’Connor, who designed the film’s original black, white and orange poster campaign, might also want a word.

While this attempt by the Scottish Tories to make Trainspotting their own wasn’t quite on a par with Donald Trump using Neil Young’s Rockin’ in the Free World or Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A, they nevertheless used it without permission, and without any understanding of the original context. Given that several generations of student club nights have done something similar with Trainspotting, the Scottish Tories also turned up to the party a quarter of a century late.

While it is unlikely Welsh and co can be arsed wasting energy on such cheap knock-offs, the attempt to leech off Trainspotting has already backfired to a hilarious degree. Welsh’s response was decisive. ‘Get fucked you cunts,’ he tweeted.

It was perhaps unfortunate as well that the Scottish Tories Trainspotting promo appeared on the day it was leaked that their Westminster chums were planning to privatise Channel 4. It was Channel Four Films, after all, who, along with Macdonald’s Figment Films and the Noel Gay Motion Picture Company, co-produced Trainspotting, helping sire one of the biggest success stories in British film of the late twentieth century.

Boyle, Hodge and Macdonald had previously worked on another production by Channel Four Films (later FilmFour, then Film4 Productions), Shallow Grave (1993). Ambitious young filmmakers had been backed in a similar way since the station was founded.

A token piece of rudimentary research would have clued in the ‘90s nostalgists at Scottish Tory central office on all of this. But then, maybe they don’t watch Channel 4. Such resistance to the biggest free TV provider in the UK might be in deference to enlightened cultural souls such as Leave.EU co-founder, Aaron Banks.

On Twitter, Banks described the station as ‘an extension of the guardian newsroom, a bunch of trendy Oxford-educated lefties with less neutrality than the BBC! We are engaged in a cultural war where the right win elections & the left control tv media. It needs a bullet in the back of the head pronto!’ Nice company Channel 4 haters are keeping, there, and not entirely a surprise to see Banks’ Twitter account suspended.

But maybe we’re getting those worn-out Scottish Tory PR types wrong? Their former leader Ruth Davidson, aka The Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links, has perhaps somewhat surprisingly spoken out in support of Channel 4. On Twitter she called the station ‘a cultural jewel and we shouldn’t be flogging it off to some foreign corporation to take money out of the UK supply chain’. Davidson also wrote in The Telegraph of how ‘No Tory should want to privatise Channel Four’.

With this in mind, perhaps Davidson should invite Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, round for a DVD night and show her what’s what? It was Dorries, after all, who declared on Twitter that ‘government ownership is holding Channel 4 back from competing against streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon.’ In another tweet, Dorries said that ‘Proceeds from C4 sale will be invested in left-behind areas investing indies and creative skills desperately needed in our rapidly growing creative industries.’

Given that in November 2021, when Dorries’ appearance at a select committee left her seemingly confused about how Channel 4 is run, this is quite a statement. But whatevs. Just imagine the C4 smorgasbord Dorries and Davidson could binge-watch together, and all without having to spend a penny of taxpayer’s cash. Hell, they could even have the Scottish Tories comms team round as well for a company away day. I bet they know how to party like it’s 1994.

But where to start with C4’s voluminous back catalogue? Well, if our dynamic duo and their PR underlings wanted to start with a laugh, they could check out some of the many comedy shows produced by independents over the last four decades. These range from Father Ted and Peep Show, through to The Inbetweeners, Friday Night Dinner and Derry Girls.

Hard-hitting documentaries maybe wouldn’t be their thing, but pioneering current affairs show Dispatches scooped a fistful of awards for its investigative journalism. Rewinding right back, maybe they’d prefer Network 7, the Sunday lunchtime yoof TV indulgence that for a while suggested the meedja was FUN. Maybe the Scots Tories PR team were inspired by it? Shame it didn’t work out.

Or how about After Dark, the free-flowing late-night discussion programme with no fixed running time. And of course, they’d want to check out Big Brother, the so-called social experiment that spearheaded the reality TV boom before evolving into an at times nasty and exploitative spectacle.

Charlie Brooker probably had one eye on all this when he created Black Mirror, his anthology series of SF based dramas that imagined future dystopias that probably aren’t that far away from the present. In terms of other groundbreaking home grown drama, Davidson and Dorries might want to check out Queer as Folk. Or how about Skins, which showcased early turns from Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, Jack O‘Connell and Freya Mavor. They might also like It’s a Sin. There’s loads more, but they can’t watch everything.

For the main feature, while our Tory pair probably wouldn’t fancy the assorted works by Ken Loach and Mike Leigh backed by Channel Four Films, nor those by Derek Jarman or Peter Greenaway, it’s a fair bet they’d go for A Room With a View (1985) or Howard’s End (1992). And you just know they already adore Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), subversive leftist tosh that it is.

Given Dorries’ support for a new Beatles museum (a third) in her home town of Liverpool, even she might swoon over Four-backed mop top friendly outings, Backbeat (1994), and Nowhere Boy (2009). After all that, they might finally be able to face Trainspotting itself, even with all the ideas ripped off by their PR wonks in attendance.

With such a garden of earthly delights ushered in by the red braces twanging ‘80s during Margaret Thatcher’s first term as UK prime minister, Dorries more than most should recognise Channel 4 was founded as a beacon of free enterprise and a paragon of Tory values. Shouldn’t she?

Born Slippy

‘Are you sexually liberated and politically concerned? No? Then take your sticky hands off my nice new, shiny channel.’

These were the opening words of Guardian TV critic Nancy Banks-Smith’s review of Channel 4’s first night of broadcasting on Tuesday November 2nd, 1982.

I’m not sure whether my then eighteen-year-old self stayed in or not for the occasion, but even without Nancy I could pretty much tell you all the highlights that came after David Dundas’ money-spinning theme, Fourscore, fanfared in Martin Lambie-Nairn’s animated primary coloured ident.

The seeds of the sort of lefty radicalism Banks is so fearful of were clearly there in the station’s first ever programme, when, at 4.45pm, the premiere edition of word-based quiz show, Countdown, was shown. This was followed by a fifteen-minute preview of future Channel 4 programmes, evocatively described by Banks-Smith as ‘trendy enough to make your teeth peel’. A half-hour popular science programme, The Body Show, came afterwards, followed by The People’s Court, an American import and an early example of reality TV that showed real live small claims trials. Literature programme, Book Four, followed.

These were mere warm-up acts, however, and, other than Countdown, I wouldn’t have been aware of any of it if not for the online listings archive of The Television and Radio Database.

At 7pm, things started to get serious, as the first edition of the hour-long Channel 4 News gave space for reports on events of the day to breathe.

In the days before rolling online providers, the original presenting team led by Peter Sissons, supported by Godfrey Hodgson, Sarah Hogg, Trevor McDonald and Gavin Scott, were able to get to the heart of a story. But we’ll come back to all that. It was what came afterwards that in part helped define the not always accurate image of the early days of Channel 4.

First up, at 8pm, came the first episode of Brookside, the now legendary Scouse soap created by Phil Redmond. Characters played by former construction worker turned nightclub turn Ricky Tomlinson, future Silent Witness star Amanda Burton, and stage veteran, Sue Johnston, set the tone, as the class war was played out in a leafy Liverpool suburb, where trade unionism and other deviancy was rife.

Tomlinson and Johnston would later reunite for the late Caroline Aherne’s sit-com, The Royle Family. Although a BBC show, the latter arguably couldn’t have happened without Channel 4.

Beyond Redmond, other Brookside writers included Jimmy McGovern and Frank Cottrell-Boyce. McGovern, of course, went on to pen Cracker for Robbie Coltrane, and numerous other TV dramas, including Hillsborough (1996), and Dockers (1999), the latter co-written with Irvine Welsh and several striking Liverpool dockers. McGovern’s most recent TV work at time of publication is prison drama, Time (2021).

Among Cottrell-Boyce’s many credits, he would go on to work with Trainspotting director Danny Boyle on creating Isles of Wonder, otherwise known as the London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, a celebration of all things British, including the Industrial Revolution and the NHS.

After Brookside’s location-based social-realism, The Paul Hogan Show introduced British audiences to an Australian comedy institution best known in the UK at the time for advertising Fosters Lager before going on to play the title role in the Crocodile Dundee films. Such boozy rambunctiousness will have been a welcome antidote to all that lefty nonsense for some.

Following this was Walter, the first of the new channel’s Film on Four strand. David Cook’s dramatisation of his novel starred Ian McKellen as a man with a learning disability who is placed in a psychiatric institution. The film was directed by Stephen Frears, who, with a few quid of Channel 4 money, would go on to direct My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), before embarking on a brilliant career overseeing the likes of Dangerous Liaisons (1988), an adaption of Nick Hornby’s novel, High Fidelity (2000), The Queen (2006), and Philomena (2013).

Walter was BAFTA nominated, while the Royal Television Society named McKellen Performer of the Year. A Trotskyist plot if ever there was one.

Anarchy prevailed in Five Go Mad in Dorset, the first of The Comic Strip Presents… series, which galvanised the new wave of London’s alternative comedy scene with stand-alone short films. The debut episode was an Enid Blyton pastiche starring Adrian Edmonson, Dawn French, Peter Richardson and Jennifer Saunders. More comic larks followed with In the Pink, a feminist cabaret of poetry and song performed by Sue Jones-Davies, Fan Viner and Dee Orr, collectively known as The Raving Beauties.

And that was it. All over before midnight, Channel 4 had arrived. Not bad for a night’s work.

Over the following week, the new station’s arts strand featured Baryshnikov on Broadway, An Evening with Max Wall, and a half-hour interview with writer Nadine Gordimer. On Friday teatime, the music show The Tube began its chaotic life, as well as Jools Holland and Paula Yates’ similarly shambling presenting careers. But in a three-channel world where Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test felt tired, this was an injection of much-needed unpredictability. The first episode alone featured an appearance by Heaven 17 and the last ever live performance by The Jam.

The best bits of Channel 4’s first week, however, came largely through film. Another Channel Four Film production came with P’tang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982), directed by Michael Apted, and with a script by Jack Rosenthal. The Animals Film (1981) was a documentary about animal exploitation narrated by Julie Christie and featuring a soundtrack by Robert Wyatt. Also screened was Woodstock, the suitably rambling document of the much-mythologised 1969 music festival.

Then, perhaps with a knowing eye on the future, Channel 4 screened Network (1976). With a screenplay by Paddy Chayevsky, Sydney Lumet’s film was a devastating portrayal of a ratings-hungry TV station whose corporate bosses will seemingly stop at nothing to get viewers, even if someone gets killed.

After Dark

For those who grew up during the early days of Channel 4, it gave us an education. It opened a window on a big, messy, complicated world. It introduced us to big ideas, subtitled films, and sometimes to pretentious wankers. It revealed how pop culture occupies a strange and fascinating world and probably isn’t as shocking as it thinks it is, no matter what the tabloids try to tell you.

Some of it was difficult, and some of it was awful, and some of it was too clever for its own good. Some shows got so over-excited you thought they might explode, and others took themselves very seriously indeed. Above all, Channel 4 was a gateway to somewhere different to anything else on TV at the time. Most importantly, perhaps, it got you thinking.

Other than the thinking bit, Nadine Dorries, Aaron Banks and all the rest don’t really care about any of that. Nor do Dorries’ claims of wanting to support an independent production sector that already exists sound remotely credible. What is it, then, that makes them want to flog-off a flagship of British broadcasting to their mates as quickly as Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock are buying into Bitcoin?

This brings us back to Channel 4 News. The proposed sell-off of Channel 4 has been described as a revenge attack by a government more used to an increasingly compliant media to toe the line. As Channel 4 News has shown repeatedly, they are having none of it. There was Michael Crick’s expose of the Conservative Party election expenses scandal, back in 2017. Then there was the fallout of Cambridge Analytica.

In the run-up to the 2019 General Election, Channel 4 provoked fury amongst Tory ministers when a leader’s debate on climate change saw the station use a melting ice sculpture as a stand-in for Boris Johnson after he failed to show up, despite being invited numerous times. Given that the threats to review Channel 4’s license began shortly after the incident, it would be stating the bleeding obvious to point out that the attempt to flog off Channel 4 on the cheap is an ideological move, but there we are.

Dorries’ statements on her plans were discredited by Labour MP Chris Bryant in one tweet when he described the proposed sell-off as ‘economically illiterate, culturally devastating and a hammer blow to the independent production industry.’ Bryant went on to point out how ‘Selling it saves no taxpayer money, it harms creative diversity and undermines a great British export. It’s vandalism.’

Vandalism. Think of that word when you imagine the unlikely scenario of Ruth Davidson having Nadine Dorries and the Scottish Tory comms team round to watch the Channel Four Films-backed Trainspotting on DVD. While such fiction might itself be a great pitch for the latest heat-of-the-moment drama, ultimately, the attempted privatisation of Channel 4 is about fear. In an intellectually moribund government, it is a fear of ideas, and a fear of things they don’t understand. Most of all, it is a fear of an uncomfortable truth that stares back at them and tells them they’re fucked. And if they’re fucked, they’re going to take the rest of us down with them.

To be clear, Channel 4 is far from flawless. It has always embraced the lowest common denominator trash as much as it has high art. Some of what it shows is rubbish, and some of it is brilliant, but it’s ours, and it isn’t costing us a penny. If sold off on the cheap as Nadine Dorries would like it to be, Channel 4 as we know it will likely be destroyed. Choose life, however you want to watch it, but take your sticky hands off my channel.

Comments (9)

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  1. john maxwell norman macleod says:

    Two delicious rants, very best to the talented writers of both, brought joy to my day though had no impact on my political convictions,

  2. Rich P says:

    A ‘tour de force’ , Neil – well seen , well said .

  3. 3_man says:

    You missed out Eurotrash.

  4. Niemand says:

    First week of Ch4 also featured a brilliant in-depth, multi-episode documentary on Jamaican reggae, ‘Deep Roots Music’ which still has some incredibly valuable footage and interviews found nowhere else I have ever seen. You can get it on DVD if you hunt around.

    I do feel Ch4 lost its way though after about a decade – the radical edge diminished noticeably. Commercial pressure I suppose, but it still has great value.

  5. Derek says:

    I remember staying up to watch Woodstock in the first week; grainy picture, as there was some issue with transmission or something. Television after 1am? Whatever will they think of next?

  6. AudreyMacT says:

    I don’t watch much telly these days so I don’t know what Ch4 is like now. And I had forgotten what the early days were like but reading this article brought the memories flooding back. The Tube was a breath of fresh air though later on it went a bit DireStraitsy. I think I first heard ‘Shipbuilding’ on The Tube but I can’t remember if it was the Robert Wyatt version or Elvis Costello.
    Great article Neil.

  7. Jean Urquhart says:

    I still long for ‘AFTER DARK’. Best kind of tv discussion programme – no audience to try and impress, genuine discussion on the big issues – Northern Ireland, Private Education and the like and it stopped when the contributors had run out of things to say. Chairmanship was variable, but it only worked and we have yet to see its like anywhere – even CH4 ditched it sadly.

    1. Geoffrey Marks says:

      Yes indeed. But did you see that the person behind the show seems to have doubts about it working these days?

  8. SleepingDog says:

    There’s a lot on Channel 4 that appears tacky, and yes trashy and pretentious, or driven by people who went to elite single-sex private schools. But I was enthralled by Equinox: The Elements, scripted by Roger McGough, and Channel 4 aired what is surely one of the best series ever to appear on British television, Jim Henson’s The Storyteller (with a massive 8.8 Imdb rating).
    The Channel 4 family extended the gamut of British television, and for that we can be grateful, even as we ponder the reports from Ofcom and the Sutton Trust on its representation biases. Of course, one way to tackle that would be to close private schools, perhaps that is something Conservatives should consider first, as they pretend to fume about elitism.

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