How Channel 4 lost its way

For two decades, Channel 4 was the most exciting thing on British TV. Launched under Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government 40 years ago as a commercially-funded, publicly-owned alternative to the BBC, it introduced us to Football Italia, gave us such pioneering, unique dramas such as GBH, and, with Brookside, redefined the soap opera.

In many ways, the channel was the perfect British TV station: it combined shopkeeper entrepreneurialism and a fondness for the arts with some slightly risqué pranks. It saved, and then rebuilt, the British film industry. It launched the careers of hundreds of writers, comedians, musicians and presenters. It made the Paralympics into a prime-time hit, attracting close to 30 million viewers for Tokyo 2020.

There was game show Countdown, the first programme broadcast on the channel’s launch in 1982; Desmond’s, one of the country’s first black sitcoms; The Comic Strip Presents…, which introduced alternative comedy to a wide audience; live coverage of the Tour de France; early evening music show The Tube. The Tube! What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive when chart-topping bands jammed live while weirdos dressed as robots pulled dance moves in the studio audience.

Later, there was the anarchy of The Big Breakfast, the beautiful weirdness of comedy such as Father Ted, Black Books and Spaced, and the startling innovation of factual programmes like Wife Swap. It also grew its own stars, giving Sacha Baron-Cohen, Kirstie Allsopp, Derren Brown and many, many more their first proper platform.

And then there are the movies. It is hard to overstate just how woeful the British film industry was when the channel launched. Since then it has backed the likes of Shaun of the Dead, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Howards End, Trainspotting, 12 Years a Slave and still had enough edge to garner 13 nominations at the 2019 Oscars – roughly the same as Netflix and Fox Searchlight. All of this without costing the taxpayer a penny –something that Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries didn’t discover until November last year.

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