My top ten Channel 4 programmes

Last week Channel 4 celebrated its 25th birthday. John asked in the comments about people’s top ten Channel 4 programmes. I would have written this at the time anyway, but I didn’t have the time and figured I’d just let it slip under the radar. However, since the question was asked, I will answer it anyway.

Bear in mind that I am actually younger than Channel 4 is. As such, you won’t find me waxing lyrical about Max Headroom or Minipops. This is, I’m afraid, strictly 1990s onwards.

These are in no particular order, just what I thought would flow well.

Brass Eye

Following The Day Today, Chris Morris took the skewed news concept a step further with Brass Eye. The programme was sometimes controversial, with everybody specatcularly failing to ‘get’ the paedophile episode. Brass Eye highlighted and parodied media wrongs. Here is a clip about the Bad Aids.

Jam

Most people seem to be choosing Brass Eye in these lists, as have I. But I was more fond of one of Chris Morris’s other Channel 4 programmes, Jam. This disturbing sketch show was shot with strange visual effects and set to a constant background track of ambient music. Quite unique and strange, it really set itself apart from other sketch shows.

The programme often dealt with subject matters that might be seen as taboo. But you can’t help thinking, “doesn’t he have a point?” It would be irresponsible of me to compare this sketch to any recent news events.

4Later

4Later was a strand of late-night programming that ran for a few years earlier this decade. The range of programmes was pretty eclectic. Low budget games and DVD review shows Bits and Vidz were cult classics. Disinfo Nation was an “alternative news programme”. 4Later was the home of the last series of Babylon 5. Late Night Poker was the original poker programme that started the craze. A remixed version of Chris Morris’s Jam was perfectly suited to the late-night vibe.

It is such a shame that 4later was unceremoniously axed, taking with it all of its good programmes. Late nights on Channel 4 simply haven’t been the same since.

One of my favourite programmes on 4Later was The Trip, which mixed archive film footage with arty music. I’m so delighted to have found some clips of it on YouTube! It was just perfect for the late-night slot, and well worth staying up for, especially since the feeling that you were about to drop off just added to the vibe. It is probably fair to say that, combined with Jam, this programme shaped my taste in music a lot in my mid-teens.

The Big Breakfast

Kudos to Channel 4 for trying something different with the morning slot. Normally, if you don’t want news or children’s programmes, you can forget about morning television.

It was a tricky balancing act though. It was sometimes unwatchably chaotic, and sometimes seemingly the whole programme was on the verge of complete collapse. At times it also seemed as though they were all just having fun for themselves and completely forgot about the viewer. I found this particularly during the Johnny and Denise phase.

I was quite fond of the programme in its later years. But for whatever reason, the viewing public switched off. Channel 4 tried something similar with its replacement, RI:SE, but it completely misfired. The Big Breakfast had some kind of magic ingredient that made it work for a few years in the 1990s. But today, we are back to the usual diet of news and children’s programmes. Anything else would just feel wrong.

This isn’t a particularly special clip, but it is typical of the kind of material that was featured on The Big Breakfast in its later years. Nigel Buckland, presenter of late-night film show Vidz, reviewed some Christmas DVDs in 2002. You might see what I mean when I say the programme was a bit shambolic.

The 11 O’Clock Show

It is true that The 11 O’Clock Show was sometimes embarassingly bad. This was bound to happen when it was broadcast daily (soon cut back to three days a week). I still thought it contained more good jokes per week than just about any other programme. Still, it was all too easy for the programme to lapse into telling easy cock jokes.

Let’s not forget, though, that it was the early home of Sacha Baron Cohen and Ricky Gervais. The huge writing team also had some great names working for it. Charlie Brooker leaps out in my memory. So it’s not as if it had unfunny people working for it. It was worth tuning in to wait for the good bits.

At the time, the programme was perhaps most famous for Iain Lee’s vox pops. Sometimes I got the feeling that the people in the vox pops were told what to say, but they were still funny nevertheless. This one doesn’t look like it has actors, but it does contain lots of dirty jokes about bodily fluids.

Whose Line is it Anyway?

I guess with the improvisational nature of the show, it was bound to be hit and miss. But when it was hit, Whose Line was hysterically funny. It has also stood the test of time rather well. The American version is screened regularly on Five US, and recently the UK version began to be shown on Dave. I find that it’s well worth giving it a look whenever it’s on because there is likely to be at least one laugh-so-much-you-cry moment.

Here is a ‘hoedown’ game from one of the later series of the UK version. Tony Slattery is obviously near his lowest point here which isn’t good to see, but nevertheless it is very funny.

Father Ted

This programme surely needs no introduction. The silly sitcom is the best of the past fifteen years in my view. Here is the classic moment from the Christmas special when Ted, Dougal and others get lost in Ireland’s biggest lingerie section.

The Chart Show

I can just about remember a time when The Chart Show was not The ITV Chart Show. A few months ago I found myself getting very nostalgic and watching lots of videos of old episodes of The Chart Show on YouTube. It was so different to the other music programmes on offer, with nothing in the way of live performances, and no presenters apart from quirky Amiga graphics.

Of course, nowadays most music programming is like this because it’s the most cost-effective way to do it. But even watching The Chart Show today, it has its own little quirks. The whole ‘FFWD’ / ‘RWND’ stuff was a bit gimmicky, but remained in one form or another until its last show in 1998.

For some reason, all of the Channel 4 versions have been removed from YouTube, while many ITV episodes remain! Here is a clip from not long after the change of channels in 1989.

The Crystal Maze

Is this the greatest gameshow ever? Yes. The Crystal Maze also must be one of the very few programme adaptations to be better than the original it was based on. Fort Boyard was good, but bland in comparison to The Crystal Maze.

Partly this is down to the ingenuity of the puzzles, and the different zones. But a lot of it is also down to the charismatic Richard O’Brien. His sarcastic comments just sum it up whenever the team messes up, which it invariably does. And of course, he had that harmonica to hand whenever he felt like putting the team off. And then there was that strange relationship with the computer in the futuristic zone…

Popworld

While the staid BBC subjected the nation’s youth to Fearne Cotton’s asinine interviews with boring boy bands, over on Channel 4 you could watch Simon Amstell being sarcastic to them. Some bands played along with it, while others took great offence. And who would believe it, it was those wankerish indie bands who were worse than the bubblegum pop groups. Essential viewing for weekend mornings, as I have already written on this blog.

20 comments

  1. It’s quite hard to sum up 25 years of boradcasting in ten programmes, but I agree with most on your list.

    As a student I’m surprised you haven’t included Countdown though… 😉

  2. Personally, I was always a Fifteen-to-One man myself. A series consisting of pensioners competing in a general knowledge quiz to win a fragment of Etruscan pottery from the third Century BC – that, my friend, is television!

    Light Lunch surely deserves a mention (though not Late Lunch, for some reason that didn’t work). I suppose in a way, it was a trendy student version of Loose Women, the difference being that the chat was generally better, and on a wider range of topics than how one or all of the people involved got drunk and failed in their bid to pull a guy half their age. The audience did, of course, bring in their own lunches (I recall someone bringing in “du pain, du vin et du boursin”, and someone else bringing in a Ferrero Rocher pyramid) and the interviews were usually a fiasco, but that added to the charm.

    And C4 got the rights to this brilliant PBS documentary about the American War of Independence. It was one of those ones where in places they get actors to perform excerpts from diaries and letters of the time, and it was surprisingly engaging for early Saturday evening viewing. Especially as BBC2’s 20-odd part series on the Cold War was on an hour later, so I had many a historical Saturday night.

  3. Nathan Barley is a good one, but I had already included two Chris Morris programmes! The Tube was before my time, and I thought Clive Anderson Talks Back was on the BBC? Never heard of Albion Market…

  4. “And C4 got the rights to this brilliant PBS documentary about the American War of Independence.”
    It was actually The American Civil War and it was brilliant – especially the wry historian Shelby Foote and the music they played behind it.
    (But you can’t credit Channel 4 with it really as it was a PBS production.)

  5. Yeah Clive Anderson was definately C4. I was being a bit facetious with Albion Market – it was a disastrous attempt at a serial to rival Coronation Street and Eastenders, but ended up being sub-Eldorado, if I recall correctly!…

  6. “It was actually The American Civil War…”

    Well, the one I saw was called “Liberty! The American War of Independence”, so they must have shown two separate series. 😀

    And yes, PBS it may be, it still deserves a mention. When you think of C4 and American imports, it’s more common to think of, among others, Friends, Hill Street Blues, Friends, Roseanne, Friends, Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Friends, The Sopranos, Friends, The West Wing, Friends, Ugly Betty and, of course, Friends. But C4 also unearthed gems like “Liberty!” as well, and it’s doubtful that any other terrestrial broadcaster would have bothered to do so.

  7. “Well, the one I saw was called “Liberty! The American War of Independence”,”

    Damn, I must have missed that.

    “When you think of C4 and American imports, it’s more common to think of, among others, Friends, Hill Street Blues, Friends, Roseanne, Friends, Cheers, Friends, Frasier, Friends, The Sopranos, Friends, The West Wing, Friends, Ugly Betty and, of course, Friends. But C4 also unearthed gems like “Liberty!” as well, and it’s doubtful that any other terrestrial broadcaster would have bothered to do so.”

    I have never watched Friends. Any time I caught it while channel hopping it seemed spectacularly unfunny. They do flog it to death though.

  8. 4Later? Pfft… you need to go back far earlier than that. 4Later, while entertaining, was a rehash of the truly fine Nightime slot in 1987, which kept broadcasting until 3am on some nights. No announcers, and plenty of strange animation, European film, and artistic goodies… there’s been nothing like it since.

    The music on this clip will instantly bring back strong memories for some of us: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2yR2Eh5W3ME

  9. That’s cool! I’m way too young to remember that, but the presentation is interesting — found some good videos over at TV ARK. It all reminds me of the Crystal Maze for some reason. Probably the arrows and crosshairs that seem to have been in vogue back in the late 1980s / early 1990s.