Channel 4 at 40: 21 shows that changed the political and cultural landscape

As Channel 4 celebrates its 40th anniversary, we look at its groundbreaking shows – from Desmond's to Jamie's School Dinners to Derry Girls

Derry Girls

Derry Girls – a Channel 4 classic

What did Margaret Thatcher ever do for us? Well, she gave us Channel 4, for one thing. And as Channel 4 celebrates its 40th birthday, having launched on November 2 1982, there is much to rejoice in the way it continues to change the broadcasting landscape, challenge the dominant political ideas of the day, and diversify the media.

Channel 4 has done more for minority representation and to amplify the voices of marginalised groups than perhaps any other – and soon proved the channel least likely to fall into line behind other Thatcherite policies, such as Section 28.

From day one Channel 4 has pushed, probed and provoked. And it continues to do this, despite recent pressure from a government threatening to privatise it.

Here are some key shows from every decade that exemplify what public service television can be and show how Channel 4 continues to challenge the status quo while making great television…

Walter (1982)

On November 2 1982, Ian McKellen served up one of the performances of his career, playing Walter – a factory cleaner with a learning disability left alone following the death of his parents. Stephen Frears directed this bleak, brilliant, unsettling portrait of a man failed by the uncaring systems of the day in a typically off-kilter opening night gambit by Channel 4.

Desmond’s (1989)

Created by Trix Worrell, Desmond’s was the first great comedy series on Channel 4 and ran for 71 episodes, ending in 1994. The series was set in Desmond Ambrose’s West Indian barbershop in Peckham, showing it to be the heart of the community, a centre for friendship, gossip, laughter and family, populated by an array of huge characters. Desmond’s remains a vital cultural touchstone to this day, served as an important antidote to negative depictions of black people that predominated on screen and in the media, and is seen to have changed attitudes to race in this country.

The Word (1990)

In 1990, the generation gap got wider. Because this was when Channel 4 started broadcasting The Word on Friday nights. It was raucous, it was messy, it confounded parents while delighted younger audiences. The show was a ramshackle mix of music, mayhem and chaotic interviews – with presenters including Terry Christian, Katie Puckrik, Mark Lamarr, Amanda De Cadenet and Huffty. The Word also gave early and memorable TV appearances to Nirvana, Huggy Bear, Oasis and Manic Street Preachers.

G.B.H. (1991)

Alan Bleasdale’s high class political satire was star-studded, smart, and still resonates in its depictions of political factions and in-fighting. A battle for the soul of the Labour Party – between the hard left represented by Robert Lindsay, as city council leader Michael Murray, and Michael Palin (in the finest dramatic performance of his career) as a popular headteacher – has had echoes at various times since. But this depiction of power, corruption and lies was an early example of Channel 4 producing provocative political drama.

Alternative Christmas Message (1993)

Quentin Crisp delivered Channel 4’s first alternative Christmas message – imploring Brits to follow in his footsteps to the USA – in 1993. Each year since, the channel has invited someone to deliver a speech from outside the mainstream or from a new perspective, blending politics and wit. Belfast schoolgirl Margaret Gibney delivered a plea for peace in Northern Ireland in 1997, five survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire addressed the nation in 2017, while Marge Simpson and Danny Dyer offered a more comedic approach. Oddly, the Alternative Christmas Message has itself become a tradition over the years. 

Brass Eye (1997)

When Chris Morris’s media satire The Day Today became too hot to handle for the BBC, Channel 4 swooped in to pick up its successor. And the result was the most subversive, smart, sensational comedy series of the era. Utterly fearless in its mission to undermine the pomposity of the media, shine a light on political hypocrisy, highlight the vacuity of modern celebrity, Brass Eye was also devastatingly funny.

The episode on drugs caused exactly the kind of hysterical moral panic that it was satirising, a trick the special episode Paedogeddon repeated in shocking style in 2001. More than 20 years later, Morris would tell The Big Issue: “If there is anything common to my work, it is normally a reaction to hysteria of some kind. There is now almost too much hysteria to react to. I’d be exhausted trying to keep up.” But Brass Eye was a show for the ages.

Queer as Folk (1999)

Russell T Davies is a genius. He’s proved this over countless shows and genres, from Doctor Who to Years and Years to A Very English Scandal to It’s A Sin. But this was his big breakthrough. And what a way to do it – with a depiction of the gay village in Manchester, centred around Canal Street. A series so full of heart, so full of joy, so full of sex, so full of youth, so full of community and so full of LGBTQ solidarity as it followed the lives of Stuart (Aidan Gillen), Vince (Craig Kelly) and Nathan (Charlie Hunnam).

The 1990s can feel recent. But this aired before the age of consent for gay men was finally lowered to 16. Queer representation has had to come so far in the decades since – with a way still to travel. Supported by Channel 4, Russell T Davies was at the vanguard, where he remains to this day, and there was nowt so good on TV in the late 1990s as Queer as Folk.

Big Brother (2000)

Some of us are old enough to remember when Big Brother was as much social experiment as reality show. Watching unwitting housemates gradually disintegrate, factions form, relationships spark in their isolated temporary home in Bow was genuinely intriguing. So was the panic induced by one of the housemates, quickly dubbed ‘Nasty Nick’ Bateman, attempting to manipulate the process in series one. How dare he try to win. While Big Brother, in time, became a fast-track to a new form of celebrity, with housemates already hooked up with agents and PRs and a career masterplan before setting foot in the Big Brother house, it began as a fascinating, compulsive window on society.

Gunther von Hagens: Live Autopsy (2002)

Some shows are designed to shock. And this is one of them. A live public autopsy, the first of the modern televised era – not for science (not really, whatever its host might have argued), but to shock and awe viewers at home. What had been a common form of entertainment and education in bygone times now served up as an incisive jolt to the system – with hundreds of complaints received. Once again, a moral panic ensued, and Channel 4 was laughing all the way to the top of the ratings.

The Deal (2003)

More top-class political drama, introducing Michael Sheen’s brilliant portrayal of Tony Blair, which he would later reprise in The Queen and The Special Relationship. Peter Morgan’s series looked at the 1994 power sharing deal bashed out at a restaurant in Islington between Blair and Gordon Brown, their rise to power, and the subsequent barely concealed feud as it became clear that Blair was set to renege on their agreement. Beautifully acted by Sheen and David Morrissey, setting Morgan on the path to creating The Crown for Netflix, and a smart insight into what was still an ongoing political relationship.

Shameless (2004)

For many years, Shameless was the definitive Channel 4 comedy-drama. Paul Abbott’s series looked head-on at class via the dysfunctional Gallagher family on the Chatsworth Estate. It was edgy, it was funny, and beneath the bravado of Frank (David Threlfall) and the chaos of the wider Gallagher clan, Shameless was a show with a massive heart created to celebrate the working class. So good that HBO remade it in the US, with William H. Macy in the central role.

Jamie’s School Dinners (2005)

Jamie Oliver was already a renowned and popular TV chef when he made Jamie’s School Dinners. But this show established Oliver as an important political voice in this country. By going into the Kidbrooke School in Greenwich and showing the country exactly what children were being fed – and the impact the lack of proper nutrition was having on them – Oliver caused an outrage.

Before long, prime minister Tony Blair was promising to change the law, decommissioned school kitchens were being rebuilt with new funding agreed, and kids’ nutrition was being prioritised. Exam results improved. But Oliver has had to continue to hold those in power to account, and Marcus Rashford has taken on the mantle in recent years.

Skins (2007)

A show about young people, by young people, that treated young people’s big issues seriously. Skins offered a more truthful, identifiable depiction of being young than any TV show had before, while showcasing young acting talent. So what could be more in the public service remit than this series that showed sex and drugs and stress of teenage life in the Noughties?

It also helped launched huge acting talents – with Daniel Kaluuya (aka Posh Kenneth), Dev Patel, Kaya Scodelario and Jack O’Connell all getting their breaks on Skins, while the show helped writer Jack Thorne on the road to becoming the most brilliant and prolific writer of today. A proper classic that changed the way television was written and made.  

Black Mirror (2011)

A classic Netflix show, right? Wrong. Charlie Brooker’s anthology series began life on Channel 4, casting a cynical eye over the role of technology and the media in modern life via a rich blend of sci-fi, absurdist comedy and shock and awe. It began life, in the early days of David Cameron’s time as prime minister, with National Anthem – a tall tale about a PM forced by a media frenzy to have sex with a pig to free a kidnapped royal.

Next up, Fifteen Million Merits explored the outer reaches of possibility for reality TV talent shows in a tender, affecting story starring Daniel Kaluuya and featuring Downton Abbey‘s Jessica Brown Findlay singing the Irma Thomas soul classic ‘Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)’. This smart, off-kilter series has gone from strength to strength ever since.

Summer Paralympics (2012)

In 2012, Channel 4 broadcast almost 500 hours of Paralympics coverage from the London Games. Almost 40 million people tuned in. In the build-up, Meet The Superhumans showed the extraordinary backstory of some key competitors. But it wasn’t just about the sport – though we were introduced to new sporting heroes during the Paralympics. Each night The Last Leg – hosted by Adam Hills, Alex Brooker and ‘token able-bodied sidekick’ Josh Widdicombe – was an anarchic, chaotic, funny take on the day’s action, directly confronting people’s discomfort in talking about disability.

Educating Essex (2013)

Who knew a fly-on-the-wall look at a secondary school could be so heartbreaking, so revealing, so inspiring? Two years on from Educating Essex, this series headed north to follow students and staff at Thornhill Community Academy in West Yorkshire. The heroism of teachers shone through, while a young generation far too often dismissed and disparaged was shown to be smart, kind and inventive. Musharaf’s story – learning to live with and manage his stutter and overcome extreme shyness, thanks to the tenacity and care of English teacher Mr Burton – was one of the TV moments of recent times. Witnessing overworked and under-appreciated teachers going above and beyond also sent a vital message to politicians who were, at the time, freezing their pay as part of austerity. It’s a message those in power would do well to remember.

Chewing Gum (2015)

Chewing Gum was the first time television viewers were exposed to the unique, brilliant writing of creator Michaela Coel. This comedy, which grew out of Coel’s original stage play Chewing Gum Dreams, teased out issues around race, class and gender through a classic coming-of-age story. Chewing Gum blended slapstick comedy with occasional impactful jolts of hard truth as Tracey (Coel) set her sights on losing her virginity, overthrowing her religious upbringing and finding her place in the world. Once again, Channel 4 used its platform to amplify the voice of a new writer – and we’ve all reaped the rewards ever since, not least with Coel’s astounding follow up for the BBC, I May Destroy You.

Derry Girls (2018)

Lisa McGee did the seemingly impossible with her incredible creation. Derry Girls is one of the funniest programmes in recent years and explores the intensity of teenage friendship better than almost any TV show ever. But it also simultaneously rewrote the rulebook on depictions of life in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Watching the depiction of tough times through the teenage eyes of Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and James reminds us all that the joy and innocence of youth are nothing if not persistent. One of the all-time greats – and so totally Channel 4.  

Help (2021)

Jack Thorne could be the poster boy for Channel 4 drama. He made an early impression writing on Skins and continued via collaborations with Shane Meadows on This Is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 and more recently The Virtues. He also created a trilogy of mini-series focused on current big issues – National Treasure (starring the late, great Robbie Coltrane as a popular comic accused of historical sexual offences), Kiri (with Sarah Lancashire as the social worker of a missing child) and The Accident, with Lancashire again to the fore as a working class Welsh community fought for justice over a factory explosion.

All Thorne’s work has great heart and great characters. But with Help in 2021, he added a sense of righteous fury, working with actors Stephen Graham and Jodie Comer to create a drama focusing on the impact of government failure to act on the care home crisis during the Covid-19 pandemic. As Thorne told us at the time: “There’s stuff we can say. And there’s stuff that we’ve heard. And the stuff that we’ve heard is even worse than the stuff that we can say…” Again, this was Channel 4 shining a light on a present political issue via well-written, vital drama.

It’s a Sin (2021)

Russell T Davies. Again. Still pushing boundaries. Still confronting people in power. And still creating inclusive, important, political, joyful, outstanding drama and characters. It’s a Sin was the first major British television drama to focus on the Aids epidemic of the 1980s. It is a story of solidarity and devotion through the most unthinkable, terrifying situation imaginable. But what Russell T Davies did was ensure it began with joy and sex and life. He showed us what was at stake. 

It’s a Sin. Image: Channel 4

The show, which followed a group of young gay men who arrive in London, find each other and form a chosen family with Jill (Lydia West), begin living as their true selves for the first time (in scenes of such joy and youth), but whose lives in and around London’s gay scene are cut short or forever changed by the arrival of the Aids virus, was classic Russell T Davies. And as he told us at the time, it could only have been made by Channel 4.

Help! My Home is Disgusting (2022)

Recent Big Issue cover star Kwajo Tweneboa’s documentary Help! My Home Is Disgusting reported from the frontline of the housing crisis. Tweneboa has been naming and shaming bad landlords and housing associations for a while now – using the power of social media to shock and shame them into long overdue action. His first TV documentary highlighted the number of social housing and private rental homes in critical states of disrepair – and cemented Tweneboa’s position as one of the most important voices in debates around housing.

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