In praise of Channel 4: these classic shows changed TV forever

Take note, Nadine Dorries

Earlier this week Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries re-iterated her intentions to privatise Channel 4, claiming that government ownership is somehow “holding [it] back”. In the process, she continues a time-honoured tradition of Tory ministers showing precisely no knowledge of what makes our culture great. Here’s a reminder of some of the many iconic and influential TV shows that have premiered on Channel 4 over the years. It’s a seriously impressive list that doesn’t even include hits like Skins, Chewing Gum and The Inbetweeners that debuted on sister channel E4.

‘Spaced’

Created by Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, who starred alongside Nick Frost, this flatshare sitcom became an instant cult classic. Spaced ended in 2001 after just 14 episodes, but its zingy mix of pop culture references and surreal detours has aged way better than most shows of the time.

Lasting legacy: Is Spaced the point at which geek culture began to feel cool? Very possibly.

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‘Desmonds’

Set in a Peckham barbershop and boasting a predominantly British-Guyanese cast led by Norman Beaton, Desmond’s blended warm humour with an authentic snapshot of Black British life. After premiering in 1989, it ran for 71 episodes: more than any other Channel 4 sitcom.

Lasting legacy: As creator Trix Worrell has pointed out, Desmond’s marked the first time a Black-owned business was really seen on British TV.

‘The Big Breakfast’

From 1992 to 2002, Channel 4’s youth-oriented breakfast show offered an anarchic alternative to stuffier wake-up programmes on other channels. At its peak, presenters Chris Evans, Gaby Roslin, Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen brought raucous post-pub energy to our morning routines.

Lasting legacy: It reminded TV execs that students watch daytime TV as well.

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‘The Big Breakfast’ presenters Johnny Vaughan and Denis Van Outen. CREDIT: Alamy

‘The Crystal Maze’

This high-concept game show originally ran for six series in the ’90s, hosted first by Rocky Horror icon Richard O’Brien, and then by punk frontman Edward Tudor-Pole. At the time, its tense final challenge in the famous Crystal Dome was genuinely dazzling. The Crystal Maze was revived in 2017 with Richard Ayoade at the helm.

Lasting legacy: A gazillion team bonding days at The Crystal Maze Live Experience in London and Manchester.

‘Brass Eye’

Created and presented by Chris Morris, this spoof news show mercilessly sent up sensationalism and contrived moral panic in the mainstream media. The incredibly controversial ‘Paedogeddon!’ episode, which featured Phil Collins wearing a “Nonce Sense” T-shirt, attracted 3,000 complaints in 2001.

Lasting legacy: Its skewering of media manipulation was ahead of the time. In a way, director Adam McKay was aiming for the same target in his recent Netflix movie Don’t Look Up.

Brass Eye
CREDIT: Channel 4

‘Smack The Pony’

Led by Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips, this brilliantly inventive sketch show ran for three series between 1999 and 2003. Anything could happen on Smack the Pony, but the spoof dating agency videos and pop star parodies were always spot-on. And who can forget the classic workplace singing contest?

Lasting legacy: It put funny women front and centre, on their own terms, at a time when TV comedy was overwhelmingly male-dominated.

‘Big Brother’

The era-defining reality show premiered on Channel 4 in 2000 and became a staple of its summer schedules for the next decade. Initially it was presented as a social experiment; later it became pure must-see entertainment. Even now, drag queens are quoting Davina McCall’s launch night catchphrase: “Do you want another one?”

Lasting legacy: It basically invented reality TV as we know it.

‘Queer As Folk’

Written by Russell T Davies, who went on to create the equally important It’s a Sin, this 1999 drama series chronicled the lives of three men living in Manchester’s gay village. At the time, its unapologetically sex-positive approach outraged some sections of the right-wing media: a sure sign Davies had shaken up the landscape.

Lasting legacy: It offered positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters in an era when this was rare.

‘Da Ali G Show’

Sacha Baron Cohen‘s satirical comedy show became a hot topic when it premiered in 2000. Was his title character kind of racist, a sharp parody of suburban white boys who appropriate Black culture, or a bit of both? Either way, it definitely captured the zeitgeist: Ali G would appear in Madonna’s ‘Music’ video later that year.

Lasting legacy: Baron Cohen didn’t just portray Ali G on the show – he also introduced us to another globe-conquering character, Borat.

‘Peep Show’

Co-created by Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, this long-running sitcom launched the careers of Mitchell and Webb. Over nine series between 2003 and 2015, there was something comfortingly familiar – and very funny – about the fact that their bickering flatmates Mark and Jez never really changed.

Lasting legacy: Where do you start? Armstrong went on to create Succession; longtime cast member Olivia Colman won an actual Oscar.

‘The IT Crowd’

From 2006 to 2013, this hit sitcom followed the squabbles of three forgotten office workers bickering in a dingy basement. The fact that three attempted US remakes failed to make it on air highlights the special chemistry shared by pin-sharp co-stars Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Parkinson.

Lasting legacy: All three leads have gone on to carve out super-prolific careers.

‘Black Mirror’

Charlie Brooker‘s dystopian drama launched in 2011 with a jaw-dropping episode in which a fictional British Prime Minister bangs a pig. Netflix pinched the series five years later, but Channel 4 deserves credit for helping to cultivate such a clever and visionary piece of television.

Lasting legacy: It’s the most prescient TV show of its generation – by a mile.

‘Top Boy’

Anchored by terrific performances from Ashley Walters and Kano, this evocative Hackney crime drama launched on Channel 4 in 2011. Later, bosses made a major mistake by failing to commission a third series, but the channel still played a pivotal role in bringing this searing series to life.

Lasting legacy: It became Drake‘s favourite TV show, leading to a thoroughly deserved Netflix revival.

‘This Is England’

Channel 4’s movie arm Film4 helped to fund Shane Meadows’ original This Is England film, which opened to rave reviews in 2006. A few years later, the channel became a natural home for three spin-off series that provided a similarly riveting and realistic depiction of working-class life.

Lasting legacy: Kickstarting the career of TV mainstay Vicky McClure is only the half of it.

‘Derry Girls’

This glorious coming-of-age comedy follows four teenage girls (and one wee English fella) growing up in Northern Ireland during the final years of the Troubles. It’s been such a huge hit that Channel 4 has scheduled the final series to launch right after ratings juggernaut The Great Celebrity Bake Off. A good call.

Lasting legacy: Thanks to the nostalgic soundtrack, ‘90s bangers by The Corrs and The Cranberries have never been cooler.

‘Stath Lets Flats’

When Jamie Demetriou‘s word-of-mouth hit won three BAFTAs in 2000, it underlined the fact that Channel 4 is still making some of TV’s funniest and most original sitcoms. Demetriou’s inept but well-intentioned letting agent is just the sort of lovable loser we can’t help rooting for.

Lasting legacy: Demetriou’s career has soared: he’s now starring opposite Tiffany Haddish in Apple TV+’s The Afterparty.

‘It’s A Sin’

This supremely poignant series rooted in the ‘80s HIV/AIDS epidemic was rejected by the BBC and ITV before Channel 4 finally gave it a green light. When it premiered in January 2021, it became a national talking point, the channel’s biggest ever drama launch, and led to star Olly Alexander performing with Elton John at the Brit Awards. Deserved.

Lasting legacy: It ensured the UK’s HIV/AIDS crisis will never be forgotten, and sparked a surge in HIV testing.

‘Feel Good’

Few comedies manage to be as kind, tender and funny as Feel Good, while also exploring complicated issues like addiction, gender identity and coming out as queer. Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical gem is a singular hit that won Best TV Series at last month’s BandLab NME Awards.

Lasting legacy: Just watch Martin’s career go supernova in the next few years.

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