‘It felt like the beginning of rock’n’roll’: how the chaotic early days of Channel 4 transformed British TV

<span>Photograph: Ruby/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Ruby/Alamy

From swearing at 8pm to groundbreaking formats, Katie Puckrik, Phil Redmond, Leslie Ash, Paul Coia and others recall the glory days of the channel

As the government presses ahead with the privatisation of Channel 4 , famous faces have come out swinging. Kirstie Allsopp, of Location, Location, Location, tweeted “no true Conservative would sell Channel 4” and the broadcaster “was set up to foster the British film and TV industry and it has done that job admirably”. Russell T Davies, creator of It’s a Sin, suggested that a privatised broadcaster would be less likely to commission queer and diverse voices. Meanwhile, the broadcaster and naturalist David Attenborough signed an open letter calling for an end to “short-sighted political and financial attacks” on public service broadcasters.

While the government insists that the sell-off would “give Channel 4 the tools and freedom to flourish and thrive as a public service broadcaster long into the future”, some argue that it is a politically motivated retaliation against a channel long perceived as left-leaning, and which angered No 10 with stunts such as replacing the Boris Johnson with a melting ice sculpture after the prime minister didn’t turn up to a climate change debate. Dorothy Byrne, a former Channel 4 editor-at-large, has described the looming privatisation as “a nice bit of red meat, to throw to [Boris Johnson’s] rightwing supporters, who are currently unhappy at him”.

The fear is that much of what made the channel a unique and disruptive broadcasting force may be lost. We asked leading figures from Channel 4’s history to reflect on its optimistic and sometimes chaotic early days.

Phil Redmond, creator of Brookside and Hollyoaks: ‘The press was aghast at all the swearing’

The first time I ever heard of Channel 4, it was called the fourth channel. That gives you an indication of how big the media were at the time. Its remit was to create the independent sector in the UK, and open up that market to advertising.

I knew I wanted in. Jeremy Isaacs [the founding chief executive of Channel 4] held an event at the Royal Institution in 1981. It was like a gathering of the senate, with Jeremy in the centre – the emperor – giving his address. I remember walking through the throng, and everyone was slapping him on the back. I said: “Hi, Jeremy. I’m Phil Redmond. I do [the BBC One children’s drama] Grange Hill. Will you allow me to say fuck at 8pm?” The hubbub quietened. Then he said: “Come and see me at 9am tomorrow.”

He was in an empty office on the Brompton Road, opposite Harrods. I told him he needed a soap. Every successful channel has one. Jeremy told me he couldn’t afford it. I said: “Tell me how much you have, and I’ll tell you how we can make it happen.” That’s how I became the third person to join Channel 4.

Phil Redmond in 1990: ‘Getting Brookside renewed for a second year was the hardest negotiation I’d ever been in.’
Phil Redmond in 1990: ‘Getting Brookside renewed for a second year was the hardest negotiation I’d ever been in.’ Photograph: Peter Lomas/Shutterstock

The launch night, on 2 November 1982, was crazy. As episode one of Brookside went out, I was still editing episodes three and four. I left at 7pm to watch the first episode go out, and 10 minutes after it finished, I was back in the edit suite, frantically trying to get the next ones done. The day after, I like to joke that national cardiac arrest rates rocketed. The press was aghast at all the swearing. We had a chat, and agreed to tone down the language to save the overall project.

Our viewing figures were in a ski slope decline for nine months. Brookside had been marketed to the wrong audience. After the first year, the audience started to come back. People got the message: Brookside is for 16- to 24-year-olds. But getting the soap renewed for a second year was the hardest negotiation I had ever been in. We had to persuade them that the potential was there. Eventually, the advertising revenue for Brookside and Hollyoaks covered the cost of Channel 4. Years later, Jeremy told me that we saved the channel. I thought, I wish he’d said that at the time!

What Channel 4 did was give new voices a space to express their creativity. Jeremy was a creative’s dream. He would buy into people’s visions and fight for their projects. But I think the channel started to lose its way at the end of the 90s. It began to think about itself as a media company, which it shouldn’t have done because it couldn’t compete with the bigger players. They commissioned the wrong type of programmes, like test cricket. And when they poached The Great British Bake Off from the BBC, people saw it as a great coup, but really it was just one public service broadcaster outbidding another public service broadcaster. There was a lack of focus on the channel’s original vision, which was to provide a platform to the underrepresented.

Paul Coia, Channel 4’s original continuity announcer: ‘I couldn’t sleep I was so anxious’

There was a hell of a buzz on launch night. The Channel 4 headquarters on Charlotte Street was swarming with people. Everyone was drinking champagne cocktails apart from me and the other people who had to put the thing on air. We went down to the basement. There were no windows, just TV monitors. There was this huge sense of occasion. You were very aware you were part of broadcasting history.

Everything was live, apart from the opening announcement. We were worried that there might be a technical hitch, so I recorded myself saying: “Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be able to say to you, welcome to Channel 4.” When I listen back to it I cringe. Everything else was fine, but my opening. I modified my Scottish accent and ended up sounding like a Tom Conti impersonator.

When the launch night was over, we came up with the idea of me blowing out a candle in the shape of the Channel 4 logo. But in rehearsal, every time I blew the candle out, it fell over and was in danger of setting fire to the studio. Luckily, on launch night, it didn’t fall over. I couldn’t sleep when I got home. I was so anxious to see the reviews. I don’t think there was any denying it: the reviews did deflate us. After that, it became us versus them. We knew that we knew what we were doing, and that the public just had to bear with us. And they did. People started to find their favourite shows: Brookside or The Tube, or The Last Resort With Jonathan Ross.

I think the privatisation conversation has been coming for a long time. When Channel 4 was launched, it was in a completely different environment. It’s not the station it was in 1982. It didn’t have to be competitive back then. We could take more risks. Channel 4 needs to convince the public that this is the wrong idea. Do the public care? I’m not sure they do.

Katie Puckrik, host of The Word: ‘Notoriety was a badge of honour’

By the time The Word aired in 1990, Channel 4 was already known for celebrating innovation and volatility. The BBC felt like “take your medicine” TV. ITV was mainstream. But Channel 4 was always flirting with disaster. Every time we did The Word, there was always the possibility it would go up in a big old bang.

It was the norm for the Monday after a Friday broadcast to feature a newspaper editorial bemoaning the immorality of the show, usually written by a bishop. The notoriety was a badge of honour among production staff. To be fair, we did skate close to the wind. I remember one item where we put [actor] Oliver Reed in a dressing room full of vodka, with a camera trained on him. I was monitoring him on a hidden camera and offering commentary, before finally bringing him out, in front of a baying crowd. I wasn’t 100% certain if he was drunk, or if it was an act. He had a certain poise, even when he was off his face, that made me unsure who had the upper hand in that scenario. That was always the dissonance with The Word items: they danced between cruelty and entertainment; laughing at and laughing with people.

We did crazy stuff, like floating through a flooded Welsh village on a dinghy, bringing people joke supplies. Once, we tried to make [former professional boxer] Barry McGuigan cry, because he was known for crying easily. We surprised him with a male choir singing Danny Boy, and fireworks spelling out his name. It was actually incredibly moving; we weren’t just taking the mickey. I think that’s harder to come by now on TV because viewers know all the moves. They’re sophisticated and cynical.

I think the early 90s was the golden age of Channel 4. Everything was being invented. All the formats that are tried and tested, like “making ofs”, “behind the scenes”, “access all areas”, and reality TV: those things we see, in part, because of The Tube. Channel 4 also brought club culture to our screens for the first time. The first time we saw RuPaul on British TV was on Channel 4. It felt like the beginning of rock’n’roll – only this was rock’n’roll television.

Sarah Cawood, host of The Girlie Show: ‘It was all one big party’

People have rewritten history when it comes to The Girlie Show. Everyone hated us! I remember being called a slut and a slag in the newspapers. People thought it was a shit version of The Word. But I had a great time. If it wasn’t for The Girlie Show, I wouldn’t have had a 15-year career in broadcasting. But it was difficult. The press weren’t very kind and we were babies. I was only 23.

Back then, the senior executives at Channel 4 were very working class. They were real rebels. Everyone would make fun of me for being a middle-class girl who had taken ballet lessons. Youth TV was really innovative back then.

People remember The Girlie Show for its shock value. We used to do a segment called Wanker of the Week. I hated doing it because I didn’t want to be nasty about anyone. Once I had to do Eamonn Holmes – he was having a spat with Anthea Turner at the time. I met him a few weeks later. I said: “Sorry! It was the producers, not me.” With the audience, there was the sense that anything could go wrong. I remember Tara Palmer-Tomkinson coming in once, off her face. God, she was lovely.

After the show was cancelled, I worked in a charity shop for six months. I felt I had to redeem myself! Looking back now, I see what an important period of history it represented. We had the Spice Girls on, just as they became huge. It was the peak of the 90s. I was living hangover to hangover, out on the Britpop scene. It was all one big party. It was epic.

Susie Dent, resident lexicographer on Countdown: ‘Integrity is at the heart of what Channel 4 is about’

In 1992, I was working at Oxford University Press, which publishes the dictionary used on Countdown. They lent the show a group of lexicographers who would take turns to sit in Dictionary Corner. My boss asked me if I’d be one of them. I said no, twice. Eventually he brought me round to the idea, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that.

My first day was surreal. I spent it longing to hide behind Rula Lenska’s gorgeous hair, answering Richard’s [Whiteley] and Carol’s [Vorderman’s] questions and trying to make sense of the game. I think the success of Countdown is unquestionably the format: it’s a simple, quietly compelling game. It was the very first programme to be aired on Channel 4, and I like to think it’s still the bedrock of the daytime schedule. It’s a British institution that almost everyone has watched at some point in their life. The channel’s remit is to be innovative and inclusive, and I think Countdown fulfils that beautifully. We choose our contestants not for their telly appeal, but because they genuinely love the game – that integrity is, I think, at the heart of what Channel 4 is about.

I worry that Channel 4’s incredible support of independent production companies will be diminished by privatisation, and that its bold programming and social impact will also be hit hard. The rate of HIV testing went up considerably after It’s a Sin, for example, while the scale of the Paralympics coverage this year was the biggest yet. This, for me, is the potential of a public broadcaster, not a private one.

Tim Simmons, former senior presentation editor: ‘We had freedom to do things you couldn’t do at the BBC and ITV’

The early days were undoubtedly the happiest of my life. The atmosphere was very egalitarian. You could walk into Jeremy’s office and have a chat about anything. I always remember launch night: this wonderful, tumbling Channel 4 logo, and champagne corks popping all around the floor. It was so exhilarating.

Paula Yates interviews Sting on The Tube, circa 1984.
Paula Yates interviews Sting on The Tube, circa 1984.
Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

We had the freedom to do things that you just couldn’t do at the BBC or ITV, like make wacky trailers. I made one for The Tube with a voiceover that said: “Are you always missing the tube on a Friday night? Never mind! This clever man has recorded it.” Then I had some video of a tube train going backwards into a tunnel. The chief engineer went ballistic. It all simmered down in the end. You could never have gotten away with that at the BBC.

At the beginning, we got mixed reviews. We were doing something that no one had done before. We commissioned almost all of our programmes out. A lot of our staff hadn’t even worked in TV before. I remember getting into constant battles with our engineering colleagues. There were some bumpy rides. But we came through it all. Plus, we didn’t have to pay for cups of tea on the trolley, like we did at the BBC. We had a kitchen with a coffee grinder and everything.

Leslie Ash and Jools Holland presenting The Tube in 1983.
Leslie Ash and Jools Holland presenting The Tube in 1983. Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

Leslie Ash, host of The Tube: ‘If you weren’t cool, you shouldn’t be watching’

I loved The Tube. [Host] Paula Yates was amazing. She was so funny and cool and confident. So when I got a phone call asking me to cover for her when she was on her maternity leave, I said yes straight away – even though I knew nothing about music, and I had no experience of live TV.

Waiting for the show to come on air, I’d go like jelly. Because it was such a new channel, we had no commercials: everything would just cut to black. It was all so new and weird and exciting. Channel 4 was really hip. It felt like you were in a band. It felt like our channel. It belonged to young people. If you weren’t cool, you shouldn’t be watching it. Channel 4 still feels different. If you watch BBC and ITV, they are so careful about everything.

Working on The Tube, we had the most amazing artists: the Pretenders, Wham!, Bananarama – they were really mean to me, actually, but we’re friends now – Johnny Rotten, Paul McCartney, Annie Lennox. I was terrified of Annie. I dried up completely. But she ended up interviewing me, which was so kind of her.

I remember Jools [Holland] swearing and getting banned for an episode. I think the bosses secretly thought it was cool. And I always remember interviewing McCartney. I was staring at him, thinking: “Fuck, it’s Paul McCartney!” All my questions went out of my head. He had an album out called Pipes of Peace. I ended up calling it Pipes of Piss by mistake. Thankfully, he thought it was funny.