Naked Cheggers, Rebecca Loos with a pig and Baftas for Jane McDonald: it’s 25 years of Channel 5!

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Julian Makey/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Julian Makey/Rex/Shutterstock

It began life as the home of bare bums and strange truck-touching competitions. But 25 years on, Five has started winning awards for its programming. Is it growing up at last?

Twenty-five years ago, on Sunday 30 March 1997 at 6pm, Channel 5 launched in a blaze of glory. Provided your definition of glory is the Spice Girls and the comedian Tim Vine standing on a set that looked like the physical embodiment of a migraine. In the early months of the channel, any suspicions that it might not be the televisual equivalent of BBC Radio 4 were quickly confirmed when the director of programmes, Dawn Airey, referred to the station’s output as being based around the three Fs – football, films and, well, you can guess the other. It’s fair to say they probably didn’t have Melvyn Bragg on speed dial.

Like all toddlers, Channel 5 spent its early years doing anything it could to get attention. Much of its programming was a hallucinogenic cacophony of awfulness, perhaps best symbolised by Naked Jungle, which aired in 2000. The one-off gameshow was part of a night celebrating 50 years of British naturism, which execs naturally took as an excuse to show a lot of nudity on TV. A stunningly ill-advised programme, it featured two teams competing in the buff in a Crystal Maze-style format, cheered on by the host, Keith Chegwin, who was resplendently naked save for a large helmet. On his head.

Not surprisingly, the Daily Mail was aghast, accusing the broadcaster of “plumbing new depths”, and the programme was named the worst ever made by Radio Times in 2006. That said, the show garnered an impressive 2 million viewers and a record 20% audience share at the time. One woman even phoned the station to say it had cured her of postnatal depression.

Yet Cheggers’ chopper wasn’t the most notorious appendage to appear on screen in Channel 5’s first decade. That honour went to Sam the pig. The Farm was a 2004 reality show in which celebrities including Vanilla Ice, Paul Daniels and Lady Victoria Hervey lived and worked on, you guessed it, a farm. It was the sort of “meh” output that barely registered with viewers or critics – until the moment Rebecca Loos masturbated a pig. Cue pandemonium, complaints to Ofcom and a stern rebuke from the RSPCA. I’m still not sure it was cruelty, as such. What it certainly was not was an edifying spectacle.

Game on &#x002026; Dale Winton, centre, and the Touch the Truck gang at the Lakeside shopping centre, Essex, in March 2001.
Game on … Dale Winton, centre, and the Touch the Truck gang at the Lakeside shopping centre, Essex, in March 2001. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

It wasn’t all willies on Five, though. Some of the output was just desperately boring. In 2001, Touch the Truck featured Dale Winton heroically filling time at the Lakeside Shopping Centre in Thurrock, while 20 contestants had to keep their hands on a truck without falling asleep – unlike viewers at home. The eventual winner, Jerry Middleton, claimed victory after an astonishingly uneventful 82 hours and took home a Toyota Land Cruiser Amazon.

The year 2000 brought The Wright Stuff, a live discussion show that ran in a morning slot for 18 years. Its host, Matthew Wright, was generally adept at straddling the line between outspokenness and controversy, but there were notable errors of judgment, not least the moment in 2002 when he wrongly identified the television presenter John Leslie as the alleged rapist referred to in Ulrika Jonsson’s autobiography.

Even more crass was the slot that ran in October 2011, the day after Amanda Knox was released from jail after she was acquitted by the Italian court for the murder of Meredith Kercher. The debate was entitled “Foxy Knoxy: Would ya?” Would ya what? Make capital out of a brutal murder and discuss the physical attractiveness of the acquitted suspect? On balance, no, ya wouldn’t.

Not content with making light of just one murder, the show repeated the trick a mere two months later. During a discussion of the killing of 16-year-old Liam Aitchison on the Isle of Lewis, Wright put on a Scottish accent and delivered the Taggart catchphrase “There’s been another murder” before laughing. There was widespread condemnation, and 2,200 complaints to Ofcom, making it the most complained about programme of the year.

Unmissable &#x002026; Michael Palin in North Korea.
Unmissable … Michael Palin in North Korea. Photograph: ITN productions

As Channel 5 has grown older, however, it has begun to show signs of maturing. The fondness for the three Fs didn’t last, replaced in recent years by the three Rs: railways, royalty and rather a lot of programmes set in Yorkshire. It’s a strategy that seems to be paying off.

Respected broadcasters such as Jeremy Paxman, Michael Portillo, Jeremy Vine and Chris Packham began to appear in the schedules. In 2018, Michael Palin in North Korea was unmissable, and stalwarts such as Ben Fogle’s studies of alternative lifestyles in New Lives in the Wild were genuinely interesting, and handled with a sensitivity that would once have been unthinkable.

In 2018, Channel 5 won its first Bafta, for Cruising with Jane McDonald, while the Modern Britain strand has shown some searingly powerful documentaries: The Abused, a 90-minute film following the experiences of two abused women from emergency call to courtroom, won best documentary awards at the Edinburgh television festival and Association of International Broadcasters Awards. The study of male suicide, Suicidal: In Our Own Words, following six patients at the Riverside Mental Health Centre in west London, won a coveted Grierson award. In 2020, the station was named channel of the year at both the Broadcast and Royal Television Society awards.

A recent emphasis on homegrown drama has also reaped dividends. The charming remake of All Creatures Great and Small is a hit with viewers and critics alike (even if the theme tune isn’t as good as the original). It is, of course, set in Yorkshire. And last year’s The Drowning, a thriller starring Jill Halfpenny, drew in Channel 5’s largest ever audience – more than 6 million.

In an age where traditional broadcasters are faced with dwindling audiences thanks to the arrival of the streaming giants, the temptation could have been to pursue headlines, outrage and tacky controversy. Instead, Channel 5 has adopted a gentler, more considered approach. Yes, there is a lot of celebrity caravanning, true crime and God’s own county. And yes, there has been a programme called Penguin A&E with Lorraine Kelly, which was frankly more Partridge than penguin. But could it be that, aged 25, Channel 5 is finally growing up?

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