Before and After 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1788

I always wondered why, when we finally were able to receive BBC-2 on our new monochrome DER 4-button UHF set, the last button was indicated only by an “*”.

In 1973, all we could get on that fourth button was HTV Wales Cymru from Moel-Y-Parc, which at least provided another station to watch (although, because our aerial pointed towards Winter Hill, the picture was only just about watchable). There was always talk, in the papers and on the TV news, about ITV 2, which had gone on since the mid-1960s.

But in those days of the three day week, with closedown at 10.30pm imposed by Government edict – except for Christmas 1973 – there was obviously going to be no more talk of another TV channel. Oddly enough, when I watched a repeat of “Monty Python” around that time, one of the sketches was a discussion called “TV4 or not TV4?”

My interest in television had been growing since the 1960s, and every new logo, caption and clock was savoured, and sometimes drawn. However, I had never seen the launch of a station, and I waited patiently for ITV 2. And waited.

A project on broadcasting I did for a sociology course in 1976 made reference to the Annan Committee’s review on broadcasting, and reading it now, I found that one suggestion baffled me: “A new channel may permit longer advertising breaks, sometimes as long as thirty minutes. This will provide additional revenue from the advertisers for funding the service, but any decisions must be made with regard to the provisions of the Code of Advertising Standards and Practice, and the Television Act 1954”. I could not see how there would be long adverts, or how the viewers would accept them. Of course, QVC, Shop! and the others proved me wrong later, but this apparently was not to be used for the proposed service.

Still I waited. Then, in 1980, came the word that there was to be another service, but called simply Four at that time. No mention was made of a launch date, but was said to be in “about two years’ time”. And I tuned my Sonatel portable to channel 65 UHF, and all I ever got was static, but that wasn’t to last long.

One day, Monday November 2nd 1981, I switched the set on so I could watch “Coronation Street”, and turned the incremental tuner, to find that test pattern ETP-1 was on that vacant channel. Normally, this would not have excited me, but it was seven-thirty in the evening, and the caption read IBA: CH4. Was it starting soon, perhaps? I tried turning the tuner to channel 42 and there was an ETP-1 there too, reading IBA: S4C. But there had been no mention of any on-air dates, and everyone I asked drew a blank. What I had seen, of course, was the very beginning of the engineering tests, and the IBA were updating transmitters too, so it was reckoned that it would be a year before the service would be ready.

All through the last months of 1981 and the first half of 1982, I would tune in occasionally to see if there was anything on. It was always a test pattern, but I saw two tests, which were unexpected. The first was in May, when I tuned in to find that the feed from Thames was on Channel 65 (with a 400HZ tone on sound), so I assumed that was a mistake; the second was when Granada were testing on July 23rd, from a presentation studio. The cameras were being lined up, a caption board was set-up, “Summer on Granada” trailers were shown – all of them – and the 400HZ tone was on sound. But still no mention of what Channel 4 actually was.

Then, in August, Channel 4 started showing trailers every hour, and what attracted me was that the “look” of the service was different – some of the early programmes, like “Blood Wedding”, for example – and very upbeat. S4C were showing trailers using a by-line, “It’s worth S4Cing”, and I still remember the Welsh version, but I can’t spell it! All this activity was building up expectations, and I hoped that both channels would be as good.

And so the 1st November 1982 came. I dashed home from work early to see S4C begin, but the first announcement was of course in Welsh, as was the first programme, “Superted”. I got enough of the gist to know that this was going to be different. Announcers in-vision? No ident before a programme?

The next day, Channel 4 was on at about 4.40pm, with a short film using the “Four Score” theme – a montage of images from programmes to come, ending with an image from the film “Valentino” showing a woman making an “OK” gesture with her hand. I enjoyed “Countdown”, but was intrigued by the lack of a production company ident – and unlike S4C, there was no announcer in-vision. And who were “51 Per Cent Productions”, “Tempest Films” and “Filmworks”? What I had not realised was that C4 was acting as a commissioning house, and that anyone could make programmes for them if commissioned to do so.

Re-reading my diary entry for 2.11.82, that first evening made quite an impression on me. “Brookside”, I noted, was like “Boys From The Black Stuff” in dramatic structure -1982 kitchen-sink drama; “Walter” was very impressive, as the first “Film On Four”, but its impact has probably lessened through the years. I really liked “Five Go Mad In Dorset”, and found it very much in tune with my humour, as was some, but not all, of “Paul Hogan”. Finally, bleary-eyed, I watched “In The Pink” which appeared to be a revue produced by women, and saw Paul Coia, in vision, wish us all goodnight as a 4-shaped candle was blown out.

Through that week, I watched “P’Tang Yang Kipperbang”, a gentle story in the “First Love” series about a schoolboy crush; and the first edition of “The Tube” which I absolutely adored. I also saw the first TV showing of “Woodstock” on Fireworks night. From that point on, I was a regular C4 watcher, as I felt it was a “young station” with young attitudes. Paradoxically enough, though, C4 held one of its many nostalgia nights on Monday 27.12.82, hosted by Adam Faith, called “Fifties To The Fore”, in which archive programmes were shown. Although the contents were for the most part a little safe – “The Larkins” and “Oh Boy!” – they did show two early A-R documentaries, “Out Of Step” and “People In Trouble” to give an idea of fifties attitudes.

These nostalgia-fests were a regular feature of the early years, and prompted me to write to C4 to ask if they would ever repeat “Do Not Adjust Your Set”. Jeremy Issacs wrote a short but warm reply saying that as he had originally commissioned it for Rediffusion in 1967, he hoped that he would be able to show it some day. And he did – in 1986 (“Do Not Adjust Your Stocking”, from 25.12.68, made by Thames), and also in 1992 as part of “TV Heaven 1968”). Thanks, Jeremy – another Electromusications TVHero.

Sadly, some of the more appealing and innovative ideas seem to have been shelved or disappeared, like “Right To Reply”, “For What It’s Worth” and “Film On Four”, and the Channel 4 that I view today has evolved into just another TV channel.

Mike Thompson, C4’s new executive, has threatened “Brookside” with the axe. It is not easy to see if he intends to shake the channel up to produce innovative television as it once did, or to compete with the main terrestrial channels.

I will always maintain that although Channel 4 is celebrating its 20th anniversary, the first ten years were easily the best for me personally. And that fourth button on the DER set – which my mum still has, in the loft – was marked “Channel 4” in Dymo tape by myself so no-one would forget to select that channel. Not so much identification as a good reminder of those exciting first days of Channel Four Television.

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