Countdown to E4

Ian Jones on the opening night of E4

First published February 2001

It should have been Richard Whiteley. After all, he was the first person to appear on Channel 4 back on 2 November 1982. Getting him to be the first ever person to appear on E4 on 18 January 2001 would’ve been an excellent stunt: very knowing, witty, plus a chance to make a bit of history. And he probably would have done it, too. After all, the man himself wrote in his autobiography of how he “desperately wanted” to be the first person to appear on Channel 5, only “Dawn Airey, the Director of Programmes, got so fed up with me pestering her about coming on and doing it, which would have been a unique double for me, that she left a tart message with her faithful PA Elspeth, ‘Tell him that not only is he not opening it, but he will never, ever even appear on it.’” Getting Whiteley to front the launch of the Channel 4 Corporation’s official entertainment station would have perhaps appeased the wounded man’s reasonable wishes, and certainly made for a striking, legendary launch.

Instead, we got Ali G. It was up to a fictional character to try and mark this highly significant occasion with something memorable and fitting. The test transmission trailer came to an end, the clock counted down the last few seconds, and then it was 8.15pm: E4 had begun. But there was no dramatic music, no swooping cameras, stunning graphics … What happened was that a huge car pulled up in the pouring rain outside 124 Horseferry Road, London, out of which stepped Ali. He started strolling towards the Channel 4 building, delivering a humorous piece to camera on how E4 is really just based around American imports, is another digital channel which no-one watches and is the wrong place for viewers searching for some quick porn.

There was still no fanfare, no triumphant music, no screaming crowds – in fact, no-one else around at all, which itself was quite amusing and ironic. But we then cut to a boring Ali spoof interview with a professor trying to explain how satellite and digital television works. The usual misunderstandings and double entendres followed. After that it was briefly back to the deserted C4 building before we were off into the night.

E4 pitched us all its big signings right to begin with, starting with opening episodes from the new series of both Friends and ER – both grabbed from Sky last year with much fuss and fury, and both of which will be shown on Channel 4 itself in only a few months time. Although these helpings of over-the-top mannerisms, amplified studio laughter, mis-emphasised words and pouting were new to British screens, they somehow didn’t add up to a feeling of watching anything that special. Sure, we were privileged to be seeing these before anyone else, but the quality of the actual shows was indistinguishable from those pumped out regularly on Channel 4 and Sky any other day of the week. The action became too predictable, then too dull, and finally succeeded in ridding this opening night of any feeling of tension or importance whatsoever.

The first proper new programme turned up at 10.30pm. Banzai is an intriguing spoof dare show, completely pointless but taken seriously enough to end up amusing. Our Japanese hosts presented a collection of Pythonesque set-ups – wheelchair racing, Harold Bishop from Neighbours knocking on people’s doors then running away, guessing the weight of Nancy Lam’s breasts. It was the only new home-grown programme on the entire night, so by default it stood out, but there wasn’t much imagination or promise here. Worse, it was followed by a compilation of sketches featuring Sacha Baron Cohen’s other character, foreign cultural attaché Borat Karabzhanov – more mock interviews and contrived miscommunication. The launch night officially ended at 11.30pm, though the programmes continued through to 3.50am with C4 repeats including So Graham Norton and Eurotrash.

On reflection the opening night of E4 didn’t feel like the event it should have been. It lacked any palpable sense of occasion, and relied upon a curiously muted and unexceptional line-up. A launch at 4pm would’ve allowed for a much greater range of shows, including more home-grown products – As If, Shipwrecked, Show Me the Funny, Adam & Joe – to balance out the repeats and imports. However it was a slick, trouble-free debut, with much play made of what’s to come thanks to enticing packaging and promotion. Best of all was discovering the new E4 idents for the first time, which included a welcome reappearance of the old coloured building block Channel 4 logo. So the launch was functional, unassuming – here were all the big shows as promised – but no way special.

Now if you’d had Paul Coia doing the first voice-over, cueing in the opening titles of, say, Countdown … that would’ve been truly memorable.