Ten from five

by Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White and Steve Williams

First published April 2007

From modern and mainstream, via the three Fs, to the current uneasy mix of wild life, big machines, interior design and art galleries – five’s programming strategy has never been altogether obvious, as this pick from its first decade onscreen makes clear …

1997 – Hospital!

Much as The Comic Strip Presents … set out Channel 4′s stall on its first night, emphasising it as the place for edgy and unconventional programming, so too did the opening night comedy on Channel 5. Hospital! was an hour of unashamed silliness, fitting in with the brash, unsophisticated ethos of the channel as a whole.

As the name suggests – with the exclamation-mark – the show owed much to the likes of Airplane! and Police Squad, being set in a bizarre world where normal behaviour was stretched, or simply abandoned altogether, for the sake of cramming in more jokes. Similarly, it starred actors better known for their work in straight drama – among them Greg Wise, Bob Peck and Hywel Bennett – who were prepared to send up their established screen personas and keep a straight face while all hell broke loose around them. Written by veteran comedy scribe Laurie Rowley, it clearly wasn’t the most original or challenging of shows, but there were enough funny moments to ensure viewers could forgive a lot. A supporting cast crammed with celebrities, often playing themselves – including the likes of Julian Clary, Alexei Sayle and Nicholas Parsons – added to the sense of this being an enjoyable first night romp.

In fact, comedy played a major part in the early months of Channel 5. Series like sketch show We Know Where You Live (with a soon-to-be-stellar cast including Simon Pegg, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Amanda Holden) and Graham Norton-fronted panel game Bring Me the Head of Light Entertainment were schedule staples in 1997 although, as William Phillips pointed out when reviewing the first year’s output in Broadcast magazine, “We are yet to shudder at C5′s first sitcom”. However, these clearly didn’t generate the required ratings and kudos for the expense and after 12 months, the amount of comedy – or at least, intentional comedy – on the channel had dwindled to virtually nothing. Hence Hospital!‘s follow-up, the similarly demented Hotel! starring Paul McGann and Lee Majors, sat on the shelf for years on end before finally being flung out quietly in 2001.

1998 – Melinda’s Big Night In

“Who is Jack Docherty?”, asked thousands of posters on high streets nationwide before Channel 5′s launch. A year in, most viewers probably couldn’t tell you the answer, as the hapless comedian found himself helming a chat show plummeting later and later in the evening (from its original slot of 11pm until, at its most extreme, nearer 1am) and on fewer and fewer occasions – originally running five-nightly, it continually shed episodes, and by mid-1998 was already down to just three outings a week.

Sadder still for Docherty, fate conspired to ensure almost everyone did well out of the series apart from the man himself. When he went on holiday, fairly unknown Irish stand-up Graham Norton stood in for him, and proved so popular he picked up a British Comedy Award for his work on the show – beating, er, Jack Docherty. Then in 1998, Melinda Messenger, the so-called “page three girl of the thrillennium” presented the show for a while. Unsurprisingly, a blonde saucepot was considered rather more of a draw for Channel 5′s late night audience than a balding Scotsman, and so from October, Docherty found himself forfeiting another evening to make way for Messenger’s own series.

Although the idea of a model who could actually string a sentence together may have been a novel one, there was little else unique about this endeavour. Melinda sat in an utterly unconvincing “living room” set and the sort of guests who were happy to appear on Channel 5 at midnight – Gail McKenna, Richard Blackwood or anyone else with another C5 show to plug – would knock at her “door” before being invited in for the lightest of grillings. Somewhat bizarrely, despite it being a pre-recorded weekly show, Melinda missed umpteen episodes of the run, seemingly purely so another lad mag favourite, Gail Porter, could have a go at presenting as well. In any case, after six months the series ended and shortly afterwards Jack Docherty – now appearing just once a week – finally called it a day.

Although ratings were microscopic, Melinda did at least get noticed by Michael Parkinson, who later cited her series in a rant about how “unqualified” people were now hosting chat shows. Exactly how much journalistic training you need to cross-examine Tania Bryer, however, is a moot point.

1999 – Sex and Shopping

Attempts by Channel 5 to present hip and smart late night viewing for twentysomethings, such as Jack Docherty’s Letterman knock-off and the stripped comedy shows, hadn’t really worked out, with the programmes airing to a remarkably unremarkable response. So what did that elusive young adult audience actually want to see at that time? The answer, it appeared, was loads and loads of smut.

Increasingly late night telly in the 1990s had got ruder and ruder, with shows like Eurotrash and The Word continually pushing back the boundaries in terms of what was acceptable on telly. It seemed that as long as everyone looked on in a suitably detached or ironic manner, any sexual practice, no matter how extreme, was okay. Channel 5 took things one step further, however, and Sex and Shopping proudly revelled in being “the most explicit show on TV”.

Each episode of this series looked at a different aspect of the sex industry, invariably getting closer than ever to the action. However C5 were quick to remind everyone that this wasn’t simply cheap thrills, and it was actually intended to be informative. Hence a look at the world of phone sex saw the bums and tits interspersed with a rentaquote MP and some suit from ICSTIS to discuss what was and wasn’t legal, which was surely of incidental interest to the target audience.

One of the channel’s first forays into porn-themed programming, throughout 1999 it was joined by umpteen other series, such as the wonderfully-titled European Blue Review, screening highlights of the latest softcore from the continent, and 100 Per Cent Sex, a spin-off from the inoffensive daytime quizzer that saw former smoothie Thames linkman Robin Houston grilling contestants about dildoes. There was a serious side to all this, honest, with other series including the talk show where guests could yak frankly and sensitively about their bedroom desires, which went under the incredibly straight-faced title of Sexual Intercourse. Stop sniggering.

2000 – Naked Jungle

“Cheggers starkers as C5 scrapes the barrel … stunt sparks demand for station to be shut down”. What could be a more perfect Daily Mail story? On 9 May, 2000, the paper reported on the channel’s upcoming “Nude Week” series of programmes with palpable disgust. “It has further upset TV campaigners,” it continued, “who say the channel is now so depraved it should be closed down. Programming chief Dawn Airey, who is not a naturist, admitted the idea was a publicity stunt and said she had even considered posing naked herself as part of the promotional drive.” Riding high on the controversy of shoring up its schedules with pornography, plus recently stealing Home and Away from ITV (and an ultimately unsuccessful £50 million bid to snatch Neighbours in the offing), Naked Jungle came along when the channel was in a bullish mood.

Using the set of CITV’s Jungle Run game show, Keith Chegwin – clad in only a pith helmet – led a group of middle-aged nudists through a series of physical challenges. A ratings success with two million viewers and 20% of share of the total audience for that time of night, it prompted just one complaint to the ITC. Nonetheless, Culture Secretary Chris Smith was moved to remark in the Commons: “We have noted in recent days a very considerable concern about some of the content on television, particularly in relation to Channel 5. Government cannot and should not, of course, directly intervene, but I believe that the broadcasters have a commercial and moral duty to take account of the views of the public and I urge them to do so”. The channel’s response? “We’re very surprised Keith Chegwin’s private parts have generated so much interest”.

2001 – The Mole

Channel 5′s acquisition of Golden Rose of Montreux winning format The Mole (apparently the BBC had been gunning for it) represents one of the station’s best ever buys. Yet it is tempting to conclude that the deal was done not because Channel 5 recognised that here was an exciting, cerebral format, but rather that from the description “on the tin” they thought they were about to get their hands on a “me-too” betrayal game show in the style of The Weakest Link.

Nonetheless, the version produced for by Action Time over-delivered in almost every aspect. For a kick off, the actual challenges the contestants had to overcome were extremely well thought out, walking a fine line between maintaining the pseudo espionage theme of the programme and the need to produce tasks that would prove interesting and entertaining in their own right. Certainly when compared with Channel 4′s recent, similarly action-orientated but misfiring series The Search, it is clear a lot of thought went into the planning stage of The Mole to come up with suitably off-the-rail tasks that would still translate well to screen.

Perhaps The Mole‘s most successful attribute, though, was how it managed to intertwine the task-based activities with the ongoing, and more traditional reality TV elements that the series threw up. Again, it was all about balance, and again you only had to take a look at how something like BBC1′s The Murder Game managed to screw itself up by flitting between the central plot to the contestant’s backbiting, to realise that The Mole is to be commended for its ability to interweave those two disparate elements together such that they felt like one and the same.

Criminally, only two series were made before the show was dropped.

2002 – Night Fever

From September 2002, Channel 5 became simply “five” (complete with that self-conscious and rather 1990s lower case “f”). So in the early months of that year the station busied itself by disposing of some of the series that had most defined its first five years in existence. With audiences of, at times, less than 800,000 the Suggs helmed celebrity karaoke series Night Fever was a natural choice for the chop. The show had always stuck out a little in the schedules by dint of being one of only a very few light entertainment shows served up on the channel minus any ironic twist.

Parked in Saturday prime time (usually just before a film) here was Channel 5′s one attempt to do battle head-to-head with both BBC1 and ITV. The show’s combination of low-rent celebs (usually culled from C5′s own meagre portfolio, supplemented by Brookside‘s Sam Kane and anyone off Hollyoaks), coupled with cheapo backing tracks, meant that it was necessary most weeks for the boy’s team to climb up onto their desks in order to make sure there was at least some nominal spectacle for the viewer at home (whoever he or she might be) to enjoy.

The erstwhile Nutty boy presiding over proceedings offered up a version of Jools Holland’s slightly peculiar persona, but threw in a general unease with presenting that was all of his own. In truth, Suggs spent most of the show looking like he wondered what the hell he was doing there and the introduction of a costumed sidekick (Pop Monkey) only demonstrated that dealing with upstaging comedy characters was a job best left to Noel Edmonds. For a time, Night Fever was the noisiest show on television, but it was never anywhere near to being the most entertaining. Still for its willingness to present a straightforward sing-a-long show rather than try and do something needlessly arch such as Channel 4′s Boys and Girls at least its (half-hearted) heart was in the right place.

2003 – Robot Wars

Robot Wars was the kind of programme that five should have been making right from the start. It appealed to an audience too big to be properly addressed by BBC2 or Channel 4, but too niche for ITV or BBC1. But of course it actually did start out on BBC2 – with Jeremy Clarkson presenting from within a terrible leather jacket and tight jeans combo. Nevertheless, from these ill-judged beginnings brewed something of an underground sensation; albeit one that even the most avid Robot Wars fan recognised as having a distinct sell-by-date.

Having started in 1998, that date looked perilously close come 2003. But just as the BBC were wondering how to dispose of the show, in came five who promptly snatched Dead Metal, Shunt, Sir Killalot and host Craig Charles for their own run. Originally broadcast on Sunday nights (presumably to take advantage of the “technoheads” slot nurtured by Channel 4 with their series Scrapheap, five’s Robot Wars offered the same mix of low-rent bombast and contestants in cheap t-shirts as offered up on the show’s BBC2 incarnation – albeit now with the inclusion of Jayne Middlemiss. The new run’s liberal use of already established terminology also indicated this series was designed to appeal to the established fanbase and nobody else.

Its premiere on five on 2 November 2003 was watched by just over one million viewers, but by the beginning of the next month, the show was shunted to Saturday nights, and in the process lost a few hundred thousand. Back to Sundays by the New Year but the original 7pm slot had been lost and instead Robot Wars became part of five’s afternoon schedule. This continual dance across the weekend carried on throughout the programme’s brief run on the channel, with the final episodes shown on Saturday lunchtimes. Consequently only about a quarter of a million viewers tuned in to catch Craig Charles rhyming couplets for the last time.

Whether it was a case of the show simply having had its day, inconsistent scheduling, or a failure to refresh the brand when the opportunity had been presented, five certainly gave the impression they’d bungled the whole thing. At least when they nicked Home and Away from ITV in 2000 they had the good sense to award the soap a consistent slot.

2004 – Colin & Justin’s How Not to Decorate

The depths of BBC daytime proffer few rewards. As such, no one ever sensibly thought two makeweight TV experts messing about before the lunchtime news would amount to anything. Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan made their TV debut on BBC1 makeover show Trading Up in 2001, before landing further appearances on Real Rooms in 2002 and the daily home and garden magazine show Housecall. So far, so ordinary. But at the end of 2003, the duo were picked to front The Million Pound Property Experiment, a prime time BBC2 show, which drew in 4.5 million viewers. The series’ success came in treating C&J as subjects, rather than presenters, and the cameras followed the couple through bust-ups and hissy fits. As a result, they blossomed.

Quick to spot a good thing, five hoved into view and snapped up the talent with a two-year deal, variously reported as being worth somewhere between £500,000 and £2 million. Ebullient at their success, Ryan exclaimed: “Colin and I both worked in modestly-paid jobs for years and always had aspirations. All of a sudden, we’re doing exactly what we want to do.”

And what they wanted to do was more of the same. How Not to Decorate was conceived as a home interior version of the BBC’s What Not to Wear, dropping the designers into an appallingly decorated property, and challenging them to turn it around in a limited timescale. Where the show succeeded was in following Million Pound Property‘s lead, presenting the duo as elements within the show worthy of scrutiny and – usually – derision. With Ed Hall’s laconic commentary undercutting the onscreen antics, it was a compelling mix. Suddenly five found itself rewarded with something that was an all-too rare commodity on the channel – a couple of recognisable faces.

2005 – Family Affairs

It was a news story that surprised few. On 7 June, 2005, word leaked that former EastEnders star Jack Ryder was to join Family Affairs as “a new uniformed policeman, Nathan [Fletcher], who will arrive in Charnham with his wife, Eve”. For a show that had proved a useful bolt-hole for dozens of ex-soap actors, it was only natural the long “resting” Ryder would show up sooner or later. Two months on, he’d quit the job, some days before filming his first scene. “As you can imagine,” said a five spokesperson, “Jack’s decision has caused quite a few problems. He was able to get out of the contract because it was a long-term one and that can’t be met any more”. The reason? On 5 August, the channel had announced Family Affairs was to finish at the end of the year.

One of five’s launch night programmes, Family Affairs had begun as a middle-class soap, following the fortunes of the Hart family, living in the geographically vague locale of Charnham. Despite being a likeable enough programme, it failed to attract viewers and was the subject of a revamp the following year at the hands of former Coronation Street producer Brian Park. He began by introducing a fleet of new characters, before blowing up the Hart family in a canal barge in 1999. At this point a new title sequence was introduced, revealing Charnham (previously considered a short car journey from Maidenhead) to be linked to the London Underground network.

Tinkering continued, under the next executive producer, Corinne Hollingworth, and by 2000 only one original cast member remained. Now the show was firmly located around Stanley Street in West London, with the old Charnham haunts phased out. Still the viewers stayed away, and when Paul Marquess presided over a cast revamp in 2003, only five pre-2002 characters survived.

Finally, Hollyoaks‘ Sean O’Connor was brought in, with plans to change the show’s name and introduce younger characters. They never came to fruition. By now, five had well and truly run out of patience with its under-achieving soap. The final episode went out on December 30, 2005 and was watched by 1.3 million. The relatively unknown Felix Scott played Nathan Fletcher.

2006 – The Hotel Inspector

The Hotel Inspector‘s run on five began in 2005 – but not many people knew it. “Well,” explained the titular inspector, Ruth Watson, on the cusp of the second series in 2006, “what happened was we missed our slot twice, because the production went slightly awry with trying to get hold of hotels. It was commissioned on the back of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, and most of the people contacted thought they were just going to be sworn at from one end to the other. So the team found it quite difficult. As a result, it basically slipped into the schedules without anyone knowing about it whatsoever.”

As Watson’s admitted, the show was another example of five’s me-too programming policy. And yet, from this approach came a genuinely enjoyable and fascinating series. In the eponymous hotelier, restaurateur and food writer it was blessed with a terrific TV character. With her huge, primary-coloured coats, immaculate make-up and cut-glass accent, she cut a memorable dash when the chips were down, spitting out a flurry of “fucks” – enough to make Ramsay blanche. That she quite clearly lost her rag several times an episode, completely forgetting the programme’s mechanics, added to the fun. As if the mix wasn’t potent enough, the series’ very raison d’être prompted it to poke into some of the most quintessentially eccentric and – let’s face it – dire corners of the UK.

The first episode of series two was a case in point, as Watson clashed with Jon and Sandie Harrap who ran the disturbingly twee Saxonia, a three Diamond, eight-bed guesthouse in Weston Super Mare which looked as if it hadn’t moved on since the depths of the ’70s.

Series two ran for six episodes (plus a further two “revisits”), starting on 6 July. One of five’s best-ever series? Absolutely.