C4: 6pm – 6am

By Graham Kibble-White

First published April 2000

Dishes is a funny sort of format – essentially, Blind Date with cookery. Kate Thornton and Danny Brown host with the former fluttery, busy but likeable, the latter bleary-eyed and faintly laddish – but likeable. It’s a real contrast from those that flank it on C4, or the newsy and sci-fi competition elsewhere at 6pm. Put-downable telly, but cheerful and it’s charming.

It’s perhaps lazy to refer Phil Redmond’s Hollyoaks series as “Grange Hill for teenagers” but that’s essentially what the ‘Oaks is – and that’s no bad thing. Today’s episode features some painfully signposted DIY misdemeanours and dialogue of the “you dipstick!” variety; but amongst all this there’s some neat low-key drama going on. Although the cliff-hanger features more crazy DIY blunders the episode actually culminates in a pub quiz face-off, wherein characters at odds fight the battle through football questions and pop trivia. The losers: “We didn’t want to play your stupid quiz, all right?” The winners: “Told you he was harmless.”Hollyoaks is clever enough to address the requisite “issues” (tonight it’s homelessness) but in a relatively light manner. Probably as good a way as any to enter the discourse. The overriding impression and lasting memory of the programme is one of brightness.

“Flush Gordon – Not content with his war chest, the pre-budget Chancellor declares war on the black economy.” So says Channel 4 News, with an accompanying cartoon of Gordon Brown bandying a copper’s truncheon, whilst criminal types lurk in the background carrying buckets of £s. The credits roll, and aren’t they awfully dated now? Like something from 10 years ago, a kinetic wave of computer graphics matched to that awfully synthetic dirge of a theme. Thankfully the content and attitude of the programme are unerringly modern. Channel 4 Newsluxuriates in, and exploits, its 55 minute slot. The Brown lead story is afforded a good 10 minutes (which would be an astonishingly long segment by BBC standards, never mind ITV) and is attacked from multiple angles, including – importantly – a humanistic perspective. Whereas the BBC works hard to portray its reporters as transparent vessels of facts, C4 is happy for us to accept that they are people talking to people. Anchor Alex Thompson leads into a report on the cash-in-hand philosophy with: “Most of us use the elicit economy in one way or another … does the hidden economy hurt anyone?”

Later on, C4′s Scottish Correspondent frames her comments with “As I’ve reported to you before …” This tacit acknowledgement of their own participation in the dissemination of news is starkly different from the barking authoritarian BBC. An emotive film on Romanian refugees begging, while essentially a montage of footage set to evocative music, doesn’t overstep the mark and goes someway towards redressing the prejudice these people have been subjected to. Only with the last story (ITN’s libel against Living Marxism) does C4 News adopt the transparent mode of address used by the BBC – probably for the best, however, considering how close to home the subject matter is. Channel 4 News could well be the best bulletin of the day, employing a depth of analysis unmatched anywhere else on terrestrial television barNewsnight, and unlike that worthy programme, and BBC and ITV news in general, it addresses its audience as contemporaries.

At 7.55pm there is a five-minute fixture called The Political Slot which today plays host to propaganda from The Green Party. Then it’s primetime.

The schedule that leads up to midnight is challenging, fascinating and probably the strongest on any channel today.

Great Military Blunders, narrated by Stephen Rashbrook, starts well with an account that could almost be an Aesop’s Fable. It tells of an arrangement struck during the Napoleonic Wars between the Austrian and Russian armies to combine forces and defeat the French; however, as the Russians still used the Julian calendar that ran 12 days behind, they arrived to find the Austrians had already had to surrender days ago. This story is accompanied by what is termed as a reconstruction (it’s really more low-key than that, simply a few illustrative shots) featuring the Russian generals in their headquarters planning out the attack, unaware that all was already lost. “To victory” they toast.

Great Military Blunders is not a derisory look at the shortcomings of battlefield tacticians, but rather a study of war and the ungovernable chaos it entails. The programme investigates two ill-fated operations, the first an unsuccessful attempt by the British army to destroy the German warship Scharnhorst which had become stranded at Brest in France, the second, Operation Eagle Claw, a badly advised plan to liberate US hostages from Tehran, which had to be aborted before it began. This is an excellent, thoughtful broadcast that hooks the viewer with a strong narrative without ever trying to sell warfare as a concept – “but in the end all plans fail. None survives the chaos of war.”

The episode of Great Undertakings that follows is entitled “Coming Home”. With the barest commentary from Bill Paterson we are introduced to undertaker John Cheeseman and two of his clients. We follow the story of Mrs Jasienska as she returns her late husband’s ashes to his homeland of Poland, and the burial of Anita Redmond who died on holiday in Greece. This is a moving programme, but steers clear of being mawkish with the subjects of the piece portrayed in only the most dignified manner. There is no overt attempt at the provocation of what would essentially be empty emotional responses from the viewer, nor any sense of black comedy that maybe a Cutting Edge would have elicited from the subject matter (though Cheeseman’s comments about Mrs Jasienska’s journey does raise a smile: “It’s not as common as a body being taken back for burial, but it’s quite a convenient way – there’s no getting away from that.”) That the programme actually takes us into both funeral services, yet remains unobtrusive is a remarkable feat. Great Undertakings never feels as though it’s trying to thrust itself into the middle of events – instead we watch at a step back, and it’s all the more rewarding for it. The credits roll to silence, quite rightly.

The Observer’s John Sweeney is the reporter on tonight’s Dispatches, which is prefaced with a warning concerning its disturbing content. “Dying for the President” investigates links between Russia’s acting president Vladimir Putin and acts of terrorism and war crimes, and opens with a Chechnyan woman cradling the burnt remains of her family; “God damn Russia! This is what my people are suffering!” This is a sort of road movie as Sweeney moves from investigating the bombing of flats in Moscow (“many believe the bombs were planted by the Russian Secret Services to enflame public opinion against the Chechnyans”) to trying to find eyewitnesses to the bombing of Chechnyan refugees after the Russian army promised them safe passage. He travels firstly to a hospital where an eight-year old girl who survived the attack lies terribly wounded. She tells him plainly of the bombing as her family travelled under a white flag. She doesn’t yet know that they have all died. Despite this, despite the credibility and the emotional resonance of her testimony and her situation, Sweeney commendably remains journalistically cautious – “If true,” he says as a proviso, “this would be a war crime.” It’s almost unbearably sad when Sweeney tells us of refugees picked off by snipers as they ventured out to use the toilet. As he and his crew escape the town, we are told that their evidence will be passed on to the UN High Commission of Human Rights. And of Putin, under whose dictate these crimes have been perpetrated, we are told Robin Cook describes him as “refreshing and open”. “Praise indeed for a man who’s brought back something Russian’s hoped was behind them. Terror.”

“The programme contains scenes and images of sexual behaviour some viewers may find disturbing.” Anatomy of Desire feels very “late night” and this isn’t just because it’s an exploration of sexual psychology. Cosmopolitan in outlook, following research undertaken in Holland and America as well as in the UK, this edition (entitled) “Development” seeks to discover how our sexual orientation and preferences are originated. Dealing with concepts of gender uncertainty, sexual development in children and featuring a man whose sexual growth has been retarded by the loving, but ultimately damaging, influence of his mother, it is never in danger of seeming salacious. A mature, almost anthropological study of sex that engages the brain, not the loins.

In contrast to the preceding four hours of documentary, The 11 O’clock Show: The News Alternative is a ghoulish topical comedy revue, hosted by Iain Lee and Daisy Donovan, both utterly unlikeable and soundly smug. Aside from any objections that could be levied on the grounds of homophobia, crudity and racism, the basic inescapable truth here is that the programme is just not funny. Lee’s shtick is to counter the rigidity and formality of current affairs with a sort of playground crudeness. “What costs a tenner and has been entered by a million punters?” he quips, “‘A prossie’s arse’ I hear you cry? No, it’s the Millennium Dome.” Within the 30 minutes of this episode this quickly palls, alongside his provocative but deeply dull bandying of the word “gay”. During a vox pops sequence Lee puts this to a member of the public: “What’s the difference between being rude and being gay?” This is a boring comedy crutch. The departure of Ali G has hit the show badly, and the second-stringers Danny Bhoy, Ricky Gervais and Paul Garner fail to hit the mark. Ironically, the biggest laugh of the night comes from tonight’s guest The Sun’s Ally Ross, when he reveals that presenter Donna Air once asked the Corrs “how did you meet?” It’s commendable of C4 to allow this programme time to get into its stride, indeed we’ve now endured a couple of series of “the news alternative”, but it’s increasingly becoming a greater and greater embarrassment. It’s nasty, it’s self-satisfied. It’s not funny.

A repeat of Ally McBeal finishes up the main evening’s viewing: a study of the awkwardness of relationships and the kinks and peculiarities of romance. Though prickly, anxious and quirky, it fails to engage; the incidental music is almost a constant, and culled from middle-of-the-road sappy pop songs creating an overbearingly precious feel. The overall lack of charm renders the programme simply irritating. Swat it away.

Unlike the other terrestrial channels, Channel 4 has actually invested some thought in its scheduling here, going so far as to create a thread within which it will deliver us through the night. 4Later starts within a computer-generated prison featuring an animated Rastafarian baby and some Smash-type robots introducing the first programme.

The fictitious Pennine Television broadcasts Focus North. This parody of the local evening news, with hosts played by Tom Adam and Adel Salem, does not convince. Much like The 11 O’clock Show there is a basic failing here in that the material simply isn’t funny, while the delivery and production are just too arch to pull off the parody. A sketch centred around a Job Centre’s Christmas party has a strong core to it (with the unemployed being afforded cups of cider dependent on their benefit entitlement) but it’s all too prevalent that we’re watching a bunch of actors and the jokes are fairly dire. The artistes try just too hard and lack the confidence to withdraw a little more to allow some reality into their performances. Written by Julian Butler, Bob Priestly and Gus Bolfield this isn’t exactly offensive in its deficiency – there is in fact a sort of naïve charm about it, although it’s doubtful said writers would appreciate their work being described in such patronising terms. It’s not so unlikely that one of the team behind this may later go on to impress elsewhere.

Oz is a drama set in a maximum-security prison where new arrivals are greeted “No yelling, no fighting, no fucking.” With titles featuring riots, stabbings and the electric chair we know that, although this is a US import, we’re definitely not in Glen A Larson country. In tonight’s episode a private company takes over the prison’s health services and inevitably there’s callous cutbacks made on required medication. This series is intelligent and unusual (featuring an onscreen narrator) yet unremittingly grim. We see a vicious slashing in full visceral detail, regular beatings and arguments (“Fuck you, fucker!”) and a relentless cynicism that never lets up. This is quite an admirable programme, dealing with some weighty topics, but it’s utterly impenetrable. The dialogue is slick, the plot is involved but both exclude, even repel the viewer.

Vengeance Unlimited is a modern take on film noir. Michael Marsden plays it gruff and dishevelled as Chapel, your typical anti-hero – hardly verbose (“see ya”). Tonight it’s the story of an IRS employee who all-too-simply alters the records of his ex-girlfriend so that it appears she owes $49,000. The lights are low but there’s nothing new here, as Chapel rights the wrongs and disappears into the night.

4Later finishes up with Late Toon, an animation by Ed Talfan called “Morris”. This is a black and white effort about a Welsh miner utilising skeletorial stop-animation puppets and atmospheric sound effects within which Morris reminisces about childhood parties and steam trains. This is a work about the old life dying for the new. “Everything moves so fast nowadays, I lose track,” says Morris. Cut to footage of wind turbines. It’s worthy and technically brilliant, but it’s a bit distant.

And then, unscheduled comes a short live-action piece from Australia called EnvironMental. A masked assailant ties up a male homeowner, changes his bulbs for energy conserving types, seals up his dishwasher, forces him to order a compost bin and finally liberates his budgie. The film ends with the now reformed man aware of environmental issues. In tidying up a rubbish bin he gets knocked over by a garbage truck. What exactly was the point?

Heading towards the new televisual day we find the Nokia Snowboard FIS World Cup. Presenter Gary Imlach is obviously aware that a large percentage of his audience aren’t familiar with the sport of snowboarding and the personalities involved, hence a docusoap introduction as we meet the contestants and Imlach explains to us just what’s at stake. However, the competition itself, though competently commentated by Nick Fellows, is fairly pedestrian as boarder after boarder slaloms through the course so it’s doubtful whether this’ll convert anyone to the sport; Imlach’s helpful contextualizing has been in vain.

“It’s up there with Liverpool v Everton and Rangers v Celtic” says the C4 continuity announcer, “Football Italia brings you the Milan Derby.” Again we see C4 in the predicament of having to explain the context of its sporting fixture. Football Italia, hosted by James Richardson, is unlike other late night sports coverage, which feels bought-in and unaware of its audience or timeslot. Italia, conversely, knows exactly where it’s at. After a brief introduction it’s to the match, AC Milan versus Inter Milan commentated by Guy Mowbray and Joe Jordan. And again, the first thing we’re given is another recap on the plot: “It’s the 246th meeting of the Milan giants and there’s a lot more at stake than local bragging.” The match is covered with the enthusiasm and passion we’d expect to find watching our own leagues, and it’s therefore very successful in involving the viewer. Football Italia is aware that it has to combat a certain amount of disinterest in the fate of “foreign” teams but it rises to the task with brio.

24 hours in the company of Channel 4 climaxes with “another chance to see” that episode ofCountdown. As the Countdown ends, the countdown for a new televisual day on C4 begins …


Fortune Favours the Bold

Thursday 9 March 2000 found Channel 4 in strident good form. This was probably the liveliest and most eclectic TV schedule of all the terrestrial channels today, and whilst eclecticism inevitably means the occasional disappointment (Why Weight?) there were more than enough welcome new discoveries (Art in the National GalleryMiddle EnglishHollyoaks and everything between 8pm and 10pm) to leave one feeling quite simply grateful that Channel 4 exists. At this moment in time it feels like the most credible public service broadcaster in the country, with the most coherent and thoughtfully planned line-up of programmes to be found anywhere on British television.

Channel 4 surprised and delighted at turns. The schools’ programming was absolutely modern in outlook and so much more mature than I expected; the early afternoon was essentially rather trivial but great fun (this essence encapsulated totally by the mighty Countdown); primetime was populated wholly with factual programming, in each instance tackling sensitive adult subject matter in a responsible but ultimately entertaining fashion; whilst the night time wasn’t just an abandoned straggle of programmes. Low points? Well of course there were some. Why Weight? is a hideous oddity on such an enlightened channel, Ally McBeal just doesn’t do it for me but I can appreciate its value and The 11 O’clock Show is an obvious choice for TV oblivion – but that’s an acceptable hit-to-miss ratio isn’t it?

Despite the justifiably negative tone that is bound to be taken in response to the output of some of the other channels today, one can still feel that overall, at the bottom of that line, British broadcasting has to be in good shape if Channel 4 can flourish as it does. Remember, that whilst we can measure our television against the lowliest of its output, it is as equally valid to mark it against its apex. And that’s very high.

  <12noon – 6pm