C4: 6am – 12noon

By Graham Kibble-White

First published April 2000

“Now on 4, you could learn a thing or two down Sesame Street.” Edition number 3794 kicks off the day on C4; The Street remains, as always, a keen advocate of teamwork (“we can play together with co-operation”) above all else. Whilst undeniably placing importance on numeracy and literacy – “Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letter ‘L’ and the number 13″ – its social message is strongest. Sesame Streetfeatures innumerable sequences of its residents in song or working together, and includes within that happy neighbourhood different cultures and races coexisting in harmony. Won’t you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?

“A slice of life now on The Big Breakfast.” With Johnny Vaughan and Liza Tarbuck presenting, this show is as self-confident as ever. Of course, The Breakfast is actually only about Vaughan with the other components installed simply as a foil to his wit. His style is to continually parody the conventions of TV presentation, and yet this in itself has become as risible a practice as the hammy ticks he’s roasting – an easy opt out for a lazy and unimaginative presenter. Vaughan’s eyes flutter between the camera (us) and the production crew who applaud and ape the anchor’s every quip.

The regular news bulletins within The Breakfast are read by Phil Gayle. Top story this morning: “Robbie’s knockout challenge gets the knock back from Liam”. This is about a supposed fight between Liam Gallagher and Robbie Williams, a fight Gallagher refuses to step up for. Omnipresent is the insistent thud of background music. At the end of the bulletin we cut back to Vaughan and Tarbuck, with Gayle still visible on a monitor. “How are you today, Philip?” asks Vaughan, consciously breaking down the conventional divide between the implacable newsreader from the rest of us. And then: “On this day in 1818 false teeth were patented.”

Soon we’re introduced to Robert Campbell and Phil Souter – beneficiaries of the previous night’s Advertising Awards. We’re in subversion mode again as the onscreen captions flash up with bogus info-bites about each guest “Robert Campbell – loves a nice break” and “Peter Souter – makes it all ad up”. Vaughan makes no apology for reading from cue cards throughout this encounter, and at one point he forgets a point he intended to raise: “I’ll remember later in the interview because I won’t listen to your answers. Never do.” It’s post-modern and ironic into the first break: “Do you know what?” (Vaughan says that a lot), “We love adverts.”

After those adverts Gail Porter interviews Australian band Sister 2 Sister. It’s here that one sees the weakness of The Breakfast‘s ironic style in sharp relief. Porter has neither the sufficient wit or bolster to carry it off as she lumpenly parodies a skill she has yet to master. We cross to “The Millennium Gnome” for an exclusive film behind the scenes of Oasis’s tour. The Millennium Gnome? Having gauged the public’s poor opinion of the Dome, this is The Breakfast at its most subversive – throwing metaphorical tomatoes at a safe and established Aunt Sally. Because that Dome, it’s rubbish, isn’t it?

The morning skips on in this knockabout fashion. Vaughan interviews a WWF female wrestler, Richard Bacon (“Am I on?”) is stoically Alan Partridge-like in his live OB sections; there’s little that fixes itself in the memory – bar a couple of comments that duck under the guard: Vaughan referring to the tabloid’s treatment of an errant Coronation Street star: “He’s earned himself the title ‘troubled’, just as Richard Bacon is ‘disgraced’.” And later, in an interview with Paul McKenna Tarbuck touches directly on a past court case wherein the stage-hypnotist was sued by one of his subjects for apparent resultant mental trauma. “Is there anyone you regret hypnotising?” she asks. “No,” says McKenna as though recanting a press release, “there’s no one I regret hypnotising.”

The Big Breakfast is the Filthy, Rich and Catflap of morning TV. It’s confident, (relatively) bad mannered and endlessly in mockery of showbusiness and television convention. And likeCatflap it’s not as good as it should be, but – well – there’s nothing else on.

As though consciously trying to provide a bridge, a segue between the garish Breakfast and the sedate and worthwhile schools’ programming, C4 runs US import Bewitched: TV at its most gentle with the perfect tribulations of sitcom Samantha and Darren. Today, Darren is playing golf with his boss and a potential new client.

Channel 4 very firmly brands its schools programmes, making this strand of programming an entity independent from the rest of the day’s output. Art in the National Gallery, aimed at 14-16 year olds, is entitled “Portraits – with Richard Stemp”.

“In the still of night wide awake faces gaze out from the darkness like ghosts from the past.” Over the next 20 minutes Stemp co-opts us on a fascinating journey into the meaning behind various portrait paintings – by meaning, that’s not to say we are taken on a journey of conjecture, pondering the artistic “message” behind each piece; rather we are invited to look at these works as pathologists to try and ascertain information about the people depicted, their lives, their purpose. “The Arnolfini Portrait” by Jan Van Eyck (1434) is rung of detail, but this doesn’t detract from the work’s appeal; it deepens it. Stemp highlights the apparent wealth of the couple portrayed, “she wears a gold necklace … their clothes are trimmed with fur … oranges [portrayed on a nearby table] were a rare and expensive fruit.” A group of 15 year old art students make their own attempts at investigating “The Ambassadors” by Han Holbein (1533), and their discovery of a skull hidden in the picture makes this approach seem wholly worthwhile and rewarding. This is fine television which should surely inspire its target audience to take the subject further. “If only they could speak,” says Stemp in reference to the paintings. They do.

Geographical Eye Over Britain almost sounds like as Chris Morris spoof; but there are no laughs to be found here. This programme carries it’s mandate to educate like a clubfoot; here’s dreariness for you “Snowdonia – The Future of Upland Farmers”. It’s treatment of an important topic (“but there’s not a future of farming for everyone”) is so lacklustre that by the end the audience surely wishes that the Snowdonian farmers had never taken to the uplands in the first place. An awfully dull production.

Middle English, aimed at 11-14 year olds, while constantly in metamorphosis like many schools’ programmes, has remained consistently entertaining and effective and today’s edition, “The Write Stuff” contributed by arch-youth TV exponent Rapido, shows the good form is running truer than ever. Hosted by Sean Hughes, this is great fun. “If we all went around spelling things willy-nilly,” muses Hughes, “we’d be … Americans.” This has the required amount of irreverence to make its intended audience feel as though the programme is bypassing the teacher and speaking directly to them. Hughes invites us all to have a good laugh at Dan Quayle spelling “potatoe”, before a quick insert entitled “Super Spellers” which features an American grammar rodeo and a young contestant triumphantly spelling “chiaroscurist”. This is clever mixing here, playing the Super Speller off against the vice-president actually frames the swot favourably and makes good spelling a hallmark of credibility. A convincing inversion of the playground rules.

There is some analysis on the evolution of the English language taking in advertising (“Beanz Meanz Heinz”), TV Hits magazine (and its ever present “phoaar”s) and internet chat rooms; all making the continuing development of the English language dynamic and relevant to today. Special mention should also go to John Hegley whose wordplay sequences, “Hegley Does Spelling” successfully combine funny and informative. A million miles away from Richard Stilgoe. Hughes holds up caption cards for the end credits, making various asides about each (“Mummy’s boys!”) and then it’s the Rapido frog – “Phoarr!” it says.

Scientific Eye investigates different means of generating electrical power. Presenter Michael Norris, with combat trousers and T-shirt over his sweatshirt, is carefully groomed to appeal to the target early-teen audience. Though a little too much cod-yoof speak – Norris on wind turbines: “I think they look cool” – generally the content is good, rightly correlating monolithic power stations with electrical items found in the home. Commentator Claire Anderson rounds the programme off with the $64,000 question, “So where would you want your electricity to come from in the future?” Putting the agenda to the audience like this leaves them with the onus to take the matter further themselves.

Channel 4 serves the five to six year olds with The Number Crew. Today’s episode sees the ship-bound crew getting up to all sorts of number-related antics; and as you might expect, exclusively puppets, bar token human Matthew Lyons, populate this programme. Commendably, the Crew contains a representation of the disabled and ethnic sectors of society which is still altogether rare on British TV.

French Express and The Spanish Programme will have to remain an enigma, both being broadcast in their respective languages. The former, it seems is a social science programme (obviously disgruntled men laying debris on a rail track and then setting light to it) while the latter is some sort of soap opera. Tres bien!

Between these two insoluble artefacts there’s Schools at Work and History in Action. The former shows GCSE students from Westborough High School, Dewsbury preparing and then delivering a travelling science show for local primary school pupils. Refreshingly, there is no commentary here; an easy, forgettable five minutes bar one of the students demonstrating a canny handle on his audience when he quips that rockets could use anything for propulsion “even school dinners”.

The 1926 General Strike is the subject of History in Action. Presenter John Mulholland tells the story of those dark days, with illustrative material drawn exclusively from contemporary press reports making this something of a What The Paper’s Said 1926 (even down to the provincial accents employed by the voice artistes Delia Corrie, David Mahlowe and Peter Wheeler). Significantly, Mulholland seems unconcerned with portraying source material as impeccable, spending the whole programme actively questioning the press coverage of events. “GREATEST STRIKE IN HISTORY” and “THE PISTOL AT THE NATION’S HEAD” scream the headlines. “I’d say the papers are doing a bit of scare-mongering, whipping up public opinion against the strikers” says Mulholland, later going further to question “Could it be that the government want to turn people against the strikers?” Like Art in the National Gallery, this is arming the audience with another set of tools with which they might investigate history. Here we are taught not simply to take facts as a given, but to consider possible motivations behind and therefore corruptions of apparently straight reportage. A good lesson.

As The Spanish Programme closes we’re at the end of schools’ programmes on C4. This has been a commendable raft of programming, real public service broadcasting notably bereft of commercial breaks.

  <ITV: 5.30pm – 6am