Forty/Four: Channel Four’s 40 Most-Watched (Part One)

Yes, I know I’m only just over halfway through the list of the 100 Most-Shown Programmes On The BBC, but Channel Four is forty years old on Wednesday 2 November, and that’s an anniversary well worth marking. So, here we go with another ill-considered datagasm.

Like in an instalment of the Terminator franchise directed by John Birt, I’ve used my non-giving-up-guy powers to trek through yet more numbers. This time, picking through BARB’s website, plus online archives of Television Today and The Times, to look at the highest viewing figures ever gleaned by Jeremy Isaac’s controversy machine. All the way from launch day on 1 November 1982, right through to last week. And do I have a list packed with surprises for you? Yes. Yes, I do. At least five of them.

A few quick notes before I start the rundown:

  • I’d originally planned to release the whole list in one go, but (a) it’s not quick writing all this, at least not if you’re me, and (b) breaking it up into four parts is quite fitting. Don’t worry, there won’t be long between them:
    • Part One: today, i.e. now, i.e. you’re reading it
    • Part Two: Monday 31 October
    • Part Three: Tuesday 1 November
    • Part Four: Wednesday 2 November, which also happens to be Channel 4’s 40th birthday
  • Only one entry per programme on the list (the highest-rating episode, obviously), otherwise you’d just be trudging through loads of Brooksides and Bakes Off.
  • I’m including airdates, broadcast times, and (because I’m lovely) a peek at what each programme was up against in the listings. Partly because, hey, who doesn’t love more data that they’d been promised? But mainly because seeing the ‘opposition’ sometimes helps confirm why audiences may have been inflated.
  • Pretty much every week has been accounted for, but between various archive sources there were still a few I couldn’t source data for. The records given are as complete as possible (seriously, a lot of legwork went into this one), if you know of something that should’ve made the list, and you’ve details of a BARB Top Ten to back it up, let me know (don’t trust any quoted viewing figures in news stories or biographies, as they’re frequently apocryphal).
  • I was in two minds whether to include films and sport in the list. After all, a list of The 40 Most Something Programmes Ever is a bit of a misnomer if nineteen of them aren’t actually programmes. In the end, I’ve decided to include both. Channel 4 has done brilliantly in introducing British audiences to sporting events like American Football, Kabaddi and Sumo, and even moved into major sports like F1 and Horse Racing in more recent years. As for films, when it’s a channel that happens to have made some of the best and most successful British films in history, it’d be stupid not to include them. Plus, it’ll be interesting to see whether it’s mass market Hollywood films or homegrown fare that proved a bigger draw.

Okay, all ready? Here we go!

(21:00 Saturday 11 Mar 1995, 6.44m viewers)

Off to a roaring start with a repeat of an old ITV programme. And that’s more representative than you might think – the first decade of Four saw classic repeat runs employed as a draw quite frequently. Whole new audiences were able to discover past hits like The Prisoner and The Avengers via repeats on Four – heck, in the early stages of compiling this chart it looked like a repeat of Man About The House was going to take a place in the top twenty.

For this particular repeat run, the primo 9pm Saturday night slot was used for a full repeat run of Clement and Le Frenais’ (based on an idea by Franc Roddam) building-site comedy drama. And as repeat runs go, it was a definite success – certainly more successful than ITV’s late-80s repeats that saw hour-long post-watershed episodes chopped in half and put out at 7pm.

This peak audience figure arrived for the repeat of the first episode, where Oz, Dennis and Neville first arrive in Dusseldorf.


BBC1 had the end of the News followed by Saturday night thrills in the shape of Screen One: Down Among the Big Boys, a Glasgow crim-thriller starring Billy Connolly, Douglas Henshall and Maggie Bell. A repeat of The Buccaneers was on BBC2, while ITV offered up Impulse (1990), a cop film that I suspect even stars Theresa Russell and Jeff Fahey have forgotten about.

(20:00 Monday 24 Dec 2012, 6.44m viewers)

Much more traditional Four fare in co-fortieth place. Indeed, its a sequel to one of the channel’s most famous offerings of all-time, with The Snowman and the Snowdog released to mark the 30th anniversary of Dianne Jackson’s animated retelling of the 1978 Raymond Briggs book. The 1982 original has become every bit a Christmas TV staple as Dinner For One on German TV, and in latter years the 2012 sequel has become a similar institution on Christmas Eve telly. It’s the original screening of One Snowman and His Dog that saw the biggest audience.


Last in the then-current series of Merlin on BBC1, a Song and Dance compilation of Morecambe & Wise on BBC2, second-half of an hour-long Corrie on ITV, and A Right Royal Year on Five. That was followed by ‘Eddie Stobart’s Christmas Cracker‘, which would have made this section a bit more interesting.

(21:00 Monday 3 Oct 1994, 6.5m viewers)

While fly on the wall documentaries were hardly a new thing in 1994, Paul Berriff’s series chronicling events at Gipton Police Station at least achieved the feat of bagsying one of prime titles for such a programme. And that premise was enough to attract a sizeable Monday night audience for this first of five episodes.


BBC1 had the Nine O’Clock News followed by Panorama: Blair’s Britain (“Tony Blair discusses his visions for the future”). BBC2 had the unlikely double-act of Rab C Nesbitt and The X-Files (a crossover we’d all like to see, I’m sure), plus Harry Hill’s Fruit Fancies at 10.15pm. ITV had thrown on a film, but sadly for fans of Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory (1990) the channel was still in the habit of slicing films in two to cram News at Ten in the middle.

(21:25 Saturday 13 Nov 2004, 6.54m viewers)

Romantic cinematic retelling of Helen Fielding’s singleton journals, starring Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. I think the time is right for a shot-for-shot remake that remains utterly faithful to the original save for Hugh Grant’s playing his character from Paddington 2.


Peak “aw mam, can’t we have something else on” viewing on BBC1, with The Royal British Legion Festival of Remembrance. Things start off a little more rosily on BBC2, with an hour of Magic (that’s the programme’s name, just to ruin the day of anyone trying to Google it) that promised “some of the world’s most dangerous stunts”. Any excitement would soon evacuate your body on discovering it being followed by The 38th Country Music Association Awards at 10.25pm. ITV offered up The X Factor Result Show between 9pm and 9.45pm, followed by The Great British Pop Test. See, at least ITV realised it was a Saturday night.

(23:10 Thursday 11 Jul 1985, 6.55m viewers)

Look at that – one of the most-watched programmes in the channel’s history, and it aired in a post-11pm slot. On a school night! It’s Four’s equivalent of the Black Ball Final.

Looking into this one, I felt sure there had been a mistake. It seemed like the sort of ITV repeat that would often get an airing on C4, but getting such a large audience this late at night? Turns out, this was the first run of this particular ‘Alright’ episode, and despite that ‘Late at Night’ tag, there was little to separate it from your regular primetime LWT version (well, aside from a slightly naughtier feel to some of the outtakes, such as a bed collapsing during a sex scene, or the occasional boob making an appearance). They didn’t even give in to the temptation of having Denis sitting in his pyjamas by a log fire, or tucked up in a comedy bed, or in tuxedoed up a faux-nightclub. Just your regular mid-80s LWT studio, replete with a mid-80s LWT studio audience.

Not that this would forever be exclusive to Channel Four. The first repeat of the episode arrived on ITV on 28 June 1986, in a plum 9.15pm slot, right after the Maradona versus West Germany World Cup Final. Alright Late at Night did very well there too, picking up 12.35m viewers – a figure higher than ITV’s coverage of the World Cup final itself (a mere 10.75m, though 11.75m watched it on BBC1 – a near-miss ITV Sport would throttle their grandmother for nowadays).

[EDIT] It also made an ITV appearance on Sunday 18 Jan 1992, in a 9.45pm slot, where it picked up a much bigger audience of 16.74m viewers. Not bad for a seven-year-old repeat.

[With thanks to Steve Williams for the heads-up on that broadcast]


On BBC1, a Forty Minutes documentary about Victorian toilets (no, really) followed by Crimewatch Update. BBC2 offers Newsnight followed by Cricket: Third Test Highlights. We’re into the post-News regionalia zone on ITV, but Thames are offering up an episode of Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense called “Last Video and Testament”. In that – because with an episode title like that you’ll be wanting to know – an electronics expert fakes his own death and makes his unfaithful wife believe he’s visiting her from beyond the grave, presumably via VHS.

37: STAND BY YOUR MAN (1981)
(21:00 Tuesday 14 May 1985, 6.6m viewers)

A TVM tracking the rise of Tammy Wynette, starring Annette O’Toole as the famed country chanteuse. Sadly, it being from 1981, suggesting a limited presence at best for the KLF.


BBC2 viewers were treated to a very different piece of Americana in Wim Wenders’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s depression-era neo-noir Hammett (1982). John Humphrys reads the News on BBC1, followed by Crockett and Tubbs reading the Miranda Rights to some hapless perp in Miami Vice. Leslie Philips Spy drama Mr Palfrey of Westminster was entertaining ITV audiences.

36: CASTAWAY (1986)
(21:00 Monday 26 Nov 1990, 6.63m viewers)

Amanda Donohoe and Oliver Reed star in Nicolas Roeg’s loose adaptation of Lucy Irvine’s autobiographical book of the same name. In the film (as in the book), a middle-aged writer places an advert for a volunteer to live with him for a year on a tropical island, a calling answered by then-25 year old Lucy. The tropical paradise was, as you may expect, far from the promised idyll. Meanwhile, back in Britain, a teenager who’d grow up to become Channel Four’s Head of Reality Programming furiously scribbles down notes.


News and Panorama (“Who Will the Tories Choose?”) on One, Kiwi road movie Shaker Run (1986) on Two, while landmark World in Action Special: Why Lockerbie? aired on ITV. Later that same night on ITV – World Chess Highlights. The past truly was a different country.

35: COAST TO COAST (1980)
(21:00 Tuesday 5 Feb 1985, 6.65m viewers)

Romantic comedy about madcap couple Madie Levrington and Charles Callahan, who accidentally find themselves in a truckin’ road movie. Madie is on the run after her scheming wealthy scoundrel of a husband had her committed to an New York mental institution to prevent her divorcing him and taking some of his previous, precious Reaganite cash. Charles is on the run from the repo man who wants to seize his previous truck. Will they team up and achieve their real goal? Which is getting rented by people at the video shop who’d found Smokey and the Bandit is already out on loan.


The News followed by Spanish Civil War drama Brigadista on BBC1, Pot Black 85 and Doctor’s Dilemmas on BBC2, and a repeat of the Sweeney on ITV. Not a huge surprise Four’s amiable truckin’ caper comedy attracted such an audience, really.

(21:30 Thursday 15 Feb 1990, 6.67m viewers)

Not to be confused with, a-ha-ha, the ITV holiday show off the same name. In fact, this premiere airing of David Leland’s comedy-drama film went out on the same day as an episode of the Judith Chalmers sunstravaganza. Wouldn’t be allowed nowadays, Sky Q boxes would go haywire.

See? Not at the same time, thankfully.


Topically enough, given his presence in the anniversary special Friday Night Live the other evening, Ben Elton – The Man From Auntie was going out on BBC1 at the start of the film, followed by Crimewatch and Question Time. ITV offered Regional Programming (such as ’01 for London’, ‘Central Lobby’ and ‘Calendar Commentary’ in ITV franchises you can probably work out from those programme titles, TSW just went straight to Prisoner Cell Block H). BBC2 served up a 40 Minutes film on the lives of exiled black South African musicians living in the UK, followed by a Late Show short and Newsnight.

(22:00 Friday 12 Mar 2021, 6.74m viewers)

Ever been wrong in a very public way? For a spell in the 2010s, I found myself writing programme previews for The Guardian Guide. Look, I’m as surprised as you, it was probably part of some Trading Places-style bet. Anyway, while I was dutifully providing copy for the publication, I generally steered clear of pouring too much scorn on programmes I wasn’t keen on. Someone loves them, a lot of people went to the trouble of making them, and who was I to pass haughty judgement on their efforts? I was just some twonk staying up late to scribble tosh before getting up early the next morning to shovel spreadsheets for The Man.

But, on being given a copy of the non-broadcast pilot of a new programme called Gogglebox, here was something I could safely have an opinion on. It’s just footage of people watching telly, saying stuff about the things that are on. “Aah, we’re holding up a mirror to the audience!”, the producers were probably thinking, but if I wanted to sit and look at a mirror for an hour I’d sell my telly and buy a bloody mirror. So, I wrote up my true feelings on the programme (either referring to it as “a disappointingly crowdsourced reimagining of TV Burp”, or just wishing I had two hours past the submission deadline. Probably the second one), confidently predicting it won’t be a success.

Gogglebox is currently on its 25th series, and many of the participants have gone on to become celebrities in their own right. I’m at home, writing this when I should probably be popping to Screwfix to buy a new flush mechanism for my toilet.

You win this round, Gogglebox.


The top-rating episode is from 2021, so the answer here is ‘Netflix‘.

And that’s it for now. Two entries share the Number 31 slot, so you’ll get to see those on SUNDAY, when the next part ‘drops’.

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