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

More Four. Here’s the next tranche, starting with two entries at joint-30th.

(21:00 Sunday 25 Apr 1993, 6.75m viewers)

Kicking off a Robin Williams season on Four, this well-received comedy drama about a boisterous US Forces Jock who eschews the anodyne in favour of the raucous, much to the delight of troops stationed in Saigon, and to the dismay of their higher-ups.


Offering the polar opposite to Robin Williams at his Robin Williamsest on Four, BBC1 served up A Year In Provence, followed by News and Mastermind (the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Manhatten Project, Damon Runyon and Joseph Chamberlain). BBC2 countered that with coverage of the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield, followed by feature-length LA riot documentary LA: Stories from the Eye of the Storm. A new thriller by Lynda La Plante – who briefly passive-aggressive followed me on Twitter after I’d criticised her provably wrong opinions on the BBC’s equalities policy (also Killer Net), rubbish showbiz anecdote fans – on ITV, with Seekers following the fortunes of two women finding they’re both married to the same man.

=31: LOST
(20:30 Wednesday 10 Aug 2005, 6.75m viewers)

Forget about the disappointing ending, Lost was good when it first arrived. Really good. And that was reflected in those initial audience figures.

An expensive promotional push for the imported series by Channel Four certainly didn’t hurt matters – the channel spent a cool million pounds just promoting the series via everything from cinema advertising to in-game adverts within Anarchy Online. They didn’t even use a standard trailer-of-clips-from-the-thing advert either, but had a specially-shot and hugely expensive scene featuring the entire cast dancing next to the flaming wreckage of Oceanic Flight 815 to a background voiceover of enigmatic statements about their identities (“One of us is a killer, one of us is an addict, one of us used to be in Hetty Wainthrop Investigates” etc). The whole thing resembled a Calvin Klein One advert more than a promo for a new drama series, but it undoubtedly piqued the interest of many viewers, leading to a colossal audience for the series opener.

The viewing figures may well have been higher as the series progressed, were it not for first runs of each episode going out on E4 to promote the new digital service, alongside a flurry of impatient torrenters streaming episodes instead of waiting for them. Either way, Lost was a huge hit for the channel, right until the point Sky One threw a big bag of money at the producers to nab the rights to it.


Second half of Holby City and the first half of Silent Witness on BBC1, Britain’s Best Buildings followed by docudrama The Slavery Business on BBC2, back end of The Bill followed by The Mummy Returns (2001) on ITV, and the last half-hour of Killer Swarms followed by the start of Steven Seagal ‘thriller’ Belly of the Beast (2003) on Five. Interesting to note that C4 scheduled Lost to start partway through three of those four programmes, very much anticipating the bulk of the audience to come from their own preceding programme (an episode of Big Brother) rather than rival broadcasters.

(22:00 Tuesday 31 Mar 1992, 6.8m viewers)

Remember the 1980s? Where a fictional child murderer became a cult hero, and ended up plastered all over t-shirts, magazines, posters et al? That was a bit weird, wasn’t it? Even when the Saw films were huge (and they were very much the FIFA franchise of the horror genre), nobody was walking around in a T-shirt with a picture of Ian Jigsaw on it. Anyway.

Here’s the film that kicked it all off, starting the cult of (arguably) the only one of the Big Franchise Horror Stars of the 1980s to genuinely become a household name. Robert Englund dons the mask and gloves of F Krueger Esquire, and sets about haunting/hunting teens in their dreams. Would go on to spawn a raft of identikit sequels, and was certainly a big enough draw to get an audience worthy of inclusion here, despite being eight years old at the time.


Tom Wilkinson played unconventional (he really likes jazz and sandwiches) detective Charlie Resnick in the first of a three-part adaptation of the John Harvey novel, Resnick: Lonely Hearts on BBC1 at 10, followed by a Liberal Democrats Party Election Broadcast and Film 92. BBC2 served up 40 Minutes: Soldier’s Diary, the story of Yishai Shuster, an Israeli reservist reluctantly policing the Palestinian border. That’s followed by a Conservative Party Election Broadcast and Newsnight. ITV being ITV, had News at Ten, followed by (at least in That London) episode of Extraordinary People: Across the Jade Divide, looking at the life of Keith Huxley as he follows in the footsteps of his father who’d been sentenced to a Shanghai internment camp fifty years earlier.

In short: that the horror film about the child murderer murdering some children? Probably the lightest relief on offer here.

(21:00 Tuesday 21 Oct 2003, 6.9m viewers)

A format big enough at the time to have been used as the basis of a Simpsons episode (not a good one, the Gervais one), it’s no surprise to see Wife Swap here. This was in the original phase of the series, so there’s no danger of having to see John McCririck in his pants. This particular episode saw a fastidious husband temporary change his similarly pernickety partner for a free-spirited wife, and vice versa. Must admit, I’d have spent that whole hour thinking about the scene in The Simpsons where jury duty results in Homer sharing a hotel room with Seymour Skinner.

“We’re kind of like the original Odd Couple. You’re the messy one, and I’m–“
“Shut up! “
“Oh, yes. Very well.”


BBC1‘s The Secret Policeman peeked into the findings of undercover journalist Mark Daly during his stint as a trainee policeman in Manchester, while BBC2 examined the Mind of a Millionaire (and also, for some reason, the story of B&Q). ITV took us all back to the time when live Champions League football could be watched for free (no, legally) with the group B tussle betwixt Dynamo Kiev and Arsenal, while Five scooped a spoonful of CSI: Miami out of their Dick Wolf Economy Bucket.

28: NOWHERE TO RUN (1978)
(21:00 Tuesday 9 Apr 1985, 6.95m viewers)

Not to be confused with any of the other films sharing the title, this particular Nowhere is based on the 1976 novel The Blackjack Hijack by Charles Einstein, and sees San Francisco engineer Harry Adams pottering about New York at the time of the Kennedy assassination. Seeing the uncaring reaction of his wife (Stefanie Powers, yes it’s a made-for-TV movie) to the news, he decides to do what anyone would… design an entirely new life for himself using a system to predict the outcome of blackjack hands. It’s a tale as old as time.


The News and Miami Vice on BBC1, an episode of superb documentary series Television on ITV (this one tracking the growth of gameshows), and Pot Black 85 followed by Amazing Bass on BBC2. That latter one is a profile of bassist Gary Karr rather than some really, really brilliant fish, slightly disappointingly.

27: THE ABYSS (1989)
(21:00 Sunday 24 Jan 1993, 7.01m viewers)

The James Cameron Film Where Something Sinks That People Don’t Mention As Much. This time it’s an American submarine that sinks (sinks… more?) in the Caribbean, leading a US search and recovery team to embark on a rescue mission. Working with a team of oil rig roughnecks, they’re busily racing against a team of pesky Russkies to be first to reach the stricken sub, when they encounter something unexpected.

This showing coming in the lengthy wake of Terminator 2, interest was high in anything bearing the Cameron stamp of approval, and The Abyss also featuring T2-esque special effect trickery by Industrial Light & Magic certainly helped it stick in the minds of anyone seeing the trailers. Hey, all that was impressive at the time.


A Sunday night, so it’s a textbook lineup on ITV, with Poirot followed by Hale & Pace and The South Bank Show. BBC2 picked out documentary Dancing: Lord of the Dance followed by Did You See… and a Derek Jarman production of Edward II. Over on One, it’s the final part of Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, followed by Mastermind and Heart of the Matter.

(21:00 Tuesday 12 Mar 1985, 7.05m viewers)

There’s a film title that sticks in the memory. 1976 black comedy fillum MJ&S starred Bill Cosby (Mother), Raquel Welch (Jugs), Harvey Keitel (Speed), and Larry Hagman (And) (oh, okay: John) as employees of an independent ambulance service trying to survive in Los Angeles. Also home to one of the great Someone Who’d Later Become More Famous In A Minor Early Role credits in cinema history: “Toni Basil as Junkie Who Kills Leroy”. Oops, spoilers.


Causing a conflict for high-energy US crime action, the News on BBC1 was followed by an episode of imperial phase Miami Vice, followed by Film 85 (reviews of 2010, Wetherby and A Soldier’s Story). ITV had (just after a repeat of ace C4 sitcom Chance in a Million at 8.30pm) an episode of documentary series Television looking at history of TV’s news coverage. Viewers of BBC2 could expect to see Inside Out (“Two female ex-convicts try to set up an employment agency”, co-starring Only Fools’ Gwyneth Strong as scatty Polish prostitute Beverly Grabowski), Pot Black 85 and a Maestro episode looking at the career (and presumably downfall) of George Best.

(21:00 Friday 9 Aug 1985, 7.05m viewers)

Long before Channel Four was rightly lauded for their coverage of the 2012 Paralympics, the channel would often cover athletic events, but mainly when ITV had been in the middle of showing something and they needed to start showing something else. BBC1 had BBC2 for those very occasions, but what did ITV have? No ITVs 2, 3 or 4 in those days, but at least they had Channel Four, pretty much a smaller sibling of the two in those days, rather than the wholly independent media group it would later become.

And so, on occasions such as the one on 9 August 1985, ITV’s willingness to hand airtime over to athletics only went so far. I mean, they did have an episode of Shine On Harvey Moon that couldn’t wait a week. And so, at 9pm, the action immediately shifted over to Channel Four, even if it did mean that week’s episode of Cheers got bumped back to 10pm.

It wasn’t all bad. As proved here, a sizeable chunk of an ITV Friday Night audience immediately decamped to Four to see the continuation of the action from Gateshead. So, that’s nice.


As mentioned, ITV had Shine on Harvey Moon (the one where Frieda has to come with a sudden death in the family). BBC1 have News followed by snooker management drama Give Us a Break, while BBC2 run with lighthearted music panel show My Music, followed by an episode of Commercial Breaks (not the Imagine Software one, sadly. This one’s about a shoe-making business).

(21:00 Monday 11 May 1992, 7.06m viewers)

First of a six-part documentary series promising to reflect the disparate lives of contemporary women (well, six of them, presumably), starting with a film by Anne Parisio. The focus falls on a series of women of all ages who refuse to be timorous when it comes to sexual activity. Jo Brand is on hand to chat with a grandmother as she prepares an aphrodisiac for her younger lover, and there’s a look at the launch of a new magazine aimed to redress the gender balance when it comes to nudity.

The write-up in The Times warns that “viewers who find frank studies on the nude male off-putting are hereby warned”, but that doesn’t seem to have dented the viewing figures too much.


The News and a Panorama about house prices on BBC1, while John Lithgow flick Resting Place (1986) entertained BBC2 viewers (presumably). ITV also took a trip to the movies, with (pre-Sir) Tom Courtenay and Brigitte Fossey starring in WWII drama The Last Butterfly (1989).

(21:30 Wednesday 4 Aug 2004, 7.2m viewers)

One thing you can definitely say about Peter Kay – he certainly knows how to maximise a revenue stream from his audience.

In November 2003, he released a DVD of a performance from his Mum Wants a New Bungalow Tour, recorded at The Bolton Albert Halls. It sold in huge numbers, as might be expected, given he was hugely popular at the time, and it was arguably the strongest stand-up set he ever did.

And then, the following year, a recording of the same set – this time performed at Manchester Arena – was aired on Channel Four. Arena comedy never works as well as a theatre setting, so it all felt a little soulless compared to the Bolton gig, but y’know, it was on telly. For free. And all his fans had already seen the DVD of the Bolton gig, so it’s good that there was something slightly different, even if all the jokes were the same.

And then that got released on DVD anyway, billed as “a special farewell performance” of his Bungalow set. Oh, Peter.


Back end of a Panorama (investigating the antics of the IoC in advance of the 2012 Olympic decision) and the 10 O’Clock News on BBC1, sixtysomething drama When I’m 64 on BBC2. ITV had job-swap reality show Poor Little Rich Girls at 9pm, and documentary Dirtbusters at 10pm, while Five served up Samuel L Jackson teach-em-up 187 (1997).

(20:30 Monday 3 Dec 1984, 7.2m viewers)

For a channel so well known for commissioning sitcoms so beloved of comedy fans – Father Ted, Stath Lets Flats, Friday Night Dinner, Spaced, Derry Girls, take your pick (as long as you don’t pick Derek) – it’s a shame they all failed to reach truly large audiences. But here’s one that did, and it’s one that isn’t likely to get a repeat on E4 any time soon.

Two pairs of pensioners – Win and May, Jimmy and Geoffrey – all belong to the same bowling club, but neither pair had ever met – until one fateful evening at the Social Club. From that point on, following initial mutual distrust, they soon realise that they can achieve far more as a team. And that’s pretty much it – a slow-burn pre-watershed sitcom from the mind and biro of Ian Masters.

I can’t vouch for the quality of the programme, as I’ve no recollection of it, though it seems to be Masters’ only writing credit, his main calling coming as jobbing actor in series such as Terry and June, Hale and Pace, and The Piglet Files. One main draw of the programme may well have been the supergroup of actors therein – Peggy Mount, Pat Coombs, Hugh Lloyd and Harold Goodwin. Whatever the case, it was part of a pilot season for the channel (handily placed in the schedules as you’ll see in a moment) and never progressed to a full series.


BBC1 had Panorama, while ITV had World in Action (ah, there’s your inflated audience figure), while BBC2 had ‘The New Statesman’ (not that one – a sitcom about a museum curator unexpectedly inheriting land and a title, starring Colin Blakely and Gwen Taylor).

That’s it for now. Tune in tomorrow to see which Four morsels have made the Top Twenty. Going by what we’ve seen here, it could contain anything.

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