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

Into the top half we tumble. But first, here’s a rundown of the list so far:

  • 41: AUF WIEDERSEHEN, PET (21:00 Saturday 11 Mar 1995, 6.44m viewers)
  • 41: THE SNOWMAN AND THE SNOWDOG (20:00 Monday 24 Dec 2012, 6.44m viewers)
  • 40: THE NICK (21:00 Monday 3 Oct 1994, 6.5m viewers)
  • 39: FILM: BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY (21:25 Saturday 13 Nov 2004, 6.54m viewers)
  • 38: IT’LL BE ALRIGHT LATE AT NIGHT (23:10 Thursday 11 Jul 1985, 6.55m viewers)
  • 37: FILM: STAND BY YOUR MAN (21:00 Tuesday 14 May 1985, 6.6m viewers)
  • 36: FILM: CASTAWAY (21:00 Monday 26 Nov 1990, 6.63m viewers)
  • 35: FILM: COAST TO COAST (21:00 Tuesday 5 Feb 1985, 6.65m viewers)
  • 34: FILM: WISH YOU WERE HERE (21:30 Thursday 15 Feb 1990, 6.67m viewers)
  • 33: GOGGLEBOX (22:00 Friday 12 Mar 2021, 6.74m viewers)
  • 31: FILM: GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (21:00 Sunday 25 Apr 1993, 6.75m viewers)
  • 31: LOST (20:30 Wednesday 10 Aug 2005, 6.75m viewers)
  • 30: FILM: NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (22:00 Tuesday 31 Mar 1992, 6.8m viewers)
  • 29: WIFE SWAP (21:00 Tuesday 21 Oct 2003, 6.9m viewers)
  • 28: FILM: NOWHERE TO RUN (21:00 Tuesday 9 Apr 1985, 6.95m viewers)
  • 27: FILM: THE ABYSS (21:00 Sunday 24 Jan 1993, 7.01m viewers)
  • 25: FILM: MOTHER, JUGS AND SPEED (21:00 Tuesday 12 Mar 1985, 7.05m viewers)
  • 25: ATHLETICS: THE KODAK CLASSIC (21:00 Friday 9 Aug 1985, 7.05m viewers)
  • 24: FEMALE PARTS: RUDE WOMAN (21:00 Monday 11 May 1992, 7.06m viewers)
  • 23: PETER KAY LIVE (21:30 Wednesday 4 Aug 2004, 7.197m viewers)
  • 22: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE (20:30 Monday 3 Dec 1984, 7.2m viewers)

Right, into that top twenty-one. Dudes.

(21:00 Sunday 11 Apr 1993, 7.29m viewers)

Photo: Bill and Ted (Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves)

To be fair, any film that includes George “Seven Words” Carlin, Tony “Wolfie Smith’s Dad-in-Law After Peter Vaughan” Steedman and Jane “Rush Hour” Wiedlin is automatically great, and it’d be frankly stupid not to watch it. SAN DIMAS HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL RULES.


Final episode of Andrew Payne’s conception-themed drama series You, Me and It on BBC1, followed by Mastermind and religious documentary strand Everyman. On BBC2 there’s live coverage of US Masters Golf from Augusta. ITV offer up an episode of Gambon-era Maigret followed by Aspel & Company, said company being, as The Times’ weekend TV guide had it “former hostage John McCarthy and his girlfriend Jill Morrell, who just happen to have written a book”. Yeah, bloody former hostages, always banging on about it.

(21:00 Thursday 12 Mar 1987, 7.6m viewers)

Photo: Image from the film, Julie Walters' character in a life vest having a bad time in a river.

A Film on Four offering directed by John Goldschmidt starring Britfilm perennial Julie Walters as one of eight women attending a week-long Outward Bound course. Along the way they’ll learn secrets about each other… and themselves. Yeah, you know the drill.


It’s 1987, so obviously LA Law was on ITV, followed by News at Ten. Over on BBC1, it’s the Nine O’Clock News followed by middle-classcom Life Without George and Question Time. Over on Two, the second part of Foreign Bodies, a Belfast-set series exploring the romantic relationship between a Roman Catholic nurse and a Protestant car mechanic, followed by 40 Minutes: The Quest for Sergeant Miller and a surprisingly pre-Newsnight airing for The Phil Silvers Show.

(20:30 Monday 28 Jan 1985, 7.75m viewers)

Photo: Main characters Fitz and John standing outside a shop.

For anyone wondering where all the classic Channel Four sitcoms are on this list, here’s one. Well, I liked it when I was 10 anyway. The premise behind Relative Strangers was that happy-go-lucky thritysomething Fitz (Matthew Kelly) was happy with his bachelor’s lot in life. Free to do as he pleased, go where he wants and with whom he chooses. That’s until John (Mark Farmer) – the end product of a dimly-remembered dalliance seventeen years earlier – arrives at his front door, seeking to connect with a father who hadn’t known he existed.

Written by Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks, this was a perfect vehicle for Channel Four – a premise maybe a bit too grown-up for pre-watershed ITV, but suited perfectly to such a slot on Four. And better still, it was a perfect fit for the Mondays-opposite-Panorama-and-World-in-Action slot – easily the peak audience slot for BBC2 and C4 at the time, where viewers seeking entertainment flocked away from the main two channels. And given the bulk of his appearances on TV have been as a presenter, it’s a good opportunity to remember how good a sitcom actor Matthew Kelly was.


As mentioned, Panorama on BBC1 (“Richard Lindlay examines the financial cuts leading to reduced student numbers in universities”) and World in Action on ITV (“a documentary illustrating the impact of the miners’ strike to a community in Northumbria”). Much lighter fare on BBC2, with The Bob Monkhouse Show welcoming completely uncontroversial comedians Michael Barrymore, Peter Cook and Bill Maher to his big sofa.

(20:00 Wednesday 29 Aug 2012, 7.78m viewers)

Photo: Promo image for C4's Paralympic coverage. Several Paralympians are posing, with the caption MEET THE SUPERHUMANS.

So far on this list, we’ve seen a lot of films, programmes and events that were very popular, but not too much that could be deemed Important Television. This is where that changes. Prior to 2012, coverage of Paralympic Games’ had been on the BBC. Usually at this stage, BBC Sport would be at the point where they’d just exhausted themselves covering the preceding Olympic Games, and seemed to have little energy (or schedule space) left to cover the Paralympics.

For an international event borne out of the International Stoke Mandeville Games in the 1950s, it’s on a scale somewhere between ‘a pity’ and ‘downright insulting’ that so little attention was historically afforded the event in the UK, not least because Great Britain performed brilliantly in those early games. In 1960, 1964 and 1968 Great Britain finished second in the medals table, as did the British team in 1984 and 2000, with third-place finishes coming in 1972, 1988 and 1992. And yet – kind of hoping someone proves me wrong here – it took until 1984 for any television coverage of note to appear, with Channel 4 broadcasting hour-long highlight packages of the 1984 Games, albeit several weeks after the actual conclusion of the event.

SCAN: TV Times listing for highlights of Paralympics 1984. "Some 1200 athletes from 40 countries met to compete in the VII World Wheelchair Olympics in July. The build-up of training and techniques since the last games four years ago provides a climax for competition and new world records."

The earliest instance I can find of the BBC dipping into the Paralympic pool came in 1988, with similar highlight packages from Seoul ’88, again only appearing a couple of months after the conclusion of the Games. For some reason, the highlights were given the weird title of The ‘Olympic’ Challenge (with inverted commas right there, see?), as opposed to the more correct Paralympic Challenge.

SCAN: Radio Times listing: "6.00pm The 'Olympic' Challenge.

The level of coverage improved for the 1992 Winter Paralympics, with BBC2 hosting a pair of highlight programmes from Tignes in the French Alps, just a few weeks after the conclusion of the Games. That was followed by the Barcelona Summer Paralympics being covered, this time while the event was in progress, as part of Grandstand and Sunday Grandstand.

By 1996, Paralympic coverage on the BBC expanded into a series of ten standalone highlight packages. A further improvement in the level of coverage, but still restricted to forty-minute highlight packages going out on BBC2, in a slot opposite Neighbours. The practice was repeated for the 2000 Sydney Games, with daily highlight programmes, but seemingly still no live coverage. For 2004, BBC2’s daily Paralympics coverage was extended to ninety minutes, but it was the Beijing Games in 2008 that saw Paralympic coverage finally breaking onto BBC1. Here, it seemed the Corporation might finally go all-in on their treatment, with the opening ceremony broadcast live in a four-and-a-half hour programme on the flagship channel. Sadly, it wasn’t to last, with main channel coverage restricted to nightly highlight shows and live coverage hidden under the red button (or on the BBC HD channel if your telly was so endowed).

Photo: Two competitors playing wheelchair rugby clash.

For the 2012 London Paralympics, things would be different. Very different. Channel Four had been awarded the rights to broadcast the games, and set about promoting the event in a way that would reshape the public’s perception of the Paralympics. Preceding the games with an all-out marketing blitz, adverts cheekily and brilliantly nodded toward the preceding London 2012 Olympics with “Thanks for the warm-up”, while Tom Tagholm’s two-minute-long ‘Meet the Superhumans’ trailer (screenshot above) was as captivating an advert as any pre-World Cup sportswear promo. And to make absolutely sure as many people were aware of the coverage as possible, on on 17 July 2012 Meet the Superhumans aired simultaneously on 78 different TV channels around Britain’s digital diaspora.

All of which would count for nought if Four’s coverage was restricted to the same highlights hell. Far from it. Unencumbered by not having just covered an entire Olympic fortnight, Channel Four had boundless energy to pull out all the proverbials. A Paralympic Games Breakfast Show at 7am kicked things off each day, with live coverage dominating each day’s schedule (pausing only for News and a few immovable feasts like Hollyoaks and The Simpsons). Live coverage continued right through primetime, with each day’s events summarised during nightly comedy discussion show The Last Leg.

Did it work? Hugely, as the viewing figures for a wonderful opening ceremony proved.

SCAN: Front page of The Independent newspaper, with a photo from the Opening Ceremony. Several people holding umbrellas are suspended mid-air.

Things were finally different. How different? Well, some parts of the British press now felt comfortable in attacking US broadcasters for not showing enough of it. Plus ça change, eh?

SCAN: Front page of The Times. Headline - Outrage over American blackout of the Games.


Loads of things – it was a three-hour-plus programme – but most notably: Patrick Stewart on Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC1, not-as-good-after-Lucy-Punch-left comedy cop drama Vexed on BBC2, Britain Then and Now on ITV, and zombie Big Brother on Five.

17: MONA LISA (1986)
(21:30 Thursday 23 Feb 1989, 7.82m viewers)

Photo: Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins post as their characters from the film

On getting released from prison, it can be hard to find yourself gainful employment. Good news for paroled low-level hoodlum George, then – he’s just landed a job working for underworld boss Denny Mortwell, and all he’d needed to do was take the rap (and prison term) on his behalf. Now he’s working at a driver-slash-minder for high-class call girl Simone. Not that Mortwell is especially keen to make amends with George – he also wants him to extract some handy blackmail fuel from one of Simone’s clients. George’s attention is torn between carrying out his mission and his feelings for Simone, who wants his help to find her missing friend Cathy.

Definitely from the grittier end of the Handmade Films stable, powerful performances from Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson and Michael Caine help make this a compelling if not always comfortable feature.


Another outing for Life Without George at 9.30pm on BBC1, followed by Sir Robin-era Question Time. BBC2 offered up splendidly-titled 40 Minutes documentary Knickerbockers in Knightsbridge (except it seems to be breathlessly celebrating a high-end prep school, so knickers to that), followed by an episode of The Tracey Ullman show with The Simpsons surgically removed (d’oh, indeed) and Newsnight. ITV dished up an episode of imported cop show In the Heat of the Night to take viewers to News at Ten, before some Regional News-Based Programming. And, just for a change, Sky Channel offered drama series The Paper Chase, followed by WWF Main Event.

(20:30 Thursday 24 Mar 1988, 7.85m viewers)

Photo: Anneka Rice poses alongside her cameraman and sound engineer.

One of the big hits for the channel in its first decade on air, it’s a bit of a surprise that Treasure Hunt is one the classic C4 properties never to have received the reboot treatment*. For anyone too young to be aware of the premise, this was a game show basically aimed at people with leather-bound encyclopedias in their living room. Two contestants take part in a command centre alongside host Kenneth Kendall and guide Wincey Willis, who together must solve a series of geographical clues to determine the location of further clues and ultimately, the titular treasure.

[EDIT: *Reboot treatment… by Channel Four. With thanks to @ChinnyVision and @Simon_Tyers on Twitter plus James in the comments for highlighting this, it did receive a reboot on BBC2 following the departure of The Simpsons to C4. It went out on weekdays at 6pm in December 2002 (for a week), before returning for a second series (again, on each weekday evening for a week) starting in April 2003. It didn’t fare too well – not least because they decided to set each Hunt in places like Tucson or Mexico City, which must have cost a fortune. And as such, the final six episodes of the second series were shoved into a Saturday teatime on BBC2 slot, with almost a month between airings of the last few episodes.]

But that’s not the exciting part. The main participant in all this, and the undoubted star of the series, was Anneka Rice – the person tasked with physically uncovering each clue at the actual locations portrayed on Wincey’s map. To get from place to place, she had a helicopter, and the whole thing had to be done and dusted within 45 minutes, broadcast in real-time.

Basically, it was speed geocaching.

This particular episode came from the Chilterns, with contestants Robin Strand and Ian Taylor hoping to win big. And if you wanted to play along at home, the TV Times kindly provided you with an OS Map reference.

Scan: TV Times listing, 8.30 to 9.30pm Treasure Hunt. Details as per the previous paragraph.



Mastermind (the history of English costume 1789-1945, Portuguese explorations and discoveries 1415-1815, the history of mathematics, the films of Laurel & Hardy) followed by the News on BBC1. BBC2 had Nature (an examination of the latest developments in genetics) followed by Blackadder II (the executioner one). ITV had This Week: Private Health – Too High a Price? followed by LA Law.

(21:45 Sunday 16 Dec 1984, 8.25m viewers)

Siri, name a sport that doesn’t belong on Channel Four.

Might just be me, but… snooker’s very much a BBC2 thing, isn’t it? I know it’s been on BBC1 quite a lot, and at the peak of the snooker craze in the 1980s even ITV made a regular go of it, but the closest you’d expect the sport to get to Channel Four is a screening of Billy the Kid and the Green Baize Vampire. And yet, here it is.

Four being Four, it’s not quite your usual Fagbrand World Matchplay tournament, however. This was the final of the Hofmeister World Doubles Championships (coverage Four actually shared with ITV, as was the style at the time) a tournament that in theory should have provided double the fun for snooker fans, with greats of the game teaming up to do battle. In practice however, it wasn’t quite the draw organisers had hoped – the tournament only ran from 1982 to 1987. That said, if any doubles match was going to draw an audience, it was this final: Alex “Hurricane” Higgins and Jimmy “Whirlwind” White against Cliff “Magnum PI” Thorburn and Willie “Best of Friends” Thorne.


The News, followed by Perry Como’s Christmas in Paris on BBC1, Harold Pinter play A Kind of Alaska was on BBC Tw… wait, ITV (yeah, look impressed – it wasn’t superseded in the regional variations, either) and Hinge/Brackett sitcom Dear Ladies on actual BBC2.

(21:00 Tuesday 21 May 1985, 8.25m viewers)

Photo: Title card from Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

Despite the TV Movie genre being as unstoppable as ever – just look at the Movie Channels You Don’t Have To Pay Extra For section on Sky – I’m pretty sure nobody bothers making TV Horror Movies any more. It certainly used to be a thing, the original version of Stephen King’s It was made for TV, but nowadays it’s all variations of (to badly paraphrase TV Go Home) ‘The Courts Are Letting My Ex-Husband Attack My Children With Hammers’ or Christmas films.

Back when Horror TVMs were a thing, very likely with one eye on the blossoming video retail market, fare such as Dark Night of the Scarecrow could be seen. It’s hardly the most edifying fare, going by the plot synopsis on IMDB: “In a small Southern town, four vigilantes wrongfully execute a mentally-challenged man, but after the court sets them free mysterious ‘accidents’ begin to kill them off one by one.” And yet, commissioned and brought to television by CBS.

SCAN: TV Times listing - 9.00 Dark Night of the Scarecrow

Must admit, I’m a bit mystified why this picked up such a colossal audience, but I do note that the full movie is available on YouTube for free (in HD, and seemingly legally to boot), so if you’re curious enough to want to see it, fill your boots.


News and Miami Vice on BBC1, Francis Ford Coppola flick The Escape Artist (1982) on BBC2, and Mr Palfrey of Westminster followed by News at Ten on ITV.

(20:00 Wednesday 3 Nov 1993, 8.27m viewers)

Photo: A wedding scene from Brookside

Let’s face it, it was a matter of when not if this was going to show up. The only question was which era of the programme would be represented here? The Damon and Debbie years? The kiss between Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence? The body under the patio? Sinbad’s lodger turning out not to be a serial killer but a Wrexham supporter?

Not quite that, no. How about “Frank and Lyn’s wedding“? Yep. That was the episode that outranked all those other famous Brookie moments. Of course, this being soapland, it wasn’t as straightforward as that – look away now if you’re working your way through a box of Brookside offairs – a drug-fuelled Jimmy Corkhill led to Frank’s car crashing en route to the wedding reception, meaning he didn’t survive to taste the wedding cake.

But why that particular episode? What tipped the viewing figures for that episode above all the others? I should point out that viewing figures were generally hovering around 8m for this spell of the programme’s run, but it must have taken something for this episode to have nudged just above the others. What could it have been?


The answer is very likely located here. BBC2 were showing Bookmark: The Quest for A.J., where crime writer Julian Symons investigates the life of his elder brother (the titular AJ), who died in 1941. ITV had live football, with Arsenal taking a 3-0 first leg lead to Standard Liege in the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Meanwhile BBC1 had… live football, this time coverage of Norwich City attempting to protect their shock 2-1 UEFA Cup away lead as they hosted Bayern Munich. Both good matches – Arsenal notched up a 7-0 away win en route to a win over Parma in the final of the tournament, while Norwich clung onto that lead and ensured Jeremy Goss will never need to pay for another drink within North Norfolk – but for people who don’t like football, there really wasn’t too much else on.

(21:00 Tuesday 21 Apr 1987, 8.3m viewers)

Photo: Title card for The Miracle of Kathy Miller.

Nowdays, you’d have to suspect this would be getting pumped out to 3000 viewers during one of the few months Movies 24 aren’t pretending it’s Christmas, but in 1987 imported TV Movies could still draw a big crowd. And few bigger than for The Miracle of Kathy Miller, starring big TV name Sharon Gless and a tyro Helen Hunt. The story here focused on the true tale of an Arizona teen (Hunt) who overcame disabilities to be awarded the title of the World’s Most Courageous Athlete. Sounds a lot like a parody to cynical modern eyes, but this was a much-acclaimed movie at the time. And, of course, the 11th most popular thing on Channel Four ever. So, you know, stick that in your VHS broadcast copy of Brass Eye.


ITV offered up Lost Belongings, looking at the attempt of IRA wrongun Hugh MacBraill to escape from The Maze. BBC2 offered up Live Snooker and The World of UB40, while their big brother offered up The Nine O’Clock News, drama Strike It Rich and broadcasting discussion show Network, where presumably hosts Anna Ford and David Jessel were mad as hell about, dunno, Pages from Ceefax?

Screencapture: An engineering announcement caption card for Channel 4: "Carnmoney Hill, Keighley - Due in about a fortnight".

That’s it for another instalment. A lot of big C4 programmes we’ve not seen yet, and there probably isn’t room in that final Top Eleven for all of them. Which will make the cut? Tune in tomorrow to find out. On Four’s actual fortieth birthday! I don’t just throw this together, you know. (Aside: no, I do.)

3 responses to “Forty/Four: Channel Four’s 40 Most-Watched (Part Three)”

  1. Treasure Hunt actually had had a reboot- it was on BBC2 in 2002 & 2003, around the time it was announced they were losing The Simpsons and they were trying other things out in the slot presumably to see what would work in that slot when they lost it for good.I enjoyed it myself, but it didn’t last for too long, sadly, the second series was basically thrown out in bad slots.


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