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Channel 4 Drama

25 years of diverse and challenging drama

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From its first evening's programming on 2 November 1982, which paired the soap opera Brookside with the one-off Walter, Channel 4 made clear its commitment to hard-hitting, often confrontational drama. In the early days, it was believed that Channel 4 might revive the tradition of the single television play (the long-running Play For Today strand was gradually winding down on BBC1), and a few early efforts seemed to point in that direction before the success of its feature film division dictated a policy that all Channel 4's drama efforts, no matter how low their budgets, should strive for a cinematic feel.

Early Channel 4 drama productions included the David Puttnam-produced First Love series (P'Tang Yang Kipperbang, 1982; Those Glory Glory Days, 1983), though the Willy Russell-scripted One Summer (1983) was marred by controversy when the writer removed his name from the credits in protest at the casting. Mike Leigh began a rather happier association with the channel with the bleak Meantime (1983), and though his subsequent C4-funded work would primarily be made with the cinema in mind, but he also oversaw the Short & Curlies series of short dramas (1996/98). Meanwhile, G.F. Newman's The Nation's Health (1983) established a reputation for strongly politicised drama that Channel 4 would make very much its own.

At the start of 1985, the channel had its biggest hit to date (a record that still stands for drama), notching ratings of 13.8 million for A Woman of Substance, a rags-to-riches story shot in the style of an upmarket American TV movie. This, and the similarly glossy The Far Pavilions (1984), Mapp and Lucia (1985-6), the Judi Dench vehicle Behaving Badly (1989), A Dance to the Music of Time (1997), Longitude (2000) and Shackleton (2002) were handsomely-mounted middlebrow dramas that could have played on BBC1 or ITV, but which provided Channel 4 with a substantial audience share - the need for which became increasingly important as the channel became more dependent on its own advertising revenue. The Camomile Lawn (1992) nominally belongs in this group, though its sexual explicitness in a slot only just after the 9pm watershed led to widespread controversy.

From its first night, Channel 4 committed itself to developing long-running soap opera in the form of Brookside (1982-2003), though its original hard-edged realism (complete with swearing) was quickly sanitised. Executive producer Phil Redmond was also responsible for the Chester-set Hollyoaks (1995-), initially derided by critics but which caught the imagination of its teenage target audience, and since Brookside's demise it has effectively become Channel 4's main soap. In 1985, a short-lived experiment saw the French soap opera Chateauvallon screened in both subtitled and dubbed versions, while the same year saw Rainer Werner Fassbinder's epic TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980) screened in the original German. Three years later, Eurocops (1988-91) was a similarly laudable attempt at promoting mainstream European television, in a series consisting of individual episodes of police dramas made in various European countries, again broadcast in the original languages. But despite these efforts, British audiences overwhelmingly preferred their television drama to be in (native) English, so Channel 4 would also become strongly identified with outstanding US-made drama series such as NYPD Blue, ER, The Sopranos, The West Wing, Six Feet Under, Lost and Desperate Housewives. One US import was even sourced from a Channel 4 production: the sci-fi series Max Headroom (1987-88) being expanded from a 20-minute pilot originally made in Britain in 1984.

The appointment of Farrukh Dhondy as the Commissioning Editor for Multicultural Programmes in 1984 led to a concerted effort to cater specifically for ethnic minorities. Though Dhondy's best-known successes were in the field of comedy, he also backed serious drama by Trix Worrell (Just Like Mohicans, 1985), Michael Abbensetts (Big George Is Dead, 1987) and Horace Ové (The Orchid House, 1991). Other minorities were belatedly catered for with Queer as Folk (1999-2000), Russell T. Davies' groundbreakingly (and controversially) frank series set in Manchester's gay community, followed many years later by its female equivalent, Julie Burchill's lesbian drama Sugar Rush (2005-06).

The Nation's Health spawned many similarly politicised successors. Perhaps the most fondly remembered was A Very British Coup (1988), which brilliantly tapped into widespread resentment at the ineffectiveness of the Labour party in standing up to Margaret Thatcher's Conservative administration by imagining a decidedly Old Labour government run by the charismatic Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally). The following year, Traffik offered a forensic analysis of the mechanisms of the international heroin trade, and was remade by Hollywood. Alan Bleasdale's hugely ambitious G.B.H. (1991) offered a rich stew of municipal corruption, and The Politician's Wife (1995) echoed public disgust at the antics of our elected representatives. Channel 4 wasn't the intended broadcaster of The Deal (2003), but took it over when ITV got cold feet at dramatising the early relationship between the then junior Labour MPs Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Even more contentious was the Canadian co-production Death of a President (2006), which imagined the aftermath of the assassination of US President George W. Bush.

Perhaps because of its remit to innovate, Channel 4 has featured surprisingly little work by major writers of the past, and they're often the subject of highly experimental treatments, as seen in Shelley's Zastrozzi: A Romance (1986) or Peter Greenaway and Tom Phillips' A TV Dante (1987). Shakespeare has barely featured in the schedules, aside from Laurence Olivier's swansong King Lear (1983) and occasional one-offs such as Janet Suzman's South African production of Othello (1988) and Tim Supple's multicultural take on Twelfth Night (2003). Samuel Beckett fared better in 2001, when Channel 4 were partners in the Beckett on Film project, offering filmed versions of the Irish dramatist's complete stage output. Important theatrical productions were adapted for television, including the Royal Shakespeare Company's nine-hour The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (1982), Dario Fo's Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1983) and Peter Brook's Indian epic The Mahabharata (1989). One of Britain's greatest television writers, Dennis Potter, found a home at Channel 4 towards the end of his life, with Lipstick On Your Collar (1993), Karaoke (1995) and Cold Lazarus (1996), the last two series produced posthumously in collaboration with the BBC after Channel 4 broadcast his unforgettable final interview (1994).

The new millennium saw the terrifying speculative drama Gas Attack (2001), a high-profile adaptation of Zadie Smith's White Teeth (2002), the unbearably vivid Sex Traffic (2004) and nursing drama series No Angels (2004-06), whose title was a conscious riposte to the BBC's Angels (1975-83). But perhaps the outstanding drama series of the period was Shameless (2004-), a coruscating look at the proudly self-proclaimed underclass that more than lived up to its title. If there's any such thing as a typical Channel 4 drama, Paul Abbott's series perhaps encapsulates it best: socially conscious yet gleefully anarchic, mindful of the channel's commitment both to innovate and to offer a voice to the marginalized, while still remaining true to old-fashioned virtues of solid scripts and outstanding performances.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Blood Red Roses (1986)

Blood Red Roses (1986)

Fictional biography of a working-class Scottish woman

Thumbnail image of Brookside (1982-2003)

Brookside (1982-2003)

Early Channel 4 hit that changed the face of British TV soap

Thumbnail image of Camomile Lawn, The (1992)

Camomile Lawn, The (1992)

Controversial WWII drama series adapted from Mary Wesley's novel

Thumbnail image of Deal, The (2003)

Deal, The (2003)

Controversial drama about the Tony Blair-Gordon Brown leadership pact

Thumbnail image of Far Pavilions, The (1984)

Far Pavilions, The (1984)

Lavish drama series set in India during the British Raj

Thumbnail image of G.B.H. (1991)

G.B.H. (1991)

Alan Bleasdale's ambitious satire about corrupt Northern politics

Thumbnail image of Gas Attack (2001)

Gas Attack (2001)

Harrowing drama imagining a biological attack on Glasgow refugees

Thumbnail image of King Lear (1983)

King Lear (1983)

Laurence Olivier's farewell to screen Shakespeare

Thumbnail image of Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)

Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, The (1982)

Televisation of the RSC's acclaimed Dickens production

Thumbnail image of Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)

Lipstick On Your Collar (1993)

Dennis Potter's third and final 'serial with music', set during the Suez crisis

Thumbnail image of Mapp and Lucia (1985-86)

Mapp and Lucia (1985-86)

Sprightly adaptations of E.F. Benson's tales of feuding in a 1930s village

Thumbnail image of Meantime (1983)

Meantime (1983)

Memorably bleak Mike Leigh film about feuding East London families

Thumbnail image of Nation's Health, The (1983)

Nation's Health, The (1983)

Uncomfortably realistic depiction of the British medical profession

Thumbnail image of North Square (2000)

North Square (2000)

Compellingly cynical drama about the sharp end of the legal profession

Thumbnail image of One Summer (1983)

One Summer (1983)

Drama about two teenagers who run away from Liverpool to Wales

Thumbnail image of Orchid House, The (1991)

Orchid House, The (1991)

Lavish colonial family drama set in the 1930s' Caribbean

Thumbnail image of P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982)

P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang (1982)

Jack Rosenthal's engaging tale of a cricket-obsessed schoolboy's first love

Thumbnail image of Politician's Wife, The (1995)

Politician's Wife, The (1995)

Juliet Stevenson proves that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned

Thumbnail image of Porterhouse Blue (1987)

Porterhouse Blue (1987)

Riotous adaptation of Tom Sharpe's satirical novel about Oxbridge life

Thumbnail image of Those Glory Glory Days (1983)

Those Glory Glory Days (1983)

Nostalgic story of a young girl's obsession with Tottenham Hotspur FC

Thumbnail image of Very British Coup, A (1988)

Very British Coup, A (1988)

A radical Labour government provokes the wrath of the Establishment

Thumbnail image of Walter (1982)

Walter (1982)

Ian McKellen stars in a moving drama about a mentally disabled man.

Thumbnail image of When Love Dies (1990)

When Love Dies (1990)

Poignant drama about a disastrous marriage

Thumbnail image of Woman of Substance, A (1984)

Woman of Substance, A (1984)

Glossy TV blockbuster about a woman's rise to business success

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