On 2 November 1982 at 4.44pm (see what they did there?), announcer Paul Coia said: “Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be able to say to you: welcome to Channel 4.” That multicoloured 4 logo had just appeared on our screens for the first time, soundtracked by a four-note musical ident, titled Fourscore. That’s a lot of fours.
In the ensuing four decades, the terrestrial broadcaster has aired pioneering drama, nurtured comedy talent, supported cutting-edge journalism and created no end of nifty factual formats. Reality! Dating! Food! Property! Post-pub filth! More dating, this time with gratuitous nudity!
To celebrate the station’s landmark anniversary, we’ve hand-picked its 40 best shows. Homegrown originals only, rather than imports or acquisitions – which rules out US comedies such as Friends, Frasier and Sex and the City, or dramas such as Lost, ER, Homeland and The Handmaid’s Tale, plus buy-ins like Taskmaster or Bake Off. Well, it’s only fair. Anyway, it’s a pleasure to be able to say to you: welcome to Channel 4’s best bits …
40. Countdown (1982-present)
One from the bottom of this ranking please, Carol. The very first show aired on the channel is still going strong. An afternoon staple beloved by pensioners, students and Twitter meme-makers alike.
39. GBH (1991)
Alan Bleasdale’s state-of-the-Labour-party saga, loosely based on the Derek Hatton case, pitted corrupt councillor Robert Lindsay against Michael Palin’s principled headteacher. Both were superb, as was the Elvis Costello soundtrack.
38. The Inbetweeners (2008-2010)
Bus wanker! Clunge! Ooh, fwend! The Rudge Park Comprehensive quartet were highly quotable and starred in two hit film spin-offs. We were spoilt for choice when it came to Channel 4’s sitcom slate, with (deep breath) Black Books, Nathan Barley, We Are Lady Parts, Friday Night Dinner, Chewing Gum, Stath Lets Flats, This Way Up and Drop the Dead Donkey narrowly missing the cut. The suburban sixth formers edge them out through sheer cultural ubiquity.
37. Grand Designs (1999-present)
Kevin McCloud’s home-building series has proved the most enduring of Channel 4’s 00s property stable, which included Property Ladder and Location, Location, Location. Watch with a blend of envy and schadenfreude as ambitious architectural projects miss deadlines and bust budgets, while Kev tries to look sympathetic in a hard hat.
36. The Autopsy (2002)
Channel 4 is no stranger to controversy. In fact, they’re intimately acquainted. Down the decades, it has brought us the transgressive Red Triangle strand, week-long heroin withdrawal series Going Cold Turkey, Drugs Live: The Ecstasy Trial, Naked Attraction, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and the mercifully short-lived Wank Week. That stir-causing canon also includes anatomist Gunther von Hagens performing Britain’s first public autopsy in 170 years before a live audience and TV cameras. The hat-clad professor was warned it was illegal but it aired anyway, drawing a record number of Ofcom complaints. Pass the scalpel. Actually, don’t.
35. Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out (1990-1991)
Vic and Bob’s surreal variety show made alternative cabaret cool again – comedy was indeed the new rock’n’roll – and proved hugely influential. That’s right, they just wouldn’t let it lie.
34. One Born Every Minute (2010-2018)
The fly-on-the-maternity-ward-wall favourite blazed a trail for the channel’s successful strand of intimate “fixed rig” docuseries. It was followed by 24 Hours in A&E, 24 Hours in Police Custody and 24 Hours From Tulsa. OK, maybe not the last one.
33. Alternative Christmas message (1993-present)
This tradition began in 1993 with self-styled queen Quentin Crisp scheduled against the actual monarch. Now it’s a festive fixture. Speech-makers since include Doreen and Neville Lawrence, Edward Snowden, Ali G, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Marge Simpson, Danny Dyer and a deepfake Elizabeth II.
32. Football Italia (1992-2002)
Channel 4 tends to leave sport to stations with deeper pockets. Two notable exceptions were the landmark 2005 Ashes and James Richardson’s weekly Serie A show, which introduced a generation to calcio, cultured punditry and cappuccinos at pavement cafes. Golazzo!
31. A Very British Coup (1988)
Alan Plater’s conspiracy thriller followed the rise of hard-left Labour leader Harry Perkins (Ray McAnally) to 10 Downing Street, only to find his policies thwarted by the establishment. It won four Baftas and an Emmy, and proved eerily prescient of Jeremy Corbyn.
30. Desmond’s (1989-1994)
Oh, Porkpie. The warm, gossipy sitcom, set in a Peckham barbershop and starring a mainly British-Guyanese cast, ran for 71 episodes – still a Channel 4 record. As creator Trix Worrell proudly pointed out, it was also the first time a black-owned business was seen on UK screens.
29. Educating Yorkshire (2013)
Taking the “fixed rig” technique and running with it, embedded cameras followed everyday events at Thornhill community academy in Dewsbury. Cue a compelling story as shy pupil Musharaf was coached to overcome his stammer by English teacher Mr Burton. Other series went to secondary schools in Essex, London, Cardiff and Salford.
28. Eurotrash (1993-2004)
Bonsoir, my British chums! In a pre-internet age, Antoine de Caunes and Jean-Paul Gaultier’s nudge-wink digest of continental oddness drew an audience of 3 million to late-night Fridays, hoping for gratuitous nudity and usually getting it.
27. Derren Brown: Mind Control (2000-2003)
The mentalist foxed us with his mix of “magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship”. Brown pivoted into one-off specials, with 2003’s Russian Roulette condemned by police and 2004’s Séance attracting hundreds of complaints.
26. National Treasure (2016)
The late Robbie Coltrane delivered a towering performance in Jack Thorne’s Yewtree-inspired drama about a beloved comedian accused of historic rapes. A hauntingly ambiguous treatise on sex, power and celebrity.
25. Come Dine With Me (2005-present)
“What a sad little life, Jane.” The unassuming dinner party contest has become a surprise success, exported to 42 countries worldwide. Show your appreciation by fitting a balloon whisk into your mouth.
24. The Adam and Joe Show (1996-2001)
Messrs Buxton and Cornish’s bedsit sketch show featured Toymovies, BaaadDad, Vinyl Justice and all manner of mischief. Unashamedly amateurish but full of charm and ingenuity, this was cult TV at its purest.
23. Utopia (2013-2014)
Where … is … Jessica Hyde? Dennis Kelly’s conspiracy thriller was beguilingly plotted and boldly shot, with squirm-inducing bursts of ultraviolence. Two words: eyeball, teaspoon.
22. Faking It (2000-2006)
Classical cellist turns house DJ? Posh gay man turns nightclub bouncer? Pitched as “a modern-day Pygmalion”, this transformational reality series was warm, intimate and brilliantly cast – rather like Gogglebox, which its creator, Stephen Lambert, went on to devise. It edges out stablemate Wife Swap, which became a tad too cartoonish and manipulative.
21. Smack the Pony (1999-2003)
Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips’ sketch show was endlessly inventive, deliriously funny and all too rare during a male-dominated era for TV comedy. Many of the same team went on to make the similarly giddy Green Wing.
20. Skins (2007-2013)
A decade before Sex Education or Euphoria, the grungy comedy-drama about Bristolian sixth formers pushed boundaries for TV portrayals of teens. It proved a career launchpad for the likes of Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult, Jack O’Connell and Daniel Kaluuya.
19. Spaced (1999-2001)
With its fast cuts, film homages and geek-friendly gags, the flatshare sitcom was ahead of its time. Edgar Wright, Jessica Hynes and Simon Pegg’s surreal creation left fans wanting more, lasting just 14 episodes.
18. The Word (1990-1995)
From the people behind trailblazing “yoof” shows Network 7 and Club X, The Word’s innovative mix of live music, weird reports and uncensored chat invented the genre of “post-pub TV”. Oliver Reed got drunk. L7 dropped their denims. “The Hopefuls” ate maggots and snogged grannies. No wonder it became the scourge of the tabloids.
17. Black Mirror (2011-present)
Charlie Brooker kicked off his dystopian sci-fi anthology with a story about the prime minister violating a pig. As if that would ever happen. The visionary dramas continue to attract A-list stars and boldly push boundaries. Like gangland saga Top Boy and Mae Martin’s Feel Good, it was snapped up by Netflix but Channel 4 deserves credit for having the courage to commission and nurture it.
16. Dispatches (1987-present)
The investigative documentary strand is Channel 4’s equivalent of the BBC’s Panorama, regularly breaking stories and winning Baftas. Headline-hitting standouts include BNP exposé Young, Nazi & Proud, medical deep-dive MMR: What They Didn’t Tell You and the policy-changing How Councils Blow Your Millions. Proper public service journalism.
15. Catastrophe (2015-2019)
Over four scabrously funny series, Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s shape-shifting creation evolved from filthy sex romp into a parenting satire, then a grief and addiction memoir. And finally came “that” ending.
14. Red Riding (2009)
Adapting David Peace’s knotty novels, set in Ripper-stalked 70s Yorkshire, was no simple task but this trilogy of feature-length dark dramas pulled it off. Visually arresting with an all-star cast, it’s the sort of ambitious project lesser broadcasters would blanch at.
13. The Big Breakfast (1992-2002)
For a day-glo decade, Channel 4’s morning show offered an anarchic alternative to staid cereal accompaniments elsewhere. It enjoyed two halcyon periods – its Chris ’n’ Gaby pomp, then its Johnny ’n’ Denise renaissance – energising the TV landscape like a double espresso.
12. Derry Girls (2018-2022)
Catch yourself on. Lisa McGee’s joyous teen comedy followed four Northern Irish schoolgirls (and one “wee English fella”) coming of age during the Troubles. It mixed the personal and political with aplomb. This spring’s triumphant finale – all A-list cameos, 90s nostalgia and poignant moments – sealed its status as one of the greats.
11. Brass Eye (1997-2001)
Cake is a made-up drug. Welcome to Paedogeddon. I’m talking Nonce Sense. Chris Morris’s scabrous current affairs satire only ran to seven episodes but it made a massive splash as it pitilessly mocked media hysteria and made rent-a-celebs look like mugs. Tabloids called it “sick”. Politicians went puce-faced. So iconoclastic, it almost became iconic itself.
10. Shameless (2004-2013)
Writer Paul Abbott deftly turned his own chaotic upbringing into comedy-drama gold with the rambunctious tale of the ne’er-do-well Gallagher clan on Manchester’s Chatsworth estate. Its bracingly authentic depiction of working-class life blazed a trail for the likes of Brassic and Derry Girls. Scatter!
9. Father Ted (1995-1998)
The sitcom about three exiled priests and their tea-crazed housekeeper reclaimed Irish jokes with surreal glee. Its enduring brilliance is illustrated by the throwaway lines – “I hear you’re a racist now”, “great bunch of lads”, “down with this sort of thing”, “careful now” – still widely quoted in topical discourse. That would be an ecumenical matter.
8. Queer As Folk (1999-2000)
Russell T Davies would later break our hearts with It’s A Sin, but he made his name with the latter’s spiritual relative – this addictive designer drama about three hedonistic men on Manchester’s Canal Street scene. Unapologetically explicit scenes of class A drugs and underage sex in the opening episode alone made Middle England clutch its pearls. Funny, inclusive and intoxicatingly stylish, it’s been remade in America not once but twice.
7. Channel 4 News (1982-present)
You know nothing, Jon Snow. Except how to make a vital news programme – apart from Countdown, the only survivor from Channel 4’s launch night. It’s still rivalled only by Newsnight and Radio 4’s Today in terms of the British broadcast media holding power to account.
6. Peep Show (2003-2015)
Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong’s mercilessly funny flatshare comedy was almost axed after its third series due to low ratings. Thankfully it lasted six more runs, becoming the definitive noughties sitcom. Innovative in form and painfully honest about the male psyche, it made stars of David Mitchell, Robert Webb and a certain Olivia Colman. The writing duo followed it with student-com Fresh Meat, before Armstrong went stratospheric with Succession.
5. Gogglebox (2013-present)
Who’d have guessed that watching other people watching telly would become a Friday night fixture? Not me, Nutty. The postmodern couch potato show is brilliantly cast and precision-edited. Hilarious, heartwarming and highly meme-able, there’s no better bellwether of the national mood.
4. This Is England (2010-2015)
Transplanting the skinhead gang from Shane Meadows’ film on to TV was a risky move but proved a stroke of genius. Across three series, tender and coruscating by turns, their stories painted a parallel social history of Britain, spanning from mid-80s mod revival to 90s rave culture.
3. Brookside (1982-2003)
Phil Redmond’s scouse soap made rivals look quaint by comparison. Covering serious social issues and creating indelible characters, it ventured into areas feared by cosier soaps: rape, incest, drugs, domestic abuse and TV’s first ever pre-watershed lesbian kiss – a snog so momentous it popped up at the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. That Merseyside cul-de-sac was a controversy hotspot, even before it started burying bodies under patios.
2. It’s a Sin (2021)
Russell T Davies’ devastatingly personal piece about the 80s Aids crisis was turned down by both the BBC and ITV. Only Channel 4 had the courage to greenlight it, a decision vindicated when It’s a Sin became its biggest ever drama launch and most-binged series. Full of heart and humour, it made millions of viewers weep and, most importantly, led to a surge in HIV testing. La!
1. Big Brother (2000-2018)
From Nasty Nick to Fight Night, from Kinga’s wine bottle to the Shilpa Shetty racism storm which sparked an international incident – the summer houseshare stalwart put reality TV at the heart of the national conversation. Can you imagine a Portuguese trans woman or a punk with Tourette’s winning Love Island? No, babes, you can’t. It might not be the most highbrow Channel 4 creation, despite early claims of being a “social experiment”, but it’s arguably the biggest and most influential. Now the era-defining, gamechanging original is coming back. Please do not swear.