Channel 4 is celebrating four decades of being on the air today. The broadcaster was given a strongly-worded remit in 1982 to ‘shake up television’ by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – although the former UK leader might not quite have envisaged just how controversial some of the viewing has subsequently been.
From purloining The Great British Bake Off – albeit without star turn Mary Berry – in 2017 from the BBC to broadcasting a live autopsy with Germany’s Dr Death in 2002 and, as recent as last month, exploring the difficulties men with extra large penises (My Massive C***) have in daily life, the broadcaster has spent 40 years sailing very close to the wind in a bid to create ground-breaking, innovative TV.
There have been huge successes, Countdown was the first show to be aired and remains a shining jewel in Channel 4’s crown, and few could have predicted that social experiment TV show Big Brother, first aired in 2000, would launch dozens of reality TV careers and become a global success.
Liverpool-set soap Brookside aired the UK’s first lesbian kiss in 1994, and Russell T Davies’ Queer as Folk (1999) and It’s a Sin (2021) were both credited with positive depictions of LGBTQ+ culture.
Many a household name enjoyed their breaks on the station, from Graham Norton, who got his own TV chat show after winning fans in Father Ted – before moving to the BBC, and Radio 2 DJ Sara Cox, who appeared on The Girlie Show in the 90s. Carol Vorderman this week paid her own tribute, showcasing her many appearances on Countdown.
Here, FEMAIL looks at some of the most controversial Channel 4 moments since the programme first launched:
1994: BROOKSIDE’S LESBIAN KISS
Beth Jordache, a teen traumatised by sexual abuse in Liverpool soap Brookside, was seen kissing Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson) in 1994 – the first time a lesbian kiss had been aired at primetime
The soap moment catapulted a then 17-year-old Anna Friel to bigger roles including across the pond in Hollywood. Pictured: Anna Friel in London in 2020
British actress Anna Friel, now 46, shot to fame aged just 17 as Beth Jordache in Liverpool soap Brookside, which featured her romance with Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson).
Aired in 1994, their kiss was the first same-sex storyline to appear on primetime UK television. The character of Beth had been sexually abused but writers of the show – and Anna Friel – were keen not to link the relationship with her previous trauma.
Friel said at the time: ‘I am proud we took on such controversial storylines and it was new and innovative. I am proud that we got it in the contract that Beth would always stay gay; it wasn’t because of her sexual abuse.’
In 2012, the clip featured in the opening ceremony of the London Olympics, highlighting the need to stop censorship around the globe.
1999: CHRIS EVANS WEIGHING VICTORIA BECKHAM ON TFI FRIDAY
TFI weigh-in: The extraordinary incident happened on Evans’s Channel 4 show TFI Friday in 1999, two months after the then Spice Girls singer had given birth to Brooklyn, her first child with n David Beckham
The star told Vogue Australia this year how Evans ‘made me stand on the scales to be weighed. Can you imagine doing that nowadays?’
With its mix of live music, celebrity guests and Chris Evans as host, TFI Friday was must-watch appointment viewing for most in its Nineties heyday.
But in the modern era some of the content on the hit Channel Four show has been cast in a different light – and is difficult to square with contemporary attitudes.
Earlier this year Evans – 56 – was slammed by Victoria Beckham for asking her to weigh herself on live television shortly after giving birth. It happened in 1999 and was just two months after she had delivered her son Brooklyn.
Evans had asked her how she had got back into her usual shape so quickly after the birth. When she responded she was back to her normal weight he asked if he could check and got her to step on some scales.
Victoria told a forthcoming edition of Vogue Australia: ‘He made me stand on the scales to be weighed.
‘Can you imagine doing that nowadays?’
2002: LIVE AUTOPSY WITH GERMANY’S DOCTOR OF DEATH
Self-styled ‘Dr Death’ Gunther von Hagens, from Germany, hit the headlines in the early noughties with his BodyWorlds exhibition, which saw exhibits of deceased humans stripped back to flesh and bones and preserved via plastination.
The controversial anatomist sparked hundreds of complaints when he conducted a live post mortem on Channel 4 in 2002. However, there was also plenty of macabre interest in the programme – at least 40 of those who contacted the broadcaster after the programme aired in November 2002 wanted it repeating.
Still alive, although terminally ill with Parkinson’s Disease, Professor von Hagens’ wife told the media in 2018 that her husband wants to have his body displayed in his exhibition after he dies.
She told the Observer at the time: ‘He said to me: “Angelina, you are entitled to freeze me down to -25C for one year, but after that time you really need to put your hands on me because otherwise I will get freeze burn”.
‘So I have one year for mourning and then I will have to do it.’
2003: DERREN BROWN PLAYS RUSSIAN ROULETTE WITH A GUN
Millions of TV viewers held their breath in 2003 as Derren Brown played Russian roulette with a loaded Smith and Wesson. Their concern for the flamboyant illusionist was later proven misplaced – it wasn’t even a real gun.
Channel 4 built up the hype by saying the stunt would have to take place abroad to avoid Britain’s strict gun laws. In fact, it was performed in Jersey, where the laws are just as strict. Police at the time said they were satisfied there ‘was no danger to anyone involved’ after detailed discussions with TV chiefs.
The show, which drew 3.3million viewers, was screened at 9pm from Grouville with a short time delay ‘in case anything went wrong’.
Brown chose five people from 12,500 applicants to take part in the event. After performing several mind-reading tricks on the five, he chose a young man called James to take part in the Russian roulette stunt.
James placed a single bullet in one of the six numbered chambers and put it on a table in front of Brown.
He was then told to call out the numbers in turn, from which Brown was apparently able to deduce which one held the bullet.
Brown pulled the trigger with the gun at his head on two occasions. He then fired at a sandbag in which a hole appeared as if hit by a bullet.
Channel 4 refused to be drawn on whether the gun used was a fake.
A spokesman said: ‘In making and broadcasting this programme, Channel 4 were very mindful of its responsibility to ensure the safety of all involved, and liaised with the Jersey police in advance of filming there to ensure that no offences were committed.
‘The event powerfully demonstrated Derren Brown’s abilities as a psychological illusionist.’
2004: DOCUMENTARY SHOWED EARLY ABORTION
My Foetus, a film, written, narrated, produced and directed by Julia Black – daughter of the founder of the Marie Stopes charity – featured 3D images of aborted foetuses (Stock image used)
A late-night documentary, My Foetus, aired in April 2004 and broke one of the last TV taboos, showing a woman who was four weeks’ pregnant having an abortion via a vacuum pump.
Footage in the film, written, narrated, produced and directed by Julia Black – daughter of the founder of the Marie Stopes charity – later also showed the aborted foetus using 3D ultrasound technology.
The programme attracted an unusually high audience – it was watched by 1.5 million people – for such a late night spot. There were also only eight complaints – three which came before the programme aired and Ofcom praised the programme for ‘treating a difficult subject responsibly and with appropriate sensitivity’, dismissing the complaints.
2007: BIG BROTHER SHILPA SHETTY RACE ROW
The fifth series of Celebrity Big Brother saw Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty racially abused by housemates including Jade Goody, sparking hundreds of complaints – the pair eventually made peace before Goody’s untimely death from cervical cancer in 2009
Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, 47, was already a huge star in her native India when she made her appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 – but few could have predicted just how explosive the series would become.
During one drink-fuelled night in the house, Shetty became the victim of racist abuse at the hands of Jade Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara. Ofcom received a then-record 44,500 complaints after Shetty was referred to as ‘Shilpa Poppadom,’ and was told by Lloyd that she should ‘f*** off home’.
Despite the vitriol she frequently endured, Shilpa – who was the first Indian on Celebrity Big Brother – became the nation’s underdog and went on to win the series.
Shilpa Shetty poses on the banks of the River Thames in London in July 2007
She went on the record forgiving Goody and her fellow housemates others, even appearing alongside Goody a year later on Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother, where Goody was diagnosed with advanced stage cervical cancer.
After Goody’s death in 2009, Shilpa wrote: ‘She put up a brave fight, lost her battle with cancer but won many a heart with her courage and how she dealt with it.
‘My heart sunk on hearing the news, but in hindsight was glad she wasn’t in pain anymore and passed away peacefully in her sleep.’
‘All I can say is she truly was a special person and even in her last moment all she could think of was securing her family’s future, she didn’t care how, but her goal was just that.
‘She died a hero’s death. My heartfelt condolences and hope her soul rests in peace at last.
2017: SNATCHING THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE OFF FROM THE BBC
Cooking up a controversy: In 2016, Channel 4 revealed it had bought the rights to air the much-loved baking show – but without key stars Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins and baking doyenne Mary Berry. Replacements including Sandi Toksvig, Prue Leith and Noel Fielding proved an instant hit though
At the time, Mary Berry signed off, saying: ‘What a privilege and honour it has been to be part of seven years of magic in a tent – The Great British Bake Off’
In 2016, it was confirmed, much to many fans’ horror, that the BBC hadn’t managed to secure another series of the much-loved baking show and it would have a new home on Channel 4 – but without key stars Mel Giedroyc, Sue Perkins and baking doyenne Mary Berry.
Love Productions revealed at the time that the show, which was regularly winning up to 13.4 million viewers, would resurface with a brand new line up – with the exception of judge Paul Hollywood, after broadcasting rights with the BBC broke down.
It’s understood Channel 4 paid £75 million for rights to the show and many feared it would falter…however, the broadcaster has made a huge success of the baking show.
2020: FIRST ERECT PENISES ON TELEVISION
Artist and photographer Ajamu featured in Channel 4 documentary Me and My Penis, which showed eight erects penises
The programme evoked complaints but a source defended the content, saying: ‘These aroused private parts are shown in an entirely artistic context, filming them doesn’t break any rules.
Channel 4 documentary Me and My Penis showed eight erect penises in 2020 as a group of men discussed how they felt about their manhood – and used the premise of ‘art’ to make it possible.
A source told the Metro ahead of the show airing: ‘This shatters one of the final no-go areas on terrestrial TV, because regulations forbid an erect penis being shown in a sexual context.
‘But as these aroused private parts are shown in an entirely artistic context, filming them doesn’t break any rules.
‘Channel 4 also clearly feel that in more open-minded times, there’s likely to be fewer complaints from viewers — particularly as the show airs at 10pm which is well after the watershed.’
Artist and photographer Ajamu, who featured heavily in the programme added: ‘Lots of countries actually celebrate the penis in terms of its fertility, its aliveness and energy.
‘But in this country the dick is still seen as pornographic and my work is there to reclaim the dick from that space.
‘I want the images in the film to normalise the penis; especially the erection. By keeping it taboo we give it too much power and don’t allow men to be vulnerable.’
2022: TRANS SINGER JORDAN GRAY STRIPS NUDE
Just last month, Channel 4 faced a furious backlash after a transgender comedian stripped completely naked on live television before playing a keyboard with her penis.
The move – now being labelled as ‘misogynistic’, ‘offensive’ and spurring complaints to Ofcom – was streamed live on the channel’s revival of Friday Night Live.
Singer Jordan Gray was concluding an expletive-filled song about her experiences as a trans woman when she performed the controversial stunt.
Among those to tweet their criticism was author Helen Joyce who branded the moment ‘a sex crime committed on camera. While idiots whoop and cheer.’
Another said: ‘Was so looking forward to watching Friday Night Live, a highlight as a teenager. Always a hit and miss show, but this is the first time I actually felt insulted by an act… as a woman. Vile and misogynistic song spat out at woman.’
More complaints came in as critics urged each other to report the event to Ofcom – the government approved TV regulator.
One user tweeted: ‘I would like to know how Ofcom will be dealing with this? This sort of misogynistic perversion should not be allowed on TV.’
Another tweeted a screenshot of them submitting an Ofcom complaint, captioned: ‘If anyone wants to do the same…’
The show included comedians who appeared in the original version of the show, such as Jo Brand and Harry Enfield, as well as new talent like Gray and Rosie Jones, and was hosted by Ben Elton.
The move – now being labelled as ‘misogynistic’, ‘offensive’ and spurring complaints to Ofcom – was streamed live on the channel’s revival of Friday Night Live in October
Before the performance, Gray, who was the first transgender singer on talent show The Voice in 2016, told her Twitter followers: ‘Tonight we make history.’
‘I haven’t had a Yorkie bar in five years,’ she said at the start of her set, in a refence to the chocolate brand’s former slogan ‘it’s not for girls’.
Gray took to the keyboard in a bright pink suit, telling the audience: ‘This is the coolest night of my life, you’re watching me experience the coolest night of my life.’
She opened the song with the lyric: ‘I look out in the faces in this room, and wish that I could crawl back in the womb.
‘And start again, against God’s plans, with different glands and smaller hands.’
The dark curly-haired comedian added: ‘I wish the world could finally understand: I’m more than just a female Russell Brand.’
Channel 4 has faced a furious backlash after a transgender comedian stripped completely naked on live television before playing a keyboard with her penis
She then launched into the comedic song referencing the Chuckle Brothers’ ‘to me to you’ skit before saying ‘now back to me – this song’s about me’.
The song moves into her own version of Do-Re-Mi and increasingly intense keyboard playing.
As the song draws to a close, she tells the audience: ‘You know the best thing about live TV? I can do stupid stuff like this!’
She then jumps up from the piano before counting down ‘one, two, three’ and ripping off her suit and exposing herself entirely.
After dancing around stage the naked comedian returns to the keyboard, shouting ‘see you Friday at the London Palladium b*****s’ and briefly plays a few keys with her penis.
She jumps on top of the piano seat to a huge applause from the audience before leaving the stage.
After the sketch, host Ben Elton quipped ‘now that is what I call a kn*b gag’.
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk