This post may not mean much to readers outside the UK but it was a huge deal when Channel 4 – the fourth British terrestrial TV station – launched 40 years ago this week on 2 November 1982.
Excitingly, movingtheriver’s dad had got a gig at the burgeoning channel and we moved back to London in May 1982 after a few years away to prepare for lift-off. The celeb idents started in late summer with advice on how to tune your TV, and suddenly at 4:45pm on 2 November the station was on the air with an edition of ‘Countdown’.
It felt very post-punk in its early days, consistently challenging racism, sexism and homophobia (you might even say it ‘politicised’ a generation – maybe an exaggeration, but I’ve never met a fan of ‘The Comic Strip Presents’ who was also a racist…), giving minorities a voice and bringing mostly excellent British films courtesy of Film (on) Four, brilliant homegrown alternative comedy, US imports and live music into the mix.
Channel 4 also got a reputation early on for lots of swearing and ‘naughty’ foreign films – red rag to a bull for my generation. And, despite the Tories’ current assault on the station, it seems to be going strong – at least ‘Channel 4 News’ and ‘Countdown’ are.
Here’s a personal selection of memorable shows/films from the first eight years of Channel 4, in no particular order. They did the 1980s proud.
If quality TV was your thing, you were quids-in on Friday nights back in the late 1980s. Channel 4 was supplying the goods: first there was ‘The Tube’, then, later on, it was ‘Cheers’. Happy days.
The Boston-set sitcom, created by director James Burrows and writer/producers Glen and Les Charles, ran between September 1982 and May 1993.
The evocative credit sequence, featuring Gary Portnoy’s theme song (check out some scrapped early versions here) and Russell Lee’s 1937 ‘Saturday Night In A Saloon’ photo, promised a lot, and ‘Cheers’ certainly didn’t disappoint.
Ted Danson’s ex-Red Sox pitcher Sam Malone was a superb performance against type (he won a Golden Globe in 1990). Apparently he had never tended a bar nor been to a baseball match in his life when he got the role. He brilliantly dialled down the IQ (in Jack Nicholson style) and dialled up the womanising and alcoholism. He was a great physical comedian too.
Shelley Long – playing Diane Chambers – was a marvellous comedienne, reminding many of Lucille Ball. Diane was the polar opposite of Sam, a feminist, fan of psychoanalysis, poetry and literature. There was great chemistry between Danson and Long, and their union reminded the show’s creators of Spencer Tracy’s work with Katherine Hepburn. Shelley won a 1983 Emmy for her terrific performance.
Rhea Perlman turned in a great performance as Carla (winning an Emmy in 1984) – she was also apparently pretty much the opposite of her character. Nicholas Colasanto beautifully portrayed the dim-witted Coach – he was a journeyman actor who had played a particularly memorable turn in ‘The Streets Of San Francisco’.
Later, Woody Harrelson who came in as Woody, kind of a Coach surrogate. It was a clever writing device too – in explaining things to Coach/Woody, you were also explaining things to the audience (apparently ‘Grizzly Man’ environmentalist Timothy Treadwell came very close to snagging the role of Woody).
‘Cheers’ also originated some much-imitated sitcom ‘rules’: any touchy-feely or dark stuff is fine but must be followed by a zinger or one-liner. Another edict of the first few seasons was that each episode had to end with Sam and Diane. Also the ‘cold start’, usually featuring Norm, became a sitcom trope.
True, after season five, ‘Cheers’ was increasingly hit-and-miss (though only then really began getting large TV audiences, the last season garnering an astonishing 80 million viewers), arguably with far too much attention paid to the minor characters (The Guardian newspaper had a good pop at Frasier here) but Kirstie Alley proved to be a gifted comedienne who won an Emmy award in 1991 (and she’s also one of the best screen drunks ever).
Other treats? Craig Safan’s cool, Katy Lied-era Steely Dan-style incidental music, with clarinet or alto sax, piano, drums, bass (some of the later excerpts were composed by an uncredited John Beasley, keyboardist for the jazz/rock stars and leader of the acclaimed MONK’estra).
Then there were the classic cameos: Emma Thompson, John Cleese, PJ Soles, John Kerry, and a host of ‘Hey it’s that guy/lady!’ actors of the early 1980s, many also often seen American movies of the time.
Favourite episodes? All of the five season-closers featuring Sam and Diane, plus ‘The Executive’s Executioner’, when Norm is reluctantly transformed into a hatchet man by his accountancy firm; ‘Look Before You Sleep’, when Sam gets locked out of the bar and his apartment and has to visit each of his friends’ houses in an attempt to get a night’s sleep; ‘Fear Is My Co-Pilot’, where Diane’s madcap friend takes her and Sam up in his airplane.
Not sure about you, but the daily early-morning reruns of ‘Cheers’ (in the UK) have been a real boon to this writer over the last year. Cheers to ‘Cheers’…
The early 1980s was a pretty good period to start out as a musician.
If your ears were open and you had a half-decent hi-fi/radio, there were some truly inspirational players around and a host of different styles vying for your attention.
But the burgeoning muso couldn’t quickly get onto YouTube or download an app to learn a new skill or technique.
Music education also wasn’t exactly in a great place, if the drum lessons at my comprehensive school were anything to go by…
You could see great homegrown bands and big-name American sessioneers playing live on ‘The Tube’, fork out an extortionate sum for the dreaded instructional video, or go to a live clinic (I gave up pretty quickly on these after seeing a guy called Lloyd Ryan, who supposedly ‘taught’ Phil Collins how to drum, even though Phil’s name is spelt incorrectly on his website…).
So you generally had to make your own fun (cue the violins…); jam with friends, play live whenever you could, and grab whatever bits of technical info that were passed around.
‘Rockschool’ was a bold attempt by the Beeb to bring modern music education right into the home. First airing on 1st November 1983, it featured a studio band (Deirdre Cartwright on guitar, Henry Thomas on bass, Geoff Nicholls on drums) breaking down basic contemporary arrangements, styles and instrumentation.
A US version also started in 1985, featuring the UK band and hosted rather excellently by Herbie Hancock. And then season two, broadcast in late 1987, brought in keyboard player Alastair Gavin.
That was the series that really hooked my muso pals and I (and check out the brilliant, none-more-’80s intro music below).
But even back then we were dubious as to how proficient the studio band actually were. They certainly paled in comparison to the great US players of the decade.
But they were engaging, knowledgeable presenters and it was just a great way of seeing some musical heroes like Omar Hakim, Bootsy, Jan Hammer, Larry Graham, Andy Summers, Tony Banks and Allan Holdsworth demonstrating their craft.
Could you bring back ‘Rockschool’ now? It seems unlikely given the relatively solipsistic nature of ‘rock’ music education these days.
YouTube is chock-a-block with technically brilliant players, but the general musicianship of bands has probably never been worse. Here come those violins again…
Waking up very early in a stuffy Berlin hotel room a few years ago, I flicked on the TV and came across an amiable-looking guy doing some painting in an extremely quiet, small, uncluttered set, with just an easel and palette for company.
He talked through his technical processes almost in a whisper, with a pleasingly down-home manner and vocabulary.
He seemed a gentle, kind soul, not dissimilar to Fred Rogers. I was an immediate fan. This guy was obviously a superb painter, and a knowledgeable and engaging host to boot.
What have been your lockdown TV favourites? Alongside reruns of ‘Cheers’, ‘Columbo’ and 1980s snooker and football classics, you can put me down for Bob Ross’s ‘The Joy Of Painting’.
With America currently catching hell, the show feels like it’s beamed in from a completely different world. When Larry Owens’ Earl Klugh-meets-Dave-Valentin theme music kicks in, Bob o’clock is always Happy Time.
‘The Joy Of Painting’ ran between 1983 and 1994 on PBS, mostly out of Muncie, Indiana (shades of ‘The Hudsucker Proxy’!). It featured Bob doing a superb wet-on-wet painting in real time for just under 30 minutes, with seemingly little or no editing.
He made it look very easy, but what he didn’t tell you is: a) he’d done his 10,000 hours and then some, and b) to paint like this you’ve got to learn how to study nature. For hours.
But when’s a painting finished anyway? You may sometimes be shouting ‘Stop!’ at the screen, wondering if Bob has over-egged the pudding, but he never has, and the final result occasionally looks pleasingly like something Mati Klarwein (see right) might have concocted.
Just the sound of Bob’s voice can soothe the weariest of souls, and then there are those recurring phrases: ‘Happy little clouds/trees/bushes… Like so… Titanium white… Shoot… Look at that… No mistakes… Son-of-a-gun… Beat the hell out of it… God bless… Easy as that… Load the brush… Let’s have some fun… Just drop it in…‘
You could easily just podcast the audio – people probably already do.
But what about Bob? He spent his young life as a master sergeant in the US Air Force, based in Alaska. According to legend, after years of being a ‘mean’ guy getting people to do things they didn’t want to do, when he left the military he made a vow never to raise his voice again.
Many of his paintings are reportedly held by the Smithsonian Museum, and there are classes all over the world that can help you learn the Bob painting method. He died in 1995.
And it turns out that there’s been somewhat of a Bob cult building up recently. Teenagers are discovering ‘The Joy Of Painting’ and there was even a recent BBC radio programme about the mental-health benefits of watching the show.
Makes perfect sense to me. I’ll miss his happy little shows when the current season on BBC Four ends, but you can catch some of them on YouTube.
Bruce Willis as David Addison, Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes in ‘Moonlighting’
What music delivers a headrush of nostalgia, makes you feel everything’s for the best in this best of all possible worlds and we’re not all going to hell in a handbasket?
For me, it’s the short reprise of the ‘Moonlighting’ theme that used to play over the end credits, featuring Toots Thielemans’ (citation needed… Ed.) harmonica swooping gorgeously over swooning strings.
It shouldn’t be any surprise that Lee Holdridge’s title song (with lyrics added later by Al Jarreau) was reminiscent of an old standard in the Porter/ Gershwin mould. After all, the TV show, which ran in the States and on the BBC from 1985 to 1989, most assuredly harked back to the romantic comedies and private-eye noirs of the ’30s and ’40s.
Co-star Cybill Shepherd, upon reading the script for the pilot episode, apparently called it a ‘Hawksian comedy’ (as in ‘Bringing Up Baby’/’His Girl Friday’ director/writer Howard Hawks), an influence of which creator/co-writer Glenn Gordon Caron was fairly unaware. He had instead been focusing his energies on lampooning the in-vogue detective shows of the early ’80s, one of which (‘Remington Steele’) he’d helped usher into existence.
‘Moonlighting’ made a star out of Bruce Willis and reignited Cybill Shepherd’s career, though she was apparently an exceptionally reluctant contributor and not a huge fan of her male co-star.
For the part of David Addison, Willis apparently had to audition not once but 11 times, and even then almost lost the role until a lone female NBC executive said (in front of a cadre of other male execs): ‘He looks like a dangerous f*ck’!
I was hooked on ‘Moonlighting’ in the mid-’80s, helped no doubt by a teenage crush on Shepherd. I watched two eps again recently – the pilot, which seemed overlong and clunky, and the absolutely superb ‘A Womb With A View’, the big-budget Season 5 curtain-raiser first transmitted in December 1988.
Gleefully jumping the shark, it has everything – an exuberant, self-referential song-and-dance number (‘A chance for critics to scoff and sneer’!), a chubby Willis in a diaper playing Shepherd’s unborn child, and some startling, creative visuals.
It also brought home how the show always assumed the audience was smart, rather than most modern TV which assumes it’s dumb. And the production values were super high, even though the pressure was on – they had to make 22 x 50-minute episodes per season. That works out at around ten days per shoot…
But back to the music. I’m partial to the original version of the theme song with its cool rhythm guitars and JR Robinson drums, but not so keen on Al’s re-recording with producer Nile Rodgers which – rather incredibly – made the UK top 10.
And Willis of course enjoyed a brief solo music career (and made a weird HBO mockumentary) off the back of his David Addison persona, tapping into a kind of Billy/Brucie, New Jersey ‘everyman’ vibe.
What a treat to watch a special live edition of ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ on BBC Four the other night.
The excellent Bob Harris returned to present – but where was Annie Nightingale? We saw a bit of her in her ’80s presenting pomp, but sadly she wasn’t in the studio.
The special reminisced unashamedly about a time when the musicians ran the music biz, and also documented the fascinating history of music TV with an interesting mix of guests (Joan Armatrading, Toyah, Chris Difford, Ian Anderson, Dave Stewart, Danny Baker) and live performances (Kiki Dee, Gary Numan, Albert Lee, Peter Frampton, Richard Thompson). Not exactly a cutting-edge, youthful lineup, but the musicianship was at an exceptionally high level.
Alongside ‘The Tube’, ‘Whistle Test’ was THE music show to watch in the mid-’80s, aided by some very agreeable presenters such as Nightingale, Andy Kershaw, Richard Skinner, David Hepworth, Ro Newton and Mark Ellen.
The only real caveat was that – as Richard Williams pointed out during the special – the show possibly didn’t feature enough black artists. But it provided me with some formative musical memories – here are some bits from the ’80s incarnation that lodged in my brain (most unfortunately with dodgy sound/picture quality):
8. The Eurythmics: ‘Never Gonna Cry Again’ (1981)
Maybe a less than brilliant song but Annie’s vocals and stage presence are spellbinding. And I like the flute interlude. Also look out for an amusing cameo from Holger Czukay, who creeps onstage (to Annie’s annoyance?) like Banquo’s ghost.
7. Prefab Sprout: ‘When Love Breaks Down’ (1985)
One of the first things I saw on the show. A tender reading of a classic song.
6. Joni Mitchell Special (1985)
Fascinating mini feature about Joni’s painting, ostensibly to promote her album Dog Eat Dog.
5. It Bites: ‘Calling All The Heroes’ (1986)
One that has only come to light recently, but I would have been blown away by it had I seen it at the time. A special mention for man-of-the-match John Beck on keys.
4. Propaganda: ‘The Murder Of Love’ (1985)
The ex-Simple Minds rhythm section (Derek Forbes and Brian McGee) are cooking on this ZTT classic, as is Bowie/Iggy/Prefab guitarist Kevin Armstrong. Sadly, the clip has been removed from YouTube…
3. PiL: Home/Round (1986)
Chiefly remembered for a great two-guitar frontline (John McGeoch and Lu Edmonds) but I was also fascinated by John Lydon’s red headphones and suit.
2. Peter Gabriel So Special (1986)
One of the more illuminating interviews about So plus an interesting solo version of ‘Red Rain’.
1. King Crimson: ‘Indiscipline’ (1981)
Another corker that’s come to light recently, unfortunately shorn of its witty Annie Nightingale intro here. Pity poor Adrian Belew – Fripp’s gaze hardly moves from him throughout.
Alan Clarke’s films generally go straight into the ‘once seen, never forgotten’ file.
Features such as ‘Scum’ and ‘Rita, Sue And Bob Too’ courted huge controversy while his groundbreaking TV work including ‘The Firm’, ‘Psy Warriors’, ‘Elephant’, ‘Road’ and ‘Made In Britain’ shone a light on the darker corners of the Thatcher years to devastating effect.
Those films and many others adorn the superb new BFI box set ‘Disruption’ which gathers all his television work made between 1978 and 1989 – including David Bowie’s remarkable turn as Baal, Bertolt Brecht’s anti-hero, adapted by Clarke and John Willett from the 1918 play. Though it wasn’t exactly a frequently-performed work, British theatre audiences were treated to a Peter O’Toole star turn during the early 1960s, just after the actor’s Oscar-winning appearance in ‘Lawrence Of Arabia’.
For some reason, ‘Baal’ was scarcely mentioned in Bowie obituaries as one of his more successful screen performances, a serious oversight. Bravely broadcast by BBC One at 9:25pm on Sunday 2nd March 1982 (cosy Sunday night viewing it wasn’t), it was filmed at Television Centre (W12 8QT!) during the summer of 1981, just after Bowie had recorded ‘Under Pressure’ with Queen.
According to producer Louis Marks, Bowie jumped at the chance to portray the ultimate street punk, and was already a fan of Clarke’s work. He was also reportedly completely undemanding, modest and eager to please on set, requesting only a car and bodyguard and receiving the standard BBC fee.
Bowie could also hardly look less ‘star-like’ in ‘Baal’, with his battered teeth, dark eyes, ratty beard, grimy face and dishevelled clothes; he completely embodies the role of the amoral troubadour. Clarke captures him mostly in long shot with very lengthy takes in the classic alienating Expressionist style, but the camera positively adores Bowie’s Baal with his alligator grin, dangerous sexuality and moments of sudden violence.
He also delivers several plainsong ballads straight to camera in strident, superb voice, accompanying himself on banjo. The subsequent Baal EP, re-recorded at Hansa Studios with added instrumentation, even got to number 29 in the UK singles chart, Bowie’s last release for RCA.
‘Baal’ makes for fascinating viewing these days and you only wish the Beeb would take such chances again. Critics of the time were pretty scathing about Bowie’s performance but their comments make for fairly amusing reading these days.
It’s scarcely believable to think that only a year after ‘Baal’ was broadcast, Bowie was rocking the zoot suit and peroxide blond quiff for the Let’s Dance media offensive. It’s also virtually impossible to think of another star of such magnitude who would dare take on such a bleak, singular project. A true artist.
Further reading: ‘Alan Clarke’ edited by Richard Kelly