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Life

The channel of our generation

This week sees the 30th anniversary of Channel 4. We celebrate the most influential screen moments...

We have a lot to thank Channel 4 for: Jon Snow’s ties, Friends (imagine life without it) and reality TV. But it was Countdown which launched the channel 30 years ago. Here, the long-serving co-host Carol Vorderman tells us why it’s such an important channel.

“I never really wanted to be on the telly. But I was working as an engineer in a frozen pea factory in Lancashire when my mum presented me with the newspaper advertisement for Countdown. The producers of a new station, Channel 4, were in a panic, the advert said. They couldn't find anyone to present the numbers section of their new game show and they desperately needed help. “You’d be good at this,” she said. “Don’t be ridiculous, Mum,” I replied. Little did I know that my mother had written a letter to Yorkshire Television and forged my signature; a few days later I was in the studio. With no screen test or preparation I was set to work on the numbers game. I got the answers within milliseconds (I hadn't realised you were given 30 seconds to work it out, so blurted them out immediately) and I was hired on the spot.

“I left in 2008 with the picture of Richard and I, which i stole from outside my dressing room, under my arm”

Six million people tuned in to watch our first show at 4.45pm on Tuesday 2 November, 1982. The channel would launch with Countdown and my co-presenter and great friend Richard Whiteley would be the first face live on air. I got something like £20 a show and had to take holiday time from my proper job to go into the studio for filming. But I was only 21. I didn't even know that the red light meant we were on air. All I can remember thinking is, ‘Well this is a bit of a laugh; something to tell my children when I’m older.’ We made television history that day, but our second episode was even more momentous. Overnight we lost 95% of our audience. That’s the biggest percentage drop of any show in history. “It’s normal!” We were told. The previous afternoon the whole country had tuned in to watch the launch of a historic channel, they weren't necessarily interested in an afternoon letters and number show. We went on to be one of the top five shows on Channel 4 for over 15 years. I always chuckle when I think of the big execs telling people that one of their most popular shows is a daytime letters and numbers game. Thirty years later, the show’s still going. When I left in 2008 (with the picture of Richard and I which I stole from outside my dressing room under my arm) I knew I was leaving a place with real creativity and diversity. Channel 4 has had a massive effect on the business of broadcasting and has revolutionised the way the industry and audiences view independent programming. Film4 is a personal highlight for me, as well as Channel 4 News and the station’s groundbreaking documentaries that have changed whole industries and even shaped our country. It is an extraordinary thing.”

Words: Lizzie Pook Illustration: Ben Challenor

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