November 2, 1982: Countdown ends - and begins - as Channel 4 comes to life

Britain's first new television channel for 18 years launched with a blend of cutting-edge comedy, gritty drama, controversial films and cosy daytime quizzes that would become Channel 4's hallmark.

Britain’s fourth television channel hit the airwaves on this day in 1982.

A fourth television service had been envisioned for Britain ever since ITV launched in 1955 – but it wasn’t until the Broadcasting Act of 1980, and the ensuing Act of Parliament in 1982, that the Channel 4, UK’s second commercial TV station, was formally created.

Channel 4 burst onto the airwaves at 4.40pm on Tuesday November 2, 1982 – 24 hours after its Welsh-language counterpart S4C – with its now-iconic number 4 symbol created from flying blocks and four-note musical ident. "Good afternoon,” said continuity announcer Paul Coia. “It's a pleasure to be able to say to you: welcome to Channel Four.”

[April 20, 1964: Power cut pulls the plug on BBC2’s big launch night]

There then followed clips of forthcoming shows – including costume dramas and wildlife programmes – before Channel 4’s first programme, Countdown, was broadcast.

Countdown was the first programme ever to be screened on Channel 4.

Host Richard Whiteley introduced the show as “a quiz game that all of you can play at home. If you’re good with figures – or figure you’re good with letters – then we think this could be the game for you”. Carol Vorderman made her debut as the show’s maths whizz – and the programme concluded with its first-ever nine-letter conundrum: the word ‘highlight’.

[November 15, 1969: Television embraces a brighter future as as BBC One goes colour]

Other shows broadcast on Channel 4’s first evening included The Body Show, The Paul Hogan Show and a number of British broadcasting firsts: the first Film On Four (Walter (below), starring Ian McKellen and directed by Stephen Frears), the first outing for alternative comedy ensemble The Comic Strip Presents… and the very first episode of soap opera Brookside, which would run for 21 years. The first advertisement broadcast on the channel was for Vauxhall cars. 

Ian McKellen (right) starred in Stephen Frears' controversial film Walter.

The first edition of Channel 4 News aired at 7pm, and was presented by Peter Sissons, who broke with the formal convention of the times by sitting without a desk and armed with a folder of notes. Its top stories were Margaret Thatcher’s plans for her biggest-ever public spending squeeze, America’s United Nations vote against Britain over the Falklands and Arthur Scargill’s allegations about pit closures putting the Coal Board on the defensive.

Trevor McDonald, Peter Sissons, Pamela Armstrong (second right) and their new colleagues prepare for the launch of Channel 4.

The station came to a close at 11.50pm with a look-ahead to the following day’s programmes – which would begin at 4.45pm with - you guessed it - Countdown.

[January 17, 1983: Britain wakes up to Breakfast TV as BBC launches Breakfast Time]

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