Drugs Live and Channel 4’s most controversial moments

From the first pre-watershed lesbian kiss and the assassination of George W Bush to race rows and a TV autopsy - it's been an eventful 30 years for Channel 4

Tonight Channel 4 will broadcast Drugs Live: the Ecstasy Trial, described by C4’s commissioning editor as “a programme that only Channel 4 would be brave enough to transmit”.


The show is the latest in a long line of controversial broadcasts to be made by 4 that have over the years seen the channel celebrated as groundbreaking and innovative, but also accused of everything from pedalling pornography and slaying childhood to making light of disability and denying climate change.

And so, as we prepare to find out whether Drugs Live will be a serious contribution to the debate on recreational drug use or just a sensationalist publicity stunt, let’s look back a some of Channel 4’s most controversial moments in its 30 years on the air…

MiniPops (1983)

Despite attracting more than 2m viewers, this kids’ show – which showcased young children dressed as adults mimicking contemporary pop stars of the time – led to a wave of negative press and was cancelled after just one series.

The Daily Mail accused the show of being partially responsible for “slaying childhood”, while The Observer asked whether it was appropriate for a children’s programme to “thrust sexual awareness onto its wide-eyed performers”.

The Tube (1983)

During the station’s early days, Jools Holland made an unfortunate four-letter slip during a live pre-watershed trail for his music programme The Tube.  He described a band appearing on the show as “groovy f***ers,” which led to a six-week suspension for the pianist.

Red Triangle (1986)

In September 1986, the channel began broadcasting a series of late-night avant-garde films preceded by the Red Triangle warning, advising “Special Discretion Required”. The Red Triangle remained in the corner of the screen throughout the 18-rated movies to prevent unwitting viewers from being exposed to the adult themes of the films, which were mainly foreign in origin, and had never been shown on UK TV before.

The series, which initially attracted larger than expected viewing figures, was condemned by Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association as nothing short of “pornography” and similarly attacked by many national newspapers.  By January 1987, Channel 4 had discontinued the series.

The Word (1990-1995)

The Word was Channel 4’s pioneering “post-pub” show, in a late-night timeslot. With hosts including Terry Christian, Katie Puckrik and Dani Behr, the show was a magazine-style mix of interviews, music, games and, occasionally, controversy.

As well as outraging sensibilities with regular slots like The Hopefuls, in which people would do things like snogging old ladies because they’d “do anything to get on television”, one of the show’s most infamous moments occurred in 1992 and involved a guitarist from the grunge band L7 dropping her trousers during a performance and giving C4’s viewers a blast of unexpected frontal nudity.

The programme’s producer Charlie Parsons later said of The Word: “Channel 4, then a different place, supported and encouraged the controversial. [An executive] told us that if she went to a dinner party, and The Word wasn’t being attacked by the chattering classes, it wasn’t doing its job.”

Brookside’s lesbian kiss (1994)
Running for 21 years from 1982, Brookside was Channel 4’s first ever soap opera and a programme which regularly confronted audiences with hard-hitting and controversial subject matter. As well as storylines about drugs, murder and incest, the show made headlines in 1994 when it broadcast the first ever pre-watershed lesbian kiss between characters Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence. The episode featuring the kiss earned C4 a peak rating of 9m viewers and made a star of Anna Friel, who played Jordache.

While seen as hugely controversial at the time, the kiss has since been hailed as an iconic TV moment and was included in a video montage played at the opening of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

TFI Friday – Shaun Ryder (1996)

Happy Mondays frontman Shaun Ryder not only made headlines for his foul-mouthed appearances on TFI Friday in the mid ‘90s – he made it into Channel 4’s book of regulations too, and is the only named individual ever to be banned from appearing live on the station.

After he swore his way through an interview segment with Chris Evans earlier on in the show, the band he was fronting at the time, Black Grape, decided to jazz up an old Sex Pistols tune they were performing with some more joyously delivered expletives.

Brass Eye – Paedogeddon (2001)
Chris Morris’s 1997 satire had highlighted how susceptible the media was to ill-informed hysteria: now its 2001 special became the target of the mob, as “watchdogs”, columnists and MPs, many of whom hadn’t even seen the programme, alleged it was making light of paedophilia.

It did sail close to the wind but the meat of it was still celebrities mouthing off stupidly to camera, led by Neil Fox: “Paedophiles have more genes in common with crabs than they do with you and me,” said the deadly serious DJ. “Now that is scientific fact. There’s no real evidence for it — but it is scientific fact.”

TV Autopsy (2002)

In 2002, anatomist and showman Gunther von Hagens – the man in the hat, whose “plasticised” cadavers populated the Body Worlds exhibition – performed Britain’s first public autopsy for 170 years in front of an audience at a venue on East London’s Brick Lane. Dr Jeremy Metters, the Queen’s Inspector of Anatomy, insisted the event was illegal under the Anatomy Act but Channel 4 went ahead and showed it anyway, eliciting a then record 130 complaints to Ofcom.

Derren Brown: Russian Roulette (2003)

Award-winning illusionist Derren Brown has conducted a number of TV ‘experiments’ on Channel 4, but found himself in hot water over this stunt in 2003, in which the magician travelled to Jersey to play Russian Roulette. While the show was a tense watch, Brown was ultimately in no danger (Jersey police said at the time: “There was no live ammunition involved and at no time was anyone at risk”).

However, the show drew condemnation from senior British police officers fearful of the stunt inspiring copycats.  “I’m flabbergasted,” said Rick Naylor, the vice president of the Police Superintendents’ Association. “It sends entirely the wrong message. This is just a stunt. You’re going to get copycat kids doing this and we’re possibly going to end up with some tragedies.” Brown, though, was unrepentant and called the programme “a terrific piece of television.”

The Great Global Warming Swindle (2007)

Notorious “polemicist” Martin Durkin excelled himself with this film, which told climate-change skeptics just what they wanted to hear: that global warming caused by man was a myth, and that lucrative research grants were encouraging scientists to build a false consensus. More than one contributor complained they’d been misled and, within days, C4 was forced to withdraw some of the wackier claims, such as that volcanoes produce more CO2 than humans.

Death of a President (2006)

Pioneering “docufiction” on Channel 4 was this film, which dramatised the assassination of then-US President George W Bush and aired on More4. Ostensibly produced to explore the effects of the War on Terror in the States, the drama drew scathing criticism from the US, with a spokeswoman for the Republican Party of Texas condemning the show as “shocking” and “disturbing.” The White House insisted at the time that it would not comment on the drama “because it does not dignify a response.”

However, Peter Dale, the head of More4 called the film “an extraordinarily gripping and powerful piece of work… that looks back at the assassination of George Bush as the starting point for a very gripping detective story.”

Alternative Christmas Message (2006)

Channel 4’s alternative Christmas messages, broadcast annually opposite the Queen’s traditional Christmas Day address, are always headline-making broadcasts, but none more so than this one which went out in 2006.

Presented by a Muslim woman in a niqab, the Message was described prior to its broadcast by the Daily Mail as “a contentious alternative,” which the paper predicted would “reignite controversy over the wearing of the veil.”

Celebrity Big Brother racism row (2007)

Back in 2007 when the late reality star Jade Goody and Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty entered the Celebrity Big Brother house, few would have predicted the racism row that erupted. Scenes of allegedly racist behaviour – notably comments made by contestants Goody, Danielle Lloyd and Jo O’Meara about Bollywood star Shetty – prompted 44,500 comments to Ofcom, a public statement from then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and over 300 British newspaper articles by the end of the series. Ratings were boosted from 3.5m to 5.7m, but the controversy led to Channel 4’s suspension of the show during the 2008 season.

W*nk Week (2007)

Channel 4 had planned to devote a season of programming to the practice of masturbation during March 2007, which would have seen three luridly-titled documentaries on the subject broadcast over a week. The channel’s then head of factual entertainment Andrew McKenzie, speaking after the season was announced in 2006, said:  “we feel this is exactly the type of provocative and mischievous programming that Channel 4 should be covering in the 11pm slot.”

But other senior television figures disagreed, including the outgoing Chief Executive of ITV Charles Allen who joked that, while C4 would have liked to lump W*nk Week in with its educational output, “that could be a hard one to pull off even for Channel 4.” W*nk Week was eventually dropped in February 2007 following the Celebrity Big Brother race row for fears that it would cause the broadcaster more unnecessary embarrassment in light of that furore.

The Execution of Gary Glitter (2009)

Similar to its treatment of George W Bush’s fictional assassination was this mockumentary from Channel 4 about the hanging of disgraced pop star Gary Glitter for “offences against children.” Radio Times called it “a strange, often repellent film,” while Charlie Brooker said of the show: “That’s certainly made me think – it’s made me think, ‘I don’t know if I want a television any more.”

Frankie Boyle’s Tramadol Nights (2010)

Channel 4 stuck by controversy-courting comedian Frankie Boyle in 2010 after the Scottish misanthrope made a number of jokes about the glamour model Katie Price’s disabled son Harvey on his C4 show Tramadol Nights.

While Price and her ex-husband Peter Andre were said to have been “absolutely disgusted and sickened,” Channel 4 refused to apologise and said at the time that Boyle’s gags were “wholly justified in the context.”

The Taking of Prince Harry (2010) 

This one-off “what if” docu-drama imagined what would happen if Lieutenant Prince Harry of Wales was kidnapped while serving on the front line in Afghanistan. Based on the testimony of military experts and former hostages, it was seen by some as a how-to guide for the Taliban, described by one MOD official as “deeply distasteful” and viewed by the majority of critics as a deeply bad drama.

The Undateables (2012)


This was actually a rather sweet and tender documentary series about people with disabilities or disfigurements looking for love, but it came at the peak of Big Fat Gypsy controversy earlier this year and was heavily criticised for its provocative title, with Mencap concerned it could do “more harm than good”. One participant, Justin, disagreed: “Maybe it could have been a little kinder, a little more considerate. But this little controversial headline means people go to the website, write and talk about it. All those people slagging it off? You can bet your bottom dollar they’ll be watching it.”