On Tuesday, 2 November 1982, a new channel was launched on British Television. The mandate of Channel 4 was to present adventurous and challenging programming. The opening night set the tone with the first "Film on Four" feature Walter, directed by Stephen Frears (The Hit, My Beautiful Laundrette) and starring Ian McKellen as Walter, a mentally handicapped man. It was an auspicious, though controversial, debut portending the future success of Channel 4, which remains a strong force supporting independent film and television worldwide.
"Walter, a harrowing drama in which Ian McKellen portrayed a mentally handicapped adult, provoked about 50 calls to the new station, a large number for even the most controversial programme. Channel 4 insisted that about 30 percent of these were praising the programme. The Independent Broadcasting Authority, however, also reported more than a dozen calls — all of them complaining about the film.
"But Walter met almost universal praise from the critics." — Sue Summers
Ian McKellen was named Royal Television Society Performer of the Year for his portrayal of the gentle, mentally-handicapped Walter.
Walter's success for Channel 4 continued with the sequel Walter and June, which aired in May 1983. The two films are also sometimes shown combined under the title Loving Walter.
A shocking first night on Channel 4
"Channel 4 is taking the extraordinary step of launching itself with one of the most shocking films about mental illness ever shown on British TV.
"Walter, which occupies the key slot in next Tuesday's opening night schedule, features scenes of homosexual molestation in a mental hospital, patients covered in excrement, and a suicide in a barber's shop.
"Starring Ian McKellen in the title role it is well acted, superbly filmed — and extremely harrowing. It is bound to cause controversy on the channel's opening night.
"The story, adapted by David Cook from his own Hawthornden Prize-winning novel, follows what happens to Walter when first his father and then his mother die.
"Finding his mother dead in bed, and unable to comprehend what has happened, Walter moves his pigeons into her bedroom, keeping a vigil while her body becomes progressively covered in bird droppings.
"Later, on his first night in a mental hospital, he is sexually molested by a paraplegic dwarf.
"Next morning he is ordered to help to clean up incontinent wardmates.
"In these scenes nothing is left to the imagination" — Geoffrey Phillips and Sue Summers