1974 – 1983

By Ian Jones, Steve Williams and TJ Worthington

First published April 2004

1974 – The Pallisers

Conceived as a blatant attempt to repeat the accomplishments of 1967′s The Forsyte Saga, The Pallisers lumbered onto screens in the worst possible circumstances. The country was in the middle of an energy crisis prompted by rising oil prices and strike action by train drivers, power engineers and miners. The Government had ordered a three-day week, petrol ration coupons and, most dramatic of all, a ban on any broadcasting beyond 10.30pm. Schedules had been cut to pieces, with BBC2 being so badly hit that some nights the channel only opened for three hours before closing again. The Pallisers, adapted from the titular sprawling Victorian epic by Anthony Trollope, had been slated to run every Wednesday night from January to July. It appeared on cue, but to muted acclaim and virtually no publicity – an 84-page full colour special tie-in edition of Radio Times, advertised as being available from early January, rather sheepishly only made it into newsagents a month and a half later. Filming of the final episodes was then disrupted by more industrial action, this time inside the BBC, meaning that transmission had to be put on hold. The whole enterprise eventually reached its conclusion in November. It had hardly been worth the effort. The Pallisers turned out to be everything The Forsyte Saga was not: ill-distinct, rambling, pedestrian and at times impenetrable. Clive James summed up critical reaction when he concluded, “The acting takes place in the range from minor league to outright inadequate, and the direction only occasionally rises to the uninspired.” It was to be the last time BBC2 attempted a 26-part historical drama.

1975 – Arena

Concocted by Alan Yentob as an answer to BBC1′s Omnibus, on which he’d just served several years as Producer, Arena restored a dose of regular arts coverage to BBC2 not seen since Late Night Line-Up had ended three years earlier. Launched as a spoiler in October 1975 the same time as a new series of LWT’s Aquarius, Arena‘s first incarnation was very similar to its ITV rival: more a magazine show than documentary strand, with each week’s edition clumsily subtitled Theatre, Art and Design, Television, Cinema and so on. These would rotate in strict sequence, and came complete with a resident anchorman, such as Kenneth Tynan or George Melly. But this did not work as well as Yentob expected (Clive James again: “Tynan read the autocue as if it contained a threatening letter from somebody else instead of a script written by himself”), and the format was soon overhauled to end up with the formula familiar today: stand-alone films on single topics, sometimes with an in-vision presenter, on most occasions letting the subject speak for itself. Arena turned out to be a remarkably durable success for BBC2, with a reputation for accessible, informed, occasionally pompous but never boring takes on all aspects of popular culture. A high watermark came in the early 1980s, with films on My Way (1979), the Chelsea Hotel (1981) and the Ford Cortina (1982) plus a string of special one-offs that saw the programme take over the entire BBC2 schedule for a night. More recent efforts on Peter Sellars, Eric Sykes, song contests and Alec Guinness have confirmed the series remains on top form. Indeed, continuity and consistency have been aided by the fact the programme’s only had three editors during its entire lifetime: Yentob, Nigel Finch and Anthony Wall. Arena still forms the backbone of BBC2′s arts output, albeit in a more irregular fashion than during the ’70s and ’80s, and its arrival is still heralded by that distinctive Brian Eno-scored floating neon bottle – easily the most enchanting and evocative title sequence ever seen on the channel.

1976 – One Man and his Dog

While enjoying a holiday from Television Centre, BBC producer Philip Gilbert decided to spend a day attending a rain-lashed agricultural show in Northumberland. Chancing upon the sight of an authentic sheepdog trial, he was surprised by how he ended up genuinely entertained – and gripped – by the careful rituals of the handlers and their faithful Border Collies. Suitably inspired, back in London Gilbert sketched out the format for what became One Man and His Dog: seven 35-minute programmes featuring a series of trials deliberately staged in some of the most beautiful landscapes of the country. Transmission began in 1976 with presenting duties handled by gruff countryman Phil Drabble and learned expert Eric Halsall, and placed in the traditionally healthy slot of early Sunday evenings the show flourished. The upshot was a specialist pastime finding greater popularity on the small screen, but also the build-up, over time, of a hardcore legion of armchair shepherds. Audiences stayed loyal as long as they perceived that the programme was also staying loyal to its subject matter. Indeed, millions tuned in throughout the 1980s, and the team of hosts mutated through a line-up that included Ray Ollerenshaw, 12-year Chairman of the International Sheep Dog Society, and Gus Dermody. Drabble relinquished his role after a marathon 18 years, giving way to latterday anti-licence fee campaigner Robin Page. Around the same time, however, feelings were brewing within the Beeb that the show had run its course. Schedule changes followed, and finally Mark Thompson, in one of his last acts as BBC2 Controller, announced the axe was to fall. When the news became public in February 1999, hysterical outrage ensued, encouraged by the ever-reliable wheeze of questions being asked in Parliament. “We feel it is time to take a new look at how we approach country matters,” claimed a BBC spokesperson. “The programme will therefore not return in its current form.” Or any form, as it turned out, save annual celebrity specials. The hyperbole was so great that for a while Sky One was ostensibly considering launching its own version, titled, inevitably, “Sky One Man and His Dog”. Dermody fumed: “I have had complaints from farmers who have said they could not watch it on a Saturday afternoon because they are working,” perhaps somewhat overlooking the ubiquity of the everyday video recorder. Though still off-air, a revival surely can’t be far away.

1977 – The Old Grey Whistle Test

Late Night Line-Up‘s coverage of progressive rock outfits alongside the expected jazz and classical ensembles had proved so popular that a spin-off appeared in 1968: Colour Me Pop, giving bands such as Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and The Small Faces the chance to play full live sets. This was followed in 1970 by Disco 2, similar in approach but this time based around a magazine format, featuring reports on and performances by several bands; then, finally The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971. Its peculiar title originating from music hall superstition that hearing a greying old doorman whistling your song was a guarantee of a hit, the new show was essentially a compilation of performances by several bands with the odd feature thrown in for good measure. Most of the artists performed live in the studio, but some overseas-based or otherwise unavailable acts were represented either by promotional films or collections of archive clips compiled by Philip Jenkinson, which for some reason tended to feature a disturbingly high concentration of animated mice driving cars. In 1976 something happened that could easily have put paid to the programme’s credibility for good: punk rock. Instead, the show moved with the times admirably, recognising that it was the perfect vehicle for the energetic, undisciplined live performances of the likes of The Ramones, XTC, John Cooper Clarke and The Damned. It later embraced reggae, ska, post-punk and early indie, and continued to present the same unexpected combinations of acts (one early 1980s show saw Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark appear alongside ZZ Top) right through to 1986, by which time its name had been truncated to Whistle Test. The show encompassed many styles that often seemed diametrically opposed, but from a historical perspective stands as a great collection of non-mainstream sounds from an unfairly neglected decade or so in music. As if to underline this, the programme’s longstanding theme tune – the harmonica-driven blues Stone Fox Chase by Area Code 615 – seemed to fit perfectly alongside whatever music it chose to champion.

1978 – The World Snooker Championships

One of Channel 4′s early triumphs was making a success of American Football in the UK. However, BBC2 also has an impressive track record of making the most of previously unheralded sports. Indeed, for a period during the 1980s, snooker’s viewing figures were rivalling those of football and boxing as the top televised sport; much of it thanks to BBC2′s groundwork. Pot Black began on the channel in 1969, partly as a chance to show off colour television. Based in a TV studio, the series was a success, and thought then went into televising some of the main tournaments. This took some time to achieve, partly due to problems in lighting the arenas: directors wanted to see more of the players, but the extra lights reflected off the balls and caused dazzle. Hence coverage normally involved a few minutes of highlights filling awkward gaps on Grandstand. By 1977, though, a new lighting system had been devised, allowing the players to be seen clearly without problems, and the following year, Aubrey Singer agreed to cover the World Championships all the way through, with an hour of highlights every day for 16 days. After this proved popular, coverage was extended to include live matches, more tournaments were televised, and the sport remains a BBC2 schedule staple to this day. It was also thanks to the success of snooker that other indoor sports such as bowls and darts would later get a foothold on the channel.

1979 – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

It took the combined efforts of BBC drama chieftains Graeme McDonald and Jonathan Powell to coax Alec Guinness out of semi-retirement to take lead in a full-blown TV serial. It then required a generous amount of tenacity and patience on behalf of Director John Irvin to convince both Guinness and his equally imposing supporting cast of the merits of filming through one of the coldest winters on record. The end result could have been all over the place: scriptwriter Arthur Hopcraft had constructed long static scenes of two-handed dialogues within bleak hotel rooms and dingy offices, alternating with rambling sequences of characters walking very slowly around Hampstead Heath. The plot, meanwhile, was only fractionally more coherent and concise than that of the original John Le Carre novel, and the minutiae of the subject matter just as opaque and obscure (chock full of references to “juju men”, “lamplighters” and “scalphunters”). Yet when Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy arrived on screen, it proved to be a masterpiece of controlled tension and character study. On the one hand there was a startling depiction of hitherto unseen layer of society, an ageing, upper class ensemble of crusty spies and traitors conducting the Cold War from within linoleum-lined corridors and shabby coats. On the other, a poignant portrayal of one man’s inability to withdraw from his old life and come to terms with changing, unfamiliar modern times. As George Smiley, Alec Guinness delivered one of the performances of his life – despite sporting a wig seemingly modelled on Le Carre himself – and proved vital in holding together the disparate strands of plot, narrative, atmosphere and double-bluff. A sequel, Smiley’s People, followed in 1982; it’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, however, that remains one of the greatest adaptations BBC2 ever attempted.

1980 – Not the Nine O’Clock News

Had the pilot of Not The Nine O’Clock News gone out as intended in April 1979, the show would probably have turned out very different indeed. Worries over its overtly political content in the face of an impending General Election, however, led to the rather traditional topical revue being shelved, and the production team took the opportunity to start anew. Producer John Lloyd rebuilt the concept around four core performers – Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Chris Langham (replaced after the first series by Griff Rhys Jones) – and in so doing created a dynamic, tightly-focused and less directly topical sketch show that all but precipitated the emergent alternative comedy movement. The fast-moving and visually exciting format featured many memorable sketches, amongst them an interview with an intelligent gorilla, an alien speaking in English through a malfunctioning translating machine, parodies of Kate Bush and Abba, songs like Gob On You and I Like Trucking, and a superb routine that tackled police racism with a combination of insightfulness and silliness. The show’s wit mirrored the roughly contemporary punk rock movement, even if its own take on alternative music rarely went far beyond Mel Smith sporting a Union Jack-hued mohican. Yet the programme was never more irreverent than with a wildly confrontational song from the end of its second run in 1980. The notorious former British Union of Fascists leader Oswald Moseley had recently died, and reaction in the newspaper obituary columns had been surprisingly respectful and forgiving. Not The Nine O’Clock News responded by opening the following week’s show with what started out appearing to be a sombre tribute to Moseley, but quickly cut into the four performers dressed as skinheads and snarling their way through a deliberately inarticulate dim-witted song in his “honour” (“They didn’t understand ‘im, some people called ‘im mad, but any friend of Hitler’s can’t have been all bad”) – the equivalent of a ideological slap in the face. The team disbanded amicably in 1982 after four series and numerous spin-off albums, books and tours. However their influence on modern comedy still looms large, the show returning in the form of a series of compilations as recently as 1997.

1981 – The Borgias

One of the most notorious dramas of all time, The Borgias started out life as an attempt to replicate one of BBC2′s most successful series. Creator and producer Mark Shivas intended to make a series along the lines of I, Claudius – a both light-hearted and bloody romp that appealed to a huge audience, one that would not necessarily normally watch period dramas. Hence the titular family murdered, stole and partied their way around Renaissance Italy, via a succession of garish sets and melodramatic acting. However, somewhere along the way things went wrong. The most obvious problem was the casting of Italian actor Adolfo Celi in the main role of Roberto Borgia, who clearly did not have English as his first language, and whose thick accent left much of his dialogue incomprehensible. The over-the-top nature led to a formal censure from the Vatican, and viewers were unsure as to whether they were supposed to be laughing with the programme, or at it. Shivas later admitted that “we clearly didn’t get the mix right”, and they had failed to make clear what the programme was supposed to be. Even BBC2 seemed to disown the series after transmission, a decade later consigning it to TV Hell.

1982 – Newsnight

Newsnight began on BBC2 in 1980 ostensibly as a replacement for BBC1′s late-evening news analysis programme Tonight. The early editions, however, were rather different to the Paxman-fronted series we know today. It was more of a news magazine, almost a bedtime version of Nationwide, with a team of presenters, a formal news bulletin, and late-night sports results. During the 1980 Olympics it was even co-presented by Desmond Lynam and included a full highlights package each night. Fairly soon, though, the programme was re-formatted, with a single presenter, longer reports and a more serious and investigative agenda. It was in 1982 that the series really established itself in the public’s attention, though, with the Falklands War being the first major event it had covered. Newsnight took it upon itself to thoroughly analyse the hows and whys of the conflict, unpicking government spin and taking an even-handed outlook. This approach won many fans, but also some notable detractors – Tory MP John Page complained about the programme’s “excessive neutrality”, while The Sun were so appalled they named Peter Snow as a “traitor”. It all helped establish a reputation for the programme that, while not necessarily founded in truth, aided its rise to prominence and, by the time it won a permanent slot of 10.30pm in 1988, Newsnight had become the definitive last word on the day’s events.

1983 – The Bob Monkhouse Show

One of the most important functions of BBC2 throughout its entire life has been to offer an alternative to BBC1. When the channel began, Michael Peacock was constantly drawing attention to the episodes of The Virginian scheduled up against some of the more serious documentaries and dramas on the main channel. Certainly the BBC2 schedulers almost had to concentrate just as hard on what BBC1 were screening at any one time as their own network. One of the most obvious places an alternative was required came on a Monday evening when, until 1985, BBC1 and ITV broadcast Panorama and World in Action at the same time. Hence BBC2 almost always screened more mainstream comedy in this slot. Over the years, Morecambe and Wise, The Two Ronnies and Des O’Connor all took a turn, as did Bob Monkhouse, whose comedy chat show was a staple of the BBC2 schedule for much of the 1980s. Bob’s encounters with many of the top names in humour – such as Bob Hope, Frankie Howerd and Les Dawson – were an obvious draw over dull discussions about the IMF, and generally pulled in twice as many viewers as BBC1. From within an elaborately-designed set half-resembling a suburban parlour, Bob generously played second fiddle to a stream of comedy legends and newcomers, in doing so giving a break to many unfamiliar faces while paying homage to his own heroes. However the rescheduling of Panorama to a post-watershed slot in 1985 saw the channel no longer guaranteed such a regular Monday night captive audience, and BBC2′s tradition for housing mainstream entertainment soon came to an unfortunate end.