BBC2: 6am – 6pm

By Robin Carmody

First published April 2000

“Switch on the TV, we may pick him up on Channel 2″
David Bowie, Starman,1972

And so I did.

BBC2 will never have the audience of BBC1. It will never be a comparable battleground on the issue of whether or not the BBC should make popular, ratings-oriented programmes, the survival of the license fee, and the survival of the BBC itself. But 36 years after its first tentative steps onto the air, you get the feeling that a large part of the BBC’s soul still belongs to Jane Root’s channel.

The 24 hours on BBC2 start with the conclusion of the BBC Learning Zone, the present home of The Open University, some schools and other educational programmes. The OU’s Forest Futures is succeeded by two unpublicised programmes (Keywords – Social Science and Byte-Size: Zimbabwe) before Children’s BBC Breakfast begins with Playdays, which on the British Film Institute’s Day In the Life of British Television in 1988 had just started under the namePlaybus. Some of the reactions then – complaining about the loss of treasured, timeless Play School, and patronisingly applauding the new programme’s embrace of multiculturalism by using the words “negro” and “negroid” – already seem to come from another age. And the programme (music by Jonathan Cohen, and it sounds it) evolved into “son of Play School” – I use the past tense because no episodes of Playdays have been made since 1996, but the programme, unlike its predecessor which disappeared permanently into the ether in October 1988, has remained on the air through constant repeats. The more time there is to fill (remember that, 12 years ago, there were no BBC2 programmes at all at the time of CBBC Breakfast), the more has to be revived, and the less time can march on.

And then - Top Cat! And what a tribute to the brilliance of peak-era Hanna-Barbera that this oft-documented Bilko-inspired cartoon, which still evokes the New York of Dion’s Runaround Sue retains its freshness 39 years after it was made. With his schemes always not quite working (in this case, TC losing a million dollars when his dressed-up old nag of a horse stops at the photo finish) it has lost nothing with time. But there’s still a sense of “the thrill has gone”, how this programme is now being consumed in an overwhelmingly, blandly Americanised Britain, compared to the thrill of an utterly different culture it must have had when unleashed into Macmillan’s tranquillised, inoculated Britain in 1962.

To see it immediately before a repeat of the previous day’s Blue Peter, and then consider just how utterly other-wordly, culturally distant early ’60s BP now seems, is to receive a powerful demonstration of how time is visibly dissolving before our eyes, its former linear progression changed into an endless, simultaneous past, present and future. BP itself is increasingly dependent on its own and others’ pasts, playing a clip of the 1966 World Cup final and getting presenter Katy Hill to try out the bobsleigh, once one of John Noakes’s “death-defying” moments. And the current version of the theme tune resembles Sidney Torch’s original recording more than any used since 1979. Yet there is a sense that the line-up, with “Sensible” Simon Thomas alongside the increasingly endearing Matt Baker, is also something of a return, a retrenchment; particularly after the recent run of aesthetically bland presenters-as-clothes-horses.

Dink, the Little Dinosaur is unspeakable, and Hanna-Barbera’s apparent involvement is a disgrace to their history; while Jim Henson’s Animal Show is a weird curio, a collaboration between Henson and Anglia TV combining Muppet characters with a script by, among others, Bill Oddie. The educational aspect was probably wittier than Sesame Street, but nothing special.

I had low hopes for the school’s programmes. Something told me they’d have fallen into a lazy, crazy mess since I left them in the early ’90s. But somehow, though reduced in number and no longer surrounded by the hushed, This Is An Event presentation that so affected a generation of which I just caught the end, they’ve actually survived pretty well.

Space ArkScience ZoneCats’ EyesWriting and PicturesPathways of BeliefNumbertime… things are reassuringly unchanged. Numbertime, made last year, even included a skit on De La Soul’s The Magic Number, a record released several years before its target audience were born. It’s the late ’80s forever, basically, even down to my chance to hate the Wordy-less 1989Look and Read story “Through the Dragon’s Eye” all over again, and wonder just what the new generation of 8-year-olds would make of those oh-so-1989 references to “videophones”, and the scenery, which looks like magic lantern stuff compared to what could be achieved today. And although Zig Zag is now devoid of Roger Limb’s Radiophonic theme, it still includes “Tales from Europe” (itself now an incredibly quaint phrase) that could easily have been broadcast 30 years ago.

Days like this make me realise how many alleged “cultural phenomena” I fail to notice in these fragmented times. I’d never actually seen a full episode of the Teletubbies (hypnotic, but still an abominable cliché among student misappopriators), never seen the Tweenies at all (great fun), was hardly aware of the supposed “cult” of Working Lunch presenter Adrian Chiles (nice Black Country accent, but what’s the fuss?)

Then there are the inconspicuous additions to the schedule - Romauld the Reindeer (better than I thought) and The Countryside Hour (which smacks of a BBC sop to the right-wing press who endlessly accuse the Corporation of “enforcing urban life on everyone”, or whatever).Included in the latter, Janet Street-Porter’s walk across Britain in Coast to Coast seems exactly as it had when I first saw it (potentially fascinating, but dully rambling, stereotypical and middlebrow) and Langley Country is just grotesque, expressing faith in an “unchanging” rurality or some such crap, presented by former Open Air nobody Bob Langley. BBC Northern Ireland’sAwash With Colour is like a People’s Friend article on television (as opposed to the other type of daytime TV which mimics the sensationalist variety of women’s magazine), half an hour of slow death amid the “picturesque seaside town” of Newcastle, County Down.

Westminster Live is the first moment of real excitement of the day, if only because it reveals just how much Old English grotesquerie has survived Blair’s “modernisation”. The sight of John Redwood (blank, cruel, cold, aggressive, harsh, heartless) with his unthinking remarks and set of profoundly inhumane attitudes, still chills, and Michael Portillo was back to his old terrifying self, claiming that New Labour is prejudiced against all married couples. But if their contributions reveal that the old guard is not dead yet, the meaningless waffle with which Labour’s Andrew Smith responded reveals how impotent the erstwhile “opposition” has become.

The BBC News (as they insist we call it), Spotlight South West News and the Weather pass off as any other day, and then begins two and a half hours of background TV. The presence of Lee MacDonald (erstwhile Zammo) on Esther, which allows a fine Grange Hill clip from 1983 to be shown, maybe momentarily interesting, but really its subject – coping with “letting go” (to a loved one or a cherished dream – yawn) is of interest to only the dullest of women’s magazine readers. As for Ready, Steady, Cook and Shopping City (repeated from the morning on BBC1) – I don’t really watch them because neither is really meant to be watched – both programmes are made with the sole purpose of fitting into people’s lives without making any impact whatsoever, like daytime Heart FM.