“I Don’t Want That Appearing in Private Eye”

A history of BBC2 Controllers by Ian Jones

First published April 2004

Just 10 people have had direct responsibility for running BBC2 during its 40-year existence. While a couple served only fleeting terms behind the Controller’s desk, the majority have enjoyed long stints in the post and taken every opportunity to stamp their identity on the channel. With its capacity for both great influence and self-indulgence at the same time, the job has always attracted dozens of interested parties, inspired by BBC2′s remit to be – by definition – alternative and the protection of a non-commercial parent organisation. Indeed, Will Wyatt, who twice applied unsuccessfully for the role, labelled it “the most delectable job in the whole Corporation”.

OTT has revisited the careers of BBC2′s 10 Controllers to inspect the part they played in the history of the channel. Taking each one in turn, we look at:

Pre-history: Their background
Route to the sixth floor: How they got the job
Open door or out to lunch?: Their approach to running BBC2
Hits: The most successful programmes/concepts under their tenure.
Misses: The least successful.
Exit strategy: How they ultimately parted company with the channel
Two much too young: What they did next
On the record: What they thought, in their own words
Remembered for: What their stint at BBC2 will be best remembered for

Now that the job of Controller is up for grabs once more, what have aspiring BBC2 bosses of the future got to expect by way of an inheritance? Moreover, just what kind of extravagant or notorious reputations and legacies should they be hoping to match – if not exceed?

Michael Peacock

Ran BBC2 from: 1964 – 1965

Pre-history: As one of that post-war clique of BBC trainees who found themselves berthed in the Talks Department at Lime Grove under the patronage of Grace Wyndham Goldie, Michael Peacock took full advantage of working in the one place it was easier to make a name for yourself than in any other part of the Beeb. He landed the pick of the crop, Panorama, in 1955 – when still only 25 years old – and turned it from an occasional review into a weekly topical magazine. It was soon attracting up to 11.5m viewers. His stubbornness and pointed sense of humour – he was responsible for the show’s “spaghetti trees” edition – alienated loads of staff, but endeared him to Hugh Carleton-Greene, who when he became Director of News and Current Affairs appointed Peacock editor of Television News. Away from the studio floor, however, Peacock had mixed success, working wonders with the BBC’s General Election coverage in 1959, then becoming bogged down trying to overhaul outside broadcast technologies. When Greene was made DG, he decided to come to his protégé’s rescue.

Route to the sixth floor: An unashamed stitch-up, with Greene appointing his golden boy over the heads of rival candidates Donald Baverstock, Alasdair Milne and Huw Wheldon. Baverstock moaned to the press, but was shut up by being given the job of BBC1 Controller instead.

Open door or out to lunch?: When faced with running a complete network on next to nothing Peacock retreated into the kind of bunker mentality he’d cultivated back in the days of working for Grace Wyndham Goldie. Obsessed with making BBC2 a triumph, he stirred up a massive press campaign leading audiences to expect programmes of a quality he simply couldn’t afford. He then threw a giant strop when the press castigated the channel and ratings slumped. TV manufacturers badgered him to hurry up the process of extending transmission across the country, thereby forcing more people to shell out for new 625-line sets. But Peacock hated dealing with industrialists, and recoiled from the notion of treating the growth of a TV channel in purely remunerative terms – despite the fact that BBC2 had been created specifically as a demonstration of 625-line technology. Above all, the manner of his appointment had left him perilously in debt to Greene, and Peacock fell to promising his boss too much that he couldn’t deliver.

Hits: The Great War, the 26-part epic documentary overseen by Peacock’s erstwhile peers at Lime Grove, proved invaluable in wooing viewers and the press during the BBC2′s ropey first 12 months. The Likely Lads was an equally inspired choice, as was, of course, opening each weekday with the pre-school white-studio whimsy of Play School.

Misses: Where to begin? When the channel’s opening night was ruined by a power failure, the dozens of influential guests Peacock had invited to a celebratory dinner ended up picking discontentedly at their food by candlelight. Denied sufficient funds to create a fully complimentary alternative to BBC1, and disinclined to petition management for more money lest it be taken as a sign of weakness, Peacock initially had to fall back on obscure foreign films, schools programmes and repeats to keep his channel on air. Then came the somewhat demented Seven Faces Of The Week idea. Structuring each night’s output thematically around one subject may have given the appearance of innovation, but in reality it merely ended up ghettoising programmes and excluding thousands of viewers put off by Tuesday Term – a whole evening of educational series – a Wednesday full of reruns or a Thursday devoted to obscure hobbies. Peacock eventually saw the error of his ways, but by that point it was too late.

Exit strategy: A Controller that grew to fear his own channel could never last. Keen to avoid the shambles snowballing still further, and alarmed by Baverstock’s simultaneously patchy stewardship of BBC1, Greene initiated a hasty reshuffle. He elevated Huw Wheldon to the new position of Controller of Programmes, and ordered Baverstock and Peacock to swap places.

Two much too young: Peacock’s accomplishments at BBC1, where he presided over a channel at the peak of its 1960′s popularity, helped paper over his disastrous tenure at BBC2. His career back on track, it looked like he was destined for the very top of the Beeb, until David Frost headhunted him for LWT. Two tempestuous years followed, with Peacock attempting to lead a company that was tearing itself apart, before he was sacked in 1969. He went on to spend periods working for Warner Brothers, Video Arts, Unique Broadcasting and the LSE. He never returned to the BBC.

On the record: “At best I only had enough original programming for four out of seven days of scheduling. The rest, including an evening of repeats, was done by sleight of hand.”

Remembered for: Being the wrong man in the wrong job. Michael Peacock’s place in history as the man who launched BBC2 is secure – but so, unfortunately, is his reputation as the man who almost destroyed it.

David Attenborough

Ran BBC2 from: 1965 – 1969

Pre-history: Attenborough had joined the Beeb in 1952 via a graduate traineeship that necessitated attending courses on Corporation hierarchy involving a fusty professor drawing coloured rectangles on a blackboard. Sitting next to him in the audience for these lectures was Michael Peacock. A spell in the Talks Department helping out on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? convinced him of the need for a regular natural history programme on the BBC, and one which, crucially, wasn’t studio-based. Zoo Quest was the result, with Attenborough circling the globe hunting dragons and chasing Heads And Tails-favourite the proboscis monkey. Bored of BBC red tape he’d gone freelance in the early 1960s, and was set on a career alternating programme-making with postgraduate research before Huw Wheldon made an urgent phone call in February 1965 asking him to pop round.

Route to the sixth floor: While Michael Peacock had been delighted at the prospect of real money and influence as Controller of BBC1, Donald Baverstock was incensed at what he saw as a humiliating demotion. After moaning to the press once more, he’d flounced out of the Beeb leaving Wheldon with a vacancy for the now somewhat poisoned chalice that was head of BBC2. “Donald won’t have it,” he explained to Attenborough within his front room in Kew, “and is going to resign. Since he won’t do it, will you?”

Open door or out to lunch?: Enthused by the prospect that things had got so bad with BBC2 “there was nowhere for it to go but up”, Attenborough made sure to avoid spending his stint in BBC management pushing paper clips round a desk and instead battled for the channel in as forceful a way he could muster. His first executive decision was to scrap the “demented” official BBC2 logo, two kangaroos named Hullabaloo and Custard. His second was to insist upon the hitherto ignored but wholly obvious tactic of synchronising schedules with BBC1, so there were common “junctions” between programmes for effective cross-promotion. With money beginning to roll in as coverage was extended all over the country, the channel could finally began to take on its own character – quirky, thoughtful, irreverent – while Attenborough cheerfully sat up on the 6th floor welcoming each and every new idea from producers and presenters alike.

Hits: He was lucky to inherit The Forsyte Saga, which on transmission in 1967 boosted take-up of 625-line TV sets no end. For the most part, though, Attenborough’s successes were of either his own initiation or of his senior staff: Horizon, Chronicle, Man Alive, Pot Black and, to coincide with the introduction of colour television in 1967, The World About Us. He asked Frank Muir to come up with a regular quiz show (Call My Bluff), worked with Bill Cotton to give Morecambe and Wise a new home at the Beeb, supported the appearance of Not Only But Also and Q5, and bequeathed to his successor Civilisation and the notion of regular “landmark” personality-led documentary series.

Misses: Difficult one, this, given how pretty much everything Attenborough did was an improvement on his predecessor. His ideas for sport shows, such as floodlit rugby league and one-day cricket matches between local sides and touring veterans, are probably best forgotten, and indeed they mostly are.

Exit strategy: After vowing to do the job three years, Attenborough ended up staying longer thanks to the arrival of close friend Paul Fox as BBC1 Controller in 1967, with whom he had adjacent offices and a strong rapport. He probably would’ve carried on into the 1970s were it not for the intervention of BBC Chairman Charles Hill, who decided to subject the organisation to an audit by a band of external consultants. A staff shake-up ensued, elevating Huw Wheldon to Managing Director and Attenborough to Director of Programmes. “The BBC was going through some rough waters,” the man later reasoned. “This was not the moment to resign, and I did not.”

Two much too young: The Governors invited Attenborough for an interview when Hugh Carleton-Greene resigned as DG in 1969, but Attenborough wasn’t keen – “I suspect I was a little surly” – and was already coming to rue the office-based culture of senior management. He quit in 1973, and almost immediately was back on TV screens sporting nothing but a loin-cloth in The Tribal Eye and narrating Wildlife on One. He also popped up on the last ever Late Night Line-Up for a nostalgic interview about old times. Planning was already underway for Life on Earth, however, and Attenborough’s own run of “landmark” series would kick off in 1979.

On the record: “I enjoyed BBC2 a great deal, because I joined when it was less than a year old, and it didn’t have an editorial policy. I could just suggest anything.”

Remembered for: Pretty much establishing the template for the BBC2 of today: comedy, snooker, science, a live topical programme each weeknight, accessible history, big budget mini-series, and populist documentary strands. Joan Bakewell recalls Attenborough dancing with her around the Television Centre courtyard after a particularly lively edition of Late Night Line-Up, and this more or less sums up his time at BBC2 perfectly.

Robin Scott

Ran BBC2 from: 1969 – 1974

Pre-history: Unlike his two predecessors, Scott arrived in the job of BBC2 Controller relatively late in his career. He’d joined the Corporation way back in 1942, initially working as a translator in the European service both during and immediately after World War II. A period supervising outside broadcasts and running the BBC Paris office followed, as did a bit of moonlighting as a music plugger and composer (he co-wrote Ruby Murray’s 1955 number one hit Softly Softly). After devoting several years to masterminding Miss World coverage, he’d quit the BBC in 1962 to embark on a somewhat farfetched and ultimately doomed mission to set up his own television company in Switzerland. He was back within two years, first as Producer of It’s a Knockout, then Assistant Head of Presentation, and finally his most important, and famous, job so far: launching Radio 1 and 2 in 1967.

Route to the sixth floor: The smooth professionalism and calm manner Scott had brought to the delicate task of overhauling the listening habits of a generation had caught the attention of Huw Wheldon who, at a time when the BBC was pursuing a policy of purposefully switching senior staff between television and radio, earmarked him as a possible replacement for David Attenborough. Both the Governors and the new DG, Charles Curran, agreed, and Scott’s appointment followed swiftly – curtailing his spell as boss of Radio 1 and 2 after a mere 18 months.

Open door or out to lunch?: Following the youthful exuberance of Peacock and Attenborough, Scott’s tenure at BBC2 was a complete change in style. Urbane, experienced, somewhat aloof yet reassuringly courteous, he brought a lifetime’s knowledge of broadcasting to the role. Given his age it was never going to be the case that Scott would treat BBC2 as purely a stepping stone onto greater things, or be in a hurry to move further up the management ladder. As such he brought a veteran’s insight to the role, never fussed about feeling the need to prove himself to his superiors. His was the archetypal safe pair of hands appointment: the Corporation sage who’d steady the ship and build on his forerunner’s efforts to ensure BBC2′s place in the broadcasting establishment was safe and respected by all.

Hits: Scott was determined that BBC2 would be judged able to more than hold its own against competition from both ITV and BBC1. Regardless of the kind of output it was presumed the channel should be doing – highbrow versus populist – BBC2 needed to be watched and talked about by millions. And, pretty much throughout Scott’s tenure, it was: The Six Wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth R, Clochemerle, Alistair Cooke’s America, The Stone Tape, War and Peace and The Ascent of Man all date from his era, as does the judicious scheduling of well-received US imports like Alias Smith and Jones, innovative comedy like Up Sunday and But Seriously – It’s Sheila Hancock, and The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Misses: The plight of The Pallisers, Scott’s biggest own goal, wasn’t helped by it arriving on screen in the middle of the 1973 – 74 power crisis and the accompanying Government-enforced 10.30pm closedown. He also cancelled Late Night Line-Up, but failed to come up with anything to take its place.

Exit strategy: Replaced, rather than quit. BBC management considered five years long enough for a channel controller; besides, Scott’s anointed replacement was desperate to get his feet under the desk.

Two much too young: Scott was shifted sideways to serve out his last few years before retirement doing the somewhat non-job of Deputy Managing Director of Television, including the joyless task of formulating the Beeb’s tentative policy towards satellite broadcasting. On leaving the BBC in 1980 he spent a highly enjoyable decade on the board of LWT, then three years as Director of Productions for NVC Arts, a company specialising in making video recordings of noted opera productions. He died in February 2000.

On the record: “He was a pioneer at the BBC and a great advocate of quality programme-making. He encouraged many talents, and his passion for the arts was infectious.” – Alan Yentob

Remembered for: Establishing BBC2 as a major force in British television, and for successfully keeping secret the fact his real name was Robin Scutt.

Aubrey Singer

Ran BBC2 from: 1974 – 1978

Pre-history: An epic 13-year reign at the head of the science and features department had established Singer’s profile at the BBC, as had the flagship programmes – Tomorrow’s World, Horizon, Chronicle – he’d both coaxed and bullied the Corporation into making. Another of those post-war recruits who’d started out serving time in the organisation’s lowest ranks before steadily climbing upwards, Singer was desperately ambitious and made sure he’d enough friends in high places to guarantee an easy path to BBC senior management. He was also stubborn, garrulous, indiscreet and decidedly eccentric, but was virtually unimpeachable thanks to the way he’d turned factual programming into his fiefdom, and could exact revenge upon his critics by spreading scurrilous gossip about them around the BBC club.

Route to the sixth floor: Another stitch-up. The newly-appointed Director of Programmes, Alasdair Milne, was one of Singer’s cronies and sweet-talked the Governors and DG Charles Curran into ensuring his friend safe passage to BBC2.

Open door or out to lunch?: Most definitely the latter. When he became Managing Director of Television in 1982, Singer promptly converted his new office annexe into a gargantuan private dining room, from where he preferred to conduct all business with a select few over a generous quantity of port and cigars (“It’s not my personal dining room,” he would insist to junior colleagues, “I don’t want that appearing in Private Eye.”) It was a highly apt culmination of a lifetime’s aversion to collaboration. Singer ran BBC2 as if a High Commissioner of the Indian Empire, planning programmes in conspiratorial conversations behind closed doors before nipping out to a nearby restaurant to entertain high-flying celebrities and noted intellectuals to lavish five-course banquets. If he did invite someone from outside his tight circle of friends for an audience, it was more likely to demonstrate a new gadget he’d bought from his local electrical shop than to discuss ratings.

Hits: Plenty of material here, including I, Claudius, Men of Ideas, The Body in Question, Inside Story, Arena, Newsday, Fawlty Towers, One Man and His Dog, Gardeners World, Face the Music and Six English Towns.

Misses: All too often Singer’s personal obsessions bubbled over from being a healthy influence to a positive curse. He introduced the idea of BBC2 running thematic “seasons” of programmes, but then proceeded to dictate their content. The somewhat unwieldy and overbearing Russia Week and China Week ensued (reflecting Singer’s preoccupation with foreign travel), but worse of all was Opera Month: an endless stream of ponderous productions choking up the airwaves for hours every evening.

Exit strategy: As much to keep the man quiet as anything else, in 1978 the new DG Ian Trethowan dispatched Singer to Broadcasting House in the unlikely guise of Managing Director of BBC Radio.

Two much too young: Singer proceeded to sulk for four years in-between bungling attempts to reduce the number of BBC orchestras. He frantically wanted a shot at DG, however, and contrived to get the latest BBC Chairman, George Howard, to promise him the Managing Director of Television job the next time it came up. Sure enough when Alasdair Milne replaced Trethowan as DG and came to pick his new team, his choice of Bill Cotton for MD was overruled and Singer landed the post (plus the title of Deputy Director-General) instead. An uncomfortable period followed with Singer commandeering increasing 6th floor floor space for his private hospitality suite and not doing much in the way of running the television service. Milne ordered him to quit in early 1984 as the pair returned from a pheasant shoot. Inevitably the severance deal was generous: Singer received £500,000 to launch his own company, which he cheekily titled White City Films, the name he knew the Beeb had planned for their own film offshoot. He was supposed to deliver a number of agreed projects, but after two documentaries on China and Vietnam he blew half of his funds on a show reel for a helicopter-borne history series that was too expensive to be commissioned. He remained boss of White City Films until 1994, then retired. His son, Adam, went on to run Flextech and Telewest.

On the record: “It’s been a rum old year so far. On January 1st I was awarded the CBE, on the 7th I was asked if I wanted early retirement, on the 23rd I was asked to act as Director-General for two weeks, and in February I pick up a newspaper to read what my plans are.”

Remembered for: Stealing cigars from the BBC boardroom cabinet and nicking unopened whisky bottles from the BAFTAs.

Brian Wenham

Ran BBC2 from: 1978 – 1982

Pre-history: After a trailblazing career at ITN where he’d helped to launch News at Ten, Brian Wenham defected to the BBC in his early 30s to join the current affairs group at Lime Grove. He immediately suffered a major heart attack, an affliction that had already taken the life of his father and uncle. Wenham made a full recovery, but colleagues testified that from then on he became a far more pessimistic individual, couching all talk of his future in morbid tones. He edited Panorama for a while, but as Head of Current Affairs bore the brunt of the criticisms leveled at the Beeb by the Annan Report. Very much the resident Corporation intellectual, Wenham also entertained a flippant line in humour: he dubbed Ian Trethowan the Defector General, and continually referred to the Editor of Arena, Alan Yentob, as Nala Botney.

Route to the sixth floor: The job of BBC2 boss appealed to Wenham as a chance to escape the isolated Lime Grove into the warmth of Television Centre. But his rival for the post, the Head of Music and Arts Humphrey Burton, looked to have the thing sewn up: articulate, witty, and with broad experience of programme-making. In the event Wenham won, thanks largely to Burton using his interview to argue for the striking but sadly rather impractical idea of having the BBC2 Controller appear on screen to introduce each evening’s schedule in person.

Open door or out to lunch?: Far more openly accommodating and sociable than his predecessor, Wenham was nonetheless a resolutely mercurial person, with a temperament that alternately amused and infuriated his staff. He relished his new range of responsibilities, and purposefully set out to leaven BBC2 with unashamedly mainstream fare and much more good humour. Wanting to feel completely relaxed while at work, he always took his shoes off on arriving at his office, and refused point blank to ever write a memo. When he was miserable, however, everyone knew about it. “You could always tell when Brian was feeling depressed,” testified one colleague. “He didn’t take his raincoat off and lay on his desk all day.”

Hits: A fine collection: Boys From the Blackstuff, Des O’Connor Tonight, The Young Ones, Training Dogs the Woodhouse Way, Not the Nine O’clock News, Newsnight, 40 Minutes, The Shock of the New, Did You See? and the marathon Complete William Shakespeare.

Misses: There was really no excuse for sanctioning Friday Night, Saturday Morning, the brainchild of producers Iain Johnstone and Will Wyatt, and who both insisted the show change presenter every two weeks. Willie Rushton, Ned Sherrin and Simon Hoggart were fine, but the unhappy footage of Harold Wilson going to pieces still receives regular airings today. Something Else, meanwhile, seemed dated even before it finished, while The Borgias was simply dreadful.

Exit strategy: On becoming DG in 1982 Alasdair Milne first tried to get Wenham to accept the new post of Assistant Director-General, but Wenham refused when he discovered the role was merely titular head of all the Corporation’s journalism. After moping for a few months he was pleasantly surprised when Milne returned with a second, substantially safer alternative: Director of Programmes.

Two much too young: Wenham’s new job only really had teeth while he found himself saddled with a hapless immediate superior (Aubrey Singer as Managing Director of Television) and junior (Alan Hart, Controller of BBC1). Things changed completely in 1984 when the posts were occupied by Bill Cotton and Michael Grade respectively, and Wenham found himself increasingly at a loose end. Milne moved him to fill the vacant Managing Director of Radio role in 1986, but he was a fish out of water and, after failing to become DG when Milne was sacked 12 months later, quit the BBC. Wenham never took up another permanent job in British TV. He remained a freelance consultant up to his death – from another heart attack – in 1997.

On the record: “I’m just going down to Lime Grove to lower morale.”

Remembered for: Defining the shape and attitude of BBC2′s second 20 years: Newsnight, alternative comedy, topical drama, big budget sport, and – in the shape of The Adventure Game, The Great Egg Race, The Oxford Road Show and others – an eye for a youth/cult audience.

Graeme McDonald

Ran BBC2 from: 1982 – 1987

Pre-history: The first ever BBC2 Controller – and, at the time of writing, still the only one – not to come from a factual programming background, McDonald had spent almost the whole of his working life producing drama serials and series. He started out at Granada, but quickly moved to the BBC to take over Thirty Minute Theatre and Play For Today, ultimately rising to become a hugely influential Head of Drama throughout the 1970s. High quality, thought-provoking entertainment was McDonald’s benchmark, although for every I, Claudius there was a Churchill’s People.

Route to the sixth floor: McDonald arrived at management level too late in the day to make a play for the really senior jobs, but was quick to jump at the chance to inherit BBC2 from his friend Brian Wenham. Several people applied for the job, including the youthful Will Wyatt, but despite the competition and an intimidating interview panel comprising Aubrey Singer, Alasdair Milne and George Howard, McDonald was the unanimous victor.

Open door or out to lunch?: Unused and unprepared for the high profile that accompanied the rank of channel controller, McDonald reacted badly to the publicity surrounding his appointment, and was so terrified before his first official press briefing a doctor had to be called. He soon adjusted to the demands of his new role, or rather adjusted them to fit his own personality – he enforced a strict rule that on his arrival at work each morning his secretary should never pass on any messages, no matter how urgent, until he’d made it into his inner office and was comfortably settled at his desk. McDonald formed a fine double act with his alter ego at BBC1 from 1984, Michael Grade, and the pair carefully counter-scheduled each other’s specialist fare against their own strong programmes so as to keep as many viewers as possible tuned to at least one of the BBC’s channels, if not both. He also continued Brian Wenham’s tradition for mixing mainstream entertainment (Bob Monkhouse, Paul Daniels, darts) with self-consciously alternative output (Alas Smith and Jones, Moonlighting) to equally good effect.

Hits: Unsurprisingly given his CV, drama output peaked under McDonald: Edge of Darkness, Blott on the Landscape, A Very Peculiar Practice and The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil all date from his tenure. He also presided over the first real flowering of lifestyle programming, spearheaded by Food and Drink, Floyd on Food and The Travel Show, and encouraged a deliberate expansion in youth shows, albeit of alarmingly variable quality: No Limits and Open to Question on the one hand, Rockschool, Entertainment USA and Mike Smith attempting to popularise the light classics in Opera Roadshow on the other. He also had a fondness for top-notch imports, and if a single programme sums up McDonald’s entire spell at BBC2 it’s M*A*S*H, sitting at 9pm on Wednesday nights year in year out.

Misses: Having saddled his predecessor with The Borgias, McDonald only went and repeated the error with The Cleopatras in 1983. He tried and failed to come up with a “landmark” documentary series to match that of his forerunners, and never quite cooked up a way of marshalling his channel to compete with the newly established Channel 4. Above all, he was responsible for supervising the introduction of the dreadful red white and blue BBC2 ident in 1986, quite simply the worst logo in the history of television.

Exit strategy: Retired, to fulsome tributes, in the summer of 1987.

Two much too young: McDonald went on to occupy his new found free time by accepting a senior role in, of all things, Prince Edward’s hapless company Ardent Productions. He was virtually the only member of the lacklustre outfit’s management who wasn’t an accountant, so it was perhaps not surprising the set-up turned out not one decent programme during the subsequent 10 years. It was an unfortunate end to an otherwise spotless career. McDonald died in 1997, within a few months of Brian Wenham.

On the record: “I think the clearest role of BBC2 is to be the quintessential public service broadcasting arm of the BBC. I find that no problem whatsoever. Nor do I find any of its mix of programmes at odds with that. On BBC1 the mix can sometimes be questioned. If BBC2 doesn’t fulfil that role in any sense, then I have let the BBC down.”

Remembered for: Working tirelessly with Michael Grade to push the BBC’s combined audience share above 50% for the first time in decades.

Alan Yentob

Ran BBC2 from: 1987 – 1992

Pre-history: The minute he left university in 1968 Yentob signed up for a BBC traineeship. After several years as an anonymous jobbing arts producer on Omnibus, he dreamt up Arena for BBC2 in 1975 and enjoyed a decade of attention churning out imaginative and accessible arts documentaries typified by his mock-fictionalised encounter with Mel Brooks (1981) and celebration of the Ford Cortina (1982). In 1985 he became Head of Music and Arts, where he scored most publicity by deciding to send Whistle Test, Did You See? and The Book Programme into oblivion. Arena, naturally, was left untouched.

Route to the sixth floor: As Michael Grade and Bill Cotton’s personal choice to replace Graeme McDonald, Yentob enjoyed untrammelled passage to BBC2 in autumn 1987.

Open door or out to lunch?: One of the first things Yentob did on the Monday morning he took up residency at BBC2 was to ring up the presentation department wanting to change that evening’s schedules. He retained an obsession with interfering in absolutely everything to do with his channel throughout his tenure, personally involving himself in tortuous negotiations with celebrities, and shamelessly meddling in the design process behind the celebrated makeover of BBC2′s on-screen idents in 1991. A certain absence of organisational skills and time management accompanied him around Television Centre, but during John Birt‘s late-’80s onslaught upon the Corporation this was a positive boon rather than a hindrance, winning him far more supporters than critics. Yentob’s appointment also helped to re-popularise the notion that running BBC2 was something you did earlier in your career, rather than – as had been the case over the previous 15 years – on the point of retirement.

Hits: Yentob’s greatest triumph was persuading Janet Street-Porter to join the BBC as head of youth programming, a coup he secured via a single phone call the morning after he’d become Controller. The result, DEF II, threw up a stream of fascinating, irritating but always interesting shows that did more than anything else – save that image overhaul – to stamp an identity upon Yentob’s BBC2.

Misses: With Newsnight fixed at 10.30pm followed immediately by The Late Show, Yentob’s weeknight schedules had the misfortune to always end in a grisly immovable 90-minute slab of jawing pseuds and rabblerousers sitting in poorly-lit studios. He bought the Comic Strip team from Channel 4 at great expense, only to end up with a string of poorly-conceived unfunny efforts blessed with gargantuan budgets. There were also slightly too many Saturday nights devoted to seasons of subtitled films or Amnesty International concerts.

Exit strategy: Became BBC1 Controller in 1992 to replace the Carlton-bound Jonathan Powell.

Two much too young: Pretty much the only senior BBC figure to survive the Birt regime with his reputation intact, Yentob’s now heading towards notching up a record 40 years service at the Corporation. A fine stint at BBC1 was followed by a capable innings as Director of Television, but his lack of management discipline seems to have denied him a shot at Director-General. He’s currently seeing out his career in the slightly ambiguous post of Director of Drama, Entertainment and Children’s Output, while simultaneously honing his presenting skills fronting BBC1′s flagship arts series Imagine.

On the record: “I don’t want this to turn into the Alan Yentob name dropping article. But for your information, yes, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft are both godparents of my children and very, very close friends of mine.”

Remembered for: Being the most hands-on BBC2 Controller to date. The man even penned his own Radio Times billings.

Michael Jackson

Ran BBC2 from: 1992 – 1996

Pre-history: Though basking in the dubious honour of being the only media studies graduate to date who’s actually ended up running part of British television, Jackson was the first BBC2 Controller not to have made his name at the Beeb. Instead he’d started his career at the independent company Wall To Wall working as editor of The Media Show for Channel 4. Alan Yentob wooed him to the BBC in 1988 to launch The Late Show, and two years later he became the Corporation’s youngest ever head of department when he took over his patron’s old stamping ground of music and arts. A typically expansive and innovative spell followed, with Jackson’s eclectic obsessions manifesting themselves in everything from Naked Hollywood to TV Hell.

Route to the sixth floor: That the contest to replace Alan Yentob was going to be unusually combative became clear from the moment Janet Street-Porter announced her claim to the post by getting her mates to boost her “high art” credentials in the broadsheet press. Jackson, meanwhile, played the continuity card, presenting himself as the most suitable internal candidate to develop Yentob’s legacy while fulfilling John Birt’s desire to see the second channel become still more progressive and specialist. It worked, and the BBC2 empire was Jackson’s for the taking. An offended Street-Porter embarked on a massive anti-men strop before leaving to run L!ve TV.

Open door or out to lunch?: Modeling himself on his much-feted predecessor, for Jackson it was always a case of the more consultation and company the better – and preferably over a raucous meal in a fashionable restaurant. He ran BBC2 like a giant circus, as much a disorganised pot pourri of artists and programmes as a strictly regimented performing troupe. The higher Jackson had ascended within the Corporation the more eccentric he’d become, and now he started deliberately turning up late to management meetings as if that was what a channel controller ought to do. Visitors to his office, meanwhile, were often greeted with the sight of Jackson pacing around in circles, wearing his carpet thin and from time to time self-consciously bumping into large pieces of furniture. He was also the second head of BBC2 to prefer spending his entire working hours with his shoes off.

Hits: It took a while, but Jackson eventually came up with a raft of programmes that recovered some of the lost ground Yentob had conceded to a Michael Grade-helmed Channel 4. His desire for a youth-orientated soap almost led him to commission Hollyoaks then prompted him to buy Heartbreak High, before culminating in This Life. The Death of Yugoslavia, Our Friends in the North and The Buddha of Suburbia all appeared during his watch, but it was with comedy that Jackson scored the most number of successes: Fantasy Football League, The Day Today, The Fast Show, Shooting Stars, Knowing Me, Knowing You and The Mrs Merton Show meant that, during the mid-’90s, BBC2 acquired a reputation for housing the most fashionable comic talent around.

Misses: Not many. He rather hastily axed both DEF II and The Late Show, then tried to spin off bits of both into stand-alone shows (Late Review, Rough Guides … and others) which singularly failed to sparkle, before giving up on early evenings and late nights completely.

Exit strategy: Chose to follow in his hero’s footsteps a second time by replacing Alan Yentob at BBC1 in 1996.

Two much too young: Jackson’s career post-BBC2 has not been treated kindly by history. He only stayed at BBC1 a year, nowhere near long enough to leave his mark, before quitting to become Channel 4 Chief Executive. Despite his high-profile successes – Big Brother, cricket, Queer as Folk – Jackson’s tenure at C4 has come to be viewed as a somewhat hedonistic odyssey into over-staffing, over-spending and over-indulgence – a view reinforced by the manner he appeared to leave his successor, Mark Thompson, to pick up the pieces and take all the flak. In 2001 Jackson left for America, where he still resides, biding his time, young enough to return for at least a 10 year stint in UK TV management should he get the call. He may be in for a long wait.

On the record: “Somewhere about halfway between Reith and Barnum is where you want to be.”

Remembered for: The collection of TV memorabilia he kept in his office, and for how he used to cut up and re-assemble copies of Radio Times when he was a child.

Mark Thompson

Ran BBC2 from: 1996 – 1998

Pre-history: Yet another BBC lifer with a grounding in news and current affairs. After serving a traineeship on Nationwide during its tattered Dimbleby-era twilight, Thompson joined the production team for the inaugural Breakfast Time in 1983. Stints on London Plus and Newsnight furnished him with the right credentials to not only withstand but profit from the upheaval triggered by John Birt’s arrival at the Beeb in 1987, when Thompson suddenly found himself cherry-picked to take over the Nine O’clock News while only 30 years old. A dash up the corporate ladder followed, with responsibility for Panorama in 1990 being followed by that of Head of Features in 1992, and Head of all Factual Programming in 1994. Now very much under Birt’s tutelage – regularly having his normal duties interrupted for consultation on the wording of the DG’s latest internal policy document – Thompson was nonetheless careful to fashion an image for himself as apparatchik-meets-populist, with an eye to surviving long after his chief benefactor had disappeared.

Route to the sixth floor: Tried but failed to win BBC2 in 1992. Come 1996, he was virtually chaperoned into the post by Will Wyatt, now Managing Director of Television. No interviews before the Governors, no external applications, nothing.

Open door or out to lunch?: Flagrantly unconcerned about disguising his ambition, Thompson alienated as many people as he inspired with his bustle, impatience and predilection for snap decisions. His chameleon-like character, coupled with the carefully manufactured air of going places, ultimately meant he failed to accomplish what every single one of his predecessors had done: to stamp his own personality upon BBC2. But this didn’t appear to bother Thompson in the slightest. Michael Jackson dubbed him, “The most self-confident person I have ever known.”

Hits: Given his ultra-brief stay at BBC2 – the shortest-ever save for Michael Peacock – most of what Thompson personally sanctioned didn’t turn up on screen until years after his departure. Shooting the Past, The Royle Family, Goodness Gracious Me, The Cops, The Naked Chef and The League of Gentlemen all got the green light during his tenure. He also inherited a strong schedule from his predecessor, which he juggled to push the channel’s share up to 11.6% for a record two years in a row.

Misses: The dreadful Gormenghast, which Thompson bequeathed to his successor. He also brought about the premature demise of This Life, bungling the chances for a third series through a combination of ignorance and blind panic.

Exit strategy: Thompson had spent precisely two years in each of the three jobs he’d occupied before coming to BBC2, so it was no surprise when in 1998 he announced he was off again, this time to the new post of Head of BBC Nations and Regions.

Two much too young: The ascent through the ranks has continued, as has the unspoken rule to change jobs every two years. Thompson’s stint at Nations and Regions, with its diminished programme responsibility but influential management status, was largely a pen-pushing stunt that succeeded in boosting his credentials as future DG material. In 2000 Greg Dyke made him Director of Television, but Thompson’s public declarations about turning BBC1 and 2 into specialist channels, and his private hostility towards launching the digital services CBBC and Cbeebies, seemed out of step with the new mood at the Corporation. In early 2002 he left the BBC to run C4, taking over from the man he succeeded at BBC2, Michael Jackson. He still carries the mantle of Director-General in waiting.

On the record: On being asked whether he saw himself as a Birtist or a Yentobist: “I’m a Thompsonist.”

Remembered for: Being the least charismatic BBC2 Controller ever, only bothering to hang around until he’d got a better grip on the greasy pole.

Jane Root

Ran BBC2 from: 1998 – 2004

Pre-history: The first female channel controller in TV history, Root arrived at the BBC after a long spell in the independent sector piloting the company Wall To Wall. She’d taken a roundabout path into television, beginning her career as a freelance journalist for women’s magazines specialising in cinema and female employment issues. This combination landed her work with the BFI, then a stretch as a researcher on various C4 programmes, and finally to teaming up with Michael Jackson to establish Wall To Wall. Root stayed put for 10 years, churning out hours of output for C4, before suddenly quitting in the mid-1990s to become the head of the BBC’s new Independent Commissioning Group. Nonetheless she retained the image of being an outsider within the Corporation, one of “them”, and formed her best working relationships with external companies rather than colleagues.

Route to the sixth floor: Beat a number of internal candidates to get Alan Yentob and Will Wyatt’s blessing for the role.

Open door or out to lunch?: Off the back of her infamous intention to popularise BBC2 with “culture snacks” from “the edges of life”, Root’s early years in the post were pock-marked with hits she inherited from Mark Thompson stranded within a somewhat desolate landscape of well-made but ill-defined lifestyle and consumer shows. As time went on recurring comedy and drama series all but dried up, while impressive one-off stunts – such as nationwide surveys on historical figures, literature and architecture – became the order of the day. Perhaps the most fickle of BBC2 Controllers, Root saw nothing untoward in signing her channel up to the latest media fad or trend, even if it was six months since the last one came along. She also had a careless tendency to let herself become sole scapegoat when things went wrong, which didn’t help anybody.

Hits: Root’s successes always felt like they came about in spite of rather than because of any effort on her part. The superb In a Land of Plenty seemed to have been made by accident. She inherited Band of Brothers from BBC1 when they didn’t want it; BBC Manchester chaperoned I Love … into existence; Robert Thirkell delivered all the channel’s impressive raft of business-orientated efforts (Trouble at the Top, Blood on the Carpet amongst others) virtually single-handedly; while the show that regularly scored the most number of viewers wasn’t even made in this country (The Simpsons). There were, however, a number of Root-originated homegrown programmes that did deliver both critical acclaim and ratings, such as anything with Louis Theroux, The Office, What Not To Wear, and A History of Britain.

Misses: Quite a collection. She axed the brilliant Modern Times but failed to come up with a decent – or indeed any – replacement. Operation Good Guys was quite simply the worst comedy show of the last decade, while Tinsel Town was the equivalent in terms of drama. Attachments saw a decent enough concept ruined by half-arsed scheduling. Indeed, Root’s BBC2 increasingly gave the impression of being pieced together on the flimsiest of whims. So while room could be found for endless reruns of The Good Life and Some Mothers Do ‘ave ‘em, dozens of shows were brutally kicked around the schedules, from quality imports like Malcolm in the Middle and Seinfeld to archive classics – The Great War – and well-crafted revivals – Treasure Hunt. No way to run a channel.

Exit strategy: Having spent over five years in the post, Root eventually announced her departure from BBC2 in March 2004 on the eve of the station’s 40th birthday, with confirmation she was accepting a job offer to run the Discovery Channel in the United States.

On the record: “The lesson of the past might almost be don’t trust the lessons of the past.”

Remembered for: A confusing, often contradictory tenure, leading the channel through a number of U-turns in search of an identity for the 21st century, and somehow never quite finding it. Whoever steps into her shoes will face one of the toughest tasks to greet any incoming BBC2 Controller.