The Long and Winding Road

The last 20 years of British terrestrial television by Graham Kibble-White

First published April 2000


Some months after TV24 was published online, a version of the project was made available in print form. This spin-off boasted a number of substantial additions to its parent. Chief among them was an article examining what OTT would have found itself reviewing for TV24 had it chosen the equivalent date in 1980, ’85, ’90 and ’95. The idea was to offer a broader context for both the programmes and the opinions featured in the original text, and to address one of its key charges: that the television of Thursday 9 March 2000 was largely, if regrettably, a disappointment. The implication was that British TV could have done better – indeed, that it had done better in times gone by. But was such a view justified? The people who wrote the original TV24 did so from a perspective of a lifetime’s exposure to the crystal bucket. Did this distort their appreciation of the output of 2000, or enhance it?

The article that follows is appearing online for the first time. It has been slightly updated to correct a number of slips and clarify a few wayward facts, but otherwise is being presented in its original form. You’ll notice that rather than examine archive schedules from 9 March itself, in each instance the nearest Thursday to that date has been picked to ensure a more worthwhile comparison. You’ll also see that the information relates solely to transmissions for central Scotland, and hence the ITV region under the microscope is STV. There’s no conspiracy here, merely expediency: they were the schedules most available to the writers at the time.

By way of a conclusion, the article brings matters up to the-then present day of 2000, acknowledging the appearance of Channel 5, pondering the potential of the newly-arrivedDirector-General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, and speculating on the significance of OnDigital andE4. The passing of time has, of course, had its own say on all these assumptions. They are included here as a reflection of how the TV world seemed to us in 2000.

Part One: “Operation Newt”
Thursday 6 March 1980

Arriving in 1980 straight from the present day, you’re confronted with a dramatically unfamiliar TV environment. For a start there are still only three channels in existence. Then there’s the fact those channels only broadcast for a few hours at a time. BBC1 opens on this particular day at 6.40am with Open University, only to promptly close down again until re-starting at 9am for schools programming. BBC2 opens its doors to the Open University at the same time as its elder brother, only to shut down until Play School at 11am, after which it’s closed for business all the way until 4.50pm. With only eight and a half hours of programming in total transmitted all day – a third of that broadcast in 2000 – BBC2 is easily the most extreme example of a network staying more off the air than on in 1980. By contrast STV seems positively progressive by broadcasting from 9.30am right through until 12.30am.

Such piecemeal scheduling is the ultimate antithesis of today’s television, where 24-hour programming has become the norm. BBC1 and BBC2′s continual closedowns now seem positively quaint, as does some of their unfriendly scheduling (BBC1′s Parting Shots from Animals starting at the inelegant time of 11.32pm). The television of today – neatly organised into strands, unerringly timed to begin on the hour or half-hour – represents a massive change in broadcasting culture. While previously we had to seek out our telly amongst blackouts and eccentric, crinkly timeslots, now we know roughly what’s going to be on before we get there.

With breakfast television still three years away, the daytime offers up the most striking contrast to contemporary schedules. On BBC2 it’s a complete irrelevance, while ITV and BBC1 utilise this time to fulfil their “schools and colleges” commitments. Nowadays the minority channels carry all this sort of programming, but back in 1980 the daytime wasn’t scheduled with any eye for cohesiveness, nor on building an audience. There’s the sense here of a collection of shows that will appeal to a very specific audience who will watch for one programme only and then switch off.

Such a policy continues throughout the daytime on both channels: children’s programmes are slotted in beside magazine shows, beside news, and besides yet more schools output. On BBC1, Pebble Mill at One is very much the jumping in point for “housewives” who can put their feet up for an hour, happy to rely on Heads and Tails and You and Me (which follow) to amuse the children for a while. Schools programmes resume to take us right up to Play School, with Sarah Long and Michael Mann introducing today’s story “The Line Sophie Drew”. STV goes for drama over lunchtime before the networked magazine show After Noon Plus kicks off at 2pm. Unlike the BBC all of ITV’s schools programming is over by lunchtime, so the rest of the afternoon can be dedicated to another drama serial followed by the musty Looks Familiar.

The BBC gives over almost two hours to late afternoon children’s programmes. This compares very favourably to STV’s 10 minutes of Larry the Lamb, but other regions get a far more substantial offering with ATV rustling up WindowsFangface and Grizzly Adams. ITV would soon address this imbalance by launching the Watch It! strand on 29 December 1980. This would bring the network a step closer to committed investment in children’s TV, but it wouldn’t be until the launch of a proper continuity strand - Children’s ITV - in January 1983 that younger viewers would receive a consistent service on the third channel.

For now it’s BBC1 that holds the upper hand thanks to a fine showing from some of the classics. Aside from Play School we’ve Jackanory with Brigit Forsyth, John Craven’s Newsround and, of course, Blue Peter. Simon Groom, Chris Wenner and Tina Heath are the current line-up of older sibling-types, today embarking on “Operation Newt”. This schedule makes for quite an educational collection, with each programme quite blatantly intended to improve or inform the audience. In contrast there’s just one cartoon (and that’s a short from Yugoslavia) and Graeme Garden’s Star Turn - the only hint of anarchy in an otherwise terribly worthy line-up. It’s a world away from the CBBC of 2000. The development of this slot over the years will make for one of the most significant markers of change in TV across the decades.

On the other side STV sticks with drama and an arguably female-centric roster of programmes:Little House on the Prairie, followed by the inimitable Crossroads. However by the time we’ve reached the national news bulletins on BBC1 and STV, BBC2 has finally awoken from its extended slumber to present, with great fanfare, a rerun of the Republic Serials ’30s classicFlash Gordon. While such foursquare cliff-hanger heroics could be claimed to provide a family-orientated alternative to current affairs, they’re followed by a half-hearted natural history programme and International Bowls. It all adds up to an impression of water being trod in a dead slot.

After Reporting Scotland on BBC1, we have Nationwide. The longstanding daily current affairs programme is now in its twilight years (to be replaced with the disastrous Sixty Minutes in 1983) but at the moment still represents the BBC’s more approachable take on the day’s news. As an alternative, STV plies its viewers with another avowedly cheap and cheerful serial as we are invited to Take the High Road, in the process handing the preceding news bulletins the appearance of a disagreeable intermission between regular soapy fare. As it is, ‘High Road is not even a month old. The first episode only went out on Tuesday 19 February, written by Don Houghton, erstwhile contributor to CrossroadsC.A.T.S Eyes and Ace of Wands. The soap is unceremoniously bundled out in a daytime slot in other ITV regions, who’ll forever remain less reverential towards it than STV. Indeed, the network has a sprinkling of homegrown soap chicanery: there’s Taff Acre from HTV, and at 1.30pm on Southern a live production calledTogether.

The evening line-up on both channels is remarkably similar. Whereas BBC1 offers light comedy with Lennie and Jerry (Messrs Bennett and Stevens), STV conjures up The Jim Davidson Show. For BBC1′s Play for Today (tonight’s story – “The Good Neighbour”) we have ITV’sArmchair Theatre (“Fear of God”). And for BBC1′s Current Account (a BBC Scotland opt out of the Robin Day-hosted Question Time), STV stumps up both the newsy TV Eye and Inside Business (a discussion on unemployment). These make for very mixed schedules, addressing many potential audiences and undoubtedly affording quite a range of choice. The appearance of the mercurial “umbrella” single play strands (Play for Today and Armchair Theatre) is particularly reflective of a television era now long gone. Their impending departure from the screen will be a key moment in the evolution of British TV.

BBC2′s evening has been devoted to a stream of documentary and news programmes, the only respite coming in the issue-led dramatisation Holocaust. The fledgling Newsnight, barely two months old, would remain a nomad in the schedules until 31 October 1988 when it was fixed to its permanent 10.30pm slot. There is something terribly Reithian about BBC2′s line-up. It’s almost as if anything that could be seen to be merely entertaining would somehow be a mark of failure. The channel shuts down at 11.30pm with a Ted Hughes poem packing us off to bed thoroughly sedated. BBC1 is next to close at 12.22am after a brief summary of local news and the obligatory cursory sounding of the National Anthem. Predictably STV is the last to switch off, enjoying the late night crime thrills of Mannix before Closedown at 12.30am.

While the entire TV day has been patently shorter than its 2000 equivalent, it still feels as though a far greater variety of programmes have been in evidence. The appearance of non-serial based drama on both ITV and BBC1 is perhaps the biggest surprise, followed by the unexpectedly high reliance on soaps on STV. There are no lifestyle programmes, no game shows and no American cartoons: a very unfamiliar and somewhat sober notion from today’s perspective. Most striking of all, however, has to be the sluggish, navel-gazing BBC2. This kind of scheduling helped affix in the psyche of millions the notion of the channel as pompous and unwelcoming. Things would have to change.

Part Two: “Good Morning Britain”
Thursday 7 March 1985

We’ve only moved forward five years, but already there’s evidence of some seismic changes in British television. The composition of ITV has altered thanks to an overhaul of the regional franchises in 1981, which resulted in ATV becoming Central, Southern Television being usurped by the similarly “portakabin TV” company TVS, and Westward losing out to TSW. On 2 November 1982 Channel 4 was launched, followed a couple of months later by breakfast television in the shape of the BBC’s Breakfast Time (debuting on 17 January 1983) and ITV’sTV-am (1 February).

1985 finds Channel 4 still not starting transmissions until around 2.30pm. Indeed, it wouldn’t venture into the mornings with any regularity until 1987. The other channels, however, haveexpanded into daytime in a manner distinctly familiar to present-day audiences. TV-am kicks off the day on ITV with its flagship effort Good Morning Britain. Two years on from its difficult birth, the station is well into its long battle for survival and boasts Anne Diamond and Andy Craig on presenter duty. Breakfast Time is unchanged from its far more successful launch, with Frank Bough and Selina Scott still at the helm. Although Good Morning Britain starts a shade before Breakfast Time, and finishes a shade afterwards too, both shows continue to embrace an established format of rolling news and weather, keep-fit gurus and sofa-bound interviews. For much of its life Breakfast Time had actually kicked off before its commercial rival, only moving to its present slot a few weeks ago as part of Michael Grade’s overhaul of BBC1 (heralded by the start of “twice-weekly serial” EastEnders, the thrice-weekly Wogan and a continuity ident representing a “new ‘transparent’ earth with the continents picked out in gold”.)

STV once more leads the field in the number of hours on air, dodging all closedowns and piped-in text until 12.10am the following morning. Over on BBC2, however, an appearance from theOpen University at 6.30am dovetails into a quick closedown from 7.20am until 9am, when it’s time for that ubiquitous ’80s filler, Pages from Ceefax. Come 9.20am Ceefax transfers to BBC1 to make room for schools programmes. These have switched sides since 1980. The last schools’ programme transmitted on BBC1 was Capricorn Game on Friday 24 June 1983. After the summer holidays, Monday 19 September saw the start of the Daytime on Two strand on BBC2 where schools and colleges programmes would make their new home. This initiative was combined with 40 minutes of educational output at 12.30am on Radio 4 VHF every weeknight – the idea apparently being that “schools and colleges can record a complete series during one week and use it the next.” As it is, Daytime on Two sprawls right through to 3pm (only pausing for a 10 minute Ceefax break at 12.45pm), after which it’s again with the teletext for another two hours.

BBC1 interrupts its own obsession with Pages from Ceefax for Play School at 10.30am, while over on STV schools’ programmes fill the schedule right up to midday. At this point BBC1 opts for 30 minutes of news, while STV offers highlights from the World Figure Skating Championship in Tokyo – a temporary divergence from their usual line-up of children’s seriesMooncat & Co followed by The Sullivans.

At 1pm Pebble Mill at One is still doing the business for BBC1, remaining the rock in the daytime around which all other programmes must fit. As with 1980, it’s followed by a programme for pre-school viewers, rendering this a whole 60 minutes for mother (aka “housewife”) and child. Today it’s the already much-repeated Bagpuss, whose Edwardian sepia-tinged slovenliness is poles apart from the high energy Tweenies of 2000. Before dumping viewers back into Pages from Ceefax again, there’s time for The Afternoon Show presented by Penny Junor and Barbara Dickson. This BBC Scotland production is a stab at another female-centric discussion and “your letters” programme, and existed as a regional programme until networked in 1984. It seems quite adrift at this time in the afternoon, but nevertheless resembles something of a distant forerunner to Granada’s thundering Loose Women.

At 2.40pm Channel 4 finally decides to show up by way of the Fritz Lang film Man Hunt. What sort of audience does the channel expect to attract with this black and white classic stuck in the lull of the afternoon? Yet screenings of matinees at this time will persist for many years, becoming, like the 4.30pm quiz, one of the great stalwarts of the C4 weekday. STV’s afternoon on the other hand is utterly bewildering. The schedule lurches from genre to genre for no particular reason, with a keep-fit programme (Bodyline) followed by the epitome of US imported fare (The Love Boat) then a discussion programme (Daytime featuring Sarah Kennedy and guests), daytime soap (Gems) and finally natural history (Survival). It’s a fair assertion to say that the type of person who particularly admires one of this afternoon’s line-up is going to be wholly disinterested in the rest, and as such this adds up to a contradictory, ill-matched batch.

Meanwhile BBC1 emerges from the tyranny of Ceefax at 3.50pm into another scheduling stalwart: Play School. Today it’s Fred Harris and guest Jane Hardy to remind us “It’s Thursday!” It was back on Monday 19 September 1983 that Play School first trumpeted “It’s Monday”, accompanied by a feature in John Craven’s Back Pages in Radio Times proclaiming how “Play School gets a rainbow-coloured new look this week. The opening titles have changed, the famous clock is now a ‘contraption’, and in the studio there are giant models, including a set of three-metre-long pencils. The afternoon programme is now called Play School: It’s Monday – or whatever the day is – and it’ll be repeated in the following week in the morning.” This had marked something of a major change for the show, as previously Play School episodes had been aired in the morning on BBC2 then repeated the same afternoon on BBC1. Yet all the programme’s time-honoured components remained. Today’s story is “Vera, the Singing Bus Conductress.”

Children’s television in 1985 relies far more on cartoons than five years previously. Today we have both The Family-Ness and Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds. The former is forgettable homespun fare lacking in character. The latter is a twitchy and frenetic import, sure to leave its young audience in an irritable state with its rushed delivery, unappealing voices and above all Dogtanian’s incongruously large phallus that fair jabs the viewer in the eye as the mongrel jogs over the end credits. Jackanory (Christopher Biggins reading “Wilkes the Wizard”), John Craven’s Newsround and Blue Peter (temporarily shunted over onto BBC2 to make way for sporting coverage, a move which also denies us the pleasure of a regular Dr Kildare repeat) continue to lend this line-up an easy sense of familiarity and wholesomeness.

Although still presided over by the titular veteran, John Craven’s Newsround will become simplyNewsround with his departure in 1989, although Radio Times will bill it as such from 10 August 1987. Another milestone will be reached when the programme gets a regular Friday edition from 12 September 1986, replacing the semi-regular Newsround Extra. But today it’s simply John giving us a straightforward but never patronising interpretation of the day’s events, and imbuing it all with appropriate gravitas. Blue Peter, however, is presented by that not-quite A-team of Simon Groom, Janet Ellis and the ill-fated Michael Sundin. Its format, like Play School, has altered little in the intervening five years, chiefly due to the crystallising – if not stultifying – influence of editor Biddy Baxter.

Come September this year, the BBC will launch the “broom cupboard” as a means of unifying their children’s output and also in response to the neatly effective Children’s ITV. This has done wonders for the commercial channel’s children’s programming, and while its line-up today relies even more heavily than BBC1′s on animation in the shape of The Little Green ManThe Moomins and Dangermouse, all three represent a good utilisation of the form. Dangermouse is the highlight here, a smashing programme from Cosgrove Hall that’s unceasingly witty and knowingly subversive in its constant demolition of the fourth wall. Today’s episode title says it all: “Alping Is Snow Easy Matter”. Away from the cartoons lurk programmes with a more obviously educational subtext: the ageless Sooty who, alongside Matthew Corbett, teaches us less haste, more speed, plus the language-based revue, Words, Words, Words.

As the afternoon ends, and in a scheduling move surely designed to provoke a stream of angry letters to their respective listings magazines, both STV and BBC1 bring us the World Figure Skating Championships from Tokyo simultaneously. Channel 4, however, has finally started to stir by way of Richard Whiteley chairing the ageless Countdown. It’s followed by the Frank Capra film Prelude to War heralding the channel’s Americans at War season.

Over on BBC2 The Show Me Show (first screened the previous August on BBC1 in theTomorrow’s World slot) is hosted by John Craven and Maggie Philbin and seems an awkward attempt to define this curious nook in the day’s schedules. Up to this point BBC2 has always been uneasy about its 5 – 6.30pm slot, unsure quite who its audience should be. The Show Me Show provides a fast-paced, entertaining look at science that appears to be aimed at the young to the mid-teens, but it’s immediately followed by a Doris Day film. In 1980 we found Flash Gordon and natural history here. As the years pass still more unrelated genres will make a transitory home at this hour.

Primetime is now hoving into view, preceded as usual by an early evening news bulletin on both BBC1 and STV (The Six O’clock News now in the old Nationwide slot). Crossroads turns up on STV at 6.35pm, while BBC1 rustle up EastEnders at 7pm. Not quite a month old (it started on 19 February), this soap is shaping up well with both its Elstree set and characters feeling authentically grubby and lived-in. Tellingly, the BBC seem uncomfortable with the notion of having a soap opera on their books, choosing to call it “a continuing drama serial”. It won’t be until the programme tops Coronations Street‘s viewing-figures (with the help of a Sunday omnibus repeat) that the Corporation will become more comfortable with the concept. September will see the series moved to the later starting time of 7.30pm to avoid clashing withEmmerdale, and gain an even bigger audience as a result.

It’s a strong night on BBC1. EastEnders is followed by Top of the Pops, with John Peel and Janice Long presenting. The show is still in its imperial phase, and not at all like the sort of youth-only programme it would eventually become. Only Fools and Horses has replacedTomorrow’s World for six weeks. This is its fourth series, and it’s never more been part of the TV firmament. Ditto its successor, A Question of Sport. Bill Beaumount and Emlyn Hughes take questions from David Coleman and the whole family watch.

How’s STV been faring against this quartet of big guns? At 7pm it invests one and a half hours in its new import from the US - Street Hawk. This high-tech vehicle-based show will not go on to fire the imaginations of the viewers, eventually taking up its proper place as afternoon filler material. We’re on far steadier ground with Minder, a programme that has the hallmarks of an institution – albeit one with an essentially gritty, dangerous core.

BBC2 still seems to be opting out of the evening’s entertainment wars, as if to participate would be somehow undignified. After the Doris Day film there’s natural history and then at 7.50pmOurs to Keep: “Six films about people determined to defend historic buildings against the destructive effects of social change and market forces.” This is certainly public-spirited TV, though not really primetime fodder. Later Yes Minister gets a repeat, expertly timed to coincide with the news on BBC1 at 9pm. The rest of the evening plays out in familiar fashion, starting with a Forty Minutes study into the triangle of the mistress, the wife and the husband. To follow, rather incongruously, we have crooner Vic Damone, segueing into what is now an essential component of the day: Newsnight. There’s a slight return to the Open University at 11.50pm, before the channel calls it a night at 12.50am.

Channel 4 picks its own way to closedown via a patchwork of programming. The centrepiece of the evening is Treasure Hunt, already one of the channel’s most popular shows. At 9.30pm is GF Newman’s The Nation’s Health, a drama tackling issues within the National Health Service, followed by a series tackling design. Billiards seems to stem from C4′s remit to represent minority sports, but tucked away at the far-end of the night where no-one, bar devotees, will find it suggests the pastime is not about to benefit from a sudden surge of interest. Taking us to the terminus is Hall of Mirrors, a textbook C4 late night talk show.

We left BBC1 and STV teetering at about the 9.30pm mark. In a contrast to 1980, between now and closedown both take quite differing routes. BBC1 continues with another solid programme,Miss Marple: A Pocketful of Rye, before trundling into Question Time temporarily hosted by Donald McCormack. Tonight’s MPs will prop up the political scene for years to come: Tony Benn, Kenneth Clarke and David Steel. The night finishes with more highlights of the World Figure Skating Championships, and after the Scottish News Summary BBC1 switches off at 12.05am.

STV continues with the long-running current affairs series TV Eye (formerly This Week until 7 September 1978, though it will revert back to its original and seasoned title from 11 September 1986). Then after the news and Crime DeskReport looks at the poor performance of Scottish athletes. A repeat of Thames Television’s Keep it in The Family is obviously deemed past its prime and goes out at 11.05pm, and the night peters out with Late Call attempting to nourish our diminished souls before Crann Tara for Gaelic viewers bring us to Closedown at 12.10am.

Overall there’s definitely an impression of things slotting into place on this day, and of the schedules evolving much faster towards their 2000 incarnation. Breakfast television has begun to change the perception of the daytime as a TV wasteland, but there’s still a long way to go. The shifting of schools’ programmes onto BBC2 seems to be a clearing of the decks, and The Afternoon Show is definitely an attempt to better utilise the time. ITV’s pick ‘n’ mix line-up also looks like an effort to see what sticks. Meanwhile BBC2 is a little friendlier now, perhaps in response to the arrival of Channel 4. C4′s day is fairly run of the mill, and certainly not its most courageous effort despite roughly striking a balance between entertainment (Treasure Hunt) and enrichment (Hall of Mirrors). It seems our next leap will be best measured by the changes metered out in the daytime.

Part Three: “A New Way to Spend Your Mornings”
Thursday 8 March 1990

Another five years have elapsed, and with them the practice of TV stations closing down for hours on end or not bothering to start until late afternoon. Now we have all four channels opening up at roughly 6am and remaining on air right through the day, save for one small interruption on BBC2 between 7.10am and 8am and the occasional re-appearance of Pages from Ceefax. STV is also now broadcasting around the clock. This hitherto unheard-of behaviour was first sighted on Saturday 27 February 1988 (or, more technically, the early morning of Sunday 28) when after the ITN Headlines STV continued on into the night withHammer House of HorrorFormula One and MeltdownJobfinder took to the air at 4.35am, soon to become a staple right across the ITV network.

From the evidence it’s clear BBC1 and ITV are now fully engaged in the battle for the daytime viewer. Proper daytime television started on BBC1 on Monday 27 October 1986, Radio Times explaining “Half the population is close to a TV between 9am and 3pm. So the BBC’s new daytime television service … has a potential audience of 25 million. ‘An all-day service is something any public service broadcaster should be providing in the late ’80s’ says Roger Laughton, head of BBC Television’s Daytime Programming. Laughton’s not sure exactly who will be watching daytime programmes – ‘If I were it would make my job a lot easier’ – but he does know that 60% of the available audience is female … and that it includes shift workers, the elderly and retired, the unemployed and the housebound.” All of who would no doubt be interested to hear how “Laughton stresses that the service will not consist of game shows in the morning and soaps in the afternoon.”

ITV had been slower to wholeheartedly embrace the day. On Tuesday 30 June 1987 it had stopped carrying schools programming, four long years after BBC1. Once the school holidays were over, Monday 14 September found all schools and colleges output now on Channel 4. Seven days earlier ITV had proudly unveiled its new look daytime family. Jeremy Beadle’sChain Letters had kicked things off at 9.30am, then after Santa Barbara and the news headlines came the most significant initiative: The Time …, The Place …, remnants of which still survived in 2000 in the shape of Trisha. The actual moment when ITV most fully embraced the potential of daytime TV, however, can be pinpointed to 10.40am on Monday 3 October 1988 with the first edition of Granada’s This Morning. It may have taken longer, but ITV had stumbed upon the most durable daytime model and would reap the dividends for years.

Change had also been wrought upon breakfast television. If we look at the start of the day’s schedules, we discover that Breakfast Time has gone. Monday 10 November 1986 had seen the sofa and coffee machines swapped for big desks, sober suits and “serious” presenters like Jeremy Paxman and Sally Jones. A new slot of 7am – 9am summed up the brusque, comestic feel of this Breakfast Time Mark II – but even this didn’t last, being axed in 1989 for BBC Breakfast News and the steady patter of Nicholas Witchell. An unassuming news-and-nothing-but brew, today’s edition finds Witchell joined by Laurie Mayer: both equally transparent front men who (presumably deliberately) can add little in the way of personality to proceedings.

STV, however, had already been up for hours. Its own version of “hard” news showed up at 5am in the guise of the ITN Morning News, which segues with a clunk into TV-am’s Good Morning Britain at 6am. Mike Morris and Lorraine Kelly now inhabit the sofa, and the mix remains essentially unchanged from 1985 except for the additional half hour “supplement” After Nine. Here Kathy Tayler and Claire Rayner trawl through viewers’ letters, alighting on emotional problems like infants gaggling for sweets.

BBC2 starts as usual with the Open University, taking us up to a news bulletin at 8am simulcasted with Breakfast News on BBC1. Coverage of Parliament follows until 9am, whereinPages from Ceefax puts in a token and brief appearance. Channel 4, meanwhile, now opens up at 6am with the gargantuan The Channel Four Daily: a programme that attempts to be indispensable, but in reality cannot compete with its radio counterparts who have portability as their trump card. Its “World News” and “Business Daily” slots reflect its idiosyncratic character, as do two editions of the US cartoon Dennis (retitled from Dennis the Menace due to possible confusion with the DC Thompson character), but it seems unlikely that audiences for each of these would stick with The Channel Four Daily for more than 10 minutes.

Daytimes on both BBC1 and STV have utterly changed since 1985. Both now work to a cohesive, cumulative schedule boasting stranded, complementary programmes. BBC1 is clever enough to open with something of a teaser: a 20-minute “son of” Open Air, with head boy Eamonn Holmes setting the agenda for the proper edition later on, teasing us with a brief celebrity interview and appealing for telephone calls to the Manchester studio.

He’s followed by Kilroy. The BBC’s first bash at replicating the kind of audience-based discussion programmes so prolific in the US had started back on Monday 24 November 1986 under the name Day to Day. It had been fronted by former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk, who’d given up his Knowsley North seat the previous July blaming the activities of Militant Tendency for driving him into television – although perhaps Neil Kinnock was nearer the truth when he commented that Kilroy-Silk had taken the decision “by himself, for himself”. The same programme, now renamed Kilroy, has by 1990 already become a pretty reprehensible venture. Kilroy-Silk strays into some of the deepest moral issues, forever tempering the discussion to ensure it remains suitable for the morning and constantly reassuring us (crouched on his haunches) that he genuinely cares, “luv”. That none of this is obvious to the viewer is down to a certain lightness of touch on the part of the production, plus what the press have deemed the “bland sex appeal” of the host.

After a news bulletin it’s the first of today’s editions of Going for Gold. A rescreening from yesterday, this introduces a new scheduling tactic the BBC will come to rely on more and more: the narrative repeat. This daft but lovable quiz, hosted by Henry Kelly, has pan-European pretensions but, as has been parodied many times elsewhere, all of its questions are in English. A quick sidestep into Children’s BBC follows, with Simon Parkin reading birthday cards and introducing programmes for younger viewers. And here’s where we encounter another big change: Play School is now no more. The first blow fell on Friday 29 March 1985 when its final afternoon edition was transmitted. The following week saw BerthaCaterpillar TrailLay on FiveMop and Smiff and (the week after) Whizz stealing its sequential daily slots. Play Schoolsoldiered on, however, until its last morning-only screening at 8.55am on Sunday 16 October 1988. This itself was a repeat, the last truly new episode being shown on Sunday 13 March.

It was replaced with Playbus, made by independent production company Felgate Productions which would, according to Radio Times “have all the elements of Play School but … many new ideas as well.” Contemporary reaction at the time was by and large underwhelming. From the Radio Times letters page of 12 – 18 November 1988 came the view that “Having just watchedPlaybus I am left open-mouthed at the astonishing lack of ability to ‘pitch’ the programme to the level of (one presumes) an under-5s audience.” Then on Christmas Day 1989 the programme changed its name to Playdays after complaints from the Playbus Association. But despite all this, come 1990 the bus is still running. Today it’s “The Patch Stop” and some natural history for the younger viewers.

Over on STV resides the quiz The Pyramid Game, hosted by Steve Jones. As the current opening salvo of ITV’s daytime schedule, this show is a really a flippancy, requiring no participation from us at home. The Time …, The Place … starts just as Kilroy finishes. Although covering essentially the same ground, Mike Scott feels somehow less offensive than Kilroy-Silk, while the programme itself is more self-consciously light-hearted. Perhaps this is down to Scott’s rather gruffer persona; he makes no attempts to inveigle himself into our affections, and – crucially – never ever drops to his haunches.

Then at 10.40am it’s This Morning. Here ITV gets it exactly right with a vehicle to take them and us through until the afternoon. This Morning, at this point in its existence, is an über-magazine show, regally helmed by Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan. The pair continually promote features and phone-ins from the very start of today’s broadcast, encouraging us to make a mental series of appointments with the programme for the rest of the morning. They are also indomitable. They’ve only been at it for two years, but already they are the apotheosis of daytime television and chief slayers of all the BBC’s efforts at competition.

Both BBC2 and Channel 4 devote their daytime to schools’ programming, although C4 curtails its learning long before its rival. On BBC1 we’ve reached the main edition of Open Air. Ostensibly a right of reply for the Corporation’s viewers, Eamonn Holmes and Jayne Irving act as our agents, putting “our” comments to programme-makers and seeking moral recompense where it’s deemed appropriate. The material tends to stretch a little thin over an hour every day, however, which means Open Air often finds itself relying on shameless but enjoyable time-wasting whimsy.

Pebble Mill at One may have bit the dust, culled on Friday 23 May 1986, but in 1990 it is here in all but name at noon. Daytime Live even features one of the ‘Mill presenters, Marian Foster, thereby making the axing of its predecessor all the more perplexing. This version isn’t so appealing either, with the perennially flirtatious Judi Spiers and smug Alan Titchmarsh co-presenting. The One O’clock News follows, and then it’s Neighbours.

Upon this soap’s introduction into the UK, Roger Laughton advised us “in years to come, I hope we’ll be able to make our own series … but meanwhile we’ve bought the best we can find.” There was no need. Neighbours went on to exceed all expectations, and by 1990 this stopgap is now one of the most watched shows in Britain. It’s already the very epitome of habit TV, deriving its strength almost wholly from its twice-daily repetition. Sure, it’s accepted as being tatty, irrelevant and dumb, yet no one can raise much ire against it, bar the fact that it supplanted BBC1′s traditional See-Saw slot for pre-school children which moved over to BBC2 from 22 June 1987. Once our Antipodean friends have taken their leave, it’s time for a second edition of Going for Gold and we can sense the heart going out of the line-up as a black and white film is shoved in to take us up to Children’s BBC.

STV tackles the afternoon with rather more brio. Blatantly mirroring BBC1, but with slightly less success (mainly due to the vagaries of network broadcasting subjecting it to some shuttling around the schedules) we have Australian soap Home and Away before the lunchtime ITN News at One. After “another opportunity to see” Wish You Were Here …? it’s a further offering from Down Under, A Country Practice - itself soon to be joined by Sons and Daughters. Both lack the vitality of Neighbours and Home and Away, appearing to originate from some undisclosed time that could be anywhere from the late ’70s to the late ’80s. They resemble nothing less than dispatches from another world, with all drama played out to little consequence.

Sandwiched between the two we find a real and much-missed curio, Win, Lose or Draw. Originally a Scottish-only affair hosted by Allan Stewart, come 1990 it’s part of the national network. With Danny Baker in charge, this is a funny, patently stupid quiz show that pits celebrities alongside MOTPs (Members Of The Public – a Baker acronym) in a visual guessing game. Baker knows that only the lowliest of prizes are up for grabs, and positively relishes in the cheapness of the whole affair without ever actually rubbishing it. “Aieeee! The squid – she no longer responds to the mind control!”

Channel 4 has decided to emerge from its schools programming with a news-orientated stance:The Parliament Programme at noon, followed by Business DailySesame Street‘s appearance at 1pm suggests that C4 is now exploiting the lunchtime children’s slot abandoned by BBC1, and it’s succeeded by an old film taking us through to just before 4pm, when a Czech animation entertains for a further 15 minutes. BBC2 meanwhile runs a repeat of The Antiques Roadshow at 2.15pm and then after the news, we’re over to live coverage of Parliament.

It was on Tuesday 21 November 1989 that television cameras were allowed to enter the chamber of the House of Commons for the first time, a whole 23 years after the move was first proposed and debated in Parliament. Radio Times bragged: “The pictures available to the BBC, ITN and Sky Television will be determined by John Grist – previously head of BBC current affairs – who is the Commons’ first Supervisor of Broadcasting, directly responsible to the Select Committee [on Televising Proceedings of the House]“. Yet there were restrictions imposed by the “graybeards” (as Julian Critchley MP referred to them in the same week’s TV Times), principally that the cameras had to remain focussed on the speaker only for the duration of his or her speech. Neil Kinnock became the first party leader in Britain to deliver his oratory on TV from the Commons, but he failed get into Critchley’s top 10 “MPs to Watch” (which included Virginia Bottomley, Edwina Currie – “Liverpool’s Jewish American Princess” – Tony Banks and Edward Heath). Westminster Live, combined with The Parliament Programme over on C4, seem to confirm that even after just a few months watching our Government governing has become a resolutely minority pursuit.

It’s time for the main raft of children’s programming again. On BBC1 the broom cupboard format established five years ago is still prospering, but with Andi Peters now our guide through the afternoon. Less appealing than his forerunners (Philip Schofield and Andy Crane), Peters lacks that certain urbane confidence that characterises a small child’s older brother and instead appears just too busy and self-conscious to appeal, frequently corpsing at his own exploits. Today we start with the adventures of Charlie Chalk (“Mildred’s Day Off”): charming enough, if not particularly distinctive (witness Postman PatFireman SamBertha and so on). Then it’s the Goodies-voiced Bananaman. This programme forever exhibits great potential that goes maddeningly unfulfilled. With the talents of Graeme Garden, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie combined with an idiosyncratic character culled from the pages of Nutty comic, you’d expect super-heroics and wit of the Dangermouse ilk. Instead it’s sub-Rentaghost slapstick.

Reports of Jackanory‘s demise, however, seem to be ill founded: it’s still here, albeit billed as “Charlotte’s Web – read for Jackanory by Connie Booth”. Afterwards it’s straight back into dumb cartoon antics with the unappealing Yogi Bear Show, followed by Dizzy Heights - essentially a 30 minute runaround – then Newsround and Blue Peter. Today’s team is Yvette Fielding, John Leslie and Diane Louise Jordan.

STV’s competition for Peters and the broom cupboard is Jeanne Downs and Scally, a puppeteered dog. Children’s ITV opens with something for pre-school viewers in the shape of more puppet-antics in Hot Dog. It’s not much of a pedigree, but the familiar tones of erstwhile “Hartley Hare” Nigel Plaskitt make the programme worth watching for the post-school audience. Then, unbelievably, it’s a wholly unwelcome reappearance for Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, propping up almost exactly same slot it did on BBC1 five years ago. It’s followed, in complete contrast, by the superb Press Gang. Today it’s part two of “Something Terrible”. It was rare for Press Gang to run multi-episode stories, but today’s subject matter more than merits it as sub-Gordon Gecko character Colin Mathews has to confront a case of child abuse. The script by Steven Moffat never shies away from the brutal truths of this topic, yet is also brave enough to infuse the story with some not misplaced, vaguely Americanised wit. “Something Terrible” will go on to win Press Gang a BAFTA in the “Best Children’s Drama Series” category.

This is its second series. It will run for another three, and while arguably becoming a little too inward looking and soapy later on, it will maintain a sublime standard rare in children’s television – and rarer still for Children’s ITV. In many ways it almost feels out of place in today’s line-up, particularly in the early 4.40pm slot where BBC1 is showing Dizzy Heights, a show aimed at an audience of perhaps half the age of Press Gang‘s natural constituents.

Channel 4, meanwhile, has been busy discussing religious matters with Brian Redhead Not on Sunday, followed by Countdown and then a repeat of Treasure Hunt. It makes for a proper alternative to the children’s programmes, and certainly an improvement on BBC2′s offerings.The Diamond Game is Anne Robinson’s panel-based quiz, wisely scheduled to finish just before Richard Whiteley shows up on C4. She’s followed by Plunder, an oddly placed archive clips show with Emma Freud inviting celebrities to pick footage from the BBC television and film archives and then talk about it. Today’s encounter is with Gerald Scarfe. You get the impression that Freud is distinctly unimpressed at having to occupy such a dead-end slot, especially one that gives way to a keep-fit programme for senior citizens and a repeat of last Monday’s Horizon.

Come the evening, and BBC1′s night has become in comparison with 1985 quite unmemorable.Top of the Pops has swapped places with EastEnders, and today the humourless Bruno Brookes leads the chart countdown in a simultaneous broadcast with Radio 1. EastEnders is now waning, due to a sense that after five years the initial impetus and momentum is flagging. Still, it continues to get the nation watching. Tomorrow’s World remains soft-science for a post-soap audience and fulfils the function well, while Focal Point is BBC Scotland’s opt-out fromBrush Strokes, tonight investigating the cosmetics industry. It runs up to the national news with a whimper rather than a bang.

STV goes for the agreeable Blockbusters at 6.30pm, followed by Emmerdale and Scottish Questions. In contrast to Focal Point on BBC1, this programme exudes self-assurance and a sense of its own importance. Yet host Margo McDonald cannot help but portray herself as right thinking and come across as hectoring. This pompous half-hour leads into The Bill, tonight written by creator of Sapphire and Steel, Peter J Hammond, before it’s back to current affairs again at 8.30pm with the award-winning This Week.

Channel 4 goes for 30 minutes of Ice Skating at 6.30pm, then after the news and weather it’sBrass. This is a repeat of the ribald comedy series previously shown on ITV in the early 1980s, foreshadowing a new series to begin on C4 on 23 April. Taking over the old Treasure Hunt slot at 8.30pm is the similarly progressive game show The Crystal Maze. Like the ‘Hunt it’s a time-based active programme, promoting MOTPs (to purloin a phrase) to partake in activities instead. It makes for an enjoyable hour, for all of host Richard O’Brien’s lame witty asides, mugs to camera and, of course, endless harmonica noodlings.

BBC2 has passed the early evening with the classic Passport to Pimlico, followed by 9 II 5, part of the channel’s Def II strand. Yes Minister crops up an hour earlier than it did in 1985, followed by Michael Buerk’s Nature. “Nowadays almost every magazine programme and advert you see has a green message,” Mike explains, “so in this series Nature has got a different role to play. It is going to dig deeper. We’ll be going below the surface to see if the greening of governments, industries and advertisers is more than skin deep.”

Things don’t really improve on BBC1. 9pm to midnight is a rum affair indeed. After the news it’sBen Elton – The Man From Auntie: a representation of Elton’s stand-up material with some additional business thrown-in that never works thanks to the host’s shtick suddenly looking old-fashioned and as ill-placed as the Brucie and Tarby-type material he previously made so much mileage in rubbishing. Having “made it”, the energy seems to have gone from Elton’s work, leaving him happy to trade on the same comic-riffs over and over.

Next is Question Time, with the ineffectual Peter Sissons now in the chair, and then part of the BBC’s equal-rights for women season Move Over Darling. In tonight’s episode a top businessman and his female secretary trade places for a day – but “can he control the photocopier?” The evening ends once again with yet more coverage of those World Figure Skating Championships. The sport has patently lost some prestige since ’85, however, as this end-of-the-day slot represents its only showing today on BBC1. It caps a very inauspicious evening, comprising a ragbag of programming with nothing particularly striking in the mix.

9pm on BBC2 finds The Comic Strip Presents … Les Dogs. Back in 1982, The Comic Strip‘s debut on Channel 4′s opening night was the main impetus for the BBC to commission a full series of The Young Ones. This was one of the most pivotal decisions by the channel, The Young Ones doing much to destroy perceptions of BBC2 as old fashioned and élitist while allowing it to profitably reinvent itself for success throughout the 1980s and into the ’90s. It’s fitting, then, that The Comic Strip has finally come to rest here on BBC2. And rest it does; likeThe Man From Auntie there’s nothing challenging about this series anymore, with the inclusion of Kate Bush in tonight’s story smacking of a last-ditch attempt at excitement.

40 Minutes follows. This edition, entitled “Green Police”, tracks a team of police and scientists on the trail of polluters. Alongside Nature it’s evidence of how much the “green” agenda is culturally ascendant throughout 1990. A 20-minute curio, Small Objects of Desire (tonight: The Snap-Shot Camera) fills the gap until Newsnight‘s fixed time of 10.30pm. After that, we happen upon The Late Show. At times extremely interesting, this hugely-hyped creation is already leaning more towards the utterly incomprehensible, ending up effectively ghettoising the arts rather than promoting them. It began on Monday 16 January, its rotating selection of presenters altering on a week-by-week basis. Editor Michael Jackson, later BBC2 Controller and Chief Executive of Channel 4, had originally justified the programme by stating: “I believe people are less ghettoised now, are prepared to mix and match in a way that they haven’t hitherto. If you take world music as an analogy, this is the time when people who are interested in rock music are more likely to move on to African music, and from there to classical music.” Based on this, you’d suppose The Late Show had been established to target Paul Simon fans. It’s followed tonight by a quick look at the weather, half an hour’s visit to the Open University, and closedown at 12.35am.

Channel 4′s evening passes in the company of two films and then, yet again, The World Figure Skating Championships. Sammy and Rosie Get Laid comes under the Film On Four branding, while The Mirror is a Turkish/West German film with English subtitles. Both represent challenging though not immediately accessible viewing. The Ice Skating runs from 1.10am until 3am.

STV’s night is, if anything, even more eclectic than BBC1′s. Firstly there’s crime drama of the staunchest kind with Taggart. A big-hitter for STV, Taggart positively reeks with pride, although it is in itself little more than competent. After the News at Ten comes NB. Presented by Bryan Burnett, Janice Forsyth and Allan Campbell, this is an attempt to cover the arts in a trendy, urgent fashion. Yet being steadfastly based in Scotland can sometimes mean that NB‘s horizons are rather limited, the upshot being it’s all a little too parochial for a programme with cosmopolitan ambitions. Next comes The Struggle for Democracy at 11.05pm. This is the first episode of a 13-part series by Canadian writer Patrick Watson, examining the spread of democracy, “its paradoxes and perplexities, its weaknesses and strengths and its prospects.” It’s followed by a jazz programme featuring the Ernie Watts quartet and then, after the seemingly ubiquitous visit to The World Figure Skating Championships, we accompany STV into previously uncharted territory: the nighttime.

Lace II is a bought-in mini series from the US rightly saved for the back of beyond. Tailed byITN News Headlines, next is the inelegantly titled CinemAttractions on US cinema andAmerica’s Top 10. It’s all fairly irrelevant programming that has clearly been dumped in the nighttime to get STV from A (the evening) to B (the morning) with the minimum of effort. The Bob Hall and Emlyn Hughes fronted Sportsworld is a little nearer the mark, and we end up with STV discharging some of its social responsibilities with JobFinder - although at a paltry 10 minutes it’s rather overshadowed by identically monikered efforts of up to an hour long in regions like Central. All in all, the nighttime is undernourished and half-hearted: a skip for abandoned programmes.

On the face of it, then, there’s little in 1990 that would seem alien to a 2000 audience. ITV have successfully established a daytime line-up which will remain essentially unchanged for the next 10 years, whilst the BBC’s day will, in response, continually reinvent itself desperately looking for a successful shape – albeit one forever based around the triumvirate of KilroyOne O’clock News and Neighbours. BBC2 is now quite a friendly, quirky channel, whereas Channel 4 still appears a little subservient to ITV, despite emerging more distinct and rounded under the tutelage of its current boss Michael Grade. As we prepare for our last five-year jump, it seems as though everything our 2000 audience requires for a day’s viewing is already here in 1990. Will there be any significant development, any change at all, to report come the next five years?

Part Four: “If it’s on, it’s in!”
Thursday 9 March 1995

For the TV fan one of the most immediate differences between 1995 and 1990 concerns how we make our choice of viewing. On 1 March 1991 both TV Times and Radio Times started carrying listings for all four terrestrial channels, RT editor Nicholas Brett proudly proclaiming: “To share these good times with us is Patrick Walker, the most respected astrologer around. You’ll always find his weekly horoscope after your letters.”

Another reallocation of ITV franchises has also taken place. On 1 January 1993 the network was reshuffled, TSW and TVS losing out to Westcountry and Meridian while the axe fell on both TV-am and Thames, replaced with GMTV and Carlton respectively. The former quickly came to realize the virtues of aping the format and visuals of its predecessor, but Carlton struggled to successfully supplant a very established and much-loved brand. As such Martin Lambie-Nairn was brought in to sort out the company’s image. “The challenge was to establish Carlton as a major player in the television world,” he recalled, “and as a familiar face in the London region in particular. Before going on-air, our own research established that the name Carlton was a big negative factor. We had to decide how to give the word Carlton a London association. Our solution was a typographic one, which merged LONDON into CARLTON on screen. We chose the Gill typeface because of its simplicity (and perhaps unconsciously because of its associations with London Underground) and put the T within the frame of the L to allow Carlton to animate easily into London.”

Come 1995 and Carlton is firmly established as one of the most powerful ITV companies, already eyeing up other regions for prospective consolidation. But despite all these upheavals behind the scenes, little has changed within the TV schedules themselves. All channels run broadly to templates in evidence five or so years earlier, bar one notable absence: Pages from Ceefax, now firmly laid to rest. Its spirit lives on in a brief burst of 4 Tel on Channel 4 at 5am.

BBC1 now begins its day at 6am with Business Breakfast, a perfunctory dry hour of facts followed by BBC Breakfast News hosted by Justin Webb and Andrew Harvey. Webb is patently the anchor, but has yet to establish Brian Redhead or John Humphrys levels of authority, and as such is a little Paxman-lite. GMTV on STV, however, is simply that – “lite”. Now utterly indistinguishable from TV-am, it delivers over three-hours of chat, fitness and doctor’s advice with unarguable panache and self-confidence. The Channel Four Daily is no more, having been replaced with The Big Breakfast in September 1992 and almost instantly forgotten. By 1995The Big Breakfast is long past its peak but its phenomenal influence lives on all over the place, be it Richard Madeley bantering with off-screen researchers or the production team of Noel’s House Party sneaking onto set to gunge their boss. Today Gaby Roslin and Mark Little struggle to relive former glories, the first a sort of big sister, the second an irritating mate. Completing the pack, BBC2 opens up as it has done every time since 1980 with the Open University, followed at 8am by an opt into BBC Breakfast News (with signing) and Westminster On-Line.

It’s daytime. With Open Air long-since axed, Kilroy has now been promoted to pole position. Then after a news bulletin comes EastEnders – The Early Years. In celebration of 10 years of its most successful soap, the BBC are midway through a rerun of old episodes; an attitude towards archive programming that’s all-too rare on this channel, particularly as EastEnders is still an going concern. When the Beeb comes to celebrate 15 years of EastEnders in 2000, it will not be anywhere near so accommodating to the show’s past.

Next up is the latest of the BBC’s many daytime initiatives, the prosaically named This Morning on BBC1. Launched on Monday 17 October 1994, it tried to bring an umbrella theme to the day as Radio Times explained: “The programmes scheduled for each morning are familiar, but will be presented as part of a tighter unit, linked by on-screen presenter Mo Dutta. Dutta will introduce each programme as well as handling Quizcalls throughout the morning.” While redolent of the inhabitants of CBBC‘s broom-cupboard, Dutta actually has little scope for anything other than introducing each programme in turn (which he still manages to do in a toe-curling fashion), and bar the shoehorned phone-in quiz he’s actually quite redundant.

In his slacks and blazer, he then introduces the epitome of slacks and blazer-dom TV, Good Morning … with Anne and Nick (which, until BBC1 began showing EastEnders repeats, started at 10.05am). If the Beeb were attempting to pass off the Dutta-fronted This Morning on BBC1as somehow progressive in terms of presentation, … Anne and Nick is an utterly retrograde step. Here’s a team pilfered from the famously brash (and now extinct) TV-am lashed to a format swiped wholesale from the show currently in competition with them on ITV (This Morning). The fact that Anne and Nick are but a shadow of the dangerously-majestic Richard and Judy is just a plain embarrassment.

A break for the news at midday is followed by a return to Birmingham for Pebble Mill with Alan Titchmarsh. But this isn’t a resurrection of the late lamented Pebble Mill at One; instead it’s strictly a chat show, and one of the most anodyne nature. The essence of the “now if we can talk about your recent book” school of interviewing, Titchmarsh constantly overreaches himself in terms of wit and charm, and it rounds off what is – bar the EastEnders repeat – a sorry, smug line-up all the way from Kilroy to the One O’clock News.

By comparison STV feels almost commendable in its up-front cheesiness. Chain Letters at 9.25am is a bastion of the original daytime line-up, now hosted by the shifty Ted Robbins. It’s followed by another trooper, The Time …, The Place … and then, knocking Anne And Nick convincingly for six, is This Morning unchanged and unruffled. So far the early hours on STV differ little from that of five years ago, whereas BBC1 has undergone an almost complete reinvention. Indeed, such a pattern will continue up to 2000, with Richard and Judy remaining indomitable while the BBC launch countless further initiatives in an effort to fight back.

The morning on BBC2 and Channel 4 is devoted, as usual, to schools’ programming – but there are a couple of exceptions. Bill Cosby’s update of the old Groucho Marx vehicle You Bet Your Life bridges the gap between The Big Breakfast and C4′s schools output. Cosby is the opposite of Marx, his narcoleptic delivery and droopy wit failing to evoke much fun today. Then at 10am on BBC2 we find the channel relieving BBC1 of another commitment: pre-school programmes. Despite switching sides, Thursdays still mean it’s natural history at “The Patch Stop” on Playdays.

The One O’clock News on BBC1 checks in as expected, as does Neighbours, but supplantingGoing for Gold north of the border are some Gaelic children’s programmes. These take us into, as in 1990, an afternoon film: Where the Lilies Bloom, a tearjerker about orphaned children dating from 1974. STV is quite strident in contrast. After This Morning, it’s 50 minutes of current affairs by way of the national Lunchtime News and then Scotland Today, now expanded to a respectable 25 minutes. At 1.20pm it’s the charmless Vanessa and “Can homosexuals make good parents?” Here’s ITV taking a definite step closer to their talk show cousins in the US with the sort of programme once memorably summed up by Danny Baker as “nuts and sluts” television. But Vanessa Feltz is, frankly, hopeless, constantly attempting to keep proceedings either light or overly emotional while simpering in the most annoying fashion. It’s Kilroy to the nth degree, yet somehow still less reprehensible. Perhaps it lacks that forced sense of social injustice that will sometimes bring Kilroy-Silk to his feet, hectoring a perceived bad apple in the audience. And at least in Vanessa we are not being asked to buy a social-crusader or barometer of morality; we are just being asked to buy a show. It’s followed by Home and Away, now at 1.50pm and destined to remain forever subject to the whims of network schedulers. Dr Quinn: Medicine Woman fills the unfavourable slot before a 3.20pm news update and children’s programming.

Meanwhile BBC2 has ducked out of schools’ programmes at 12.30pm with Working Lunch, “a daily look at the latest business and consumer news” which certainly makes for a contrast with the fare being served up elsewhere. Then we’re back into the Daytime on Two again for more schools programming until 2pm and another appearance of Children’s BBC, rather upstaging the Gaelic programming on BBC1. Today’s programmes are both five-minute doodles: the Terry Wogan-voiced Stoppit and Tidyup followed by Puppydog Tales. They’re followed by two specialised magazine programmes. Next With Marti Caine pitches the gravelly-voiced comedienne into a programme about retirement. Co-hosted by Valerie Singleton and grumpy John Noakes, this is a fairly pedestrian and ultimately patronising effort at addressing older viewers. From The Edge at 2.35pm is a little more like it, a programme for the disabled made by the disabled. Westminster With Nick Ross follows a news and weather bulletin.

Over on Channel 4 schools’ programmes cease for House to House. This daily analysis of political events hosted by Maya Even is C4′s equivalent of BBC2′s Working Lunch in terms of seriousness and worthiness. Even is quite impersonal, coming across as simply a political agitator with no particular personality but an interviewing technique that is forceful if not a little ragged at times. She obviously lacks that soupçon of flamboyance or even artistry that would ultimately promote her up from the tangential, slightly second-rate commentator she currently is. Sesame Street brings us the letters J, S and O at 12.30pm, followed by The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Squeezed in before the afternoon film we have a ’90s equivalent of “the potter’s wheel” in Spacebourne, a short soulless film provided by NASA. Then while BBC1 brings us orphans and STV Doctor Quinn, C4 offers up a retelling of Madame Bovary in the shape of the Bette Davis fronted 1949 melodrama Beyond the Forest. Overall BBC2′s magazine programmes seem to be the only respite from overtly female-centric fare this afternoon. At 3.55pm C4 keeps up its commitment to horse racing with the documentary series From the Horse’s Mouth, and then it’s back to that “words and numbers game”.

Toby Anstis is now in the chair for Children’s BBC. Much as Andi Peters was a poor return for Andy Crane, Anstis is a further step down. The giggling and mugging have been, if anything, intensified, leaving Anstis as less of big brother figure, more your little sister. The broom cupboard format has also been abandoned, replaced in September 1994 with a more traditional studio set up and a host of co-presenters. Still hanging on is Jackanory, albeit having mutated into an improvised story told by Richard Vranch, Jim Sweeney, Lee Simpson, Niall Ashdown and Siobhan Finneran. This, however, will be the last new series of Jackanory to go out in the afternoons. In the New Year it will move to Sunday mornings on Children’s BBC2 for one more new series, and the last edition will go out at 9.10am on Sunday 24 March 1996 with Alan Bennett reading “The House at Pooh Corner”.

Animated antics follow in the guise of Robinson Sucroe, before a 10-minute excursion to theAnimal Hospital: a Rolf Harris fronted tie-in with the 8pm episode later tonight. Then it’s the comedy adventure series MudCBBC has never quite got the hang of humour for children, its efforts dividing roughly into two categories: slapstick or junior versions of “adult” TV. The former includes RentaghostGalloping Galaxies or anything from the oeuvre of the Chuckle Brothers. The latter is often more interesting, perhaps dating back to 1984 and Nick Wilton, Joanna Monroe et al in Fast Forward, a sort of Three of a Kind for kids. Indeed Three‘s David Copperfield did end up working on children’s TV by way of Lift Off! With Coppers and Co!. Another example of the “adult TV jr” template came from the writing team of Mickey Hutton and Daniel Peacock: Hangar 17, a 1993 series attempting to evoke (in a safe way) the ethos of something like Saturday Live. It’s Hutton and Peacock who also write Mud, so it’s somewhat surprising to find this of the slapstick school. Susie Blake stars in a series that has none of the wit of Peacock’s C4 series Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, and in that respect it’s quite a disappointment.

The rest of CBBC pans out as it ever was: Newsround at 5pm and then Blue Peter at 5.10pm. Our BP team today is Diane-Louise Jordan, Stuart Miles and Tim Vincent: self-consciously more hip presenters of old but struggling to discard the mumsy trappings and help the show into a fourth decade on screen. From Monday 3 April BP will take on a third weekly edition, going out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

CITV starts 20 minutes earlier than its rival with The RiddlersWizardora is a throwaway 10-minuter, and the animated adventures of Rupert lack the inventiveness of the Albert Bestall stories from the original Daily Express strips. At 4.15pm CITV shows that, if anything, it’s even less adept at providing comedy for kids. Mike and Angelo is an awful, witless show, yet one that’s bizarrely achieved some longevity having started way back on 16 March 1989. Now with Tim Whitnall in the role of the hapless alien Angelo the series continues its antics unabated. Finally there’s the Pat Sharpe-fronted Fun House. This STV production commits the ultimate sin by making gunge and noise boring. It’s followed by Emmerdale, surely not the most convenient slot for its viewers and a far cry from its primetime predominance in 2000.

BBC2 has taken a far more sedate route through this section of the afternoon. At 4pm comesToday’s the Day, the gentlest of quiz shows, hosted by One O’clock News stalwart Martyn Lewis. Lewis, of course, once famously advocated the promotion of good news, mooting the idea that all reporting should be presented in a way to ensure that viewers are left in a happy state. Today’s the Day is similarly unthreatening, resembling merely the gentlest breeze of distraction. If Countdown were football, Today’s the Day is croquet. Next comes Ready Steady Cook, good fun, often informative and it could teach Today’s the Day a thing or two about tension. The Oprah Winfrey Show follows, and “today, Oprah meets professional people who abuse drugs.” It’s predictable and far too precious, but easily less offensive than its British imitators. Ironic, then, that at the time of writing Ms Winfrey is currently more exposed in Britain than ever before with Sky One, BBC2 and C4 all showing her episodes.

Meanwhile on Channel 4 Ricki Lake is ploughing the same trough, followed by a 10-minute incongruous animation before The Cosby Show. C4 appears to have a lot of faith in Bill Cosby, allowing him to become one of the defining figures of the network. Back for the second time today we see him in the guise of sitcom actor, although his delivery is as sleepy as ever. The Cosby Show is cosy and happy, punctuated only by self-satisfied one-liners from its creator as Cosby loafs around the set making dry funnies and chuckling away to himself. Saved By the Bell: The College Years, if anything, is even less appealing, neatly described by Mark Lewisohn as “a really bad US Saturday-morning teenager’s sitcom and merchandising vehicle”.

After the Six O’clock News and Reporting Scotland BBC1′s night starts, as ever, with Top of the Pops and EastEnders. At 8pm comes Operation Survival, the first of a three-part documentary series on Scotland’s wildlife narrated by Siobhan Redmond, followed by the current-affairs series Frontline Scotland (BBC1 England shows the Michael Praed drama serialCrown Prosecutor). It’s a very Scottish-based hour, though not especially compelling. Once Michael Buerk has read the Nine O’clock NewsJobs for the Girls features Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson reviving the old In at the Deep End format. This series, obviously trading off Birds of a Feather infamy, is easy viewing but Quirke and Robson never have the sufficient off-the-cuff wit as perhaps we hope they might. The BBC will later revive this format – to much the same effect – with comedians Hale and Pace.

Question Time is at 10.10pm, as it should be, with David Dimbleby in the chair live from Leicester. Winding down the night is Quantum Leap. BBC2 has already shown a complete run of the series, ending on 21 June 1994, and billed as “light-hearted sci-fi drama” the programme’s not without merit. Tonight’s episode “Sea Bride” comes from Quantum Leap‘s second season and finds time-travelling hero Sam (Scott Bakula) leaping back to 1954. (In England Quantum Leap was shown today at 6pm on BBC2, with Cagney and Lacey filling the 11.10pm slot.) The whole evening ends with a film, When He’s Not a Stranger: made-for-TV stuff, and a bit of a damp end to a rather damp night on BBC1.

STV follows the evening news with The Home Show, while other regions busy themselves withEmmerdale. Like a lot of Scottish programming, there is nothing actually distinctively Scottish about it. It’s merely the appropriation of a standard format, which is then arbitrarily set in Scotland. The epitome of this sort of practice will be STV’s Scottish Passport: a look at holidaying from a Scottish perspective, as though that makes any sort of difference. 3-Dfollows, part of the traditional Thursday night commitment to current-affairs on the third channel. Over the years we have seen TV Eye and This Week on a Thursday night; but 3-D, now buried in a slot competing with EastEnders and boasting Julia Somerville profiling amateur inventors, represents the end of the road.

At 8pm come the soap-operatics of The Bill and a whimsical episode featuring Reg Hollis deciding to give Sun Hill a floral face-lift. The Trouble With Mr Bean is a repeat of a 1992 episode. Still blessed with the writing team of Rowan Atkinson (who stars), Richard Curtis and Robin Driscoll (Curtis would leave after two more episodes) we find this Monsieur Hulotcharacter over-sleeping, going to the dentist and then helping a small boy with his model boat.Bean is a fun concept and works well in moderation, and quite rightly the creative team have eschewed the idea of creating a regular series for the occasional episode (of which there will eventually be 13 in total).

After Bean comes something quite rare on British TV in the 1990s: an anthology series. Chilleris a collection of five psychological thrillers, beginning tonight with a story starring Nigel Havers and Sophie Ward. This is quite enjoyable and less comfortable viewing than its most obvious precursor, Tales of the Unexpected. Then after News at Ten it’s imported US sitcom Married With Children. Self-consciously boorish and vulgar, it may be a refreshing antidote to Bill Cosby’s efforts yet the programme is over-blown and over-played. The Simpsons, its stable mate in America (both originating from the Fox Network), has already wittily parodied the show via the image of a flushing toilet eliciting whoops of laughter from the studio audience. The British version starring Russ Abbott (retitled Married for Life) would slink onto our screens in 1996 and deservedly slink back off into oblivion after just seven episodes. Then at 11pm it’sPrisoner: Cell Block H with that unique combination of the irritatingly camp and desperately grim.

BBC2′s evening starts with what’s become the one timeless staple of our Thursdays throughout the years: the Figure Skating Championships. After being shunted into a later and later timeslot over the years on BBC1 it’s finally been dumped onto the younger channel. Then it’s almost two hours of Gaelic programming (with English viewers enjoying Quantum Leap plus They Who DareWaiting for God and a variety of regional magazine documentaries) before 8pm and Life With Fred. Here we follow steeplejack Fred Dibnah, surely one of the first MOTPs to become a bona-fide celebrity on British TV, going about more of his familiar demolition work. Top Gearfollows, with Jeremy Clarkson delivering an excellent magazine programme for motor enthusiasts.

At 9pm we find, much as we did five years ago, a Peter Richardson comedy. The Glam Metal Detectives is a sketch show of sorts, mainly based around the exploits of a secret-agent rock band with regular interruptions akin to the channel being changed. It’s fast paced and covers a lot of bases, but it feels (ironically) five years behind the times, much as The Comic Strip felt somewhat adrift in 1990. Most of the cast (particularly Doon Mackichan and David Schneider) will go on to more successful work elsewhere; Richardson won’t. At 9.30pm it’s another hour of the World Figure Skating Championships before Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman. At 11.15pm Mark Lawson chairs Late Review, a less exasperating but still awkward offshoot from The Late Show. Lawson’s panel pick apart their subjects with glee, while the host ensures that most importantly of all he always gets his say and gets to deliver his painfully unfunny round up of “arts news” at the start of each edition.

At midnight come 30 minutes of the Open University before The Record, a look at events today in Parliament. Then it’s over to BBC Select, the Corporation’s attempt at a subscription service featuring specialist factual programming. Here programmes are transmitted encrypted, with a decoder box required for the subscriber to unscramble the signal (although in practice there have already been many occasions when the BBC have neglected to switch on the encryption). This somewhat demented service started in 1992 at 2am on BBC1 with The Way Ahead, an explanation of disability benefits. Despite speculation of entertainment programmes in the pipeline, one of the very many dead-ends in the multitude of rumours concerning possible avenues for repeat showings of Doctor Who, the service is near the end of its life. It will shut up shop in October to be amalgamated into The Learning Zone.

Channel 4 follows its news bulletin with the regular 10-minute public-access window The Slot. Then it’s the second of a four-part series Alien Nations with Andy Kershaw investigating the changing identity of Europe – the sort of journalistic series that, it appears, only C4 would countenance running. The Pulse is an investigation of health issues, which then dovetails into one of C4′s flagship documentary programmes, Secret Lives. The strand seeks to reassess the life of a public figure, generally focusing on the more unfavourable aspects that have to date been kept hidden. Yet it never feels like a scurrilous, salacious undertaking, thanks chiefly to the depth of research that’s on display. Indeed, the BBC will later appropriate the format with their Reputations programme. Tonight’s subject is Lord Louis Mountbatten, and we’re given cause to ponder upon his sexuality, his marriage and his military career.

Next up, it’s the highlight of our TV day, Jimmy McGovern’s Hearts and Minds. The writer has already enjoyed a tremendous critical and ratings success with his crime drama Cracker, but this is a quieter work, following the progress of supply teacher Drew (played by Christopher Eccleston) at a Liverpool comprehensive school. Given McGovern himself used to be a teacher, this really has the ring of authenticity about it from the depressing staff room to the raggedy pupils. It’s the last episode tonight, culminating in the production of a school play directed by Drew which he uses to mirror his own personal and professional plight. But this isn’t some ham-fisted tale of retribution and redemption; aside from a fleeting moment of victory everything ends in futility. It’s affecting, emotional and gently polemic, and easily McGovern’s best work.Adult Oprah at 11.05pm cannot compete, but things look up again just before midnight withThe Obituary Show culled from C4′s eccentric arts programme Without Walls. Tonight’s subject for a mock eulogy is Norman Wisdom.

C4′s night-time schedules comprise a repeat of yesterday’s Dispatches, followed by American Patchwork: Alan Lomax’s account of a journey around the States discovering the country’s native songs and stories. At 2.30am comes a five-minute filler, Puttin’ on the Ritz (a dance animation) before the Jack Benny comedy The Meanest Man in the World. This finishes up at 3.40am, affording C4 a closedown of about three hours until the TV day begins anew.

STV’s nighttime service has advanced little in the seven years since it first started, tonight’s line-up looking as ill conceived and careless as ever. As in 1990 we start with a US mini-series, in this instance Poor Little Rich Girl, followed by Edward Woodward looking quite uncomfortable as The EqualizerCinema, Cinema, Cinema at 3am possesses all the invention of its title, while Noisy Mothers is a desperate-to-be-dangerous (desperation being the antithesis of danger) magazine programme about heavy metal music. Then, for no particularly obvious reason, we have a repeat of Tuesday’s Scottish Action, followed by Jobfinder and The Littlest Hobo. The latter’s presence in the schedule is an utter mystery, but remains galling no matter what time of day it is shown. Finally we’re back where we started as ITN steal the march on GMTV with the Morning News.

So ends 1995, and with a roll call of programming mostly indistinguishable from that we’ll receive in 2000. Only BBC Select stands out as a fairly glaring anachronism; otherwise, all the main components are steadfastly in place. Bar one, of course. On Sunday 30 March 1997 Channel 5 began broadcasting. At the time of writing, it is mostly making news for its desire to curb its reliance on “football, films and fucking” and for having just pilfered Home and Away from ITV, indicating its accent on pornography and US chat shows have failed to prove particularly influential in the long run.

Otherwise, the most significant developments have occurred away from terrestrial TV. On 1 October 1998 BskyB would launch its digital 140-channel service, followed six weeks later by OnDigital’s 15-channel version. By 2000 the BBC is even toying with permanently attaching an on-screen ident to all its channels, one of the more brazen declarations of its new and enthusiastically-welcomed Director-General Greg Dyke. Channel 4 is also about to follow Film Four with another pay-per-view channel, E4.

Looking back over the whole 20-year period, it’s relatively simple to pick out the victors. BBC2 has ended up far more vital and worthwhile channel, entertaining and informing with real style. Channel 4′s in similarly fine fettle, moving from an uncomfortable birth and wayward early years to really hit its stride in the early 1990s. ITV, however, is less easy to call. It has moved from a more diverse and scattershot schedule to a far more homogenous parade of programming, but it doesn’t follow the former is obviously better than the latter. While the line-up for 1980 boasted variety, drama and current affairs and documentary, it’s a safe bet none could compare for production values with 2000. Yet as reported elsewhere efforts like Steve Penk’s TV Nightmares and Tonight With Trevor McDonald fail to have any impact at all. If it’s a case of having to cherrypick quality from amongst quantity, the task does seem harder in 2000 than two decades earlier, but by no means terminally so.

In short, ITV seems to have moved from the pursuit of one impossible dream (a BBC-esque all things to all people) to another (a swaggering Sky Television-style showcase). In contrast the BBC1 of 2000 is a definite shadow of what it once was: uneventful and almost purposely bland, as if the channel was happy to tread water for 24 hours. There was a zenith of sorts in 1985, when Pebble Mill at One was the master of all it surveyed, when EastEnders was still new and challenging, when Only Fools And Horses wasn’t just “another welcome chance to see …” and when Miss Marple still had new cases to solve. But since then the peaks feel like they’ve come in spite of rather than because of any grand plan. 2000 marks the end of the John Birt years, and while some would argue he saved the Corporation from itself, others would see these featured schedules from 1990, ’95 and 2000 as covered with his ubiquitous fingerprints. Greg Dyke’s arrival can only feel like a relief, and a chance for BBC1 especially to put its house in order.

TV24 seemed to find much of the television of 2000 wanting. Yet roaming back through history has made for a vastly more complex picture, one where the idea of such things as “good” and “bad” programmes change according to the fortunes of the TV shows around them, the stars that grace them, and the people who schedule them. In some ways the TV of 2000 could only have been an improvement on anything that came before: from a technological point of view it certainly was. In others it felt lacking a certain character, a personality, which the passing of time always encourages us to bestow on days and years gone by. Over the last 20 years the content and structure of terrestrial television in Britain has gradually shifted. In close-up this is often imperceptible, like grains of sand gently sifting past each other. However when we step back and look across a span of 20 years, it’s surely to our enduring benefit that we can make out a vast savannah that has been remoulded behind us, and also to note – with an inevitable nostalgic pang – the long and winding road we have taken through it.