Happy Birthday BBC2

Tuesday, April 20, 2004 by

An evergreen marker of a TV channel’s health is how it fares when trying to celebrate itself. There are few better indicators of a network’s level of steely self-confidence, or how comfortable it feels with its own personality and identity, or even its capacity for unashamed exuberance and good times, than how it responds to the prospect of organising a bit of prolonged, lavish navel-gazing. Channel 4‘s sulky insistence on lifting not one finger to commemorate its 20th birthday in 2002 had far more resonance than any gloomy bulletins about staff lay-offs or tumbling profits, while repeating the embargo one year later on its 21st anniversary provided joyless confirmation, were it needed, that things still hadn’t got any better.

Previous BBC2 attempts at such festivities haven’t really scored that highly either. In 1984 the opportunity to indulge in some 20th birthday chicanery was forfeited for a boring 25 minute documentary and a special edition of the lugubrious Did You See? The revelry when the channel turned 30 wasn’t that much better: a theme night – then the height of fashion – helmed by perhaps BBC2′s most famous Controller David Attenborough, comprising amongst others a new episode of Call My Bluff with guest captain Joanna Lumley, a creaky edition of Show of the Week, endless classical music and the film Network, which originally premiered on Channel 4.

This time round, on the occasion of BBC2′s 40th, matters proved to be thankfully a whole lot more assured, immediate and – well – celebratory. Out, perhaps daringly, went all concern of appearing too self-indulgent or of wallowing in the triumphs of programmes long gone; out, too, went all thought for self-restraint and even-handedness.

Through its length alone – a dazzling three hours – Happy Birthday BBC2 was a programme to be taken seriously and which demanded to be treated as an event: precisely the right approach for something endeavouring to accomplish a definitive audit of four decades of television. Stylistically, it positively hummed from a battery of carefully-honed elements: a distinctive recurring montage showcasing past channel idents; sensitively chosen background music; expertly-selected footage both rare and familiar; and a teeming cast of contributors to illuminate, de-mystify and warmly reminisce as required.

The job of the clip show pundit has latterly acquired a potency Tutankhamun-esque in its potential for unleashing calamity. Too many talking heads ineptly deployed or ineffectively briefed can subtract all credibility from even the most promising subject matter – some of the later I Love … efforts, or C4′s ongoing 100 Greatest … strand, testify to this. But a small number of contributors can wreak just as much havoc: the same faces get wheeled out over and over again, each sequential appearance to comment on a new topic leaving the viewer increasingly disinclined to trust their authority and predisposed to conclude they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.

That Happy Birthday BBC2 opted for the former, an ensemble easily numbering over a hundred, but got away with it and, indeed, positively benefited from such a diverse throng, was its supreme achievement. The roll call of the great and the good was vast: feted luminaries willing to revisit their shakiest of screen debuts (Martin Jarvis, Richard Curtis, Anthony Minghella, Patrick Stewart); erstwhile junior executives-turned-pillars of the TV establishment (Alan Yentob, Michael Jackson, Mark Thompson, Will Wyatt); plus folk who you’d really thought might have had something better to do, and who only looked in for perhaps 20 or 30 seconds, but still had concise, pertinent anecdotage to impart (Brian Blessed, Si├ón Phillips, Michael Jayston, Denis Tuohy, Mo Mowlam, and virtually the entire repertory of DEF II).

This was punditry of first class vintage, with virtually no second wasted on superfluous verbose scene-dressing. You were left wanting more from such an array of practiced raconteurs, glad of the sort of illumination that complements rather than competes with the associate reams of archive footage. Particularly enjoyable were Ian Richardson’s fulsome recollections of struggling through the read-through for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – “Alec’s learnt it!”; Will Wyatt’s proud boast that 40 Minutes was responsible for “the absolutely all time worst programme on television” (a semi-dramatic edition told from the perspective of alien visiting Earth); typically uncompromising observations from Tony Garnett and Michael Wearing, between them responsible, it seems, for nigh-on all of BBC2′s flagship contemporary drama; and Sarah Dunant effusing like the old days about how exuberant it was to help launch The Late Show.

Pride of place, however, has to go to Chris Needham. What were the odds of him turning up in the middle of an official valediction to 40 years of BBC2, and what’s more helping himself to five minutes and more of its running time? The attention and acclaim rightfully directed towards his Video Diary was an apex of inspiration. Tracking him down for some up-to-the-minute conversation – “I didn’t expect people to write to me from all over the country; I didn’t expect to actually write back to them, particularly some of the more good looking laydeez – oh yes!” – delightfully confirmed he’s still got what it takes.

A similar degree of insight manifested itself in the choice of clips. The usual classic and well-known stuff was all there, and rightfully so, but there were also profiles of less familiar series such as Louis Malle’s India and Empire Road, a keen take on more recent landmarks – Conspiracy, The Hunt for Britain’s Paedophiles, Great Britons – and some absorbing extracts pulled out of the vaults: a cat bolting across a football pitch in an early Match of the Day; a respectably-dressed woman intoning “I am a Communist, and I’ll tell you why!” from black and white talking shop Let Me Speak; a gobsmacked civil servant from Secret Society‘s Zircon investigation, mouth agape in silent horror before whispering, “I can’t talk to you about that, I’m afraid”; and fly-on-the-wall film from The Death of Yugoslavia shot at the meeting where the country’s government decided to make war on itself.

Three hours is a long haul for one sitting, but thankfully there were plenty of toilet and tea breaks in the shape of some risible and completely pointless sketches from the Dead Ringers team. Clumsy, woefully acted and desperately unfunny, it’s a mystery why it was thought necessary to include them, especially as the stellar qualities of all the other programmes saluted in Happy Birthday BBC2 merely made them look all the more shoddy, unfocused and forgettable.

Any other complaints, however, were tiny by comparison. There was a slight lop-sidedness to the three hours – we’d reached BBC2′s 20th anniversary after the first 60 minutes – and there was surely something more relevant to include from Esther Rantzen than a snide remark about those who disliked Desmond Wilcox’s style of documentary-making (“It irritated a lot of constipated critics” – although from the accompanying clip of the man emoting terribly in front of a wronged housewife it was easy to agree with them). A second segment about Newsnight felt like it’d been parachuted in as a last-minute replacement for some other, hastily excised, effort; and there was an unfortunate air of insincerity about all that Jane Root had to say (was Ricky Gervais winning two awards really the thing she valued most about her five and a half years at BBC2?) Then again, perhaps the incumbent controller of any TV network throwing a party can’t help but end up appearing to revel in the efforts of their forerunners.

Happy Birthday BBC2 concerned itself with no messy revisionism or point-scoring, no desire to pitch a view of the channel as being the preserve of this or that agenda. What it was bothered with, singly and wonderfully, was the business of highlighting and exploring as much as it could manage of BBC2′s output: the note-worthy and the notorious, the obvious and the less well-remembered, but always the deserved and the exciting. A finer tribute by and for a TV channel you’d be hard pressed to find.


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