1994 – 2003

By Ian Jones, Steve Williams and TJ Worthington

First published April 2004

1994 – The Day Today

Such was the attention and praise won by Radio 4′s On The Hour (1991-92), it was perhaps inevitable that the team responsible would be offered the chance to make a television adaptation. Yet while On The Hour had deftly parodied the unflappable humourlessness and straight-faced credulity of radio current affairs by presenting outlandish hoax conceits using the stylistic techniques of genuine news broadcasts, the TV version, renamed The Day Today, took as its cue the elaborate visuals and news-reverence that characterised the likes of Newsnight and Channel 4 News. Much of the show’s ensuing success was down to the brilliance of the writing and the hilarious graphical effects that gave reality a slight absurdist tweak rather than going for out and out silliness. But the glue that held it all together was the superb ensemble playing of the cast, and the ludicrous gallery of news-fixated characters that they created. Doon MacKichan, Rebecca Front, Steve Coogan and David Schneider all gave consistently outstanding performances, but the real honours must go to Patrick Marber and (in his first television role) Chris Morris as the show’s stern authoritarian anchorman. The numerous sequences in which Marber’s indolent and perpetually unprepared reporter Peter O’Hanrahahanrahan felt the wrath of a furious Morris (“Peter, you’ve lost the news!”) were a joy to behold. Impressively, The Day Today was also as comfortable with short unhinged bursts of surrealism as it was with extended set pieces based around a single concept, such as a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the tedious staff of a municipal swimming pool or Morris’ one-man parody of MTV. Then there was Coogan’s Alan Partridge, still a mere sports reporter possessing a worrying obsession with the concept of “sport” itself rather than any individual activity, who was to graduate to his own BBC2 chat show later in 1994. Despite the intentions of some of the cast there never was a second series of The Day Today, but all of the participants – including writer Peter Baynham and producer Armando Iannucci (not to mention writers Stewart Lee and Richard Herring, who worked on On The Hour but left the show before it transferred to television) – went on to more high profile work. The Day Today still remains their most accomplished collective effort. A mark of its brilliance is how many of its concerns, from the overliteralism of news graphics to the baffling elevation of uninteresting reality TV stars, have since become permanent fixtures in the schedules.

1995 – Ready Steady Cook

One of BBC2′s biggest legacies during the 1990s was the evolution of a phalanx of leisure programmes, dealing in such things as gardening, DIY, motoring and, most notably, cookery. Ready Steady Cook, however, was perhaps the first to blur the line between factual and entertainment programming. The series began in 1994 as part of a major drive to boost the channel’s late afternoon audience – at the time dominated by the likes of Countdown on Channel 4. With children’s programmes on BBC1 and ITV, there was a huge adult audience up for grabs. The concept was simple enough: two members of the public bring in a fiver’s worth of ingredients, and two chefs then attempt to whip up a meal from them in 20 minutes. It succeeded because it was very much aimed at real people, showing recipes that could be made quickly and cheaply. There was also the game show aspect, with much banter between the chefs, the contestants and host Fern Britton. By 1995, episodes were being screened in peak-time, and in 1997 the show transferred to BBC1 for some celebrity specials. Similar cookery challenges soon showed up on other channels, and many of the chefs who first appeared on the show graduated to their own series on BBC2. A decade on, despite a change in personnel, the original show remains an afternoon staple.

1996 – The House

Fly-on-the-wall documentary making had a tradition on BBC2 dating back to Man Alive, but it had been a while since a high-profile commission had reminded viewers of the channel’s expert grasp on the genre. The House had taken several years to first plan then produce, but had the fortune to arrive on screen when the conflicts and consternation it depicted were still very much live and making contemporary headlines. The series charted the turbulent upheavals facing the Covent Garden Royal Opera House during the mid-’90s as it decided to embark upon a massive programme of transformation at precisely the same time it hit financial calamity. Centre stage, in all senses of the word, was former C4 boss Jeremy Isaacs, now the Opera House’s Chief Executive. Isaacs was determined to respond to criticisms that the organisation had become too exclusive, expensive and badly managed. Unfortunately he came up against a wall of prejudice and sheer contempt on the part of his immediate staff and in particular the procession of visiting opera companies and orchestras he was forced to do business with. It had been a very long time since a British institution had been so painfully laid bare to the unfettered eye of the TV camera, and The House won huge publicity for the ease at which it had apparently gained access to all the key players in the ongoing fiasco. Egos, tantrums and full-blown stand-up rows left the Opera House’s reputation in tatters; but it wasn’t just personal failings that were on display. A catalogue of professional incompetence afforded the watching audience a valuable insight into the hapless ways of the country’s chief cultural leviathan. At one point, to cope with the inconvenience of building work, the company proposed that a temporary Opera House theatre should be built at Tower Bridge. Plans fell through within a month. Isaacs would quit in December 1996, 12 months early, officially in protest at Government subsidies, but in truth his character had taken such a battering from The House it’d become impossible for anyone to take him seriously. A textbook example of BBC2 documentary-making, The House achieved that much sought-after goal of turning the fortunes of an otherwise élite and remote institution into a story that could be enjoyed by all.

1997 – This Life

Having arrived on screens in spring 1996 to a nonplussed response from viewers and a mixed critical reaction, word of mouth did most to elevate This Life from a niche favourite to a nationwide talking point. Halfway through the second series the show suddenly started garnering recommendations a-plenty in the broadsheet press and extended write-ups in style magazines. It helped that an epic 21 episodes had been ordered for its return outing, and as summer 1997 continued This Life‘s permanence in the schedules translated into a snowballing media frenzy. As it became clear nobody had commissioned a third series, however, the hubbub turned to hysteria and the Beeb ended up painted as heartless incompetents, slated for letting such a universally-praised hit judder to an apparently premature end. The Observer even ran multi-page profiles of all the cast. The outcry far exceeded the expectations of Michael Jackson, who as erstwhile BBC2 Controller had laboured long to add a youth-orientated soap to his channel, but who now could only look on helplessly as his successor Mark Thompson dithered, unable to announce whether This Life would return or not. In the event, despite a few draft scripts being penned, the programme vanished. On balance it was just as well. As a near-perfect document of mid-’90s popular culture, the show could easily have become a parody of itself had it meandered on through the decade. Those crucial signature elements – the ever-present handheld camerawork, Britpop-fashioned soundtrack (Skunk Anansie, Elastica and Portishead all present and correct), unfussy depictions of casual sex and drugtaking, memorable title theme from jobbing sessioneers The Way Out, and notoriously bad episode titles – “The Bi Who Came In From The Cold”, “Wish You Were Queer”, “Milly Liar” and “Apocalypse Wow” – would’ve become clichés, and This Life‘s distinctive freshness, humour and dynamism ended up anachronisms. Best remember it this way, as the finest drama serial of the 1990s.

1998 – Working Lunch

There had been attempts at financial programmes on British television before, most notably Channel 4′s Business Daily, which ran for a number of years in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. None were as successful, though, as Working Lunch, mostly thanks to the fact that it was accessible to an audience whose only investments were a savings account. The most obvious reason for its popularity came with its presenters – affable Brummie Adrian Chiles and the wry Adam Shaw. Both knew their stuff, but could communicate this in an interesting and viewer-friendly way, and were assisted in their task by a number of equally knowledgeable and witty reporters. The programme wasn’t just aimed at those watching in financial institutions, either, with regular items on what big decisions meant to the man in the street. Just as the important was the way the programme was presented, with its goldfish “mascot” and daft graphics succeeding in stripping away jargon and pomposity. Adrian and Adam both capitalised on the programme’s success with further light-hearted consumer shows and a regular role on the BBC’s Budget coverage, but both have stayed with Working Lunch for its entire life: proof of the show’s success.

1999 – The League of Gentlemen

Compared to the length of time some comedy acts spend slogging around the stand-up circuit in the hope of that elusive big break, The League of Gentlemen managed to become very famous very quickly. The quartet – Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and non-performer Jeremy Dyson – won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1997, had their own series on BBC Radio by the end of the year, and made it onto screens less than 18 months later. It perhaps shouldn’t be surprising, though – the League had a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge of film and television, especially fantasy and horror, and knew exactly how they wanted their programmes to look and sound. The episodic, character-based comedy of their stage shows also meant it was easier to translate to television than some of their contemporaries’ work. With Gatiss, Pemberton and Shearsmith playing all the roles, there was a striking and memorable visual aspect to their act that worked on TV too. Most importantly, it was very funny indeed – certainly at the start, anyway. The first series in January 1999 was a big success, receiving the sort of fandom regularly found with science-fiction shows but rarely with comedy (Red Dwarf perhaps the only other example). Two more series and a Christmas special followed, though throughout it evolved hugely, moving away from silliness and one-offs and into a more dramatic serial format – indeed the final run dispensed with the usual sketch-based format to concentrate on self-contained episodes featuring the various characters. It also dispensed with a laugh track and, it appeared, most of the laughs too. Somehow The League of Gentlemen had moved from parodying the horror genre to become pretty much a part of that genre itself.

2000 – When Louis Met…

Louis Theroux’s earliest appearances on BBC2 came as part of Michael Moore’s transatlantic TV Nation series in the mid-’90s. Theroux was one of Moore’s reporters who would meet bizarre people or carry out experiments – perhaps the best example involving the team moving into a suburban house, playing unsettling sound effects and hanging blood-stained sheets out to dry, to see how long it would take the neighbours to do something. When Moore moved over to Channel 4 in 1998, Theroux stayed with the BBC and launched a new series, Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends. In many ways this was a continuation of the sort of thing he’d been doing on TV Nation – in each episode he would spend time with people involved in controversial or unusual circumstances, such as porn stars, wrestlers or extreme right-wingers. Theroux would make the most of his rather naive persona by catching his subjects off-guard, getting them to open up much more than they might otherwise have done. The shows worked as they were proper journalism, while also including a great number of humorous moments – both intentional and otherwise. Then a special programme in 2000 saw Theroux spend a few days following Sir Jimmy Savile, coming up with jaw-dropping moments (such as Savile boasting about tying up troublemakers when he ran nightclubs) that were talked about for days afterwards. There was felt to be some mileage in the format, so the following year the exercise was repeated with a light-hearted romp where Louis visited Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee. The next documentary, with the Hamiltons, took an unexpected turn when the pair were arrested during filming, Theroux therefore landing himself a scoop with the accused’s side of the story. More interviews followed in 2002, though it seemed apparent that the excitement was wearing off; it was hard to see what an hour in the company of Keith Harris really achieved. Nevertheless, Theroux was Executive Producer of the later BBC2 series The Entertainers, a similiar premise with a camera crew following the likes of Bernard Manning and Bernie Clifton about their daily business at the arse-end of showbiz. Still, if Theroux’s shtick was wearing thin by the end, the image of Paul Daniels bullying a student to watch his wife’s ballet will live long in the memory.

2001 – I Love the Eighties

Spring 2001 was the high watermark of nostalgia telly, with both BBC2 and Channel 4 unexpectedly wheeling their big guns into play at exactly the same time. While C4′s Top Ten strand had been around for years, however, BBC2′s I Love … was barely 12 months old. Indeed, the follow up to the hugely entertaining I Love the Seventies wasn’t really expected to turn up so soon. As it was I Love the Eighties arrived in January 2001, foolishly scheduled directly opposite Top Ten, and upping its length from 60 to 90 minutes to boot. The series clearly aspired to be something even more ambitious and definitive than its predecessor, yet the expanded running time seemed to work against the format, leading to padding and a less focused take on its subject matter. With almost 100 pundits appearing in some editions – roughly a new talking head every 60 seconds – the programme struggled to avoid subtracting credibility from its surfeit of contributors. If anything did more to equate nostalgia television with the idea of a parade of minor celebrities passing in front of the lens to utter one sentence, it was I Love the Eighties. Then there was the reminiscence itself, and to what degree it possessed enough impact to stick in the mind. Recollections of I Love the Seventies inevitably resolved into memories of people talking about the subjects rather than the subjects themselves: Stuart Maconie’s tribute to Gregory’s Girl or Bjorn Borg, Julie Burchill on yoghurts or Just Seventeen, Peter Kay on Rubik’s cubes or No Limits. With I Love the Eighties, often your memory was simply of the pundits themselves: Stuart wincing, Peter singing, Ice T nodding. In truth I Love the Seventies smacked of long term planning and a well-executed over-arching grand plan, while I Love the Eighties was poorly sequenced (too many short items early on, or lengthy ones later, and vice versa) to the detriment of worthwhile subject matter which ended up not getting the treatment you felt it should. While offering up an impressive array of clips and contributors, ultimately I Love the Eighties was magpie television: a bit of this, a bit of that, the 90 minute format never completely mastered.

2002 – Trouble at the Top

A decade ago, few would have imagined laughing out loud at a programme about finance. That was until Trouble at the Top, the first in a series of business strands under the auspices of Executive Producer Robert Thirkell. What the production team realised was that big business wasn’t all statistics and formal meetings – the treachery, in-fighting and blunders that took place in big companies were often funnier and precipitated more dramatic consequences than you’d see in fiction. Trouble at the Top followed various Directors either trying to launch a new business or turn around a failing company, such as Gerald Ratner setting up a chain of health clubs, or John Myers attempting to turn the hapless Derek Hatton into a radio presenter while launching Century FM. Further shows followed, such as Blood on the Carpet, which examined notable boardroom bust-ups (such as Radio 1 management or darts administrators) via bitchy interviews, bombastic voice-overs and melodramatic reconstructions. The department also produced stand alone series, witnessing the launch of a publishing company and the construction of the Millennium Dome, and they were also responsible for an overhaul of The Money Programme. In some cases, such as when the series were telling the stories of the battle over competing versions of Bucks Fizz, or the disastrous relaunch of Coca-Cola, the results were so compelling that viewers may not have even realised they were watching a business programme. Where Trouble at the Top and its sister shows excelled was in always concentrating on the human drama behind the facts and figures, democratising business television by making it accessible to all.

2003 – The Great War

As BBC2′s 40th anniversary approached, it seemed somewhat fitting that the channel had decided to re-screen all 26 episodes of its first ever programme of note, The Great War. Produced by the Beeb’s Tonight Unit back in 1964 for the expressed purpose of giving BBC2 something high-profile and substantial to air during its first 12 months, at the time it broke new ground and won numerous plaudits for its use of rare archive material intercut with first person testimony from those who managed to live through the battles of World War I. Understandably, the prospect of enjoying such a landmark series from start to finish for the first time in ages was a tantalising one, and The Great War‘s long-awaited re-appearance was heralded with much favourable publicity, and a thoughtful documentary tracing the programme’s difficult evolution. A sensible and imaginative plan was announced to show each episode every Saturday evening, with the next instalment immediately afterwards on BBC4. And, for three weeks, that was exactly what happened. But then came an unexplained two-week gap, after which another war – in Iraq – intervened. BBC4 pressed on regardless, ending up several weeks ahead in its run by May – at the same point BBC2 decided they’d re-start The Great War. BBC4 had to go back to where its sister channel had left off, ending up showing some episodes up to four times in a row. An uninterrupted BBC2 run followed, but after just one month tennis, athletics and others meant yet another postponement. A fed up BBC4 abandoned their side of the agreement and bundled the whole series out in two weeks. The Great War then returned to BBC2 in August with episode 10, but more unexplained disappearances meant that by November the end was still far from sight. The year closed with occasional episodes appearing buried on a Saturday afternoon. An undignified shambles, the treatment meted out to The Great War spoke volumes about the channel’s attitude to long-running series and its increasingly wayward scheduling. It also made for a decidedly inept manner in which to both remember and celebrate BBC2′s historic 40 years on screen.