Ten into Two

Steve Williams on 10 days that shook BBC2

First published April 2004

1. The Forsyte Saga begins – 1967

Those who complain about the licence fee funding BBC channels they can’t receive have clearly forgotten the particularly soft launch of BBC2. Much like BBC3, the channel required new equipment to be viewable, as it was broadcast on the new 625-line system – while BBC1 and ITV were still only transmitted on 405 lines. There was an added complication in that not every transmitter began carrying BBC2 at once – only viewers in London could see it open, and full coverage of the UK wasn’t achieved for many years. Those who could receive it didn’t seem in much of a rush to convert their TV sets either, given reports that the new channel was highbrow and snooty. The unspectacular original schedule didn’t help, with each night themed (Monday for entertainment, Tuesday for education and Wednesday for, er, repeats) in a system that came across as resembling a school timetable.

The BBC then decided to deploy a “killer app” – a much-hyped, expensive series that would be exclusive to BBC2 and get viewers switching over to the channel for possibly the first time, in the hope they would stick around and watch the rest of the output. This programme turned out to be The Forsyte Saga, a lavish 26-part adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novels, and featuring an all-star cast headed by Kenneth More and Eric Porter. The series was the brainchild of producer Donald Wilson, who had spent years chasing after the rights, and was convinced that the story would hold viewers’ attention for six months. It cost ¬£250,000 to make – a new record – and the production schedule was exhaustive and complex, so many fingers were crossed when the series debuted in January 1967.

It was worth it, though. The average audience for each episode was six million – which, given that less than nine million people could see the channel, was some going. Furthermore, the number of households converting their sets to 625 lines increased by 300% the month the series began. What was important was that The Forsyte Saga was a hit with all viewers, not just an √©lite. It wasn’t originally announced that there was to be a BBC1 repeat – the BBC wanted people to make the switch to the new channel – but eventually there was a rerun in the autumn of 1968, pulling in millions of viewers and permanently nestling near the top of the charts for six months. Since then it’s gone down in the annals as a highpoint in television drama – but it’s also the programme that made BBC2 a hit.

2. Colour comes to BBC2 – 1967

Another piece of TV history about The Forsyte Saga was that it was the last major drama the BBC ever made in black and white. On the day the series ended, Saturday 1 July 1967, a further landmark arrived, as BBC2 broadcast the first programme on British television in full colour. It was obvious that the station would debut colour in the UK – it was still the only channel transmitting on 625 lines. However it was touch and go whether the BBC would be the first in Europe to do so, as German television were also experimenting. In the event the UK made it, the first ever colour programme proving to be live action from Wimbledon. Originally the service was considered “experimental”, and only a handful of programmes were broadcast in colour each week, making about five hours in total – though the fact that Late Night Line-Up was one of them meant that there was almost always some every night. One other good reason for launching the service on BBC2 was that perhaps the channel appealed more to the sort of people who would be able to afford colour sets and licences in the first place.

Colour was “officially” launched on the second channel on 2 December, and from this point most programmes were made in this format (though this wasn’t an immediate switch-over, and it took some time for everything to be made in colour as a matter of course). It was also now available all over the country rather than just via the major transmitters. One side effect of this was that BBC2 now saw many more major events simulcast on the channel, alongside normal monochrome transmissions on BBC1. For example, the FA Cup Final was broadcast on both channels in both 1968 and 1969 to show off the new system (given it was also on ITV, viewers who disliked football must have been very annoyed), and the Mexico Olympics in 1968 were also covered on both – here BBC2 viewers had their own colour programmes presented by David Vine. The Beatles’ film Magical Mystery Tour was premiered on BBC1 in monochrome at Christmas 1967 and received a colour repeat a few days later on BBC2, while landmark documentary The Royal Family was broadcast on both at the same time.

Colour (and 625 lines) finally arrived on BBC1 in November 1969, and one of BBC2′s unique selling points of the previous two and a half years was now gone. By this point, though, the number of viewers who could pick up the channel had increased so that it was now available alongside BBC1 in the vast majority of homes.

3. The Community Programme Unit is opened – 1972

The BBC’s Community Programme Unit has been one of BBC2′s most prolific contributors for the past three decades. The unit was opened in 1972 with the purpose of putting real people from all walks of life on screen, and representing issues and parts of society that didn’t always get much TV exposure. Their first production, and perhaps their most famous, was Open Door, a weekly series that saw various groups and societies come to the studio to explain their views. It produced much worthwhile television, but also one of the most notorious moments in BBC2′s history.

During one series, the production team were contacted by an organisation known as Albion Free State, who announced that they were “a major political force for anarchy” and claimed there was no free speech on television. Partly in an attempt to call their bluff, producer Mike Bolland invited them in to the studio to appear on Open Door. Bolland recalled that two men arrived – one dressed as a gorilla, one as a wizard – who proceeded to have a fight backstage, but eventually made it onto air. What viewers saw, however, was a tree, a chair and a crude sign announcing “ALBION DANCES”, while the wizard stood in front with a notice saying “Sorry, BBC TV said not more than one person in the studio – we’re going to let the tree represent everyone!” before walking off. For 15 minutes, the cameras zoomed in and out on the tree, the chair and the sign, while a tape played experimental “music” and snatches of conversation. Bolland, who was having great fun filming this, later described it as both “the most boring 15 minutes of television ever transmitted” and “the scariest”.

Later output from the unit included Open Space, a series were each week people would be given half an hour of television time to produce a film on something they were passionate about. The unit gave the contributors training in how to make TV programmes and editorial control, and some interesting films resulted (although some, such as Professor Ellis Cashmore suggesting that it was wrong to censure athletes taking drugs, seemed somewhat pointless). Later there came Video Diaries, a notable and much-parodied series from the early 1990s, which gave the contributor even more control over what appeared on screen, and if nothing else was responsible for the legendary In Bed With Chris Needham. The end of the ’90s saw Video Nation, short two-minute vignettes from peoples’ lives dropped into the BBC2 schedules whenever there was time to fill, and almost always surprising whenever you stumbled upon them.

4. BBC2′S opening hours are extended – 1979

For the first 15 years or so of its life, BBC2 was limited in its intentions by the number of hours it broadcast a week. The BBC’s perilous financial state through much of the ’70s – indeed, BBC2 was sometimes threatened with complete closure while the BBC and the government argued over increases in the licence fee – meant that, with the odd exception, it would only broadcast in peak hours. In 1978, it would normally open up at 11am for Play School, close down straight after, open up a few times in the afternoon for adult education or the Open University, and then open up “officially” at 7pm, staying on air for the rest of the evening until a closedown around midnight.

In 1978, the decision was taken to increase BBC2′s opening hours – by moving the evening’s start time from 7pm to 5.40pm. It perhaps doesn’t seem a big deal, as it meant only 80 minutes extra a day, filled mostly by imports and repeats. However this plan was foiled by the broadcasting unions who wanted more pay to deal with the extra hours of programming – as did those working in BBC Radio, as Radio 2 was intending to start transmitting 24 hours a day. In the event, the new start time, announced for November, was postponed, and the union dispute ballooned into an all-out strike before Christmas.

Eventually a settlement was agreed and the 5.40pm start time was made official in the New Year. It meant there was room for a wider range of entertainment on BBC2, with repeats of Harold Lloyd films and imports such as The Water Margin proving particularly popular with viewers who didn’t want to watch the news programmes on the other channels. It also increased BBC2′s output for young people, with series such as Dear Heart and Tucker’s Luck that would perhaps not sit comfortably among BBC1′s normal children’s output, but worked when aimed at a slightly older audience in the early evening – something that can still be seen on both BBC2 and Channel 4 to this day.

5. Channel 4 is launched – 1982

In the three-channel TV set-up of the 1970s, BBC2 had an obvious selling point – it was there to provide an alternative for viewers who didn’t want to watch the crowd-pleasing entertainment on BBC1 or ITV, and could be used as somewhere for the BBC to experiment with new talent and ideas. One great example of this is Boom Boom … Out Go the Lights, two programmes in 1980 and 1981 produced by Paul Jackson, which gave exposure to a number of stars from the burgeoning alternative comedy scene, such as Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle.

However on 2 November 1982, Channel 4 launched, and suddenly BBC2 was no longer on its own. At last the commercial broadcasters had a second channel that could be used to schedule complimentary programmes, take the more worthy and unpopular parts of the schedule off its hands, and break new talent in front of and behind the camera. Indeed, Channel 4 had an obligation to commission programmes from new independent production companies. The BBC were worried, notably thinking that they might lose all the new comic talent to the new broadcaster. Indeed, Peter Richardson had already approached C4 boss Jeremy Isaacs with his idea for the Comic Strip films, utilising many of the writers and performers that had received their TV debuts on BBC2. Worse still, the young audience could move across with them.

Author Roger Wilmut in his book Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law? suggests that this desperation was more or less the only thing that convinced BBC2 to allow Paul Jackson to make a pilot for a new sitcom he’d pitched. An even more pressing need may have been a last-minute studio cancellation needing a programme to fill it. Apparently the BBC were not crazy about the completed pilot, and commissioned another before finally giving it the go-ahead. Seemingly, however, they eventually realised that this new series, The Young Ones, was very much the next big thing, and that the people involved – all writers and performers, many of whom had a growing following on the live circuit – might be worth trying to entice to the BBC. Whether by accident or design, the series was scheduled for Tuesday 9 November 1982, seven days after the launch of Channel 4, and was not an instant hit – but it did generate a very loyal, mostly young audience, and by the end of the second series had become a bona-fide success. From the BBC’s perspective, the great effect of the series was that most of the personnel remained with the Corporation to produce influential and critically acclaimed comedies in the years to come. Better still, BBC2 had a series with heavy youth appeal to combat the threat from Channel 4.

6. School’s programmes move to BBC2 – 1983

BBC2 has always been an unusual channel in terms of what its purpose is. The programmes it shows are often unique and couldn’t be seen on any other channel – or at least, any other BBC channel. It’s the place that people look for challenging and unusual output. However, it has to balance this with its connection to BBC1, and its role as home for a lot of output that is basically offloaded onto it from the parent channel. The relationship is very much the little sister to BBC1′s big brother.

The move of schools’ programmes from BBC1 to BBC2 in September 1983 is a good example. The BBC was committed to broadcasting schools’ programmes, but it also wanted to launch a full service of entertainment during the day. Hence the schools’ output was transferred to the second channel (Play School going in the opposite direction after nearly two decades on BBC2). One bonus of this was that on BBC2, there were no fixed spots to work around, such as the news, so more time could be given over to schools’ output and it could become a more self-contained service. In later years, other daytime output moved over; in 1987 the See-Saw programme for young children was shifted to BBC2, followed in 1994 by Playdays, Play School‘s successor. In both cases this was to allow BBC1 to compete more effectively with ITV for the wider audience during the day.

Regularly, when the Budget, a sporting event or breaking news was taking place, BBC2 would often have to abandon their normal daily output and make room for the children’s programmes that had been shifted over from BBC1. During some big sporting events, such as World Cups, BBC2 sometimes had to rearrange their schedules at the last minute to provide a better alternative for football haters. Even more usual was an obligation to take lengthy slabs of sports coverage that BBC1 had neither the time or inclination to show – during the Wimbledon fortnight, for example, some 10 hours a day is given over the championships, with only a small percentage of the regular output remaining on air. Sometimes this stops BBC2 getting more of a coherent identity, like Channel 4 enjoys. However, there are some plus points …

7. 18 million people watch snooker – 1985

One of the most obvious advantages of BBC2 including a vast amount of sports coverage is that it can often pull in some very big audiences. The most pertinent example took place on Sunday 28 April 1985, when the World Snooker Championships had reached its climax and Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor were battling it out during a particularly tense final. It ended up going to the wire, easily exceeding its scheduled slot, until Taylor snatched victory in the final frame. 18.5 million people were watching, which remains not only the biggest ever audience ever recorded at midnight, but also BBC2′s highest audience ever. On average 14.4 million people watched the final, and only Coronation Street had more viewers on any channel that week.

BBC2 has never been guaranteed those sorts of massive ratings regularly, as the channel has never had a long-running series that can always pull in millions of viewers. It’s normally special events that can reel in huge audiences – most notably the premiere of Wallace and Gromit’s A Close Shave on Christmas Eve 1995. The 10 million who tuned in were part of BBC2′s biggest audience of the ’90s, no doubt helped by the fact there were religious programmes on both BBC1 and ITV at the same time. In the 1980s, particularly high-rating shows included the sitcom Lame Ducks, which got 11 million viewers in 1984 (in the Monday night spot opposite Panorama and World In Action), the coverage of Live Aid, watched by an average of 10 million and, bizarrely, a repeat of The Two Ronnies in August 1985, enjoyed by 11.7 million people.

Nowadays BBC2 can’t hope for viewing figures like that – thanks to the huge number of other stations now broadcasting, and also because there are no longer any slots where BBC2 is the only entertaining alternative to serious documentaries on the other channels. Snooker coverage is also nowhere near the draw it once was. The six million audience that watched The Office in September 2002 is now incredibly high by BBC2 standards, with the accepted definition of a hit show now being one that gets more than three million in the ratings. For the most part, this means lifestyle, comedy, episodes of The Weakest Link, and, still, sports coverage – the final of the World Darts Championships in January is still one of the highest rated BBC2 programmes of the year.

8. BBC2 launches a new logo – 1991

Despite being the home for a great deal of cutting edge comedy, compelling documentaries and unusual drama, the image of BBC2 at the end of the 1980s tended to be that of a boring, highbrow channel that had little to offer the general audience. Part of this perception was thanks to the way the station presented itself. The channel’s current logo, debuting in 1986, was very much of its time – the word “TWO” spelt out in pastel shades on a white background. It was felt that this was an attempt to move BBC2 upmarket, but its subdued nature certainly made the channel feel fairly dull. “I realised there was a problem almost as soon as I took over,” admitted Controller Alan Yentob. “It was obvious that the logo made no impact – it was singularly unmemorable, and told you nothing about the personality of the channel.”

Come 1991, it was time for a revamp. One reason for a change was because the Corporation wanted to emphasise the BBC’s logo in the new station identity, and make both BBC1 and BBC2 identifiably part of the same organisation. Hence the new on-screen image – unveiled on screen on Saturday 16 February – involved the BBC’s logo at the bottom of the screen, and a large “2″ numeral in the centre (BBC1 had much the same, though obviously with a “1″ instead), devised by designers Lambie-Nairn. So far, so ordinary. What was different, though, was that there wasn’t just one logo, but, initially, 11. Each featured the same “2″ numeral, but in each it was either against a different background or, even more unusually, made of a different material.

The “2″ offered much greater flexibility, as it was clear enough to be seen at a small size, and could be used in a huge number of different ways. New logos arrived on a regular basis, and over the years became more and more imaginative and humorous – the “2″ appeared as a kebab revolving on a spit, or a Venus flytrap snapping shut, and there were endless variations commissioned for various theme nights. It’s rare that a logo can make such a difference to a channel’s perception, but although there was relatively little change to the schedules, surveys now suggested that viewers considered BBC2 a lively, entertaining channel – all thanks to the sans serif figure and its adventures between the programmes, drawing attention to how the station could appeal to all. The original “2″ lasted for over a decade, surviving a change in the main BBC logo, and a steady stream of new variations kept on appearing. Even when the logo package was withdrawn completely in 2001, the replacement still involved the same “2″ numeral. In many ways the 1991 logo overhaul was BBC2′s best ever idea.

9. The Simpsons moves to BBC2 – 1997

The legendary animated series first made its debut on terrestrial television in November 1996 – some six years after it arrived on Sky One. Debuting to a huge fanfare, its original slot was Saturday evenings on BBC1, with a repeat the following afternoon on BBC2. However, viewing figures weren’t as spectacular as the BBC had hoped, and after four months, it was decided to shift the series. It was moved permanently over to BBC2, who from Monday 10 March 1997 broadcast the series twice a week on Monday and Friday evenings at 6pm. ITV, who had also bid for the series, were reported in the press as calling this panicked rescheduling “a major embarrassment for the BBC”.

In fact, it turned out to be nothing of the sort. Some four million people tuned in to each episode – no great shakes on BBC1, maybe, but excellent by BBC2 standards. The teatime slot attracted a wide range of viewers who didn’t want to watch the news – it really was fun for the whole family. The fact that the BBC had begun showing the series many years after its launch meant there were a huge number of episodes on the shelf, allowing a very long run. Repeats pulled in almost as many viewers, meaning that new episodes could be rationed and the The Simpsons could effectively stay on screen all year round. The series also had use as a spoiler, often deployed against new programmes on other stations, most obviously Channel 4. The show’s permanence translated into a guaranteed ratings winner for BBC2, and at a point in the schedules that had previously been home to all manner of imports and repeats. It was no surprise when, in February 2002, it was decided to strip the series five nights a week at 6pm. For many people, there was now a routine of coming home from work and turning straight to BBC2 for 20 minutes of entertainment.

However, at almost exactly the same time the new schedule was unveiled, Channel 4 announced that they’d bought the series and would be showing new episodes from the autumn of 2004. Apparently BBC2 had declined to bid for further runs when the cost per episode had spiraled way beyond what they had considered paying and had started moving towards “football match prices”. While they still had the series for the immediate future, thought now had to be given to what would replace it. Controller Jane Root said that she was excited about the new opportunities the slot coming free provided, and that producers should be thrilled to get the chance to make programmes for the best slot on BBC2. Hence from the end of 2002, The Simpsons disappeared from screens for a few weeks at a time while trial runs of new programmes were tried out in its place. Quizzes such as the revival of Treasure Hunt and new show Traitor, and lifestyle series including Would Like to Meet and Get a New Life, were all deployed, but none seemed to really catch the public’s attention. Indeed, more or less the only verdict these shows received were “Bring back The Simpsons!” Come 2004, the most popular and reliable series BBC2 has in the early evening remains Homer and co. What eventually replaces it will be one of the key decisions the channel will have made in recent years.

10. BBC4 is launched – 2002

When there were only two BBC channels, BBC2′s role was clear – providing a home for all manner of challenging and highbrow programmes that didn’t sit comfortably on the mainstream BBC1. However, there are no longer just two BBC channels. In 2000, it was announced that BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge, the low-budget channels launched in the early days of digital television, were to get a complete overhaul and a huge budget increase to become the more substantial BBC3 and BBC4. The name changes were significant – these channels were to become an obvious part of the BBC family, sitting alongside BBC1 and BBC2 and, in a digital environment, each having their own role to play. BBC1 would continue to offer mass-market programming, BBC3 would aim at the young with experimental comedy, drama and factual programmes, and BBC4 would be unashamedly highbrow, with foreign films, prestige cultural output and landmark documentaries. But what of BBC2? Previously it had done all the things that both BBC3 and BBC4 were going to do.

BBC4′s launch on Saturday 2 March 2002 – with the first five hours simulcast on BBC2 – was accompanied by much gnashing of teeth claiming that this meant that BBC2 was to abandon challenging and serious output entirely, moving it to a separate channel that viewers had to pay extra to watch and wouldn’t stumble across by accident. This wasn’t entirely the case. As BBC4 wasn’t available in all homes, BBC2 had to continue producing cultural programmes for a wider audience – it still screened the Proms, current affairs series and discussion shows. A further advantage was that much of BBC4′s output was later repeated on BBC2, normally as part of a BBC4 “zone” a couple of nights a week after 11pm. This meant that there was actually a whole lot more serious output on BBC2, with quality documentaries broadcast late at night as well as that which still went out at peak time. Similarly, when BBC3 launched in 2003, most of its major comedy shows – such as Little Britain and Nighty Night – were swiftly repeated on BBC2, and were completely new for the majority of viewers. Again, BBC2 was also obliged to continue producing original series for viewers who hadn’t yet switched to digital.

This won’t continue, though. When analogue transmissions are switched off in years to come, all viewers will be able to see BBC3 and BBC4, and hence there won’t be any reason to repeat the output on BBC1 or BBC2. At that point it will need to be considered what the role of BBC2 is within the BBC’s portfolio of channels. Certainly at the moment its role seems to be the least well defined of the four. It’s perhaps only lifestyle series such as Gardeners World and Home Front that you really can’t see fitting on any of the three, as well as some of the more public service parts of the output like schools’ programmes. But will this be enough to justify a whole channel in the future?

However, this is more or less where we came in. 40 years ago, BBC2 launched to a sceptical public, requiring new, expensive equipment to see it and with a brief to take up some of the less popular aspects from the existing service – something that sounds very similar to recent events. Few could have imagined that from that botched start, BBC2 would go on to become an essential and much-loved part of the TV landscape, albeit in a radically different form (you wouldn’t get an evening devoted to “hobbies” on the channel today, or indeed any channel). So who can say what shape BBC2 will take in 40 years time?