1984 – 1993

By Ian Jones, Steve Williams and TJ Worthington

First published April 2004

1984 – The Adventure Game

Originally conceived as an adult learning series, but thankfully later reformatted as a kids’ show, The Adventure Game achieved that rare distinction of successfully marrying education with entertainment via one of the most, on the face of it, preposterous conceits imaginable: A BBC teatime series set entirely on an alien planet, peopled by grumbling aspidistras, dragons, backwards-talking eccentrics and a gregarious butler. Of course what emerged was charm itself, and one of BBC2′s best ever children’s programmes. Adorned with a suitably evocative title theme, and supported by a convincing repertory of regulars (including Moira Stewart, Lesley Judd, Chris Lever and Bill Homeward), The Adventure Game operated in a world and at a pace entirely of its own, which was in part why it was so addictive. By 1984 the show was into its third series and still at the peak of its powers, attracting participants as high-profile as Richard Stilgoe, Chris Serle, Sarah Greene and Noel Edmonds along with representatives from the sporting world such as Neil Adams and Duncan Goodhew. All took their science-based tasks ultra-seriously, and the programme was the better for it; had anybody started playing to camera the thing would’ve fallen to pieces. Similarly the guests were expected to exaggerate their personalities and quirks – why else had they been invited on? – hence Ruth Madoc would “chance” upon a three-note xylophone, ready and waiting for a tailor-made “Hi-de-hi!”, and the complex dynamo-related riddle prepared for Heinz Wolff would obviously not turn up for Ian McCaskill. Lovingly created and produced by Ian Oliver and puzzle genius Patrick Dowling, and all carried off with a great spirit of fun and wonderment, The Adventure Game was a perfect union of celebrity, humour and intelligence. It was also blessed with enough iconic moments to stay firmly implanted upon the memories of a generation. “Doogy rev!”

1985 – Edge of Darkness

Murky, noisy, badly lit and frequently unclear to the point of being impenetrable, Edge of Darkness was, in the words of The Guinness Book Of Classic TV, “the definitive text of 1980s television”. A sprawling epic encompassing international espionage, government conspiracy, environmental destruction, nuclear supremacy, smothering bureaucracy and police corruption, it depicted all the great overarching concerns of the decade writ large upon a canvas of personal and political paranoia where no-one seemed to be on anybody’s side except their own. Although writer Troy Kennedy Martin rooted his scripts in wilfully obscure quasi-fantasy and philosophical concepts involving the eternal battle between mankind and nature, the navel-gazing and pontificating was expertly undercut by fantastically frantic and tense direction from future Bond film director Martin Campbell, while producer Michael Wearing – having already overseen one BBC2 landmark, 1982′s Boys from the Blackstuff – played go-between to ensure the best of all possible outcomes. Famously given an almost immediate repeat screening on BBC1, Edge of Darkness was also representative of the Beeb’s sudden burst of inspirational contemporary drama in the mid-’80s, sharing a field with The Monocled Mutineer, The Singing Detective, Blott on the Landscape and The Lives and Loves of aShe-Devil. It would be another 10 years before BBC2 found itself at the centre of a similarly high profile and productive outbreak of both groundbreaking and wildly popular drama.

1986 – Windmill

In the mid-1980s, archive television was still something of a rarity. Clip-based shows were few and far between, generally only commissioned to celebrate an anniversary and quite limited in choice of illustration. Other shows, from Ask Aspel to The Old Grey Whistle Test, had to varying degrees experimented with archive footage as a regular feature, but were restricted in terms of subject matter and available screen time. Windmill, however, was where all of this changed. The show is now perhaps best remembered for having a wildly disproportionate theme tune – an assembly of synthesised handclaps and quasi-guitar sounds played over a riff seemingly borrowed from Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Two Tribes – but in its own understated manner, Windmill was every bit as exciting as its title sequence. Essentially, the show was a collection of clips on a given subject, linked with background information from an avuncular Chris Serle. The title referred to the BBC’s Windmill Road archives, and the production team scoured the lengths and breadths of its cavernous storage areas for each weekly instalment of little-seen and long-forgotten vintage clips. The thematic approach of the series allowed them literally to “go” anywhere within the BBC’s vast output. For example, a show about “music” took in such disparate clips as Les Dawson’s piano playing, Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop demonstrating how he created the haunting music from The Body In Question, and ancient crackly footage of Sir Huw Wheldon accidentally breaking a harpsichord live on air (which, as Serle pointed out, was taken from a film print of such poor quality that it was covered in stickers urging “Do Not Use”). For anyone with an interest in archive TV, Windmill was essential viewing, and it proved so popular that BBC2 quickly launched two further shows taking the format to different audiences: DEF II‘s Babylon II, in which comedians such as Stephen Fry and Harry Enfield picked footage from their favoured childhood viewing, and Boxpops, where eclectic clips were linked by video effects in the style of ITV’s The Chart Show. Windmill was a pioneering effort, demonstrating the under-realised value of the BBC’s archive. Its legacy can be seen in works as diverse as Doctor Who DVD releases and the I Love … series.

1987 – Secret Society

Commissioned from BBC Scotland by the then Controller of BBC2 Graeme McDonald back in June 1985, Secret Society was the brainchild of freelance journalist Duncan Campbell. Six 30-minute programmes, “each illuminating a hidden truth of major public concern”, would revolve around Campbell detailing a particular aspect of national security that had previously been, if not deliberately then certainly conveniently, hushed up. Initially, none of this raised any alarm bells with McDonald, or his beleaguered superior Alasdair Milne whose tenure as DG had already involved a string of controversies. Indeed, nothing more was heard or discussed about the project until April 1986, when a request arrived from BBC Scotland to bug a private detective who claimed he could access a Criminal Records Office computer. After due legal consultations Milne agreed and work on the series continued. It was only several months later at the press launch for BBC2′s autumn season that the gravity of Secret Society became clear – Campbell promised revelations, amongst other things, about Government plans in time of nuclear war – and fiercely-worded warnings began to arrive at the Corporation from a distressed Whitehall. Threats followed from BBC Governors, but Secret Society didn’t become a full-scale crisis until it emerged that one episode was to disclose the existence of a secret spy satellite codenamed Zircon. Milne panicked, and asked Assistant DG Alan Protheroe to personally find out just what was going on and, crucially, whether it was all legal. A desperately messy and undignified runaround ensued, as Protheroe’s concerns led to the Ministry of Defence’s D Notice committee getting involved, the Zircon episode being pulled from transmission, and a furious Campbell setting up private screenings of the programme in Parliament. In the midst of all this Milne himself was sacked, and Protheroe had to take out a legal injunction against Campbell to stop him showing the tapes to anyone else. The uproar climaxed in the police staging a well-publicised raid of BBC Scotland’s offices in a bungled attempt to find leaked Zircon documents and bring a prosecution against the Corporation for breaking the Official Secrets Act. Protheroe even ended up in jail for a short period for refusing to co-operate with the search. The entire sorry chain of events proved fuel to the fire of those, including new DG Michael Checkland and his deputy John Birt, who believed the Beeb’s news and current affairs operations were out of control. Protheroe quit the BBC shortly afterwards, but the Zircon episode of Secret Society had to wait four years and the intervention of another channel before receiving an official broadcast as part of C4′s 1991 Banned season.

1988 – Screenplay: The Black and Blue Lamp

By the late 1980s standalone one-off plays – once a given in BBC1′s schedules – were becoming something of a rarity. Thankfully, BBC2 was on hand to fill the void with a long procession of avant-garde, thought-provoking and humorous dramas. The most exceptional of these was The Black and Blue Lamp, broadcast as part of Screenplay in 1988. Its opening, in black-and-white, was deliberately identical to The Blue Lamp, the 1950 film that introduced the character of PC George Dixon (murdered in the film, but later resurrected for Dixon of Dock Green). Then, a few minutes in, something strange and unexpected happened: The Black and Blue Lamp switched sharply, in mid-scene, onto colour videotape. It began to become clear that its two central characters had somehow travelled forward in time and swapped places with present-day namesakes. In fact, they’d wandered into a violent 1980s crime drama, The Filth, which as its The Bill-inspired title sequence made clear, was populated by bent coppers forever on the lookout for a way of earning ill-gotten money. What followed was a challenging picture of changing attitudes to law and order, as a hapless PC struggled to cope with his unfamiliar colleagues’ ethically and professionally lax attitude to their job. A previously cocksure villain is also seen openly whimpering at his abrupt introduction to the world of police brutality (“You can’t hit me – you’re the bogies!”) The Black and Blue Lamp deliberately posed harsh questions about modern attitudes to law and order, and indeed to issues of screen violence, but was also unrepentantly comedic and refreshingly refused to labour its points. Indeed, rather than ending on a hard-hitting note, it concluded with even more confusing and amusing scenes as the existence of the “time twins” was uncovered by baffled station staff. “Intertextuality” in its most literal sense – long before the term became a journalistic and film-making cliché – The Black and Blue Lamp is a superb piece of work, long overdue a repeat.

1989 – A Bit of Fry and Laurie

Two and a half years after first appearing on BBC2 in a pilot edition trundled out on Boxing Day 1986, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie were finally handed a full-blown series to play with. They’d maintained their profile through regular appearances on Radio 4 and C4′s Saturday Live, but A Bit of Fry and Laurie was the long-expected debut of the pair as sole stars within their own programme. Of all the various sketch show and comedy offerings surfacing on BBC2 in the late 1980s, the self-penned, self-performed whimsical and unconventional musings of Stephen and Hugh easily outranked the competition in terms of sheer innovation and consistency of humour. Astute, intelligent and cerebral sketches forwarded the kind of cunning wordplay, linguistic acrobatics and fooling around with sentence construction that leant itself to instant repetition just as much in the school playground as the workplace. Crucially their ventures into dense, literary dialogue were never highbrow just for the sake of it, as any hint of self-indulgence was always countered with physical buffoonery, exaggerated mannerisms and jokes made at the expense of how words sounded. Comic archetypes cropped up just as much as our hosts appearing as “themselves”, and given how there was never a large budget to work with the pair made a virtue of cutting corners, most strikingly by appearing in a completely deserted black studio. Above all there were the wonderful spoof vox pops. Done on film, usually recorded in a typically anonymous provincial high street, the pair fired off meaningless and arch responses to unheard questions, parodying a strand of inane banter and man-in-the-street statements common in news and current affairs reportage: “Sometimes I think they ought to build a ring road round the ring road”; “They’ve got hotter pavements, I know that”; “A good smack in the face, she deserves it” and “I wouldn’t suck it!” Rarely has sketch-based comedy been so dazzlingly inventive and eminently quotable.

1990 – The Late Show

Its creator dubbed it Britain’s “first daily arts show” – a somewhat inaccurate description, seeing how it was broadcast in the dead of night and was modelled on that other “first” daily arts show Late Night Line-Up. But Michael Jackson, speaking on the programme’s much-trumpeted debut in January 1989, couldn’t care less about such nitpicking. Launching The Late Show had marked the realisation of his long-held dream to restore a regular culture-based talking shop to BBC2 – a task that he’d been personally recruited to discharge by channel boss Alan Yentob. For Jackson, this was what TV should be all about: innovating, challenging and informing. Unfortunately whatever aspirations underpinned The Late Show‘s design, its execution left a lot to be desired. The programme’s presenters were a gruesome bunch, more-suited for the world of the broadsheet columnist than live television: erstwhile Network 7 host Tracy Macleod, the loquacious Michael Ignatieff, the earnest Waldemar Januszczak, and the decidedly overbearing Sarah Dunant. All were lit much too brightly in the studio, and all spent far too much time lecturing viewers on what they should like rather than letting us make up our own minds. The biggest publicity The Late Show ever landed was when Elvis Costello came on and said “fuck”, which then made the Radio Times letters page. A somewhat indigestible and infuriating nightcap, The Late Show eventually stuttered into oblivion in the mid-1990s, but its spirit valiantly lived on in Late Review and more recently Newsnight Review.

1991 – Have I Got News for You

It seemed an unlikely hit show: two virtually unknown comedians and a barely more famous satirist sitting behind a desk, making jokes about the week’s news. Indeed, virtually the only press coverage the first series of Have I Got News for You received came from the Evening Standard, who opined it featured “some of the ugliest people ever seen on television”. Even its own channel failed to give it much of a fanfare. Yet those who stumbled across the Friday 10pm transmissions (or perhaps more likely the Saturday repeats, broadcast at a seemingly random time each week, often hours before the watershed) were in for a treat. Angus Deayton, Ian Hislop and especially Paul Merton soon garnered a reputation as the most savage satirists around. There were no sacred cows on this programme, with anything and everyone up for grabs; though as the series continued the relationship between the three regulars and their guests became arguably as important as the topical jokes themselves. Word of mouth saw viewing figures increase, helped by a BAFTA for Best Light Entertainment Programme in 1992. By the mid-’90s it had become far and away BBC2′s most popular show, with viewing figures often nearing 10 million. At the end of the decade the series was poached by BBC1, though it could be argued that it was already past its best. However the ratings – and, indeed, the publicity generated by Deayton’s dismissal in 2002 – would suggest it could still run for many years to come.

1992 – Dance House Energy Party

Janet Street-Porter’s teatime DEF II strand was undoubtedly responsible for some thoughtful and intelligent music programming, with the likes of Behind the Beat and Snub. However the genre was never covered as successfully, and as entertainingly, as Normski’s fondly-remembered romp. Dance Energy began in 1990, and at the start was a fairly anonymous series, covering rap, house, rave and R’n'B via a couple of live acts in the plain white studio and some brief news reports. After three series of this, though, big changes were made intended to produce a series unlike any other music show. The most obvious revamp came with the name, and the action relocating to Normski’s “house” – via a patently obvious studio set. A much broader music policy was introduced as well, with indie bands and chart pop finding a place on the show – sensible given how the scene was evolving. Comedy was introduced with Normski’s “flatmate” Vas Blackwood participating in sketches throughout, while the “Style Squad” segment was basically an excuse for Normski to go out on the street and take the piss out of the general public’s clothing. So successful was this light-hearted approach that Street-Porter was moved to utter her famous comment: “Comedy is the new rock’n'roll”. Given the state of Top of the Pops at the time, it’s not surprising that the new show was a big hit. Sadly, after two series a further overhaul saw a name change to D Energy and the removal of much of the humour – and just a year later both the show, and DEF II, came to an end.

1993 – Westminster Live

After being defeated by just one vote back in 1966, it had taken another 23 years before a motion allowing Harold Macmillan’s self-dubbed “monstrous machines” into the House of Commons was finally passed. On Tuesday 21 November 1989 pictures from the main chamber arrived on BBC2, on the occasion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech. Despite an exhaustive set of rules limiting what could and could not be shown – no wide angles, no quick cutaways, MPs could only be filmed from the chest upwards – a 60-strong production team had been established to monitor output from the eight remote control cameras dotted around the Commons. Coverage choked up BBC2′s daytime schedules for the first few weeks, but the frustratingly static and restrictive images weren’t helped by a decidedly clunky presentation and a huge cluster of BBC experts and commentators desperate to be seen and heard as often as possible (whenever the PM stood up to speak, a voice would boom out, “The Prime Minister now stands to speak”). A tonic soon arrived, however, in the shape of the dramatic sequence of events leading up to Mrs Thatcher’s resignation as Prime Minister at the end of 1990, starting with Anthony Meyer’s leadership bid in December 1989, the poll tax demonstrations the following spring, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August, and above all Geoffrey’s Howe resignation speech in the Commons on 13t November. Suddenly pictures from inside Parliament were appearing in daily news bulletins, and BBC2′s regular coverage, Westminster Live, took on increasing significance as a window on some of the most vivid political upheavals of recent times. A couple of years later, and with the popularity and obvious worth of the coverage self-evident, so those restrictions on what could be screened were eased. It all meant that come July 1993, and a crucial debate on the Maastricht Treaty which threatened to bring down John Major’s Government, viewers were able to enjoy a ring-side seat for the most nail biting parliamentary vote ever seen on TV – absolutely live.