By Ian Jones

First published April 2004

20 years ago this month, senior figures within the BBC were busy fashioning what they considered to be the most appropriate way of officially commemorating two decades of BBC2. It couldn’t be anything too frivolous or irreverent – this was to be a serious occasion. Shameless self-indulgence was right out: heaven forbid the Corporation appear smug at a time when it was facing serious competition from Channel 4, the finances were rickety and morale was low. In the end viewers were treated to a single 25-minute documentary, a special edition of Ludovic Kennedy’s TV talking shop Did You See?, and that was it. You’d have been forgiven for not noticing the anniversary at all.

Thankfully it looks like this year’s 40th birthday celebrations are going to be something more substantial, and indeed something a great deal more celebratory. It goes without saying that BBC2 has played an absolutely vital role in the development and character of British television, and that notching up four uninterrupted decades on screen – surviving numerous strikes, controversies, identity crises and several attempts to get it shut down – is a hugely significant achievement.

OTT’s salute to such an auspicious anniversary takes three forms. Firstly, we’ve compiled a run down of 40 of BBC2′s most noteworthy programmes, both feted and otherwise, arranged chronologically with one for each year the channel’s been on air. We’ve also assessed the respective merits and shortcomings of the 10 people who’ve held the privileged position of BBC2 Controller since the station was launched. Lastly, we’ve pinpointed a selection of key dates in the channel’s history, when a notable event impacted upon the fortunes of BBC2 for good or ill.

BBC2 is currently facing one of those perennial debates about what and whom precisely it is for. It’s also looking for a new boss, and competition from rival channels – both terrestrial and digital – seems greater than ever. Yet it’s been here before, and survived to emerge stronger and even more popular. The next 40 years are sure to be worth watching.