1964 – 1973

By Ian Jones, Steve Williams and TJ Worthington

First published April 2004

Across its four decades on air BBC2 has been responsible for a huge array of programming that has in no small way shaped the TV landscape we know today. To reflect that, we’ve picked a programme from each of its 40 years thus far that we feel is demonstrable of a different facet of the channel.

Below you will find the hits, the misses, those that led the way and those that shamelessly jumped on board a bandwagon that happened to be rolling by. Make no mistake, this isn’t The 40 Best BBC2 Programmes Ever – but it is, we hope, the 40 most representative.

1964 – The Likely Lads

It’s ironic that when The Likely Lads began – probably the first BBC sitcom to be based recognisably in regional England – BBC2 couldn’t even be received in the North East. Hence only viewers in London and the West Midlands saw the launch of one of the best-loved and most iconic comedy shows of the decade. It’s well known how the series came about: Dick Clement was taking a BBC director training course and had to mount a production, so asked his mate Ian La Frenais to help him write a script. Michael Peacock saw the pilot and instantly snapped it up for the new channel. One notable aspect of The Likely Lads was that it helped quash the theory that BBC2 was aimed simply at a cultural √©lite – here were recognisable characters, with the same problems and aspirations as millions of people around the UK. Of course, episodes were soon repeated on BBC1, and were deservedly a huge hit, but it was Peacock’s belief in two new writers that saw the series make it to the screen at all.

1965 – Man Alive

Determined that BBC2 should possess a string of reliable bedrocks within its schedule, Michael Peacock’s successor David Attenborough had taken immediate steps on his appointment to advance preparations for a regular documentary series. Michael Latham, a producer at the Beeb’s current affairs department in Lime Grove, was chosen to take the lead in developing what finally emerged on screen as Man Alive. Purposefully exploiting BBC2′s remit to both complement and provide an alternative to its sister channel, Latham structured his programme as a vehicle for exploring absolutely any topic at all, with the proviso that it was presented where possible from the perspective of an ordinary member of the public. Other distinguishing features quickly emerged: a 50-minute running time, the longest for any documentary on TV; a roster of strong, passionate presenter-producers, including Desmond Wilcox, Esther Rantzen, John Pitman and Trevor Philpott; a willingness to address, albeit in an occasionally prudish manner, hitherto taboo subjects and issues; and a brilliant theme tune composed by Tony Hatch blessed with a catchy finger-clicking riff supplied by Wilcox himself – a reflection of the man’s hands-on approach to the evolution of the programme. Man Alive soon became a BBC2 staple, running for six months every year and churning out numerous contentious, pioneering films. Its hosts became feted celebrities in Lime Grove, provoking as much veneration as enmity, and when Wilcox became overall editor the programme often resembled little more than his personal plaything. Spin-offs came and went – The Man Alive Report, The Man Alive Debate – and the series rose and fell with equal constancy in the estimation of BBC management. An enduring embodiment of the ethos of BBC2′s early days – a bit shambolic, self-consciously challenging, often self-indulgent – it was eventually axed in 1982 by Will Wyatt, incoming Head of Documentaries, who replaced it with the more streamlined Forty Minutes (thusly named to prevent individual directors turning in episodes that over-ran).

1966 – Theatre 625

Of all the early drama strands tried out by the fledgling BBC2, Theatre 625 offered the most diverse and intriguing selection of work. Unlike its contemporaries Story Parade, Out of the Unknown and Thirty Minute-Theatre, the series unashamedly aspired to be a shop-window for established writers and their wares, pitching itself halfway between an apprenticeship for budding dramatists and a showcase for swaggering literary classics. Theatre 625 sank into public consciousness through its presentation, week in week out, of sturdy new works and adaptations, expertly produced and consummately acted. Highlights included Giles Cooper’s Unman, Wittering and Zigo (1965) charting the fortunes of a public school teacher suffering at the hands of sinister pupils in his care; a remake of Nigel Kneale‘s groundbreaking adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 (1965); Alun Owen’s celebrated trilogy of Liverpool-Welsh plays Progress to the Park, No Trams to Lime Street and A Little Winter Love (1965); John Hopkins’ Talking to a Stranger (1966), a quartet of plays starring Judi Dench, Michael Bryant and Maurice Denham covering one despairing weekend in the life of a suburban family, later dubbed by George Melly “The first authentic masterpiece written directly for television”; a three-part adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour (1966) by Giles Cooper, featuring Edward Woodward, Vivian Pickles and James Villiers; the tragicomedy Pirandello’s Henry IV (1967) by Robert Muller; Harold Pinter’s The Basement (1967) starring the writer himself; and The Fanatics (1968) by Rudolph Cartier starring Alan Badel and Leonard Rossiter. Many luminary figures within the BBC served time producing Theatre 625, such as Graeme McDonald, Philip Saville and Cedric Messina, but key to the whole operation was director, dramatist and writer Michael Bakewell, who’d pioneered arts programming on both radio and television since the early 1950s. Even though Theatre 625 failed to outlast the decade, a number of its plays were later given a repeat airing on BBC1, including Nigel Kneale’s The Year of the Sex Olympics and Alan Plater’s trilogy To See How Far It Is.

1967 – Late Night Line-Up

From its theme tune straight out of a smoky jazz cellar to its intentionally minimalist set and nattily attired presenters like Joan Bakewell and Tony Bilbow, Late Night Line-Up (and its weekend counterpart The Look of the Week) could not have been more evocative of the 1960s arts scene if it had tried. Yet its remit went far beyond the expected highbrow hallmarks of arts coverage, meaning that viewers were as likely to see Dennis Potter and Johnny Speight being interviewed, American singer-songwriter Tim Buckley playing live, or even a young Michael Palin and Terry Jones performing sketches as they were to see features on abstract artists or avant-garde composers. The diversity of the show is perhaps best exemplified by the three most widely-known extracts, all coincidentally dating from 1967: a feature on the BBC visual effects department, with explanations of how various monsters were created for Doctor Who; an examination of the phenomenal cult appeal of The Magic Roundabout, featuring a rare interview with the series’ creator Serge Danot; and Pink Floyd performing live in the studio complete with their legendary light show, before taking part in a remarkable interview with the show’s somewhat condescending and certainly underwhelmed music critic Dr Hans Keller (“My first question is this – why does it all have to be so terribly loud?”) Arriving with the launch of BBC2 in 1964, by 1969 Late Night Line-Up had become one of the first British television programmes to be recorded and broadcast in colour, and continued to present unusual angles on contemporary culture through to 1972. As a mark of its significance, the show was exhumed in 1986 as part of the celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the BBC television.

1968 – The World About Us

Searching for a cheap yet impressive vehicle for showing off the Corporation’s new colour television service, David Attenborough hit upon a highly convenient idiosyncrasy he recalled from his days as a producer. Although it had only ever been shown on screen in black and white, the majority of footage shot by both amateur and professional travellers and explorers during the 1960s had actually been filmed on Kodachrome. The BBC was sitting on a readymade archive of material that depicted some of the environmental and biological wonders of the world in glorious technicolour. Out of this came The World About Us, launched in 1967 and which Attenborough scheduled for maximum exposure on early Sunday evenings. Each 50-minute programme comprised either natural history-based efforts originating from BBC Bristol, or more travel-orientated packages pieced together in London. Straightforward and unpatronising, the show was an immediate hit and more or less established the template for the presentation of nature and geography on television that persists to this day. It also helped glamorise the life of the global adventurer thanks to perennial profiles of Jacques Cousteau’s latest underwater quest and innumerable journeys along the planet’s longest rivers. Eventually the amount of archive amateur footage ran out and The World About Us became solely a showcase for Bristol-produced output. It was axed in 1986, but had already proved the foundation for all of Attenborough’s own natural history epics, Wildlife on One and countless other series.

1969 – The Money Programme

Launched in April 1966 as a low-key current affairs strand, The Money Programme was the first attempt by any broadcaster to offer viewers a regular series dealing with aspects of finance and business in an accessible, down-to-earth manner. A somewhat tokenistic and little-watched ghetto during its early years, by the end of the 1960s the programme had begun to build a reputation and following thanks to the increasingly predominant role played by issues such as prices and devaluation in national politics. It was also lucky in its choice of presenters. John Tusa did a brief stint as host in 1969, and the avuncular Alan Watson acted as in-house reporter for a number of years in the early ’70s, but The Money Programme remains most associated with the capable and engaging duo Brian Widlake and Valerie Singleton, who served epic tenures behind the desk through most of the 1970s and 1980s. Less remembered – and rightly so – is the three-year period where practicing futurist Dr James Bellini occupied the presenter’s chair. Treated by the Beeb as a training ground for new recruits, a youthful David Elstein, Ron Neil and Jana Bennett all took turns on the production team, as did future Observer writer Will Hutton. The Money Programme was a resolute fixture on Sunday nights for decades, but could well have gone the way of other BBC warhorses (Omnibus, Chronicle, Tomorrow’s World) had it not been for a late-’90s radical makeover from the Beeb’s business editor Robert Thirkell. The upshot was a new lease of life at the head of an ever-growing family of business-orientated output, and its status as the Corporation’s de facto flagship consumer programme remained secure – despite increasingly having its own name often relegated to the subtitle “A Money Programme investigation”. Now approaching its 40th birthday, it’s also BBC2′s longest-running series.

1970 – The Goodies

Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie had first found fame in the late 1960s thanks to appearances in ensemble sketch shows such as BBC2′s Marty! and the BBC radio stalwart I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue. After collectively appearing in Broaden Your Mind, a sketch show billed as “An Encyclopedia of the Air”, all three approached BBC2 with the idea for a new series, “Super Chaps Three”, based around a trio who are willing to do “anything, anytime” so long as they get paid. The series made it to air late in 1970 as The Goodies, and struck the rare balance of being sophisticated enough to appeal to intelligent adult audiences whilst maintaining the theme song’s promise to be “fine for all the family”. Combining the pace, dynamism and relevance of contemporary shows like Monty Python’s Flying Circus with the playfulness of a BBC children’s sitcom, The Goodies was essentially based around insanely escalating satires of current trends, which usually saw one of the trio become so obsessed with that week’s obsession that they descended into dangerous megalomania. What followed was a fast-moving blend of exaggerated caricatures (Graeme as a mad scientist, Tim a cowardly pacifist with a patriotic streak, and Bill a shabby countercultural activist), advanced studio trickery and speeded-up film sequences that combined inventive slapstick gags with Oddie’s sublime compositions. A typical example is “Pirate Radio” where, exploiting a loophole in the law, the Goodies establish their own offshore Pirate Post Office, leading to a chain of events that culminates in an unhinged Graeme planning to tow the whole of Britain outside the exclusion zone and assume control. Other episodes belied the slapstick image, such as “Give Police a Chance”, a surprisingly sharp attack on the forces; another that saw the trio delve into the sordid world of ministerial corruption and London’s sex clubs; and “South Africa”, for which the team were slammed for criticising the South African police. A frequent recipient of international awards and high viewing figures, The Goodies continued through to 1980 (after which the team made a lone series for LWT). As one of BBC2′s most popular and widely acclaimed comedies ever, the absence of present-day repeats continues to perplex.

1971 – Play Away

Due to the power cut that stalled BBC2′s launch night, the children’s programme Play School accidentally became the first programme to be broadcast on the new channel. Devised by veteran BBC children’s radio producer Monica Sims, Play School was created in response to criticism of the poor standard of British pre-school television programming, and took the then-radical step of utilising educational techniques as a means of introducing concepts that were technically a step up from that level. With its combination of stories and songs, short documentary films, guessing games involving shaped windows and clock hands, and cast of toys (each given characters that suggested a degree of “intelligence” rather than being mere props), Play School was one of the first BBC2 programmes to make a substantial impression on a wider viewing audience. By the late 1960s, its popularity merited a same-day afternoon repeat on BBC1 and for the series to be sold widely around the world in “kit” form which overseas broadcasters could adapt as they saw fit. Come 1971, revenue from these sales was sufficient to allow for a spin-off series to be created. Installed in a Saturday afternoon slot, Play Away was less directly educational in intent, focusing more on songs and comic sketches, and aimed at a slightly older age group. Its presenters had been able to use their versatile talents to the full on Play School, but Play Away allowed them even freer creative rein, applying skills and techniques that had been honed in dingy comedy clubs, rickety old theatres and cramped folk venues to a style and approach that was tailored to its child audience. Key amongst the hosts was the seemingly indefatigable Brian Cant, whose boundless energy and ability to recall lengthy tongue twisters carried the programme along at just the right level of madcap pace. Play Away remained in its slot until 1984, when after 13 years of loyal service (not to mention endless puns and glittery wizard costumes) it fell victim to a round of cost cutting aimed at providing funds for the BBC to launch daytime television. Play School continued until 1988, when its once-revolutionary approach was deemed not unreasonably to have become out of touch with modern pre-school broadcasting. Fittingly, the series bowed out as a result of the same forward-thinking imperative that led to its creation in the first place.

1972 – Up Sunday

10 years before the launch of Up Sunday, That Was The Week That Was resembled the Corporation’s flagship programme, broadcast in a peak Saturday night slot and considered so dangerously influential that it was cancelled the moment a General Election was in the offing. A decade’s worth of attempts to re-ignite its fire with carbon-copy shows, however, had taken its toll. By the arrival of the 1970s the waning movement had long since been superseded by the surrealist, sketch-based shows of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and the Monty Python team. Up Sunday, which stumbled onto BBC2 with little fanfare, was effectively the last gasp of that long stretch of satire. The fact it went out on late Sunday nights on a minority channel effectively sums up its profile and status. Yet even within these reduced circumstances, Up Sunday had the makings of something quite remarkable. Its cast of contributors comprised the more inventive and erudite graduates of the earlier satire boom – John Wells, John Fortune and Willie Rushton most prominently, alongside a long list of talented eccentrics that included Clive James, Vivian Stanshall, Eric Idle and Kenny Everett. Up Sunday was a haphazard but worthwhile review of the week with plenty of above average material and a small but loyal audience dedicated enough to ensure that its run stretched to 55 shows. Yet such a low-budget programme was barely capable of reaching beyond this core audience, and certainly could never have hoped to create controversy on the same level as its precedents had done. During one edition, Vivian Stanshall cut his hand whilst preparing for a stunt sending blood spraying across the studio floor. The fact this did not go down in history as a television moment “from hell”, and indeed the failure of any footage from the many existing editions of Up Sunday to reappear on screen, speaks volumes about what used to go uncommented on in BBC2′s less accessible slots.

1973 – The Ascent of Man

An idle reminiscence about how much he’d enjoyed receiving part-works through the post as a boy had led David Attenborough to commission Civilisation in 1967. Aired two years later over a marathon 13 consecutive weeks, the series had pioneered a new format for documentary television: the subject matter as an unfolding serial, told from the point of view of one “storyteller” – in this case, famed art historian Sir Kenneth Clark – and in such a way as to attract ever-increasing numbers of returning viewers. While basking in the show’s popularity, Attenborough was visited in his office by a fuming Aubrey Singer, Head of Factual Programming, demanding to know why, as a man of scientific education, he’d chosen an arts subject for such reverential treatment. Knowing it was unwise to cross the petulant Singer, Attenborough promised Civilisation‘s follow-up would be science-based, and wondered if Singer had anybody in mind as presenter. It turned out Singer already had the blueprint for what would become The Ascent of Man all mapped out. As he himself recalled, the entire series “was born over a lunch between Dr Jacob Bronowski, Dr Robert Reid – then Head of Science Features – and myself in Paris in June 1969.” Bronowski, a Polish-born, Californian-based philosopher, agreed to both write and deliver a personal account of nothing less than the scientific and philosophical development of mankind. This was something on a far greater scale than Civilisation, and perhaps understandably took four exhaustive years to complete. Shot all over the world, and culminating in a harrowing visit to the ruined concentration camp at Auschwitz, The Ascent of Man was epic in budget, scope, subject matter and the demands it placed on its audience. Yet it was spellbinding television, and through its mix of passionate testimony and spectacular images, remains the best example of its genre. But success came at a steep price: the amount of work involved led to Bronowski collapsing shortly after the series’ completion, and tragically dying one year later. His legacy still resonates, most recently in Simon Schama’s A History of Britain.