BBC2 at 50: how the Beeb’s second channel survived its disastrous opening night

After a first night – in April 1964 – plagued by a power cut, BBC2 took a few years to find its feet before going on to golden years of innovative programming.

Gosta Johansson

King ’Enery vs Queen Liz: a husband and wife from Middlesex rent an extra television set to resolve a viewing dispute over a boxing match (Henry Cooper versus Joe Bugner) on BBC1 and the historical drama Elizabeth R on BBC2 (March 1971)

King ’Enery vs Queen Liz: a husband and wife from Middlesex rent an extra television set to resolve a viewing dispute over a boxing match (Henry Cooper versus Joe Bugner) on BBC1 and the historical drama Elizabeth R on BBC2 (March 1971)

So, happy birthday BBC2! From that inauspicious beginning in the spring of 1964 you have reached the ripe old age of 50. It was tempting to say matured rather than reached, but you were really always mature, more grown-up than those eager-to-please, ratings-chasing BBC1 and ITV.

When BBC2 stuttered into life on 20 April 1964 it was the culmination of a process that started with the Pilkington Committee, set up in 1960 to consider the future of broadcasting. One of its aims was to look into the setting up of a new, third channel, and to recommend who to award the new license to. This new channel was to be an alternative to the populist BBC1 and ITV, expanding viewers’ choice and adding a more serious tone. When the committee’s report came out in 1962 it noted, perhaps unfairly, that ITV lacked any serious programming, so it was hardly surprising that it recommended that the third TV license should be awarded to the BBC. With its Reithian heritage it was always going to be seen as a safer pair of hands.

BBC2 did not get off to a good start. For its opening day the BBC had put together an ambitious schedule of light entertainment, with live comedy from The Alberts (supported by Bruce Lacey, among others), a performance of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, comedy from “Soviet Union’s leading comedian” Arkady Raikin and a grand fireworks display.

One can only imagine the stress levels within the organisation when a fire at Battersea Power Station left much of the West End of London and Television Centre without power. The power cut did not affect the BBC News studios at Alexandra Palace, so the first broadcast on BBC2 ended up being an announcement by newsreader Gerald Priestland. Power was restored too late to save the opening night, so it was up to Play School at 11:30am on 21 April to become the first official programme to be broadcast on BBC2.

The introduction of BBC2 was not only a case of extending choice but was also an opportunity to improve on current technology and prepare for the future. Unlike BBC1 and ITV’s 405-line VHF system, BBC2 would use the higher quality 625-line UHF system, which could also support future colour transmissions.

It seems every time technology moves forward it forces us to invest in new equipment. Recently it was the switch from analogue terrestrial to digital terrestrial (Freeview), which at least could be achieved for a fairly modest sum of money, but for prospective BBC2 viewers back in the early 60s it meant their old 405 TVs were obsolete. If they did get a new TV for the start of BBC2, it was no good for watching colour television, so when tennis at Wimbledon officially kicked off the colour revolution on 1 July 1967 they would have needed yet another new set to enjoy it. Luckily, the cost of a new TV would have been mitigated by the fact that most people back then would have been renting their sets. Even so, many of them did not get colour sets until well into the 70s.

Despite the early promise of such iconic and diverse programmes as Play School and Jazz 625 on the first ‘proper’ day of programming (and, later in the year, in a nod towards populism, the addition of Match of the Day and The Likely Lads), the channel struggled to tempt viewers away from BBC1 and ITV. If the channel did find success then there was always the risk of having the programmes poached by BBC1, as happened to the latter two, or, as in the case of The Forsyte Saga, seeing the repeats on BBC1 steal the ratings. BBC2 was struggling to find its identity, and, with it, the viewers. It was only when David Attenborough took over from Michael Peacock as controller in 1965 that the channel we know and love started to really take shape.

BBC2 studio

BBC2 studio

After axing the channel’s mascots, the kangaroos Hullabaloo and Custard, Attenborough set about shaping the schedule into the eclectic mix of culture, comedy and factual programmes that has since become the hallmark of the channel. His years in charge saw programmes such as Man Alive, The Old Grey Whistle Test, The Money Programme and Call My Bluff broadcast. He gave us the wonderful, anarchic comedy of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore with Not Only… But Also…, as well as those late night Open University broadcasts, much parodied but so important to so many people.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was the commissioning of Civilisation as a showcase for the new colour service. Kenneth Clarke’s 13-part examination of the history of western art would have been inconceivable on any other channel at the time. Together with Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man and Attenborough’s own Life on Earth, they set the bar for authored documentaries so high that 30 years later, when the BFI published its list of the top 100 TV programmes, all three were in there.

This Life (1996-97)

This Life (1996-97)

Once into its stride, BBC2 has gone on to produce and transmit programmes of wonderful breadth and quality. Maybe we have a tendency to only remember the good ones, but I was  slightly surprised that when asking a few of my colleagues for their most memorable BBC2 programmes I realised that I would happily watch them all again: comedies such as The Young Ones, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The Office, The Fast Show, Goodness Gracious Me, The Day Today, not to mention the numerous vehicles for Vic and Bob; arts and documentary series Arena and Horizon; dramas in the form of This Life, Boys from the Blackstuff, Our Friends in the North; and, last but not least, foreign imports like The Kingdom, The X-Files, The Water Margin, 24 and the sorely mistreated Seinfeld.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing, and the debate in recent years about where it fits in with BBC3 and BBC4 has brought the future of the channel squarely back on the agenda. The newly appointed controller of both BBC2 and BBC4, Kim Shillinglaw, will have to put her thinking hat on. Still, a 2012 Channel of the Year award and the recent successes of dramas such as The Fall, the wonderfully cinematic Peaky Blinders and comedies such as Rev are more than just indications that there is still life in the middle-aged dog. And with the news that two more series of Line of Duty have been commissioned, there is good reason to look forward to another 50 successful years.

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