This article was first published in the April 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
TC Worsley, TV critic for the Financial Times in the 1960s and 1970s, rightly called it “the ephemeral art”. Television is a transient medium, and only a small percentage of its voluminous output survives in either historical record or collective memory. Consider BBC Two. It turns 50 years old this month, a taken-for-granted part of the broadcasting furniture. Few now recall its early days, and how its torturous beginnings caused many to question the merit of its very existence.
The misfortunes began on its opening night. On the evening of 20 April 1964, a huge power failure in west London paralysed BBC Television Centre and Lime Grove Studios. Viewers tuning in for the launch of BBC Two instead saw the newsreader Gerald Priestland, filmed in the Alexandra Palace newsroom in a non-regulation V-neck jumper and tie, reading the news from cards. “I ploughed on through every scrap of unedited Reuters tape they could feed me,” Priestland wrote later. “After what seemed like an eternity of ad-libbing about Japanese fishery disputes and trains derailed in Tunisia, I was taken off the air.”
The entire opening-night schedule – including a lavish production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate and a firework display from Southend pier unhappily billed as Off With a Bang – had to be abandoned. The following evening’s schedule opened with presenter Denis Tuohy blowing out a candle in a darkened studio – a wry commentary on the previous night’s disasters.
And the channel’s painful birth pangs continued. The 1962 report of the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting had recommended that the BBC should be awarded a new channel, but the corporation had launched it hastily and on a tight budget. After a few weeks, the press consensus was that BBC Two’s output was dull and unappetising. The schedule featured lots of repeats, dry educational programmes with titles such as Materials for the Engineer, and low-budget fillers including a youth theatre production of Julius Caesar from the Ashcroft Theatre, Croydon.
The BBC’s director of television, Kenneth Adam, announced that the new channel called on the viewer “occasionally to stretch himself a little further” and “to push back the horizon a little”. According to a poll conducted in June 1964, viewers were not keen on having their horizons pushed back. Nearly half of those who had seen BBC Two thought its programmes worse than those on ITV and BBC One. The new channel’s regular viewers numbered twice as many men as women – probably, said the polling company, “due only to male intellectual curiosity”.
Then, in 1965, an up-and-coming BBC executive took over as controller of the new channel, and it was under the four-year tenure of David Attenborough that BBC Two slowly established itself. His big idea was that output should contrast as starkly as possible with that shown on the other channels. So he introduced coverage of sports including rugby league and one-day cricket, and – at a time when documentaries rarely lasted longer than half an hour – long-format series including Chronicle and Horizon.
The channel became truly indispensable when it broadcast the most ambitious serialisation yet undertaken by the BBC: The Forsyte Saga, shown on Saturday nights from January 1967. At the time, BBC Two was available to only 8 million potential viewers. Many people, particularly in Scotland and Wales, still could not receive it – new transmitters would need to be built to broadcast its higher-definition, 625-line signal, and many did not want, or could not afford, the requisite new 625-line TV sets.
Some John Galsworthy fans were unhappy about not being able to view the Forsytes. “My own small gesture will be to cancel the regular order for the Radio Times,” wrote Sigrid Morden from Catford to The Times. But the Saga succeeded in attracting a new audience to BBC Two, with viewing figures growing at a rate of 200,000 a week, eventually climbing to 6 million.
Another key moment came in 1967 with the arrival of colour television. At that time, the high-definition BBC Two was the only channel with the technology to broadcast in colour. Attenborough had the idea of making the first colour transmission, on 1 July 1967, a live broadcast from Wimbledon – there was a shortage of colour cameras, and tennis could be filmed with just three of them. Though only about 10,000 viewers watched it on the tiny number of colour TV sets across the country – 5,000 fewer than were watching in real colour on Centre Court – BBC Two’s understated, naturalistic colour tones were widely praised.
Some of the channel’s most popular programmes in the first years of colour were the oft-repeated films of the BBC’s Natural History Unit, such as The Major, a tender study of a year in the life of a village-green oak tree, and The Private Life of the Kingfisher, noted for a stunning underwater shot of a bird diving to catch a fish in the river Test in Hampshire.
Attenborough also commissioned a new, big-budget documentary series, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, specifically to show off the new colour technology. By the time the series ended in March 1969, Clark was receiving 50 fan letters a day; nine would-be suicides even told him that watching his series had given them a reason to go on living.
By the 1970s, when almost the whole country could tune in to BBC Two, it had consolidated its role as a home for the kind of television that couldn’t be found on the other channels. Alongside esoteric programmes such as classical music concerts and science documentaries, it brought idiosyncratic interests to new audiences. One Man and His Dog, for instance, introduced viewers to a traditional rural skill and turned the border collie into a folk hero. In the early 1980s, 8 million vicarious, sofa-dwelling shepherds were tuning in to watch it on Tuesday nights.
Another unlikely hit was snooker. BBC Two turned a slow-moving, undramatic sport into a national craze through the series Pot Black and blanket coverage of the World Championships every spring.
In our multichannel era, BBC Two’s unique character has, inevitably, been diluted; the special-interest programmes it pioneered now often appear on BBC Four instead. But it is still the place to find unpredictable successes such as Coast, Eggheads or The Great British Bake Off, which acquire a popular momentum of their own and become unlikely cults. BBC Two, in other words, still carries a residue of the unique identity forged in its difficult birth.
Five Key BBC Two programmes
Match of the Day, 1964
The Football League was so worried about the effect televised games would have on crowd numbers that Match of the Day was initially aired on BBC Two – seen by a tiny audience and only in the London area. The first programme was presented by Kenneth Wolstenholme, later famed for his commentary of the 1966 World Cup final.
Pot Black, 1969
This series, a snooker tournament of single-frame matches, was the brainchild of Grandstand producer Philip Lewis, who realised this was a sport that would be enhanced by colour TV. First broadcast in 1969, Pot Black quickly became one of BBC Two’s most popular programmes – even though most viewers were watching in black and white.
Life on Earth, 1979
David Attenborough insisted on arranging this 13-episode series chronologically, beginning by introducing the most basic organisms. Some BBC executives feared this approach would mean that the ‘most interesting’ animals would appear last – by which time viewers could have switched off. That fear proved unfounded: Life on Earth was seen by an estimated 500 million worldwide.
Boys from the Blackstuff, 1982
Alan Bleasdale’s series about a Liverpudlian tarmac gang coping with unemployment, broadcast on BBC Two in autumn 1982, built up an audience of 5 million and was rewarded with a prime-time BBC One re-run early the following year. Yosser Hughes’s repeated plea: “I can do that – gizza job!” rang true for many in the recession-hit north.
The Office, 2001
The kind of slow-burn success in which BBC Two specialises, the first series of The Office in 2001 attracted fewer than 1.5 million viewers and scored poorly in audience-appreciation indices. But viewers gradually tuned into its wavelength and by the end of the second series it was seen as a modern-day classic.
Professor Joe Moran is a cultural historian based at Liverpool John Moores University