Twenty things you should know about BBC Two

BBC Two celebrates 50th birthday

A hired kangaroo died before carrying out its launch day duties, while a power cut scuppered first night schedules. But BBC Two survived a bad start and will celebrate its 50th birthday this weekend. Robert Seatter, BBC History manager, tells us 20 things we should know about the channel

1. It was about technological innovation from the start - the BBC wanted to move to better TV definition (625 lines in UHF bands), giving a better service to viewers. But you really did have to buy a new set.

2. It was not about quantity - but about diversity and that oft used word 'experimentation'. 'We do not want a second channel because we want to encourage people to go on watching hour after hour,' said a BBC executive at the time.

3. It was done in two years, from concept to delivery. A feat!

Newsreader Gerald Priestland had to fill in when the schedule fell apart A power cut on opening night spoilt the schedule. Newsreader Gerald Priestland answered calls from technicians live on air

4. It had a notoriously disastrous opening night, due to a power cut in West London, so hardly anyone saw the launch programmes, and a flustered presenter in a woolly jumper answered telephone calls from technicians in front of baffled viewers.

5. It was the first BBC channel to have a 'brand' launch, involving two kangaroo characters called Hullabuloo and Custard. The little kangaroo jumped out of its mother's pouch, as BBC One spawned BBC Two...

6. Ominously, the live kangaroo borrowed from a local zoo for the launch event died a few days before it.

Michael Peacock, BBC Two chief of programmes, presents a toy kangaroo to US star Danny Kaye ahead of the channel's launch Michael Peacock, BBC Two chief of programmes, presents a BBC Two toy kangaroo to US star Danny Kaye ahead of the channel's launch

7. The first controller, Michael Peacock, had the novel idea of a 'seven faces' pattern of broadcasting, offering themed output each day. The first niche broadcaster? It did not work.

8. It has had 12 controllers to date, including Sir David Attenborough, Alan Yentob and Mark Thompson, as well as the first female controller, Jane Root, in 1999.

9. The first BBC Two programme to hit the airwaves successfully was the iconic Play School, with its famous set, enticing windows and much loved presenters.

Johnny Ball, Carol Leader and Derek Griffiths in Play School Johnny Ball, Carol Leader and Derek Griffiths indulge in pre-school fun in this 1975 edition of Play School. The show ran on the channel until 1983

10. The channel's first big success was The Great War, marking the 50th anniversary. Now here we are reflecting again on 'the war to end all wars'.

11. It was the first channel in Europe to show programmes in colour, creating Pot Black on purpose to demonstrate the new phenomenon, and tantalising viewers who were still watching black and white balls.

12. The second big hit was the Forsyte Saga, a dramatisation of Galsworthy's family story. It was so popular that churches had to change their service times to accommodate.

Kenneth More (Young Jolyon) and Lana Morris (Helen) star in early BBC Two hit The Forsyte Saga, which went out in 1967 Kenneth More (Young Jolyon) and Lana Morris (Helen) star in 1967's 26-part The Forsyte Saga, based on John Galsworthy's novels

13. It has had long educational links as a channel, underlined by the launch of the Open University on air in 1971. Cue jokes about kipper ties and beards, both now back in fashion.

14. It was the testing ground for much new comedy - Fawlty Towers, The Goodies, The Young Ones and The Office, to name but a few.

15. It launched the great cultural milestones series, such as Civilisation (back in the news latterly because of a plan to reinvent it for the digital age, plus a tie-in show at the Tate) and Ascent of Man.

Kenneth Clark in Canterbury for 13-part Civilisation in 1969 Presenter Kenneth Clark films by Canterbury Cathedral for the 13-part arts landmark series Civilisation, which was commissioned by David Attenborough

16. It saw the debut of major new drama - Boys from the Blackstuff, Our Friends in the North.

17. It gave us countless famous lifestyle faces, from Fanny Craddock and Madhur Jaffrey to Delia Smith and the Top Gear boys.

18. It devised innovative community programming, where members of the general public made their own 'authored' programmes, evolving into the famous Video Diaries.

Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan in The Young Ones 1984 Eighties anarchic sitcom The Young Ones brought alternative comedy to tv and made stars of Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan

19. It was the first BBC channel to promote its on air identity, with classics such as the double-striped 2 and the white 2 ident, as well as the famous playful 2s of the 1990s.

20 It went HD in 2013: the innovator innovated.

Want to know more about BBC Two? BBC History is collaborating with the Science Museum on a two-day conference, April 25-26.


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