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Britain in a Box - landmark television remembered

The Birmingham Six

''Serendipity'. Or to be even more direct, 'luck'. Those are the words I most associate with Britain In A Box which returns for a fourth series this Saturday.

This is the programme where comedy producer and television executive Paul Jackson delves back into the origins of TV classics and explores what they can tell us of the era that gave rise to them. It's the programme where (as we have done in previous series) we get to ask television executives whatever possessed them to commission the likes of Big Brother, The Sweeney or Monitor, where producers reveal why they brought together The Two Ronnies or developed Pot Black, and where writers and show creators try to remember just what it was that helped them sell the idea of Coronation Street, Rising Damp or Shameless to Network Controllers. And all too often it is luck... serendipity... being in the right place at the right time.

Serendipity also comes into play when we select which four TV classics should come under Paul's gaze during February. Obviously we go for a mix of programmes, spanning the decades. We consider personal favourites - ones that played a (not so) small part in our own development. And we look for examples that broke the mould or at least help define their particular genre. But most of all, we look for programmes that say something of the time in which they were broadcast, that reflect the cares and concerns of the audiences that took them to their heart.

Naturally we check our short list with Radio 4 and the Commisioning Editor to see if our choices strike a chord with them (or at least doesn't duplicate what's being done elsewhere on the Network). And occasionally we start again. So it's with luck and serendipity that we end up with this line-up for the up-and-coming series:

  • The heavy-weight World In Action which launched the television career of John Pilger, helped free the Birmingham 6 and was itself to fall victim to the broadcasting changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher; The head-nodding Old Grey Whistle Test that took popular music seriously, played fast and loose with the schedule and managed to survive punk (initially by sidestepping it) before petering out as rap music took hold;
  • The slow-burning Men Behaving Badly, the sitcom that began life on ITV, lost its male lead after the first series, was cancelled after the second... and yet survived to not only help define and reflect the laddish culture of the 1990s but also to become the BBC's most successful sitcom of the decade; and
  • The short-running Driving School, which may only have lasted for 6 programmes but achieved phenomenal audience figures, created probably the first 'reality TV' celebrity (in Maureen Rees) and helped launched a whole new genre of television programmes - the docusoap.

And of course, the serendipity doesn't end there. With this selection of programmes comes a rich seam of characters and personalities, telling their own tales of luck (both good and bad) and being in the right place at the right (or wrong) time - including the likes of Alan Yentob, Annie Nightingale, Beryl Vertue, Bob Harris, Chris Mullin, Douglas Hurd, Harry Enfield, Ian Anderson, Jah Wobble, Jeremy Isaacs, John Pilger, Leslie Ash, Mark Ellen, Martin Clunes, Mike Appleton, Molly Dineen, Paul Morley, Phil Hall, Simon Donald and Simon Nye. See if you can spot which is which... and why they were there.

Paul Kobrak is a senior documentary producer at BBC Radio 4

In this clip, not included in the programme, Chris Mullin - World in Action reporter and later an MP - tells Paul about the almost comical cloak-and-dagger procedure required to record an interview with a republican terrorist:

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  • The new series of Britain in a Box begins with World in Action at 1030 this Saturday.
  • The picture shows the Birmingham 6 - Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power and John Walker - subjects of the first episode of Britain in a Box, on their arrest in 1974.


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