History of the BBC

History of the BBC

April anniversaries

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The Oxford Cambridge Boat Race 2 April 1927

The return of the Boat Race to the BBC in 2010 continued an association that dates back to 1927. Now available on all platforms, the first broadcast race of 2 April 1927 was an event which the Radio Times trailed as "one of the biggest treats that the BBC has provided yet".


The technical challenge of providing a running commentary over the length of the four and a quarter mile course was considerable. The commentators - Mr Nickalls and Mr Squire - described the race to listeners from a launch which followed the Oxford and Cambridge crews. An aerial on the launch relayed the signal to two receiving stations in Barnes, from where it was sent by landline to Savoy Hill for broadcast. Care was taken to evoke the atmosphere along the banks of the Thames, as well as to describe the race, which was won by Cambridge.


The Boat race was first televised in 1938 but cameras only covered the finish line and the boat house. Viewers had to be content with John Snagge's commentary - on radio and television - and a chart showing the progress of the race. The BBC's 2010 coverage will use 25 cameras on land, 9 on the water, and one in the air.



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Margaret and Terry Wilkins in The Family


The Family first episode 3 April 1974

The Family was the first example of a fly-on-the-wall documentary on British Television. It became the model for the observational style of programme making. The idea for a camera crew following a family as they went about their everyday lives was taken from the US by producer Paul Watson, where An American Family had aired two years previously.


The Wilkins family of Reading were chosen as representative of a working class household. They agreed to be filmed for 18 hours a day over a three month period. Margaret and bus driver Terry, both 39, lived in a flat above a greengrocer's shop with their four children Marion, Gary, Heather and Christopher, along with Gary's wife Karen, baby Scott and Marion's fiancé Tom.


The Wilkinses were unhappy when they first saw themselves on screen and thought the programme had been unfairly edited. Audiences were divided and there were calls for it to be banned. However 8 million watched Marion and Tom get married in what was called "the television wedding of the year".


The series was repeated in 1983, with a new programme filling in the intervening years. When Margaret Wilkins died in 2008 Paul Watson remembered her as "a truly wise woman". The Family started a trend for observational documentaries that has evolved over the years, offering glimpses of real life as varied as the 1982 series Police, Driving School in 1997 and - in 2013 - The Call Centre.


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New radio branding 4 April 1970

BBC radio leapt into the 1970s on 4 April 1970 by relaunching Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4. Each station was given a distinct identity and prepared for changing listening patterns and the coming of commercial radio. Despite initial resistance to the changes by some listeners who remained attached to the models of the Light, Third and Homes Services, the realignment proved a success and led to bigger audiences in many areas.


Broadly speaking, Radio 1 offered pop, while Radio 2 provided light music. Both networks came together at times for shows such as Family Favourites, Junior Choice and the Terry Wogan Show. Radio 3 was the platform for classical music. It also provided drama and poetry, and during the summer broadcast a ball-by-ball commentary on cricket Test Matches. Radio 4 became the principal speech service. PM and The World Tonight - introduced with the changes - completed a line up of news programmes with Today and The World at One. New programmes - like Week Ending - sat alongside old favourites like Gardeners' Question Time.


The changes instituted ensured the main radio stations were firmly established and thrived over the following years. Their identities have been tweaked over time but have remained fundamentally unchanged.


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The opening Newsround music, used throughout the 1970s and 1980s was the opening few bars of Johnny One Note by Ted Heath & His Music. This is the complete commercial release of the track from 1968, which differs slightly from the on-air version.


Newsround 4 April 1972

After an eleven year gap in broadcasting BBC news to children and young people, John Craven's News Round, as it was originally known on-air, was broadcast live on a spring Tuesday evening on BBC One Colour at 17.20. Its predecessor, Children's Newsreel (April 1950 - Sept 1961), had come to be seen as old fashioned, stuffy and inaccessible. Its style was very much like the serious Television Newsreel for adults, albeit with a simpler script, and different selection of stories. Regular BBC announcers took turns in speaking the commentary. In short that approach didn't work for the swinging 60s. So, there were to be big changes. Television Newsreel turned into the news bulletins we recognise today, but news aimed at children slipped off the agenda almost entirely.


The provision of proper, regular news, aimed at younger viewers, had climbed up the pecking order in the BBC Television Centre newsroom by the early 70s, but resources for a dedicated programme were few, and money was tight. In fact News Round went on air with only a handful of staff and two typewriters, relegated to a corner of the newsroom.


The programme's debut could not have been more terrifying for those involved. In the transmission gallery, the director was in a terrible panic according to John Craven (now 72). "Right," he said, "two minutes left and I've only got three scripts, so everybody repeat after me: Our Father, which art in Heaven..." Perhaps the Divine did intervene, as the programme survived its first hurdle - just. Curiously, no recording of that first edition exists.


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The Money Programme 5 April 1966

The Money Programme, believed to the world's longest running business affairs programme, debuted on 5 April 1966. At the time Britain was struggling with a debt of £899 million, and producer Terry Hughes promised the programme would examine the inevitable changes to business and economic life. The weekly magazine show was introduced by a thrilling signature tune played by Jimmy Smith - the theme from The Carpetbaggers, by Elmer Bernstein.


The Money Programme has featured interviews with the most influential names in business, a diverse list including Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Alexander McQueen, Michael Eisner and Michael Bloomberg. However the programme also made headlines, as in 1977 when Sir James Goldsmith objected to a line of questioning about his company Cavenham Ltd, and stormed out of an interview.


The Money Programme no longer goes out weekly but is now a brand, a reliable indicator of authority attached to different programmes. Since 2005 it has been made in partnership with the Open University, and continues to gather awards for its journalism as it charts the changing business world. In 2007 it made history when a whole episode was broadcast in the virtual online world of "Second Life".


Our audio slideshow above takes you through 50 years of consumer programmes on the BBC.


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American Half Hour 6 April 1935

Seventy-five years ago on 6 April 1935, Alistair Cooke began a lifetime of broadcasts about the United States, with the first transmission of American Half Hour. The Radio Times said "Mr Cooke will introduce us to the everyday America, about which we seldom hear. With him always in these half-hours will be a small changing army of resident and visiting Americans". The first programme featured the American Ambassador, the Hon. Robert W. Bingham.


Cooke's BBC career began as a film reviewer, but having spent time in the US he knew that American culture offered more than the cliched images offered by Hollywood, and determined to be the journalist to bring the variety of the nation to the British public. The Salford born broadcaster moved to the United States and finally became an American citizen in 1941.


With American Half Hour Cooke developed his talent for writing and presenting scripted talks in a natural way. With Letter from America, launched in 1946, he came into his own, and continued to present it until shortly before his death in 2004. Cooke was also responsible for the monumental television series America, which was a success on both sides of the Atlantic.


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How Does Your Garden Grow?(which became Gardeners' Question Time) 9 April 1947

How Does Your Garden Grow? was first broadcast on the Northern network on 9 April 1947. The programme changed its name to Gardeners' Question Time in 1951, and went nationwide in 1957.The wartime Dig for Victory campaign created an army of amateur gardeners in the postwar period, full of questions about gardening for pleasure. How Does Your Garden Grow? answered those questions.


The first edition came from the Smallshaw Garden Society in Ashton-Under-Lyne. The first question was put by the chairman of the association, Mr Hopwood - about the merits of double digging in an area with wet soil - and the second by his wife. The presenter was Bob Stead, with Tom Clark, Fred Loads, Dr F.W. Sansome and Bill Sowerbutts answering the questions. When Alan Gemmell joined Loads and Sowerbutts, a 30 year partnership began, during which time none of the panellists missed a single episode. The relationship between the three ensured the programme was lively and entertaining as well as informative.


Gardeners' Question Time survived the deaths of the early panellists, and continues to delight gardeners the length of the country, with tickets for recordings in great demand. The programme has been recorded in many unlikely locations apart from the regular gardening clubs, including a railway station and a zoo.


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First episode of The Two Ronnies 10 April 1971

The Two Ronnies, Barker and Corbett, began their television double act on 10 April 1971 in a show on prime time Saturday television. Both were established solo stars, but the BBC brought them together following an impromptu performance at the BAFTA Awards. The programme was an immediate hit which ran for 12 series and at its height attracted audiences of 17 million.


The show always ran along the same lines, opening and closing with the news headlines. Ronnie Corbett delivered a monologue from a battered armchair. Ronnie Barker demonstrated his verbal dexterity in a sketch. There was a filmed serial such as The Phantom Raspberry Blower of Old London Town, and a comic musical finale. There was never a shortage of material from top quality writers such as Barry Cryer, David Renwick, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, and assorted Pythons. Barker contributed sketches under the name Gerald Wiley, a ploy he used to ensure his scripts were accepted on their own merits.


In 1988 Ronnie Barker surprised everyone by retiring. The pair reunited in 2005 for The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, but Barker died soon after. Corbett continues to perform, and in 2010 celebrated his 80th birthday with The One Ronnie, a special made with the biggest names in British comedy.


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BBC Networking Club


11 April 1994 launch of BBC Networking Club

The BBC's first co-ordinated effort on the internet began with the launch of the BBC Networking Club on 11 April 1994 and the supporting television programme The Net. The aim was to demystify the information superhighway - still a novelty for most of the population - and offer access to the internet. In the first instance this meant the opening of the BBC bulletin board Auntie, to encourage feedback about BBC programmes. Because of the need to make the software clear to non-technical users, the Club's plan to provide direct internet access was delayed until August.


The first episode of The Net gave an idea of how new the online world was in 1994. Davey Winder explained that all that was needed to access the internet was a home computer, modem, phone line and the relevant software. The sound of a dial-up connection was heard. There were also stories on German Neo-Nazis use of the web and on music for video games by Thomas Dolby.


The Networking Club closed at the end of 1995 but the BBC online presence continued to grow as programme makers saw the potential for interaction with audiences. The service consolidated with the launch of bbc.co.uk in 2004 and today is among the most popular and trusted websites.


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I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue 11 April 1972

I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue was first broadcast on 11 April 1972. Billed as "the antidote to panel games", the programme was conceived as a spin off from popular comedy I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. The first episode featured ISIRTA regulars Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie and Jo Kendall. Jazz trumpeter Humphrey Lyttelton was appointed chairman, and with the panellists established a pattern of daft humour and bad puns that won a cult following and several major radio awards.


The early shows sometimes referenced ISIRTA, but when Barry Cryer and Willie Rushton joined Garden and Brooke-Taylor as regulars, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue developed its own distinct identity. Lyttelton's deadpan style provided a brilliant contrast to the idiocy of the panellists. The teams played games such as singing the words of one song to the tune of another, and Mornington Crescent - whose rules were only known by the participants.


Rushton died in 1996 and his place was taken by a succession of guests. When Humphrey Lyttelton died in 2008 the show took a break. I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue returned the following year with Stephen Fry, Rob Brydon and Jack Dee hosting. Since then Dee has become the regular chairman, and the programme has continued to thrive, remaining fresh even as it has remained essentially unchanged.


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Blue Peter Royal Safari 11 April 1971

The Blue Peter Royal Safari was shown on Easter Sunday 1971. Valerie Singleton accompanied Princess Anne to Kenya, which she was visiting as President of the Save the Children Fund. This was the first solo tour for the 20 year-old Princess and also her first solo television work. The programme was introduced - not by the famous Blue Peter theme - but by Bert Kaempfert's Swinging Safari.


During the course of the eight-day visit Princess Anne gave several interviews to Singleton. She spoke knowledgably of the work of the Save the Children Fund, rescuing street children and offering them a fresh start in the Starahe Boys Centre. She also spoke more informally about her love of horse riding, and her ambition to compete in the Olympics. Aside from official duties the Princess and Singleton saw and photographed the wildlife in Nairobi National Park, and went snorkelling at Shimone.


Blue Peter's association with the Royal Family continued after the Royal Safari, which enhanced Princess Anne's reputation with the young audience. This culminated on the programme's 50th anniversary in 2008, when the Queen hosted a Blue Peter reception at Buckingham Palace, to which Singleton and many other presenters past and present were invited.


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Animal Magic 13 April 1962

Animal Magic was first seen on 13 April 1962. The fortnightly children's nature programme was made by the fledgling Natural History Unit, and presented by Johnny Morris, who provided voices for the animals and made them talk. On the first show he interviewed a Woolly Monkey. Morris was occasionally criticised for anthropomorphising the animals, but the humour drew viewers into the more formal scientific elements of the programme. In the first edition these were provided by Tony Soper and Gerald Durrell.


Morris frequently filmed as Keeper Morris, at Bristol Zoo. He would then add voices to the animals on film. However, for many years most of the programme was live, and Morris thrived on the unpredictable and sometimes un-cooperative behaviour of the animals. Some creatures, such as Dotty the Ring-Tailed Lemur, became Animal Magic regulars.


Animal Magic introduced generations of children to the natural world and, with its theme tune - Las Vegas by Laurie Johnson - ran for 21 years. In later years Terry Nutkins presented alongside Morris. After Animal Magic ended, Morris continued to appear on television until his death in 1999. Nutkins went on to front Animal Magic's replacement, the Really Wild Show. The Natural History Unit has gone from strength to strength, producing some of the BBC's most innovative and popular programmes.


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First night of BBC Two 20 April 1964

The BBC launched BBC Two - the third national TV station – on 20 April 1964. The debut evening was planned as an enticing showcase of the best of the new service, but was ruined by outside events, as a fire at Battersea Power Station caused a blackout across much of central and west London. All that was broadcast was the news, which came from Alexandra Palace. The first full programme to go out on BBC Two was Play School, transmitted at 11 the following morning. The opening night line-up was eventually shown that evening, featuring a performance of Kiss Me Kate - starring Howard Keel and Patricia Morrison.


BBC Two was transmitted on the European standard 625 lines. This gave a better quality picture but viewers had to get a new television and aerial to watch it. Despite some criticism the channel scored many notable successes in its first months, including The Great War, Jazz 625, and Play School. As a channel which complemented BBC One – as the existing television service was now known – BBC Two featured more adult educational programmes and minority interest features, such as weekly news digests for the hearing impaired.


BBC Two has honed a reputation for innovation – from ground breaking social comedy such as Goodness Gracious Me to new arenas of sport broadcasting including tennis at Wimbledon, snooker and skiing, and fresh perspectives on the arts and music in series as different as Arena and The Old Grey Whistle Test.


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Play School 21 April 1964


Play School 21 April 1964

The first episode of Play School went out on BBC Two on the morning of 21 April 1964. Its target audience of under-fives were unaware that it was a double first – being the debut programme transmitted on the new channel, following the disastrous opening night. Producer Joy Whitby introduced the programme in the Radio Times, saying it "will use all the advantages of television to do the job of a nursery school in its own exciting way".


In Play School the world outside the studio was glimpsed through the magic windows. Every day the viewers were invited to guess whether this would be through the square, the round or the arched window. The first presenters were Virginia Stride and Gordon Rollings. Presenters over the years included Brian Cant, Toni Arthur, Julie Stevens, Floella Benjamin and Johnny Ball. They were joined by the toys Humpty, Jemima, Hamble, Big Ted and Little Ted. Hamble was replaced by Poppy in the final two years of the programme, which finished in 1988 after more than 5000 episodes.


When Play School started it stood alone on BBC Two at 11am, and the channel then went off the air until the evening. Today young children have their own dedicated channel, CBeebies, and the presenters can be seen interacting with the audience much as they did in 1964. Elements of Play School, including the windows, were revived in Tikkabilla in 2002.


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Children's Newsreel 23 April 1950

Children's Newsreel was introduced on 23 April 1950 as a lighter counterpart to the regular Television Newsreel, although suitable material culled from the main newsreel films was used. The lead story of the first edition was titled Brumas the Bear, about the first polar bear cub born and raised at London Zoo, which was a celebrated attraction at the time. The film showed the crowds as well as Brumas.


The title sequence of Children's Newsreel featured the transmitter at Alexandra Palace, but it was amongst the first programmes to be made at Lime Grove. The producer was Donald Smith and the main commentators were Mary Malcolm and Stephen Grenfell. One of the early films featured a look behind the scenes at the studios. Other stories featured in the first weeks included: Cleaning Railway Coaches; The Miniature Railway at Alexandra Park; Making Humbugs; If You Lost Your Dog; Making Cricket Bats; Princess Margaret Inspects Sea Rangers at Portsmouth.


Children's Newsreel ended in 1961 but many of the films were later recycled and used in Play School. Current affairs programming for children resumed in 1972 with John Craven's Newsround, - now just Newsround - which explained the background to the news of the day.


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The Sky at Night 24 April 1957

The first edition of The Sky at Night was shown on 24 April 1957. It was introduced by Paul Johnstone, but featured Patrick Moore, who still presents the programme 55 years later. The monthly programme began at the start of an exciting period of space exploration, less than six months before the launch of the Sputnik satellite. Over its life The Sky at Night has followed all of the major events and discoveries in astronomy.


Moore's knowledge and enthusiasm for his subject has been the biggest factor in The Sky at Night's enduring success. Introducing the first programme in the Radio Times he wrote "people tend to think that astronomy is a difficult, expensive and unrewarding subject that has become the perogative of old men with long white beards. It is none of these things, and anyone can find interest and excitement in the night sky, if he knows what to look for".


Sir Patrick Moore was knighted in 2001 for services to science and broadcasting. Today he shares presenting duties with Dr Chris Lintott and a team of reporters. The programme involves the army of amateur astronomers who watch the programme in research projects. The popularity of astronomy on the BBC has led to series such as Wonders of the Solar System and Stargazing Live.


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