History of the BBC

History of the BBC

August anniversaries

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It's a Knockout 7 August 1966

It's a Knockout, the inter-town contest of skill and strength, began on 7 August 1966. The first series was between Lancashire and Yorkshire, with 8 towns competing for the Tip-Top-Town-Trophy. The signature tune - Bean Bag, played by Herb Alpert - set the tone for the games, which were played despite the British weather, and frequently featured water, grease, and silly costumes.

 

The format of the gameshow was adapted from the French series Intervilles, but also owed a debt to the BBC's earlier Top Town, created by It's a Knockout director Barry Coleman. British winners of It's a Knockout joined Jeux Sans Frontieres, the European version, and the competing countries ensured the props and costumes became more elaborate.

 

It's a Knockout ran on the BBC until 1982, but returned in 1987 with the charity special Grand Knockout Tournament, featuring members of the Royal family and a host of celebrity contestants. In its heyday It's a Knockout showcased regional and international co-operation in an entertaining format.

 

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Sir Henry Wood, forever associated with the 'Promenade Concerts' which he conducted for half a century.

 

First BBC Promenade Concert 13 August 1927

The BBC's continuing fruitful relationship with the Promenade Concerts began with the 1927 season when the very popular Proms were endangered by a loss of sponsorship. The Proms were established in 1895 by Robert Newman and Henry Wood to bring good music to a wide audience at an affordable price. The BBC saw that taking them on would provide a full season of concerts for broadcast and would fulfil the Corporation's remit to "inform, educate and entertain".

 

The first broadcast Prom, relayed from the Queen's Hall, featured Elgar's Cockaine Overture, Boccherini's Minuet in A for strings, Liszt's 2nd Hungarian Rhapsody, Rossini's William Tell Overture, excerpts from Coppelia, "Elizabeth's Greeting" from Tannhauser, and other songs and orchestral pieces by Stanford, Sibelius, Quilter, Parry and Schubert. Wood conducted and released a statement; "with the wholehearted support of the wonderful medium of broadcasting I feel I am at last on the threshold of realising my lifelong ambition of truly democratising the message of music and making its beneficent effect universal".

 

When the Queen's Hall was bombed in 1941 the Proms moved to the Albert Hall, where they still run, and have expanded in recent years to include Proms in the Park and several other initiatives, taking the music out of the concert hall and to the audience.

 

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The Weakest Link 14 August 2000

The quick-fire general knowledge quiz The Weakest Link was launched on 14 August 2000. The producers hoped that viewers would accept a female presenter being rude to the contestants more readily than a man. Anne Robinson was the inspired choice - known for her forthright championing of consumer rights on Watchdog - and made such a success of her role as quiz mistress that she was soon dubbed 'The Queen of Mean'.

 

Robinson's sarcastic put-downs were a controversial talking point and outraged many viewers, who thought that, alongside the advent of Big Brother, the show was championing victim-based television. However, the programme was very popular, and Robinson's dismissive "You are the weakest link, goodbye" was even used by Tony Blair in the House of Commons.

 

The Weakest Link remains the BBC's most successful franchise: versions of it have been seen in over 100 countries. Robinson went to the US for the American version of the show, and at home has presided over themed specials including EastEnders, Comic Relief, Doctor Who, Puppets, and Drag Queens. The impact of The Weakest Link on popular culture was confirmed when Robinson appeared in Doctor Who as the voice of a deadly Anne-droid.

 

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Dr Finlay's Casebook theme tune. The march from A Little Suite by Trevor Duncan, performed by Les Reed.

 

Dr Finlay's Casebook 16 August 1962

Dr Finlay's Casebook was opened for the first time on 16 August 1962. It was written by A J Cronin, based on his stories The Adventures of a Black Bag. In contrast to other medical dramas of the period, it was set in a time before the foundation of the National Health Service, in the fictional Scottish settlement of Tannochbrae. The sense of time and place was reinforced by exterior scenes shot in rural Scotland, and by the distinctive accents of the actors.

 

Dr Finlay was played by Bill Simpson - previously known in Scotland as a newsreader. Dr Cameron, the senior partner in the practice, was played by established actor Andrew Cruickshank. Barbara Mullen was Janet MacPherson, the indomitable housekeeper. The different styles of the young and old doctors, combined with Janet's no-nonsense approach, ensured the programme's success for eight series. Its influence was reflected in the many affectionate parodies of the programme in popular culture.

 

Doctor Finlay's Casebook ran on television until 1971, and then transferred to the radio, where it continued for another seven years. Medical dramas continue to be very popular on the BBC, both contemporary series like Holby City, and historical ones such as Call the Midwife.

 

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Clip from Richard Briers - a Tribute, first broadcast 30 March 2013

 

The Marriage Lines 16 August 1963

The first episode of Marriage Lines was broadcast on 16 August 1963. It launched the career of Prunella Scales and gave a significant boost to that of Richard Briers. The sitcom was written by Richard Waring for Briers, the two having previously worked together on Brothers in Law. Scales and Briers played Kate and George Starling, a young couple, in "a quizzical look at the early days of married life".

 

The sitcom reflected social attitudes of the time. George went out to work while Kate stayed behind looking after the home and - after the first season – baby Helen. George was drawn to his single life in the pub with his friends, while Kate became increasingly dissatisfied with her role. Although they constantly bickered there was real warmth in their relationship, which helped make the comedy a great success.

 

Marriage Lines finished in 1966 after 5 series, but was then adapted for the radio. Both leads went on to make a significant mark on television comedy. Scales starred in After Henry and created the memorable role of Sybil in Fawlty Towers. Briers carved out a niche for himself as a sitcom husband in smash hits The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles. He died in 2013.

 

Corridor
MI5 vetting of BBC staff.

 

Observer reveals MI5 vetting of BBC staff 18 August 1985

On 18 August 1985 the Observer newspaper published allegations that BBC staff appointments were regularly vetted by the security service MI5. The article, by David Leigh and Paul Lashmar, caused a storm of protest in and outside the BBC, and called into question the BBC's independence. It said that in some cases the use of inaccurate information had resulted in staff being blacklisted.

 

The man responsible for liaising with MI5 was the Special Assistant to the Director of Personel, former army officer Brigadier Ronnie Stonham. He had an office in room 105 in Broadcasting House, a part of the building that inspired George Orwell when he was writing 1984. All current affairs appointments - and many other production jobs not in sensitive areas - were referred to Stonham and checked on an MI5 database. If MI5 judged the applicant to be unsuitable they could be barred from the job, though without being told why.

 

In response to the revelations the BBC admitted that vetting had been going on since 1937, but said the checks were necessary in case of a national emergency. It was agreed that the scope of the vetting had become too wide, and in October it was scaled back. Stonham retired in 1988.

 

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First experimental BBC TV Programme 22 August 1932

The first experimental television programme produced by the BBC was broadcast on 22 August 1932. The BBC's involvement with John Logie Baird's broadcasts on the 30-line mechanical system was an acknowledgement that the medium had a future. It also aimed to discover whether or not it was possible to make programmes that were entertaining beyond their novelty value.

 

The experimental broadcasts, from studio BB in the basement of Broadcasting House, were produced by Eustace Robb, and the chief engineer was Douglas Birkinshaw. Baird - who now had the chance to advance his research - appeared on the first programme to thank the BBC, and said afterwards that the transmission was the best he had yet seen. As Robb got to grips with the limits of the technology, he was able to bring musicians and dancers to the tiny audience of "lookers-in" (as early viewers were known), as well as demonstrations of ju-jitsu, a performing sealion, art and fashion.

 

Baird's system eventually lost out to electronic television, but the importance of the experimental programmes should not be underestimated, both for the way they showed what well produced television programmes could achieve, and as they led on to the BBC's introduction of the world's first regular high-definition television service in 1936.

 

To see what early television looked like, take a look at the re-creation above of one of the earliest television plays pioneered by Baird. Written by Pirandello, The Man With the Flower in his Mouth, was broadcast live from 133 Long Acre, London, on the 14 July 1930. The re-creation was made by television staff at the former Inner London Education Authority for use at a stand at the Ideal Home Exhibition in 1967.

 

BBC Monitoring
BBC Monitoring at Caversham.

 

BBC Monitoring, 26 August 1939

Created in 1939 on the outset of WW2, its purpose was, and still is, to gather and interpret international news as rapidly and economically as possible.

 

Initially employing several hundred 'monitors', many of them refugees, the service rapidly expanded so that it could 'listen' 24 hours a day to all the European languages likely to be of wartime use. The BBC and wider world quickly recognised the uniqueness and value of BBC Monitoring, calling it in 1940 'a modern Tower of Babel'. Churchill was an avid customer of the service, and would ring up in the middle of the night and ask (of Hitler) 'What's that fellow been saying?'

 

The organisation played an important role in helping observers keep track of developments post WW2, including the Cold War, the disintegration of the Iron Curtain and collapse of the Soviet Union. Also monitored were the Falklands conflict, Yugoslav wars and Middle East hostilities. Over the years, BBC Monitoring has innovated and developed, now monitoring over 3,000 sources (across radio, TV, press, internet and news agencies), in 100 languages and across 150 countries. Its purpose remains to observe, understand and explain the world's media, and so help Britain and international audiences follow and interpret key events.

 

Initially based in London then Evesham, BBC Monitoring moved in 1943 to Caversham Park near Reading, where it is still based.

 

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First live TV from the continent 27 August 1950

The first outside broadcast from France was made on 27 August 1950 in a one hour special Television Crosses the Channel. Richard Dimbleby introduced live pictures of the Hotel de Ville in Calais, and a long programme of civic celebration and entertainment. The event - timed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the first cross-channel telegraph message - showed the people of Calais en fete, in a city still devastated by the war.

 

Dimbleby commentated on the torchlight procession, speeches and presentations. Alan Adair interviewed local figures and the rest of the programme comprised songs, dancing, and gymnastics by local groups. The star turn came from chanteuse Lieta Freckal, before the festivities climaxed with a firework display.

 

The technical challenge of transmitting the signal 95 miles to London was met by sending it in four stages, starting from the tower of the Calais town hall, and ending on the roof of the London University Senate House building. From there it went by cable to Alexandra Palace and thence out to the network. The success of the transmission laid the foundations for the Eurovision network and ambitious Europe wide programmes such as the Eurovision Song Contest.

 

BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Symphony Orchestra

 

Start of experimental stereo broadcasting 28 August 1962

On the 28 August 1962 the BBC began regular experimental radio broadcasts in stereo. Initial transmissions were on the Third Programme, the home of classical music. The development of the stereo long playing record, and availability of stereo hi-fi equipment, meant listeners wanted the same sense of space and detail in broadcast music. Broadcasts, from the Third Programme transmitter at Wrotham, were limited to London and the South-East.

 

The Zenith-GE multiplex system was chosen for the experiments, which ultimately became the worldwide standard. However the BBC had been experimenting with stereo sound since the earliest days of radio. In 1925 a stereo broadcast was made using two radio stations, one broadcasting the right and one the left channel. Experiments in FM stereo began in the London area in 1958, with an FM Subcarrier system also evaluated. In the end the Zenith-GE system was chosen, helped by the fact that it had already been adopted by the US, and recommended by the European Broadcasting Union.

 

Over the following years stereo became available to the rest of the country. Radios 1, 2 and 4 went stereo in 1973, with a celebratory Stereo Week. Today high quality DAB stereo sound is available across most of the BBC networks.

 

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Elizabeth Cowell first female TV announcer 31 Aug 1936

On 31 August 1936 Elizabeth Cowell became the first female announcer. This was before the official launch of the television service on 2 November, when the BBC made test transmisssions for the RadiOlympia exhibition. Watch her original appearance, plus behind-the-scenes footage including her 'wardrobe test' - never before broadcast on the BBC (with kind permission of the Alexandra Palace Television Society).

 

Elizabeth Cowell reported in The Times
Copyright The Times 1936

Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh were recruited from 1,122 applicants as "hostess-announcers" in preparation for the launch of television. The media took a great interest in them and so when they appeared they were already well known. Both women alternated announcing with looking after guests in the unfamiliar environment of the television studio. There was a great emphasis on looks, and they were chosen as much for their appearance - Cowell had brunette hair and Bligh had blonde - as for their ability to speak clearly. Without teleprompters they had to deliver their words from memory. They were each issued with two evening dresses and skirts and blouses to wear on air.

 

During the Second World War the BBC asked the Air Ministry to release Cowell from duty so she could return to the microphone. She died in 1998.

 

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C.D Adamson, engineer correspondent of the BBC War Reporting Unit, with a Midget Recorder

 

The Battle of Britain, summer 1940

During the Battle of Britain (10 July - 31 October) - when listeners could often see for themselves the effect of enemy action - BBC news had to strike a balance between truthful reporting of events and revealing specific information that would tell the Germans that they had found their target.

 

Outside broadcasts were possible with the use of mobile recording cars, but as only one disc recording machine would fit in each car, there was a limit of 4 minutes for each recording. Charles Gardner was able to report from Dover on an attack on a British convoy which was repulsed by fighter planes. The report of the dog-fight, which proved very popular, was nevertheless criticised as treating a deadly engagement "as if it were a cricket match or a horse race".

 

As the war progressed it became clear that there was a need for a consistently high standard of news reporting. Thus the War Reporting Unit was set up, which consolidated the notion, enduring to this day, that the story should be presented without unnecessary dramatisation. Further, the development of the Riverside Portable recorder - dubbed the Midget despite its 42lb weight - transformed reporting in the field, and enabled BBC reporters to file from the battlefields of Africa and Europe.

 

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The Monocled Mutineer 31 August 1986

The first part of The Monocled Mutineer was shown on 31 August 1986. The four-part drama, written by Alan Bleasdale, was adapted from a book by William Allison and John Fairley. It told the story of Percy Toplis and of the British army mutiny that took place in 1917 at Etaples, on the eve of the Battle of Passchendaele. However, claims that the drama was a true story were disputed and led to accusations of left-wing bias that overshadowed the programme itself.

 

The row over the authenticity of the story developed after Julian Putkowski, historical consultant on the programme, said it was full of errors and that there was no proof Toplis was ever involved with the mutiny. In response Bleasdale said "I have said from the word go that my piece is a work of fiction". Bill Cotton, Managing Director of Television, said The Monocled Mutineer illuminated "the greater truth about World War I". This last view was shared by many viewers, who praised Paul McGann's outstanding performance as Toplis.

 

The fallout from the furore contributed to the early departure of BBC Director General Alasdair Milne the following year. Bleasdale returned to historical drama in 2011 with The Sinking of the Laconia, which was acclaimed for its accuracy and humanity.

 

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