History of the BBC

History of the BBC

February anniversaries

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Tony Hancock interviewed by John Freeman on Face to Face 1960


Face to Face 4 February 1959

The first of the classic television interview series Face to Face aired on 4 February 1959. Each episode featured an extended live interview with one guest, conducted by John Freeman. Interviewer and interviewee faced each other in an otherwise darkened studio. Close-up camera work showed the guest's reaction as Freeman – whose tenacity was known from his work on Panorama – interrogated them. The result was a popular programme that frequently produced dramatic and revealing interviews and created a high-watermark in serious television.


The first guest on Face to Face was the renowned criminal lawyer Lord Birkett. Birkett was a relaxed interviewee, having already appeared on Personal Call, the radio show devised by Face to Face producer Hugh Burnett. Some interviewees were more awkward, such as Gilbert Harding. He was reduced to tears when questioned about his mother who – unknown to Freeman – had only recently died. In its three year life Face to Face attracted an impressive list of names including Martin Luther King, Tony Hancock, Bertrand Russell, Carl Gustav Jung, Evelyn Waugh and Edith Sitwell.


In 1988 Freeman – who had gone on to be a diplomat and television executive - was interviewed by Anthony Clare in a Face to Face special. The programme was then revived with Jeremy Isaacs as interviewer. It continued to attract important subjects such as Arthur Miller, Germaine Greer, Martha Gellhorn and Lauren Bacall, before ending in 1997.


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The Wombles 5 February 1973

The Wombles first aired on 5 February 1973. The series was based on the books written by Elizabeth Beresford, about a secretive group of creatures who live beneath Wimbledon Common, collecting and recycling the litter left behind by the "everyday folk". The Wombles was ensured a large crossover audience as it was shown at the end of children's programmes, just before the news. With the aid of Mike Batt's catchy theme tune - which was the first top 10 hit of many for The Wombles pop group - it became a great success.


Ivor Wood designed The Wombles for television with pointed snouts and floppy ears, distinct from the teddy bear-like animals illustrated in the original book. Bernard Cribbins narrated the series and did all of the voices for the different characters, which Beresford had based on members of her family. The theme of the programme was not lost on children, gave a great boost to the idea of recycling, and perfectly fitted the growing awareness of environmental issues.


The last Wombles programmes on the BBC were made in 1975, but they were repeated for many years. There was a Womble film, stage show and merchandise, as well as Mike Batt's group. Ivor Wood went on to create other memorable children's programmes including Postman Pat.


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A 90th birthday tribute to the 'pips'. Picture shows the original time signal generator as seen at BBC Savoy Hill studios in 1927.


5 February 1924 Greenwich Time Signal (GTS) - the 'pips'

It’s been heard on the hour on BBC radio since 1924, six short electronically generated 'pips' to indicate the precise time of the day, and it's still going strong 90 years on.


Invented by the Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson, and the Director General of the BBC John Reith, the Greenwich Time Signal (GTS) heard on radio is now a much loved institution. Today the GTS is to be found mainly on BBC Radio 4 and BBC local radio. There are similar time signals broadcast across the rest of Europe too from RTÉ Radio 1 in Ireland where there the 'pips' are of equal length, to YLE Radio Suomi in Finland where the charmingly named 'piipit' is still heard, has a big following, and has been on air since 1926.


The time signal in the UK was originally generated by two clocks at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, but since 1990 the BBC has been responsible for it. BBC Radio announcers and presenters do all they can to avoid 'crashing' or speaking over the 'pips', but occasionally things do go wrong. When BBC World Service regularly broadcast the time signal, it very occasionally failed to reach the air, and announcers were sometimes at a loss as to what to do. In this example a BBC World Service announcer quickly improvises with hilarious effect.


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Grange Hill 8 February 1978

Grange Hill started on 8 February 1978. The children's drama was created by Phil Redmond and set in a mixed comprehensive school in London. It aimed to offer a realistic look at school life, different to the more traditional depictions seen in stories like Billy Bunter. Due to its success, from the second series the show went to twice a week, and gradually introduced more controversial story lines.


Through the lives of its characters Grange Hill was able to raise issues such as bullying, shoplifting, pregnancy and drug addiction, while avoiding accusations from its teenage audience that it was trying to educate them. The long unfolding story of Zammo's battle with heroin addiction is the best remembered in the series. At the same time the language of Grange Hill was restrained by its teatime time slot, with swearing limited to phrases like "flippin' 'eck".


The final episode of Grange Hill aired in September 2008, with the original theme tune - Chicken Man by Alan Hawkshaw - playing for one last time. Todd Carty returned in the role of Tucker Jenkins. Phil Redmond went on to create Brookside and Hollyoaks. On the BBC today the school drama Waterloo Road has a substantial following among teenagers.


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Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin with Bagpuss from A Tribute to Oliver Postgate.


Bagpuss 12 February 1974

Bagpuss was first seen on 12 February 1974. The charming children's stop motion animation was made by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, starring the "saggy old cloth cat" Bagpuss. He lived in a strange shop - owned by a little girl called Emily - which didn't actually sell anything, but was a home for lost property. Only 13 episodes were ever made, but the programme has remained popular down the generations and was voted the all-time favourite children's programme in 1999.


The opening of Bagpuss was shot in sepia with Emily – Firmin's actual daughter – in clothes that suggested an Edwardian setting. After Emily left Bagpuss came to life, with Postgate providing his voice, and the film changed to colour. When Bagpuss awoke so did his friends: Professor Yaffle the woodpecker bookend, Gabriel the toad and Madeleine the rag doll, as well as the musical mice on their magical mouse organ. Together they inspected whatever item Emily had left them. Gabriel and Madeleine – voiced by John Faulkner and Sandra Kerr – provided songs and stories, although the mice often sang too.


With their production company Smallfilms, Postgate and Firmin created some of the most loved children's programmes seen on the BBC, working from an outbuilding in Firmin's home. Apart from Bagpuss they made Pogle's Wood, The Clangers, Ivor the Engine, and Noggin the Nog. Postgate died in 2008 but Firmin continues to produce artwork, including linocuts of the Bagpuss characters.


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The BBC history series Timeshift celebrates the Interlude with contributions (in order of appearance) from: Arthur Deangate - BBC technician, Chris McCullogh - Emeritus Professor of Drama at Exeter University, and author and historian Mark Lewisohn. The narrator is James Thornton.


Potter's Wheel Interlude 16 February 1953

The potter's wheel interlude film was introduced on 16 February 1953. It was probably the best known of the many interlude films made for the post-war television service. The films were made to cover for the many intervals in programming, to allow for changes between studios, or for the frequent studio breakdowns. The potter's wheel film showed the hands of Georges Aubertin as he threw a pot, accompanied by music. It was typical, in that it was mildly engaging, but not so much that the viewer would miss anything if they looked away. Viewers who stayed alert noted that Aubertin never finished the pot, but just kept remodelling it.


The interlude films were made at a time before commercial broadcasting came along to provide an alternative. They tended to show a nostalgic view of British life. Other interludes included ploughing a field with a team of horses, a windmill turning, kitten playing with a ball of wool, a spinning wheel, and various rural scenes.


In the multi-channel world of today, when television audiences have so much choice, it is important that viewers do not lose interest between programmes. Viewers are reminded which channel they are watching with films that are dynamic and entertaining, such as the award winning Rush Hour ident for BBC One.


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Glenda Jackson talks about her role in Elizabeth R in 1972


Elizabeth R 17 February 1971

The first episode of Elizabeth R was shown on 17 February 1971. After the success of The Six Wives of Henry VIII the BBC was quick to produce another lavish colour drama set in the same period. Elizabeth R starred Glenda Jackson as the Tudor queen and proved so popular that a hurried repeat showing was scheduled the week after its first run ended.


Queen Elizabeth's life story was told in six, 90 minute episodes, each by a different writer. Over the course of the series Jackson had to age from teenage princess to elderly queen. She achieved the transformation by shaving her hairline back to the crown to accommodate a succession of wigs, and by wearing a prosthetic nose, which became bonier and thinner as she aged. Interviewed in the Radio Times, Jackson said "developing a character over this enormous width of canvas was a challenge I just couldn't resist".


Elizabeth R was seen around the world, and won several awards, including an Emmy for Jackson. The costumes from the show - designed by Elizabeth Waller, went on tour, due to public demand. Glenda Jackson has since become a politician, but her portrayal of Elizabeth I remains a landmark performance.


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EastEnders first episode 19 February 1985

13 million viewers watched the first episode of EastEnders, broadcast on 19th February 1985. It began with a bang as, Arthur Fowler, Ali Osman and Den Watts forced their way into Reg Cox's flat and found Reg near death. Several weeks later Nick Cotton was revealed as Reg's murderer. "Poor old Reg" was written by Gerry Huxham.


EastEnders was created by Julia Smith and Tony Holland as a soap opera to rival Coronation Street and draw big audiences to BBC One. Set in the fictional Borough of Walford, E20, it dramatised the lives of working class east end Londoners. Introducing the soap in the Radio Times Tony Holland wrote that "gossip, intrigue and scandal are high on the list of daily events".


Clever casting was important to EastEnders success. Many faces were unfamiliar, but the inclusion of Wendy Richard - famous as the glamorous Miss Brahms in Are You Being Served? - playing against type as dowdy cardigan clad Pauline Fowler, was an imaginative move. This strategy continued with Barbara Windsor joining the cast.


EastEnders was broadcast at 7pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with an omnibus on Sunday. More episodes were added over the years to satisfy demand, a third in 1994 and a fourth in 2001. Recently the programme has spawned an online spin-off, E20.


Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours
David Jason and Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours


Open All Hours 20 February 1976

Open All Hours, starring Ronnie Barker as miserly shopkeeper Albert Arkwright, opened for business on 20 February 1976. The script by Roy Clarke evoked a vanishing world of corner shops. Barker was ably supported by David Jason as shop assistant Granville, and Lynda Baron as Nurse Gladys Emmanuel, the object of Arkwright’s unrequited lust.


Barker was probably the BBC's biggest comic star at the time - following Porridge and The Two Ronnies - but initial critical reaction to the comedy was lukewarm. Barker took great pains over Clarke's script, polishing it with his own rewrites, but some took issue with his decision to give Arkwright a stammer, and with the quantity of sexual innuendo. These objections melted away once the warmth of the characterisation and the strength of the performances became clear.


Open All Hours remains popular although it ended in 1985. The shop in Doncaster that stood in for Arkwright's grocers remains almost unchanged to this day, and is of interest to fans. David Jason went on to even greater acclaim in Only Fools and Horses. In 2004 Open All Hours came 8th in a poll of Britain's Best Sitcom. Roy Clarke received the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 British Comedy Awards.


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First national broadcast of prices for farmers 20 February 1925

The week of 20th of February 1925 saw the announcement of new national radio services which were intended to be of interest to rural workers but came to be enjoyed by general listeners as part of the radio landscape. There was a new morning weather forecast, but more importantly a weekly summary - prepared by the Ministry of Agriculture - of farm produce prices in the home markets. These were introduced as a useful civic service for a section of the audience.


The market prices for farmers were an addition to the regular Farmers' Talks. These appeared amongst the specialised talks that comprised a fair proportion of early radio broadcasts, and made no allowance for the general listener. Typical talks for farmers at the time included Ducks for Egg Production, Experiments on the Manuring of Roots in Dorset, Phosphatic Manures for Spring Use, and one on the Agricultural Holdings Act 1923.


Farming programmes on radio developed over the years, including On Your Farm and Farming Today. These programmes served and reflected the agricultural community, whilst developing a following amongst politicians and general listeners, providing a glimpse of rural life for wistful urban dwellers.


General Election
General Election results studio 1950


General Election results televised for the first time 23 February 1950

The first time that General Election results were reported on television was on 23 February 1950. The results programme started at 10.45 and ran until 1am, much later than the usual television service, which habitually finished just after 10.30 each night. The election programme was the work of Grace Wyndham Goldie, but BBC concerns about impartiality meant that its scope was restricted, and there was no television coverage of the preceding campaign.


The programme was presented by Richard Dimbleby. Commentary was provided by R B McCallum, David Butler and Chester Wilmot, and the results were illustrated with diagrams and maps. Analysis of the results was permitted but political forecasting was forbidden. Added interest was provided by an outside broadcast from Trafalgar Square, where crowds gathered to watch the latest returns projected on a huge screen.


The audience for the 1950 election programme was not large as only 350,000 television licences were held. However the Coronation of 1953 led to a huge increase in the number of sets in the country and television became a powerful medium, appreciated by politicians and public alike. Subsequent elections built on the pioneering work of 1950, so today election campaigns and results are covered in depth on all platforms.


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Yes Minister - Nigel Hawthorne, Paul Eddington and Derek Fowlds.


Yes Minister 25 February 1980

The satirical sitcom Yes Minster was first seen on 25th February 1980. The title sequence and music of the pilot was replaced in later episodes with Gerald Scarfe cartoons which contrasted with the stately theme tune and made it clear that the programme was not deferential to those in government. The comedy was based on the premise that real power was held by civil servants rather than ministers. The main characters were Jim Hacker MP - played by Paul Eddington - and Sir Humphrey Appleby, his Permanent Secretary, played by Nigel Hawthorne. Hacker's Private Secretary, Bernard Woolley, was played by Derek Fowlds.


Yes Minister was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn, who were praised for being accurate as well as funny. They were advised by people who had themselves been in government, and several of the comedy situations depicted arose from real events. The programme influenced the public perception of the state, and Sir Humphrey's pronouncements revealed the art of political spin.


The success of Yes Minister led to 6 BAFTA Awards. After three series it became Yes Prime Minister, as Hacker was unexpectedly promoted, and continued to 1988. Today the comedy The Thick of It is a direct descendant and the term Sir Humphrey is understood to mean a career civil servant.


Mr Benn
Mr Benn


Mr Benn 25 February 1971

The bowler hatted everyman Mr Benn was first seen on television on 25 February 1971. Introducing the cartoon as part of the Watch with Mother strand, the Radio Times said "Every week Mr Benn dresses up and finds himself in a different adventure." Mr Benn was written and illustrated by David McKee, who contrasted Mr Benn's ordinary suburban life at 52 Festive Road with the magical costume shop, and its shop keeper, who would appear "as if by magic".


Mr Benn's first adventure was as a red knight, stepping out of the changing room and into a world where he had to help a dragon. In later stories he variously became a big game hunter, cook, caveman, balloonist, zookeeper, caveman, diver, wizard, cowboy, clown, magic carpet rider, spaceman and pirate. The programme was narrated by Ray Brooks.


Mr Benn is loved by several generations of viewers as it has been shown time and again, although only 13 episodes were ever made for the BBC. McKee has created other popular characters in King Rollo and Elmer the Elephant. In 2009 the residents of Festing Road, Putney, marked the inspiration for Festive Road by unveiling a plaque outside McKee's old house at no 54, in tribute to Mr Benn and his creator.


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