The Six Wives of Henry VIII 1 January 1970
The BBC began the 1970s with the colour costume drama The Six Wives of Henry VIII. The first episode, broadcast on 1 January, was devoted to Catherine of Aragon, played by Annette Crosbie. Subsequent weeks starred Dorothy Tutin as Anne Boleyn; Anne Stallybrass as Jane Seymour; Elvi Hale as Anne of Cleves; Angela Pleasence as Catherine Howard and Rosalie Crutchley as Catherine Parr.
Keith Michell's performance as Henry remains the definitive television portrayal of the Tudor king. He revealed Henry to be a more complex character than had been depicted before, cultured and refined as well as tyrannical and lusty. Michell had to age over the six programmes from the athletic young prince to the obese 56 year old. He was recognised for his efforts with an Emmy Award after the programme transmitted in the US.
The authentic appearance of the court costumes was achieved by the ingenuity of designer John Bloomfield, who used painted cheap fabrics, glass and household washers to achieve the sumptuous period effect. Such was the interest in the programme that the costumes went on tour. The international success of Henry VIII led to the making of Elizabeth R, and established the BBC's position as the pre-eminent producer of period drama.
The Brains Trust 1 January 1941
The Brains Trust - the panel of five experts who answered questions sent in by listeners - began on 1 January 1941. The series was first called Any Questions, but it was renamed The Brains Trust the following year. The panel included Professor Julian Huxley, C.E.M. Joad, and Commander A.B. Campbell. Their individual approaches and sometimes argumentative style ensured The Brains Trust became very popular, at its peak attracting nearly a third of all adult listeners, and 4400 letters a week.
The Brains Trust was introduced to provide more serious programmes on the Forces radio service. It was adapted by producer Howard Thomas from the American programme Information Please. Thomas coined the term question master to describe the role of Donald McCullough. The panel were not briefed on the questions, and their answers gave rise to catchphrases, such as Joad's qualifying "it all depends what you mean by...", and Campbell's "When I was in Patagonia..." Questions ranged from the trivial to the serious, for example "do we think this world is worthwhile?" or "what is the difference between fresh air and a draught?".
The Brains Trust continued until 1949 with many other eminent brains, before transferring to television in 1950. The term Brains Trust became common, used to describe any gathering of experts.
The Archers 1 January 1951
The Archers, the longest running daily serial in the world, began its national run on 1 January 1951. It started life the previous year on the Midlands Home Service, specifically intended for the farming community, but it soon became clear there was a large general audience for the "serial play of country life", as the Radio Times described it on its national launch.
According to creator Godfrey Baseley, the idea for The Archers was hatched at a meeting with farmers in Birmingham. One farmer said "what we really want is a farming Dick Barton!" The writers of Dick Barton were brought in to write the scripts, but there was also an insistence that real life rural affairs and the latest developments in farming were depicted in the programme. In one major event in the first year Dan Archer retired his working horses, Boxer and Blossom - reflecting the increased mechanisation of agriculture.
The Archers continues to reflect changes in country life, though it is no longer overtly educational. Its presence on the airwaves for 60 years makes it in many ways the kingpin of BBC Radio output, and it is a genuine national institution. The Archers theme tune, Barwick Green, is instantly recognisable, and it remains the most popular non-news programme on Radio 4.
In 1962 the first producer of The Archers, Godfrey Baseley, spoke to Brian Vaughton about the origins of the serial. He recalled a conference, chaired by a senior figure in the BBC's management, a Mr. H.J. Dunkerley, who allowed a pilot of the programme to go ahead.
The Open University programmes begin 3 January 1971
The Open University first broadcast on 3 January 1971 on BBC Two. The new university reached out to its first students through the innovative use of television and radio, and swiftly proved that it was possible to teach university level subjects to unqualified students at a distance. After a general introduction, the first programme was an introduction to mathematics.
Open University programmes were on at odd corners of the schedule, heralded by the animated OU logo and fanfare - the opening of Divertimento for Three Trumpets and Three Trombones by Leonard Salzedo. Many people who were not OU students saw them, and the broadcasts gained a frequently parodied reputation for dated style and awkward presentation. This was because there was insufficient money to update them unless the course itself was revised, and the presenters were academics rather than broadcasters. However, over 2 million people have benefitted from OU courses.
In 2006 the late night teaching ended, replaced by other teaching methods such as DVD and the internet. Today the Open University make programmes of general interest through a successful partnership with the BBC. Programmes such as The Money Programme and the award winning Coast are made to inspire an interest in lifelong learning in the viewer.
A Question of Sport 5 January 1970
The television quiz A Question of Sport first aired on 5 January 1970. The Radio Times promised "50 years of world sporting action on film, 50 of our greatest sporting stars - in the studio during the series". Presenter David Vine introduced team captains Henry Cooper and Cliff Morgan. Guest panellists on the first edition were George Best, Ray Illingworth, Lillian Board and Tom Finney.
The programme has only had three presenters over its long run. David Coleman replaced Vine in 1979 and Sue Barker became the current host in 1997. Many team captains have taken part including Ian Botham, Bill Beaumont, Emlyn Hughes, Brendan Foster, Willie Carson, Ally McCoist, Phil Tufnell and Matt Dawson. Guests have come from all areas of sport and included, in 1987, Princess Anne.
The format of the quiz has remained largely unchanged and generally starts and ends with the picture board round. Another perennial favourite is the Mystery Guest round, where the panellists have to identify a sports personality from a film in which they are glimpsed doing something out of character, such as staring through binoculars or gardening. A Question of Sport has survived, inspiring newcomers like they Think It's All Over, and regularly provides specials for Sport Relief.
The Forsyte Saga 7 January 1967
The Forsyte Saga, the BBC's adaptation of the novels of John Galsworthy, began on 7 January 1967. The drama - which spanned the period from 1879 to 1926 - was effectively a period soap opera, with each episode ending on a cliffhanger. The Forsyte Saga starred Kenneth More as Jolyon Forsyte, Eric Porter as his cousin Soames, and Nyree Dawn Porter as his wife Irene. It featured many remarkable performances and confirmed the stardom of Susan Hampshire, who played Fleur Forsyte.
The Forsyte Saga was produced by John Wilson who wrote many of the scripts and ensured it was structured to maintain interest over its 26 week run. It was filmed in black and white, unlike much output on BBC Two, but this was largely because there was a shortage of colour cameras. However the saga successfully attracted audiences to the new channel, with as many as 18 million viewers tuning in to the repeat.
The success of the Forsyte Saga led to further literary adaptations, particularly The Pallisers, which gave top billing to Hampshire. It also encouraged expenditure on big budget historical dramas in colour, such as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and ushered in a golden age of BBC historical drama.
First in-vision television weather forecaster 11 January 1954
The first weather forecaster to appear in vision, standing before a map, was George Cowling. He made his debut on 11 January 1954 as the BBC introduced a new way of presenting the weather, which aimed to stress the continuity of the forecast from one day to the next. Cowling's delivery was a long way from the informal approach taken by today's weather presenters, but he introduced a personal touch when he said tomorrow would be good for drying washing. He also set a precedent, appearing on screen several months before the first newsreader.
All weather forecasters were professional meteorologists, employed by the Met. Office. Cowling - described in the Radio Times as "a 31 year-old Yorkshireman, married and father of a 5-year old son" - shared presenting duties with Tom Clifton. The weathermen used charcoal sticks to draw weather features on two charts, one for today and one for tomorrow's forecast. Cowling and Clifton became popular figures, referred to in the press as "Mr Shower and Mr Shine" and "Mr West and Mr Dry".
George Cowling died in 2009. Weather forecasting today is far more accurate than in 1954 and longer term forecasts are possible. Presentations are aided by satellite imagery and computer technology, but still rely on weather presenters to humanise the bare facts.
Listen with Mother 16 January 1950
Listen With Mother was first heard on 16 January 1950. It offered a mix of nursery rhymes, stories and music for the under-fives and their mothers but over the years developed a following across the generations. Each episode ended with the Berceuse from Faure's Dolly Suite, played on the piano by Eileen Brown and Roger Fiske.
Listen with Mother was broadcast at 1.45pm when children would be ready to concentrate after their lunch, and mothers would have time to sit with them. The presenters - including Daphne Oxenford, Julia Lang and Dorothy Smith - adopted a new intimate tone, talking as though to each child alone. The centre of the programme was the story, preceded by the calming phrase "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin". The question, originally an ad lib by Julia Lang, became so well known that it ended up in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
When it was announced in 1982 that Listen With Mother was ending, there was a public outcry, and a petition supported by MPs and celebrities was delivered to Downing Street, along with a letter of protest from concerned professors of education. Today young children can hear CBeebies Radio every day on Radio7 or online.
Life On Earth 16 January 1979
The landmark natural history series Life on Earth began on 16 January 1979. The series was written and presented by David Attenborough, in an ambitious attempt to provide an authored overview, as Kenneth Clark did with Civilisation. The series took 3 years to make and took Attenborough all over the world. In the first episode he began in the South American rainforest and ended up on the Great Barrier Reef. However for most of the time he stayed out of the picture and provided a discreet commentary, allowing the impressive photography to speak for itself.
The most memorable sequence in Life on Earth saw Attenborough sitting with a band of gorillas. He was able to convey the similarities that humans and gorillas share as he calmly addressed the camera. Many creatures and behaviours were captured on film for the first time; the programme showed the living fossil fish coelacanth, and the spectacular courtship displays of birds of paradise.
The success of the series, confirmed the BBC Natural History Unit as world leaders in natural history film making. Life on Earth provided the template for several more Attenborough series, including Living Planet, Trials of Life and Life of Birds. It created an audience expectation for stunning and unique photography that the NHU continues to meet with series such as Planet Earth.
Blankety Blank 18 January 1979
The first edition of game show Blankety Blank was broadcast on 18 January 1979. It was presented by the affable Terry Wogan, working with a strange wand-like microphone. Although there was a US game show called Blankety Blanks, the British version was in fact closely based on another American programme, The Match Game. However with Wogan’s self-deprecating wit sparring with the guests and playing on the cheap nature of Blankety Blank - the grand prize on the first episode was a fridge freezer –a durable British hit was born.
Contestants on Blankety Blank had to fill in the missing word in a phrase, and match them with the answers given by a panel of six celebrities. On the first show the celebrities were George Baker, Wendy Craig, Bill Tidy, Judy Cornwell, Lenny Bennett, and Lorraine Chase. The winning contestant went onto the Supermatch Game - revealed by the revolving set which also took away the losers. The consolation prize was a silver Blankety Blank cheque book and pen.
Les Dawson took over as host of Blankety Blank in 1984 - ceremonially breaking the wand microphone on his first appearance - and gave the programme a fresh lease of life. The show was revived in 1997, fronted by Lily Savage.
The Week's Good Cause 24 January 1926
The first charity appeal in The Week's Good Cause was broadcast on 24 January 1926. The appeal raised £1,025 0s 7d for the National Children's Home and Orphanage. It was made by Charles C Wakefield, Bt, and C.B.E. The broadcast was timed to follow the Sunday Service and became a feature of Sunday evening radio. Charities swiftly realised the power of radio to touch a large audience.
Charity appeals were not new to the BBC - the first was among the earliest broadcasts in 1923 - but the fundraising process was formalised in 1926 with the introduction of The Week's Good Cause and the creation of the BBC Charity Appeals Advisory Committee. The Committee advised on the allocation of appeals and the administration of donations. The Christmas appeal for children's charities was first made in 1934 by 'Uncle Mac'. This was the precursor to the current Children in Need.
Today the BBC Radio 4 Appeal continues every week, supporting a diverse range of UK charities, along with the monthly Lifeline appeal on BBC One. Large fund-raising projects such as Children in Need and Comic Relief raise millions of pounds for good causes using all platforms. The BBC is also able to respond swiftly to emergencies such as natural disasters with special appeals.
Desert Island Discs 29 January 1942
Desert Island Discs was devised by Roy Plomley, who presented the first edition on 29 January 1942. It was recorded two days earlier with comedian Vic Oliver, in the bomb-damaged Maida Vale Studios. The success of the programme has always owed much to its simple format, which allows for sometimes revealing interviews. However, early programmes were scripted, to comply with wartime censorship.
Guests are invited to imagine they are shipwrecked on a desert island, and to pick 8 gramophone records to take with them. As the show developed they were then allowed one luxury item - not a survival aid - and a single book. It was imagined that the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare were already there. Plomley's original idea had been for Desert Island Discs to open with the sound of breaking waves and seagulls, but worries that this would prove too indistinct led to the addition of By the Sleepy Lagoon, by Eric Coates. The theme so impressed second castaway James Agate that he made it one of his choices.
Plomley presented 1791 editions before his death in 1985. Since that time the presenters have been Michael Parkinson, Sue Lawley and currently, Kirsty Young. Today the format of Desert Island Discs remains unchanged, despite the rise of the mp3, but it has an impressive online archive of past shows. It continues to attract guests of the highest calibre.
Alas Smith and Jones 31 January 1984
Alas Smith and Jones debuted on 31 January 1984. The comedy show was a starring vehicle for Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith, previously seen as half of the Not the Nine O’clock News team. Smith and Jones offered a modern, sometimes subversive, take on the comedy double act. The title of the new show was taken from the western series Alias Smith and Jones, with which it bore no similarity apart from the names of the two lead characters. Alas Smith and Jones started on BBC TWO but transferred to BBC ONE, where it became a mainstream hit, running until 1998.
The sketches in the show were punctuated by the deadpan head to head sequences, where Smith and Jones, playing dim versions of themselves, discussed a topic of interest. In the first episode it was sperm banks. Smith and Jones wrote much of the material, but the list of top writers who contributed to the programme over the years includes Clive Anderson, Rory McGrath, Jimmy Mulville, Andy Hamilton, Robin Driscoll, Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan.
Smith and Jones developed their separate careers in many directions while the show was still running and continued to do so after it ended. Smith directed several feature films including The Tall Guy and Bean. Jones showed another side to his personality presenting the heritage series Restoration. Mel Smith died in 2013.