History of the BBC

History of the BBC

July anniversaries

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First regular colour television programme Wimbledon
1 July 1967

The Wimbledon Tennis Championships of 1 July 1967, shown on BBC Two, marked the beginning of regular colour television in Britain. Journalists who attended a special viewing at Television Centre were impressed with the new technology and the quality of the picture. David Attenborough, Controller of BBC Two, announced that the channel would initially broadcast in colour about 5 hours a week. By December, 80% of programmes were in colour.


The original December launch date was brought forward to July so the BBC could claim to be the first colour broadcaster in Europe. France, Germany and Holland - who had planned an autumn launch of their colour services - were all beaten to air, but in Britain, with fewer than 5000 colour sets in circulation, the audience was very small. However the period up to the full launch exposed audiences to the new service, gave time for BBC staff to get used to the technology, and offered manufacturers a chance to fully prepare for the sale of the new sets that were required.


Wimbledon has always been the focus for advances in broadcast technology, being among the earliest outside broadcasts. In 2011 the BBC broadcast the final in 3D.


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Michael Buerk looks back at the first television News and Newsreel.


BBC Television News and Newsreel 5 July 1954

Daily television news bulletins started on 5 July 1954, with the News and Newsreel. It began with a summary of the news, illustrated with maps and stills. Newsreaders Richard Baker and John Snagge were out of vision as it was thought their appearance would be a distraction and possibly even betray their opinions. The top story was on peace talks in Indo-China, followed by one on the French in Tunisia. The second part of the bulletin was given over to newsreel films, ending with a report on the end of rationing.


Television news was challenged to illustrate the stories it put on air, an issue that caused unfavourable comparisons with radio. Director of News Tahu Hole wrote in the Radio Times about the problems of getting news film, dependent as it often was on planes and customs restrictions. He looked forward to a time when film would be available almost instantly.


Television news grew from its shaky start. By 1955 it had twice as much airtime and with the introduction of newsreaders in vision it became increasingly popular. It really proved its worth in 1956, bringing footage of the crises in Suez and Hungary into people’s living rooms. Today the main bulletins on BBC One are augmented by the News Channel, which offers breaking news around the clock, as well as news streams available via online, mobile and tablet.


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Hancock's Half Hour television show 6 July 1956

When Hancock's Half-Hour appeared on BBC television, on 6 July 1956, it was already a successful radio show, and Tony Hancock was a big star. On TV Hancock introduced his audience to a range of facial expressions that helped make him even more popular. Hancock knew that he did not always need to have the funniest lines; he could get laughs from his reaction shot. The programme became the most watched show on television.


Producer Duncan Wood worked with designer Stewart Marshall to bring Hancock's shabby home of 23 Railway Cuttings to life. The only regular cast member to follow Hancock from radio was Sid James. As an experienced film actor James was able to help Hancock master the new medium. Hancock struggled to learn a new Galton and Simpson script for the live broadcast every week, and sometimes resorted to taping his lines to inconspicuous parts of the set.


Hancock's Half Hour continued on the Light Programme at the same time as it was on television. The final television series, simply called Hancock, was made in 1961 without James. Hancock's Half Hour was among the first comedies to transfer successfully from radio to television. This list of transfers includes the League of Gentlemen, Dead Ringers, and The Mighty Boosh.


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Andy Pandy 11 July 1950

Andy Pandy made his television debut on 11 July 1950. His appearance - later with his friends Teddy and Looby Loo - was an acknowledgement of the hold that television had on the very young, and an attempt to provide tailor-made programmes for them. Andy Pandy was initially seen as an experiment, but its success was such that the Watch With Mother strand was made, which added The Flowerpot Men, The Woodentops, and Rag, Tag and Bobtail over the following years.


Andy Pandy was created by Freda Lingstrom and Maria Bird. Bird wrote and presented the programme, coaxing Andy out of his basket to dance and play, and encouraging the children at home to join in. Andy himself never spoke. Audrey Atterbury operated Andy via his very visible strings, and songs were sung by Janet Ferber. Every programme ended with the song "Time to go home", as Andy waved goodbye and returned to his basket.


The few original programmes were repeated until 1969 and are remembered with fondness by several generations. In 1970 some were remade in colour. Andy Pandy was revived as a stop motion animation in 2002, voiced by Tom Conti and shown on the BBC's channel for young children, CBeebies.


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First live television transmission from the US via Telstar satellite 11 July 1962

On 11 July 1962 British television viewers saw pictures beamed live from the US via the Telstar satellite. Raymond Baxter and Richard Dimbleby were on hand to provide commentary, although the precise time of the broadcast was not known in advance. The first pictures, received in Britain just after 1am, were of the chairman of AT&T, Frederick Kappel, and of poor quality, while in France they were picked up clearly. However this landmark transmission marked the beginning of satellite broadcasting, and changed the face of telecommunications.


The technical problems of the first night were traced to a component in the Goonhilly Down aerial - specially constructed by the Post Office - that had been fitted the wrong way round. The following day's transatlantic broadcasts were much more successful, and reported to be so clear as to be indistinguishable from ordinary television. Then the first programmes were beamed the other way, from France to America. Later in the month the BBC took the lead in producing a complex outside broadcast from nine European countries to the US.


Other landmarks achieved by Telstar included the first transatlantic colour transmission, from Britain on 16 July. Today satellite technology has made the most remote parts of the world accessible.


Tommy Handley in ITMA
Tommy Handley - It's That Man Again


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ITMA 12 July 1939

It's That Man Again, or ITMA, first aired in July 1939, just before the outbreak of World War Two. The title came from a headline referring to Hitler's aggressive policies, but according to the show's theme tune "That Man" was Tommy Handley. Handley had been a music hall and radio regular for many years but as the star of ITMA he created the best loved radio programme of the war period.


The format of ITMA, produced by Francis Worlsey and written by Ted Kavanagh, put Handley at the centre, delivering rapid fire jokes and topical references, with a surrounding cast of comic characters and memorable catchphrases. Supporting actors included Jack Train, Dorothy Summers, Maurice Denham, Horace Percival, Derek Gyler and Hattie Jacques. Among the catchphrases were: "Can I do yer now sir?" and "ta ta for now", from Mrs Mopp; "I don't mind if I do" from Colonel Chinstrap, who saw every enquiry as an invitation to have a drink; "It's being so cheerful that keeps me going" from Mona Lott, and "Zis iss Funf speakink" from Funf the Spy.


The programme survived the war but was brought to an end when Handley died in 1949, though many of the catchphrases lasted much longer.


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Watchdog 14 July 1985

Watchdog began life as a strand of Nationwide, but proved so popular that on 14 July 1985 it became a stand-alone programme, fighting for the rights of viewers. The presenter on the new programme was Nick Ross, with Lynne Faulds Wood as consumer champion. The first episode featured graphically illustrated stories on flammable seat covers and on sewage polluting the water of Britain's bathing beaches, as well as an awards ceremony for the least trusted professions.


Watchdog reporters were tenacious on behalf of the consumer, and were occasionally threatened in the course of their investigations. Notable campaigning successes included action to ensure electrical appliances were supplied with a fitted plug, and to end the fuel surcharge on package holidays.


The presenter on the original Nationwide segment was Hugh Scully. Later Watchdog presenters included John Stapleton - who with Faulds Wood was the first married couple to front a BBC television programme - Alice Beer, Nicky Campbell, Matt Allwright and Anne Robinson.


Watchdog has produced several spin-offs, such as Healthcheck, Value for Money, On the House and Weekend Watchdog. In 2009 Anne Robinson returned to an expanded version of the programme, which continues to defend the consumer rights of viewers.


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What's My Line 16 July 1951

The light hearted panel game What's My Line began on BBC television on 16 July 1951. In the programme a team of four celebrities had to guess the often unusual occupation of a contestant. The Radio Times preview said it "looks like being a lot of fun", and so it proved to be. The first chairman was Gilbert Harding, but he proved unsuitable and was replaced by the affable Eamonn Andrews.


What's My Line started life in America, where contestants signed in by writing their name on a board. In the British version they also mimed their profession, and if they defeated the panel they received a certificate. On the first programme the panel comprised Barbara Kelly, Ted Kavanagh, and Jerry Desmonde. The irascible Gilbert Harding became a regular panellist, and his clashes with Andrews became a popular element of the show.


What's My Line ran until 1963, with Andrews at the helm. It proved to be a durable format, returning in 1973 with David Jacobs as host, and later on ITV with Andrews. On the BBC Andrews went on to present This is Your Life, on which he was surprised to find himself the first guest.


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Toytown first transmitted 19 July 1929

The radio programme Children's Hour was greatly loved by generations of children and adults alike, to the extent that when it eventually ended 60 MPs signed a parliamentary motion in protest. Most popular and enduring of all the sections of the programme was Toytown, which was first broadcast on 19 July 1929 and outlasted its host programme, continuing to 1963.


Toytown was narrated by Uncle Mac, Derek McCulloch, who also voiced Larry the Lamb. Larry's mischievous companion was Dennis the Dachsund, played by Ernest Jay. The other characters were The Mayor, Ernest the Policeman, Mr Growser, The Inventor, The Magician, Dennis the Artist, Captain Higgins, Mrs Goose and Letitia Lamb.


The inhabitants of Toytown were created by S.G. Hulme Beaman, inspired by wooden figures he modelled. Hulme Beaman wrote and illustrated 6 stories in the book 'Tales from Toytown', which were spotted by "Elizabeth" from Children's Hour, (the name given to presenter, May Jenkins). She it was who saw their potential as radio material. Following their success the BBC asked for more, and over the next couple of years Hulme Beaman produced another 24 stories for Children's Hour. The supply ended when he died in February 1932, aged only 45. Toytown proved so popular that it was repeated many times over the next decades.


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Pot Black first transmitted 23 July 1969

Pot Black was a startling demonstration of the benefits of the new BBC Two colour service, and became an immediate success following its launch on 23 July 1969. The game of snooker was ideal for colour television; cameras mounted directly above the table allowed viewers a clear view of the action and enabled them to see the coloured balls potted in the correct order.


In the first programme the rules of the game were explained and some of the player's skills were demonstrated. In the subsequent seven weeks of the series a knockout competition was played between the top eight players in the world: Gary Owen, Jack Rea, John Pulman, Ray Reardon, Fred Davis, Rex Williams, Kingsley Kennerley and John Spencer. The eventual winner was Welsh amateur champion Ray Reardon, who won the Pot Black Trophy and £1000. The presenters were Ted Lowe, who devised the programme, and Alan Weeks.


Pot Black ran until 1986, by which time it had become a victim of its own success, overshadowed by the coverage of professional snooker on television. It was revived from 1991 to 1993 and again in 2005. It also spawned Junior Pot Black and made an appearance on Sport Relief.


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Daventry Transmitter opens providing national radio coverage 27 July 1925

The Daventry Transmitter, which opened on 27 July 1925, was the world's first Long Wave transmitting station. The transmitter, known as 5XX, was positioned on Borough Hill near Daventry, Northamptonshire, to cover the maximum land area. It brought the total audience within listening distance to 94% of the population, and made the idea of a nationwide radio service a reality.


Radio was still new enough to be a source of wonder, and the opening was a big event. Alfred Noyes began with a poem, "Daventry calling..." This was followed by speeches from the Postmaster-General and the Mayor of Daventry, introduced by Lord Gainford, BBC Chairman. The Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin sent a message which was published in the Radio Times: "the opening of the Wireless Broadcasting Station at Daventry... will give no less than 20 million people the opportunity to receive both education and entertainment by means of cheap and simple apparatus; and I look upon Daventry as another milestone on the road to the social betterment of our people."


The success of Daventry proved the benefit of using high powered transmitters over many small ones. Daventry saw continuous use until 1992, but is now being pressed into service as part of the BBC National DAB network.


Variety Bandbox
Frankie Howard in Variety Bandbox on the Light Programme 1947


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Start of the Light Programme 29 July 1945

The Light Programme was launched on 29 July 1945, replacing the General Forces Programme which had run during the war. It promised a diet of entertaining radio for the civilian listener, and Director General W.J. Haley emphasised that the channel would develop as more staff and resources were released from the war effort. It quickly became the most popular service, attracting 66 percent of listeners.


The first day began with the sound of Big Ben and the News. Transatlantic Quiz followed later, along with Alf's Dream by W.W. Jacobs, Variety Bandbox, and a concert - Tyneside Salutes the Merchant Navy. The day ended with In a Sentimental Mood, and Songs of Three Decades, before the News and Big Ben once more. Over the years The Light Programme introduced many fondly remembered programmes, including Mrs Dale's Diary, Take It from Here, Woman's Hour, Dick Barton - Special Agent, and Much Binding in the Marsh.


The Light Programme became Radio 2 in 1967 at the same time as the Home and Third Services were renamed Radio 4 and 3. It continues to offer popular programming which attracts large audiences, and can today boast of being the most listened-to station in the UK.


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The Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, 29 July 1981

The marriage of Charles and Diana, (later the Prince and Princess of Wales), took place on 29 July 1981, marking a highpoint in the popularity of the Royal Family. It was seen by a global television audience of 750 million in 74 countries. In Britain, where a public holiday had been declared, 28.4 million watched on BBC and ITV - the majority on the BBC - while 600,000 lined the streets of London.


The BBC pulled out all the stops to ensure the widest possible audience on the day. Television coverage of the 11am ceremony at St Pauls Cathedral began at 7.45am, presented by Angela Rippon and Peter Woods. Commentary on the carriage processions and marriage service was given by Tom Fleming. Simultaneous coverage on BBC Two provided live subtitles for hearing impaired viewers, the first big outing for the Palantype system. Radio coverage was also extensive, with commentators as varied as Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Rolf Harris along the processional route, and Terry Wogan on Radio 2, capturing the mood on the streets.


The Royal Wedding remains one of the most watched programmes, and the BBC the broadcaster most trusted for such events. In 2011 the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton (later the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) again proved very popular, and the BBC's coverage attracted 70% of the audience.


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The World Cup Final 30 July 1966

The final of the 1966 World Cup, probably the biggest event in British sporting history, was broadcast live on 30 July 1966. The BBC and ITV combined resources to ensure the whole competition was covered in detail, and the final attracted the largest ever British television audience, as 32.3 million viewers watched England beat West Germany 4-2.


World Cup Grandstand offered comprehensive coverage of the football, starting at noon with David Coleman previewing the day's events. Match commentary was by Kenneth Wolstenholme, who delivered the words that have come to sum up the whole game, and frequently feature in polls of great sporting moments: "Some people are on the pitch. They think it's all over... it is now. It's four!". There was still time during the afternoon to follow play in the West Indies v Glamorgan cricket match.


The use of action replays - a term coined by BBC Head of Sport, Bryan Cowgill - was a popular innovation during the 1966 World Cup. The BBC continues to appeal to viewers with its sports broadcasts. During the 2010 World Cup, the tournament was covered on all platforms, and BBC online coverage attracted more visitors than any other sports website.


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