Launch of new channel BBC Four 2 March 2002
The new digital television channel BBC Four began on Saturday 2 March 2002. It was launched with the slogan "everybody needs a place to think", offering a diet of arts, culture and documentaries. The new channel replaced BBC Knowledge. Controller Roly Keating explained in the Radio Times that BBC Four would have the time to examine subjects in greater depth than had been possible on BBC Two.
BBC Four's first night was a simulcast with BBC Two, acknowledging the links between the two channels and the need to showcase the potential of the new digital station to the far larger terrestrial audience. The first programme was The Man Who Destroyed Everything, about artist Michael Landy. This was followed by a documentary on Goya, a comedy drama on the Surrealists and music from Baaba Maal. BBC Four also offered a distinctive international emphasis to the news, with a bulletin presented by George Alagiah.
BBC Four overcame initial reservations about the size of its audience to become a recognised home of intelligent programming, and won the award for Non-terrestrial Channel of the Year at the Edinburgh Television Festival. The channel has originated many acclaimed programmes, and made successes of others such as Wallender and The Killing, that would otherwise have struggled to find an audience.
Housewives' Choice 4 March 1946
The music request programme Housewives' Choice started on 4 March 1946. It was part of a new post-war schedule for the Light Programme, and was intended for women left at home while their men were at work, although the presenters were invariably male. The first week was introduced by Robert MacDermot. Other presenters over the years included Gilbert Harding, Eamonn Andrews, Edmundo Ros, Sam Costa and George Elrick. At its height Housewives' Choice received 3000 requests a week.
The signature tune - In Party Mood - written by Jack Strachey - became synonymous with the Light Programme, not least because it was heard on six mornings a week. The presenter George Elrick was caught singing along on an open mic, a musical ad lib which proved so popular with listeners that it became a regular part of Elrick's presenting, inspiring him to add lyrics such as "I'll see you all again tomorrow morning".
Housewives' Choice ended in 1967 with the Light Programme, replaced by Family Choice on the new Radio 2, a reflection of the changing audience. However, Housewives' Choice remains an iconic Light Programme show and the theme tune still signifies an old-fashioned domestic optimism.
Round the Horne 7 March 1965
The first episode of Round the Horne was heard on 7 March 1965. Listeners immediately took to the characters introduced, such as Julian and Sandy, Dame Celia Molestrangler, Fiona and Charles, and Rambling Syd Rumpo. Kenneth Horne presided over the same cast that had found success in Beyond Our Ken - Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee.
Announcements were by Douglas Smith, and each week a musical interlude was provided by The Fraser Hayes Four.
The programme was transmitted on a Sunday afternoon for a family audience, but writers Barry Took and Marty Feldman took advantage of the permissive air of mid Sixties Britain to insert lots of saucy humour. The most popular characters, Julian and Sandy, spoke in Polari - the underground slang used before the decriminalisation of homosexuality - and produced several catchphrases that passed into common use.
The show ran for four series but ended after Horne's untimely death. Feldman left for the final season to concentrate on his flourishing performing career. Round the Horne continues to delight new audiences today, through repeats and release on CD. The influence of the programme can be traced in shows like The Fast Show.
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy 8 March 1978
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy began life as a radio series, with the first episode airing on 8 March 1978. The science fiction comedy was described in the Radio Times as "an epic adventure in time and space including some helpful advice on how to see the Universe for less than 30 Altairian dollars a day". Written by Douglas Adams, and produced by Simon Brett, it started a franchise that included books, television and a feature film, and even outlasted the author's untimely death.
Radio was the perfect medium on which to debut Adam's vision of the universe, as visual effects were at that time incapable of matching his imagination. However the BBC Radiophonic Workshop rose to the challenge, using the full potential of stereo - previously only used in radio dramas - to bring The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to life. Peter Jones was cast as the voice of the book, and his calm tones punctuated the action with extracts from the Guide.
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was adapted for television in 1981, after the second radio series. Radio has always proved to be fertile ground for comedy, being cheaper to produce and more able to take risks than television, and many television classics started on radio. However for many, the original radio series of HHGTTG will never be surpassed.
French and Saunders 9 March 1987
The first series of French and Saunders started on 9 March 1987. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders promised a fresh female take on the comedy duo; coming from the flourishing alternative comedy scene, but in the tradition of double acts like "Morecambe and Wise and George and Mildred". As their popularity grew over 6 series they became mainstream stars and their Christmas Specials big events.
The first episode was a deliberately shambolic affair, with amateurish support from house band Raw Sex - Roland Rivron and Simon Brint - and The Hot Hoofers dance troupe. Guest star Alison Moyet was on to sing a song - but first had to witness French do her own version. There were 2 sketches - Classroom and Sports Desk - but the majority of the programme had more in common with French and Saunders' roots in theatre. Later shows became known for the increasingly elaborate sketches, with spoofs of films proving very popular.
Both Saunders and French went on to become individual stars in the comedy firmament. Saunders created Absolutely Fabulous - itself a spin off from a French and Saunders sketch. French had success with The Vicar of Dibley. The two comedians reunited for a Christmas Special in 2005, and both continue to write and perform.
First broadcast by the BBC Dance Orchestra 12 March 1928
The BBC Dance Orchestra, led by Jack Payne, made its first official broadcast on 12 March 1928. The band had proved its popularity as The Cecilians, occasionally broadcasting from the Hotel Cecil. Given the title Director of the BBC Dance Orchestra, Payne moved his 10-piece band to the studio at Savoy Hill. His regular radio performances ensured his success, and made his signature tune, "Say it with Music",a hit.
The BBC Handbook of 1929 acknowledged the importance of dance music on the radio and called it "the voice of something very typical of ourselves and of this post-war age". Radio dancing lessons were all the rage, and the listeners' appetite for dance music was huge. The BBC Dance Orchestra was soon receiving 10 thousand letters a week.
Payne left the BBC in 1932 and was replaced by Henry Hall, who continued the success with another line-up of the BBC Dance Orchestra. Hall was followed by Billy Ternent and then Stanley Black, until 1952. The orchestra provided the music for many hit programmes, including The Goons, Ray's a Laugh and Much Binding in the Marsh.
Launch of the Latin American Service 14 March 1938
The BBC launched the Latin American Service on 14 March 1938. It was the second foreign language radio service, following the Arabic Service launched in January. Both were initiated in the tense pre-war period, to counter propaganda, coming from other countries, that was seen to be damaging Britain's interests in the regions. The Latin American Service was broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese, reaching a potential audience of 70 million people in Central and South America, and a further 40 million in Brazil.
The Latin American Service set out to provide straightforward news and information, starting with 15 minute news bulletins broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese in succession. Letters from the region thanked the BBC for providing impartial news. The foreign language services proved their effectiveness during the Second World War, and by 1945 the BBC was broadcasting in 45 separate languages.
The Latin American Service was renamed BBC Mundo in 2005 to include Spanish speakers in the US. At the same time BBC Brazil was created for Portuguese speakers. BBC Mundo ended radio transmissions in 2011, but today maintains a strong presence online.
Up Pompeii 23 March 1970
23 March 1970 was the start of the first series of Up Pompeii, a repeat of the pilot shown as a Comedy Playhouse the previous year. The Radio Times said it was loosely based on the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to The Forum and the works of Roman playwright Plautus. However it was written by Talbot Rothwell, in a broad style that owed a greater debt to the Carry On films he had scripted.
Frankie Howerd was the star of the show, and expert at extracting every innuendo from the punning script. He played Lurcio, household slave to Senator Ludicrus Sextus and his wife Ammonia, and to their children Erotica and Nausia. Every episode began with Lurcio attempting to declaim The Prologue in the manner of a Greek chorus. He never got very far as he was always interrupted by Senna the soothsayer, predicting doom. Howerd played to the studio audience, reacting to their laughter with the range of looks and saucy remarks that were his trademark, peppering his speech with anachronistic remarks.
Up Pompeii ran for two very successful series and became a feature film. Howerd died in 1992 but his place as an icon of British comedy was recently celebrated in a Radio 2 documentary.
Grand National televised 26 March 1960
The first Grand National to be televised was run on 26th March 1960. The race - which was won by favourite Merryman II, ridden by Gerry Scott - was broadcast live from Aintree as part of Grandstand. At the end presenter David Coleman assured viewers that they had witnessed a piece of television history.
To capture every inch of the four mile 856 yard steeplechase the BBC deployed 16 cameras, including Television's Roving Eye. This outside broadcast van, with a camera mounted on the roof, was able to drive alongside the runners and riders for over half of the course. Thus viewers at home got a far better view of the race than any spectator at the racecourse. Commentary was provided by Peter O'Sullevan and Peter Bromley.
Today the Grand National continues to be a popular draw on BBC Sport, and is one of the few sporting events judged to be of national importance, and so preserved by the government on free-to-air television. In addition to the domestic audience of 10 million, it is watched by an estimated worldwide audience of 500 million.
Opening of new Crystal Palace transmitter 28 March 1956
28 March 1956 saw the official opening of the new Crystal Palace television station, designed to provide increased coverage to a large swathe of London and the south-east. Since the opening of the BBC Television Service, twenty years before, programmes had been broadcast across London from a transmitter on the iconic tower at Alexandra Palace. Now the station at 'Ally Pally' was to be switched off, not to operate again as a regular transmitting station until 1982.
For many years, live programme production from Alexandra Palace had suffered from interference because of the close proximity of the transmitter to the studios. Now there was a solution. Stable and more reliable pictures could be sent from state-of-the-art transmitters, located some twenty 20 kilometres away. The site was also a safe distance from the BBC studios at Lime Grove. By 21 December 1957 the formal commissioning (opening) of the Crystal Palace television aerial, meant the BBC was well placed to face commercial competition from ITV which had opened nearly two years earlier.
Nearly 215 metres high, the tower, confined to a small area of Crystal Palace Park, was erected by British Insulated Callendars Construction. Soon after opening, its transmitters were equipped to broadcast test programmes in colour late at night, after regular programming was over for the day. It was also adapted to 625 line operation in time for the launch of BBC Two in 1964, and colour in 1967. Today the transmitter continues to serve London and the Home counties, reaching over 12 million people. In April 2012 the analogue signal from Crystal Palace will be switched off, and the station will become an entirely digital operation, fit for service into the twenty first century.
Going for a Song 31 March 1965
Going for a Song was first seen in the BBC West Region on 31 March 1965. The show, in which "connoisseurs and customers explore the world of antiques", was an instant success and made its network debut in October. The first presenter, Tony Ross, was replaced by Max Robertson, who remained in the chair until 1977. However the undoubted star was Arthur Negus, whose knowledge and enthusiasm made him a hit with viewers.
Each programme began with a mechanical bird singing in an ornamental cage, competing against the theme tune. The three guests of the early shows were soon reduced to two, who had to examine antiques and guess their value. The item was then passed across to the experts - invariably Negus and another - who gave it a professional evaluation. The guest with the closest estimate was the winner. Negus believed the programme was best when the objects examined were relatively ordinary ones that might also be tucked away, unappreciated, in the viewers' homes.
Going for a Song ended in 1977, but returned, presented at different times by Michael Parkinson, Anne Robinson and Michael Aspel. Arthur Negus inspired interest in 'collectables', and went on to The Antiques Roadshow, a programme which is still thriving today.
Letter From America 24 March 1946
The world's longest running speech radio programme, Letter From America, presented by the inimitable Alistair Cooke, began on 24 March 1946. The initial agreement was for a 13 week series, but Cooke's natural style proved such a success that it ran for 58 years and only ended with his death in 2004.
Letter From America was commissioned by Lindsay Wellington, the Controller of the Home Service, as a return to Cooke's pre-war work on American Half Hour. Wellington knew what Cooke could bring to a broadcast. "I had to offer", wrote Cooke in the Radio Times, "a direct impression of anything of America that took my fancy. Not a diatribe, not a composed essay, but the first impression of an accident, a person, a landscape on the nervous emulsion of A. Cooke". In this fashion Letter From America covered 11 Presidencies and events such as the death of Bobby Kennedy and the September 11 attacks.
In 1972 Cooke made the critically acclaimed television series America, which was an international success. Cooke remained popular on both sides of the Atlantic and it was said on his death that with Letter From America he did more than any other individual to maintain the "special relationship" between the US and Britain.
Teletubbies begins 31 March 1997
Teletubbies said "Eh-Oh" for the first time on 31 March 1997. The programme was created by Anne Wood and Andrew Davenport, and starred, Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La-La and Po, brightly coloured creatures with aerials on their heads. It was an immediate hit with its pre-school audience. It went on to become a phenomenal international success, and even produced a number One single.
Some people were concerned over the Teletubbies language, which was based on the first words children say. But by encouraging the viewers to join in and play, Teletubbies successfully stimulated children of all abilities to communicate with confidence. The show was deliberately repetitive, which drove some parents to distraction, but was loved by toddlers, who invariably wanted to see the films screened on the Teletubbies tummy screens "again again". Tellytubbyland was created on a farm in Warwickshire, and the set was populated with giant Flemish rabbits. The actors playing the Teletubbies were Dave Thompson, John Simmit, Nicky Smedley and Pui Fan Lee.
Teletubbies finished after 365 episodes were made, and then led to Teletubbies Everywhere, which debuted on Cbeebies. The BBC has continued to lead the way in pre-school programming, creating colourful popular shows for young children, including Tweenies, Fimbles and In the Night Garden.