History of the BBC

History of the BBC

May anniversaries

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Bread 1 May 1986

On 1 May 1986 the first episode of Bread was broadcast. Writer Carla Lane returned to Liverpool after the success of The Liver Birds, and created the Boswells, a close-knit, extended working class Catholic family. The Boswells were shown using their wits to survive life on the dole. The sitcom was initially criticised in Liverpool for stereotyping Liverpudlians as scroungers, but Lanehttp://'+location.host+''s affection for her characters soon won critics over and at its peak the programme attracted audiences of 21 million.


The popularity of Bread was in part due its continuing plot, with cliff-hanger endings, and to its large cast of characters. Head of the Boswell family was Nellie, played by Jean Boht. Her husband Freddie was played by Ronald Forfar. Their children were Joey, Aveline, Jack, Adrian and Billy. The family invariably gathered for meals, although Grandad, who lived next door, had his delivered on a tray. Boht defended the depiction of Liverpool in Bread by describing it as a comedy version of Boys from the Blackstuff.


The series ran for 7 series until 1981, and featured cameo appearances from Paul and Linda McCartney. The stars were reunited in a special programme for Comic Relief in 1989, which also featured characters from Lanehttp://'+location.host+''s other successes, Butterflies and Solo.


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Horizon from 1964 featuring Arthur C. Clarke


Horizon first transmitted 2 May 1964

Horizon started in 1964 and over the last 50 years has formed the backbone of BBC science programming ever since. Producer Philip Daly wrote in the Radio Times that it aimed to http://"+location.host+""provide a platform from which some of the worldhttp://'+location.host+''s greatest scientists and philosophers can communicate their curiosity, observations, and reflections, and infuse into our common knowledge their changing views of the universehttp://"+location.host+"". The first programme was dedicated to engineer and architect Buckminster Fuller. The second examined the use of pesticides in intensive farming and their long term effects on ecosystems, revealing an interest in environmental issues that has continued to this day.


Horizon has produced many controversial and influential programmes. In 1972 the programme Whales, Dolphins and Men led pet food manufacturers to stop using whale meat in their products and greatly increased public pressure to outlaw commercial whaling. A 1975 examination of the increased use of induced births led to an official investigation into the practice. In 1983 Horizon made the first television documentary about AIDS. In 1993 a film linking falling male fertility rates and oestrogen levels in pollutants, Assault on the Male, was shown at the White House.


Horizon was initially broadcast once a month on BBC Two, but within a year it became a weekly programme. Today, Horizon continues to cater for an audience who wants to know how scientific developments affect their everyday lives.


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The Royal Family and Winston Churchill, VE Day 1945


VE Day broadcasts 8 May 1945

Winston Churchill announced the end of the War in Europe with a speech broadcast from Downing St on 8 May 1945. He said http://"+location.host+""we may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing, but let us not forget for a moment the toils and efforts that lie aheadhttp://"+location.host+"". King George VI also gave a speech, broadcast from bomb scarred Buckingham Palace, in which he thanked the nation. Both speakers reminded listeners that Japan was as yet undefeated.


Anticipation was high after radio programmes were interrupted the previous evening with the announcement that the 8th would be Victory in Europe Day and that Churchill would speak at 3pm. Churchillhttp://'+location.host+''s speech was preceded by a fanfare, and afterwards the BBC switched to a planned sequence of celebratory programmes. National celebrations were well under way as Broadcasting House was floodlit for the first time since 1937, and bedecked with the flags of the Allies.


The BBChttp://'+location.host+''s Listener Research Department recorded the best ever programme satisfaction figures, but conceded that these were all but inevitable due to the nature of the events being covered. The BBC survived the war, and established its reputation internationally with the authority of its news programmes.


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The Ascent of Man first broadcasts 5 May 1973

The first episode of The Ascent of Man was broadcast on 5 May 1973. The 13-part series, written and presented by Jacob Bronowski - was one of the landmarks of documentary television. The Ascent of Man was presented as a personal view of humanityhttp://'+location.host+''s scientific achievement, exploring science, as Civilisation had explored art. Both series were commissioned by David Attenborough, Controller of BBC2, who later presented his own landmark series, Life on Earth.


Bronowski told the story thematically, with different programmes concentrating on subjects such as chemistry, agriculture or astronomy. His ability to explain complex ideas made him a winning television personality. http://"+location.host+""These programmeshttp://"+location.host+"", he said, http://"+location.host+""are about the making of creation - Man making mistakes, then seeing the right answers. Science is creative, not a mere mechanical practicehttp://"+location.host+"". To aid his narrative Bronowski filmed in locations as diverse as the Great Rift Valley, Easter Island, Cambridge and Auschwitz.


Bronowski was just 66 when he died in 1974, the year after the first broadcast of The Ascent of Man. The scripts from the series were published in The Listener, and then gathered into a best-selling book. The book was recently reprinted with a foreword by Richard Dawkins and remains relevant today, despite the enormous developments in science and technology since it was written.


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C.H. Middleton, presenter of the first gardening programme


First gardening programme 9 May 1931

The perennially popular subject of gardening first featured on 9 May 1931 in a series of scripted 15 minute talks, entitled The Week in the Garden. The talks were presented by C.H. Middleton, the son of a Northamptonshire gardener, who was appointed on the recommendation of the Royal Horticultural Society. His knowledge and easy conversational style, such a contrast to the stiff delivery of so many radio talks of the time, made him a great success. The programme became In Your Garden and moved to a Sunday afternoon slot, where it attracted three and a half million listeners.


During the Second World War Middleton was happy to lend his support to the government Dig for Victory campaign, encouraging listeners to grow vegetables on every spare piece of land. Mr Middleton was also the obvious choice when In Your Garden was tried out on the early television service in 1936.


In Your Garden ran until 1970, and was later presented by Roy Hay. Mr Middleton died in 1945, but his life is commemorated in a wrought-iron gate, which is now at the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham. Gardening on the radio continues with the long-running favourite Gardenershttp://'+location.host+'' Question Time.


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Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth,
12 May 1937

The Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937 was the big event of the early television service and the first true outside broadcast, using a mobile control van. The television pictures of the king smiling as his carriage passed by the cameras captured the imagination of the viewers and of the press, who declared it http://"+location.host+""the supreme triumph of television to datehttp://"+location.host+"".


The BBC deployed three cameras - half the total number it owned at that point - each side of Apsley Gate. Frederick Grisewood provided commentary as the Royal Procession approached through Hyde Park and passed through the gate. The control van was nearby, with a second van on stand-by with a wireless link to Alexandra Palace, in case any of the cables failed.


In its first year the mobile outside broadcast unit went on to broadcast OBs as diverse as Wimbledon, The Armistice Day Ceremony, and an Omnibus Pageant at Chiswick, and revealed the great potential of television. The BBC reported that the Coronation of 1937 was watched by over 10,000 people. Today the BBCs expertise in OBs such as the Royal Wedding of 2011 is appreciated by millions, broadcast in hi-definition and carried on all platforms.


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Audio slideshow of the history of Broadcasting House, with its future explained by senior BBC figures Mark Thompson, Helen Boaden, George Entwistle and Tim Davie.


Broadcasting House opens 15 May 1932

The BBChttp://'+location.host+''s landmark central London premises, Broadcasting House, officially opened on 15 May 1932. It was designed by Val Myer, with the BBChttp://'+location.host+''s civil engineer Marmaduke Tudsbery. Together, they overcame the restrictions imposed by the location on Portland Place to create a building that contained 22 sound insulated radio studios and a concert hall, and is still in use today.


The south end of Broadcasting House, looking down regent Street, was the focal point. This was emphasised with a clock tower and a mast, and a 10 foot tall sculpture of Prospero and Ariel above the imposing main entrance. Eric Gill carved the figures on the instruction of the BBC Governors, who suggested that the spirit Ariel could serve as the personification of broadcasting. However, Gill gave Ariel stigmata, and said http://"+location.host+""in my view the figures... are as much God the father and Son as they are Shakespearehttp://'+location.host+''s characters.http://"+location.host+""


Broadcasting House survived the war despite being hit by a bomb which killed 7 people. It was granted Grade II* listed status in 1981. At the start of the 21st century a major refurbishment of the building accompanied the development of a massive extension, by architects MJP, which fitted Broadcasting House for life in the future. It now houses BBC News, BBC Television, BBC Radio, and the World Service.


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Beatrice Harrison, cello and nightingale duet 19 May 1924

19 May 1924 was the first day radio listeners heard a cello playing while nightingales sang, live from a Surrey garden. The cellist was Beatrice Harrison, who had recently performed the British debut of Deliushttp://'+location.host+''s Cello Concerto, which had been written for her. The nightingales were the birds in the woods around Harrisonhttp://'+location.host+''s home in Oxted, who were attracted by the sound of her cello.


Harrison first became aware of the birds one summer evening as she practised her instrument in the garden. As she played she heard a nightingale answer and then echo the notes of the cello. When this duet was repeated night after night Harrison persuaded the BBC that it should be broadcast. Engineers carried out a successful test and the following night the live broadcast took place. Harrison played and the nightingales, eventually, joined in.


The public reaction was such that the experiment was repeated the next month and then every spring for the following 12 years. Harrison and the nightingales became internationally renowned and she received 50,000 fan letters. Writing in the Radio Times before the second broadcast BBC Managing Director John Reith said the nightingale http://"+location.host+""has swept the country...with a wave of something closely akin to emotionalism, and a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a lifehttp://"+location.host+"".


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Thomas Woodrooffe at the the Coronation Fleet Review 20 May 1937

Some of the best remembered moments in broadcasting are not great programmes or events, but the times when things go wrong. One such was the Coronation Fleet Review on 20 May 1937. The solemnity of the occasion and technical achievement of the broadcast was forgotten as Lt-Commander Thomas Woodrooffe began his description of the illuminations, slurring http://"+location.host+""At the present moment the whole fleethttp://'+location.host+''s lit up!http://"+location.host+"" He continued his drunken ramble for nearly 4 minutes, before he was faded out.


Woodrooffehttp://'+location.host+''s task was to describe the scene as King George VI inspected the Navy, moored at Spithead. However, reporting from his old ship HMS Nelson, Woodrooffe had plenty of time to drink with his former shipmates before his final broadcast at 10.45. Woodrooffe was suspended for a week, though his broadcasting career recovered. The BBC, keen to avoid similar incidents, developed a continuity system that ensured an announcer in the studio could take control if something went wrong in the field. This system, with the announcer separated from the technical operator, soon became the standard.


When Woodrooffe died in 1978 his obituaries invariably mentioned the Fleet Review alongside his achievements as a broadcaster and naval commander. The continuing appeal of broadcast mistakes is evident in the popularity of moments like the appearance of Lulu the elephant on Blue Peter in 1969. In these days of social media any on-air blunder quickly goes viral, guaranteeing cult status for the hapless presenter.


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Thathttp://'+location.host+''s Life 26 May 1973

The consumer rights programme That’s Life first aired on 26 May 1973. It was created by John Lloyd and presented and produced by Esther Rantzen, developing the format of Bradenhttp://'+location.host+''s Week, on which both had worked. There was initial criticism of the showhttp://'+location.host+''s mixture of the serious and the humorous but the programme was enormously popular and ran until 1994.


Rantzen’s co-presenters over the years included Glyn Worsnip, Kieran Prendiville, Chris Serle, Bill Buckley, Gavin Campbell, Paul Heiney and Adrian Mills. Humorous interludes of press cuttings, rude vegetables, funny poems or songs were provided by people including Cyril Fletcher, Richard Stilgoe and Victoria Wood. Thathttp://'+location.host+''s Life was also one of the first programmes to make stars of the public in regular street interviews, in particular Annie Mizen, an outspoken elderly lady.


The heart of Thathttp://'+location.host+''s Life was as the consumerhttp://'+location.host+''s champion, but it was also strong on child protection issues. In 1984 the case of Ben Hardwicke highlighted the need for more child organ transplants and led to a reduction in waiting lists. In 1986 Childline was established after a survey of viewers revealed the need for a national helpline for children in distress, and it continues to this day with Esther Rantzen as president.


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Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers


Crazy People, later The Goon Show, 28 May 1951

Crazy People, the first programme of what became The Goon Show, aired on 28 May 1951. The stars - Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine - were billed in the Radio Times as http://"+location.host+""Radiohttp://'+location.host+''s own Crazy Gang http://'+location.host+''The Goonshttp://'+location.host+''http://"+location.host+"". Producer Dennis Main Wilson wrote http://"+location.host+""the series is based upon a crazy type of fun evolved by four of our younger laughter-makershttp://"+location.host+"". As it developed, The Goon Show became an enduring hit that stretched the boundaries of radio comedy in new and influential directions.


The first Crazy People episode included many features that became typical of the Goons, such as ridiculous sound effects and extravagantly named characters. These included Ernie Splutmuscle, Sir Harold Porridge and Harold Vest. Spike Milligan was responsible for the script. The Goons were assisted by the Ray Ellington Quartet, The Stargazers, Max Geldray and announcer Andrew Timothy.


The last regular episode was broadcast in 1960, but the cast reunited for a final show in 1972. All of The Goons went on to have solo success. The impact of the Goon Show is hard to overstate, and although all four Goons are no longer alive, their absurd sense of humour can be seen to have influenced many comedians who followed them, not least the Monty Python cast.


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First TV interview by a member of the Royal Family 29 May 1961

In a Panorama programme broadcast on 29 May 1961, the Duke of Edinburgh became the first member of the Royal Family to give a television interview. The Duke was interviewed by Richard Dimbleby, talking about the Commonwealth Technical Training Week. As patron of the initiative, the Duke emphasised the need to encourage the training of skilled workers for the modern labour force.


The interview was on an uncontroversial subject, and Dimblebyhttp://'+location.host+''s tone was respectful throughout, but it was still remarkable as the first time a member of the Royal Family had been questioned on camera. It also revealed something of the working life of the Duke, who was usually only glimpsed on ceremonial occasions as the Queenhttp://'+location.host+''s consort.


The interview was a significant step towards modernising the Royal Family. When the documentary Royal Family was commissioned in 1968, the Duke of Edinburgh saw its value to the Monarchy and was one of the prime movers. The unprecedented access granted the film makers showed the Queen at work and also off duty. In one memorable scene the Duke was seen cooking sausages on a family barbeque at Balmoral.


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Introduction sequence from The Great War Part 1


The Great War 30 May 1964

It took just nine months for the BBC to conceive and produce one of the most significant documentary series in the corporatiohttp://'+location.host+''s history - The Great War. Running for twenty-six, forty minute editions, the series was sold to twenty-six countries across the world, with the BBC Handbook for 1965 claiming that http://'+location.host+''the series will ultimately be seen by every television country in the worldhttp://'+location.host+''.


The programmes used archive footage of actual First World War battles and life in the trenches, held at The Imperial War Museum in London. Interviews with service men and women, by 1964 in their sixties and seventies, were highly revealing and candid. Made in association with the CBC (Canada) and the ABC (Australia), rather than another European partner, the series drew an audience averaging 8 million viewers per programme. Director General to be Alisdair Milne came up with the idea for the series whilst he was working as a producer on the current affairs programme Tonight.


The Great War was highly acclaimed at the time, and arguably set the standard for subsequent documentaries on the subject. Big name narrators such as Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson, and Marius Goring helped make the series such a success.


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Tumbledown 31 May 1988

Tumbledown was shown for the first time on 31 May 1988. The play, by Charles Wood, was based on the experiences of Lt. Robert Lawrence, recounted in the book When the Fighting is Over. It was one of several dramatic responses to the Falklands War of 1982 and examined the wider issue of the effect of combat on the participants. The play attracted 10 million viewers, helped in part by the controversy it generated, as its perceived bias was questioned in parliament.


Tumbledown tells of Lawrencehttp://'+location.host+''s part in the Falklands War, for which he was awarded the Military Cross. However, after he is shot in the head during the battle for Mount Tumbledown, he struggles with his rehabilitation back home and is forgotten by the army. Lawrence was played by Colin Firth with Lawrence himself acting as a consultant on the production. The producer was Richard Broke and the director Richard Eyre.


Despite the criticism from the MOD and government, Tumbledown achieved great critical acclaim. It won BAFTA and Royal Television Society awards for best single drama, and Firth won the RTS award for best actor. There are plans to revive the drama as a stage play in 2013.


Related links

Also on 1st May 1986...

  • UK Prime Minister

    Margaret Thatcher

  • Monarch of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

    Elizabeth II

  • US President

    Ronald Reagan

  • BBC 1 on this day

    19:29 - EASTENDERS - 01 May 1986

    19:59 - TOMORROWhttp://'+location.host+''S WORLD - 01 May 1986

    20:30 - A QUESTION OF SPORT - 01 May 1986


    21:30 - BREAD - 01 May 1986


    22:25 - QUESTION TIME - 01 May 1986

  • BBC 2 on this day

    20:00 - TIMEWATCH - TIMEWATCH SPECIAL, ALL THE KINGhttp://'+location.host+''S MEN

    21:31 - KING OF THE GHETTO - 1

    22:54 - NEWSNIGHT - 01 May 1986

  • Radio 3 on this day

    19:00 - ST GEORGE AND THE PUSSYFOOTS - R3 30http://'+location.host+'' TX 01.05.86

    22:45 - DOLL - 01 October 1985

  • Radio 4 on this day

    19:40 - MEXICAN JOURNEY - 1

    20:10 - SINGERS CHOICE - 01 May 1986



  • S4C on this day

    19:00 - NEWYDDION SAITH - 01 May 1986


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