History of the BBC

History of the BBC

November anniversaries

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First regular hi-definition television service 2 November 1936

At 3pm on 2 November 1936 the BBC began the world's first regular hi-definition television service, from specially constructed studios at Alexandra Palace in North London. As part of this, two different technical systems were being tested on alternate weeks for six months: John Logie Baird's mechanical system producing pictures of 240 lines, and the EMI-Marconi electronic system, which produced images of 405 lines. On the toss of a coin, Baird's system inaugurated the service, followed by EMI-Marconi's. The latter was to prove the winning system.


The formal opening ceremony was followed by a Movietone newsreel and then a variety show, featuring Adele Dixon and the BBC Television Orchestra. A short documentary, Television Comes to London, revealed the preparations leading up to the launch. In all, the service was on the air for two hours on its first day.


BBC Director General John Reith did not like the new medium, and in later life said he never watched television. However, he was in a minority as television became the dominant medium of the twentieth century. The term hi-definition as used in 1936 was defined as a minimum of 240 lines, and was applied in contrast to Baird's earlier system which used only 30. Today, standard definition at 625 lines is being replaced by digital hi-definition, which offers picture resolution of 1080 lines.


Hancock's Half-Hour
Tony Hancock with Sid James (left) and Bill Kerr.


Hancock's Half-Hour 2 November 1954

Hancock's Half-Hour started on 2 November 1954 and ran on radio and later on television until 1961.


The first episode of Hancock's Half-Hour was The First Night Party. Written by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, Tony Hancock was Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock. Hancock was surrounded by a cast of supporting players, chiefly Bill Kerr as his best friend, Sid James as a questionable friend, and Moira Lister as his girlfriend. Also in the first episode were Gerald Campion as Coatsleeves Charlie and Kenneth Williams as Lord Dockyard.


Hancock was already known to radio listeners from Educating Archie and Star Bill. Galton and Simpson took Hancock's character as it appeared in Star Bill and developed a more subtle, reactive style of comedy that put the curmudgeonly man at the centre of the action. Together with Hancock and producer Dennis Main Wilson they helped to popularise the situation comedy format.


Galton and Simpson went on to create Steptoe and Son and remain one of Britain's most successful comedy writing teams. Main Wilson continued to produce comedies including Till Death Us Do Part and Citizen Smith. He died in 1997.


Hancock never recaptured the success of Hancock's Half-Hour, and died in 1968. However, such was its influence that 40 years after the last original episode was transmitted, Tony Hancock was voted the greatest British comedian of all time.


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Life with the Lyons 5 November 1950

Life with the Lyons was first heard on 5 November 1950. The situation comedy was written by popular American actress Bebe Daniels, who starred in it along with her real life family - husband Ben Lyon, and children Barbara and Richard. Daniels played a scatterbrained version of herself, and the script drew on events from her own domestic life. The show attracted over 11 million listeners, and transferred to television, the West End stage, and became a feature film.


Daniels and Lyon were a well known Hollywood couple - Daniels had starred in many films including Rio Rita and 42nd St. They were appreciated by British radio audiences for choosing to remain in London during the war to make Hi Gang, which continued on air throughout the Blitz. By the time Life with the Lyons started the family were settled, with Barbara studying at RADA and Richard at school in the country. The sitcom reflected their real lives to the extent that when Daniels and Lyon moved home, the sitcom family moved too.


Life with the Lyons ran until 1961. After two series on the BBC the television version transferred to ITV, but continued on BBC radio. As one of the first family situation comedies it formed the template for many sitcoms that followed, up to and including My Family and Outnumbered.


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The Goodies 8 November 1970

The Goodies made their television debut on 8 November 1970. The Radio Times described the show, featuring an agency of three men who promised to do "anything, anytime", as a situation comedy. However, it was full of cartoon humour, with slapstick visuals and surreal diversions. The tone was set by the Goodies favoured mode of transport, a bicycle made for three - or trandem - on which they made their wobbly way.


The Goodies was written by and starred Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie, who had previously worked together on sketch show Broaden Your Mind. The characters they played were exaggerated versions of themselves. As described by Bill Oddie, "Tim is the respectable front-man, representative of the Establishment, Graeme plays the back-room boy who produces all the clever stuff and me, I'm the aggressive one". Music, written by Oddie, was a big feature of the programme, and The Goodies had considerable chart success with their comedy songs, such as The Funky Gibbon.


The Goodies ran until 1980 on the BBC before moving to ITV for two seasons. All three performers have had subsequent success on BBC programmes. The show's lasting influence can be seen in comedies such as The Mighty Boosh and We Are Klang.


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BBC Radio Leicester opens 8 November 1967, local radio network launched

Radio Leicester went on air on 8 November 1967. The station was the pioneer in the BBC's experimental local radio network, the first of 8, broadcasting on VHF. It was joined later in the month by Sheffield and Merseyside. Local radio was very much the brainchild of Frank Gillard - the former war reporter turned Director of Radio - who saw it as a chance to present "the running serial story of local life in all its aspects".


Radio Leicester opened with speeches from the Postmaster General and the Lord Mayor of Leicester. Following a preview of forthcoming programmes, came Insight: The Fire Service, For Children, The Leicester Scene, At Your Request, Termtime – about education in the area - and then, before the news and weather, highlights of the Lord Mayor's Lunch. The significance of the launch was underlined by the fact that the listings were featured in the national press.


Local radio stations overcame suspicions that their content was purely trivial, proving their worth in their response to regional weather stories. The government put the experiment on a permanent footing in 1969, and gave permission to expand the number of stations. Today there are 40 BBC local radio stations serving England.


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Monitor - Elgar by Ken Russell 11 November 1962

The 100th edition of the arts television programme Monitor was broadcast on 11 November 1962. It was a special film dedicated to the life of Edward Elgar, made by Ken Russell. A straightforward documentary approach was abandoned, in favour of what is now known as docu-drama, with actors taking the parts of Elgar and his family. However, there was no dialogue and only a dry commentary from Huw Wheldon. Instead Russell filled the soundtrack with Elgar's music and created a serious yet expressive film that has become a classic of its type.


Elgar was filmed in the composer's homes, and in and around Gloucester and the Malvern Hills, where he lived for much of his life. The cameraman was Ken Higgins. Edwardian archive footage completed the picture. The artifice of the dramatized scenes was emphasised by the closing credits, which showed stills of the film crew at work.


The programme revealed the breadth of Elgar’s music and aided his rehabilitation following several decades of relative obscurity. Russell's success with Monitor led directly to feature films, though he also made more programmes for the BBC, on subjects including Debussy and Bartok. Russell died in 2011, but today it is standard practice for documentaries to contain the dramatizations of the sort that he pioneered.


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Richard Dimbleby presents Panorama in 1964


Panorama 11 November 1953

The world's longest running current affairs programme was first aired at 8:15pm on 11 November 1953. Panorama was the brainchild of Dennis Bardens and Andrew Miller Jones and originally intended as 'a fortnightly reflection of the contemporary scene'. Yet despite an audience of almost half of the adult viewing public, the first show was very nearly the last, following a number of technical hitches and a shaky performance by host Patrick Murphy.


The programme was taken off air for a month, and when the second edition was broadcast it was presented by Max Robertson. Despite this uncertain start, Panorama gained new ground and in 1955 it was revamped as a 'window on the world', extending its running time to an hour and recasting Richard Dimbleby as the front man. It became responsible for a number of television firsts, including broadcasting the birth of a baby in 1957 and interviewing a member of the royal family, the Duke of Edinburgh in 1961.


From frontline reporting such as the 1970 interview with King Hussein of Jordan as civil war broke out, to the humour of the 1957 April Fool's Day spaghetti crop film, Panorama has been the face of BBC current affairs for sixty years. The BAFTA and Emmy winning programme continues to break new ground and new stories.


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BBC begins daily transmissions from 2LO Station, 14 November 1922

On 14 November 1922 the BBC began daily radio broadcasts. The first programme, at 6 pm, was a news bulletin, supplied by news agencies. This was followed by a weather forecast, prepared by the Met Office. They were read by Arthur Burrows, Director of programmes. Burrows read the bulletin twice, once fast and then slowly, so that listeners could take notes if they wished.


The broadcasts came from 2LO, the transmitter in The Strand that the new British Broadcasting Company acquired from Marconi for the purpose. 2LO got its name from the number of the Post Office broadcasting licence issued to Marconi. The BBC was initially restricted in what and when it could broadcast, amid fears from the government that it would drown out official communications, and from the newspapers that it would steal their readers. As listeners and broadcasters began to realise the potential of the radio to entertain as well as inform, the call sign "2LO calling" became well known.


BBC broadcasts from Birmingham and Manchester started the following day, adding innovations such as the first children's programme. Gradually the restrictions on broadcasting were relaxed, and radio became an integral part of life in Britain. The 2LO transmitter is now in the Science Museum in London, preserved as an icon of broadcasting history.


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The slideshow features audio in this order: Panorama, reporting on the BBC's colour tests in the 1950s. Announcer Sylvia Peters explaining colour television in a promotional film designed for television executives in the 1950s. Announcements introducing BBC Two and its first (un-publicised) colour programme Late Night Line-Up (with Joan Bakewell). David Attenborough, Controller BBC Two, in the 1960s, explaining how colour came to the channel. An episode of Steptoe and Son showing the excitement of owning a colour TV after its introduction on BBC One in 1969. David Attenborough explaining the official colour launch on BBC Two in 1967. The BBC's former historian Lord Asa Briggs and David Attenborough recalling how snooker became popular due to colour on BBC One. The first Panorama in colour. Asa Briggs explaining how families took up colour television.


Colour television on BBC One 15 November 1969

BBC One launched a full colour service on 15 November 1969. At midnight, An Evening with Petula - Petula Clark in concert from the Royal Albert Hall, was the first transmission. The channel then closed down until 10am. Programmes showing in colour on the 15th included Star Trek and Dixon of Dock Green, The Harry Secombe Show and Match of the Day, plus the feature film The Prisoner of Zenda.


The launch of the colour service was preceded by a promotional programme Colourful One, in which Julian Pettifer looked forward to the advent of colour on BBC One, and Maurice Wiggin of the Sunday Times offered an analysis of the pros and cons of colour broadcasting.


The new service was also extended to ITV, bringing it and BBC One in line with BBC Two, which had been offering colour programmes - including Wimbledon, the Olympic Games and The Eurovision Song Contest - since 1967. BBC One was initially only available in colour to about 50% of households, as transmitter upgrades took time to install, but by 1978, 11 million homes had a colour licence as viewers saw for themselves the benefits of colour television.


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Cathy Come Home 16 November 1966

Cathy Come Home was broadcast on 16 November 1966, in the regular Wednesday Play slot. The drama, written by Jeremy Sandford and directed by Ken Loach, exposed Britain's chronic housing shortage. It follows the story of Cathy Ward, played by Carol White, on a downward spiral from young mother - living with husband Reg in a new flat "with parquet flooring and tin openers fixed to the walls" - to the point where she is homeless and alone. In the memorable final scene her children are forcibly taken from her by Social Services and put into care.


Cathy Come Home demonstrated the ability of television drama to affect audiences, put homelessness on the public agenda, and gave a huge boost to the charity Shelter. The play was mostly filmed on location using hand held cameras. The naturalistic action was contextualised by a voiceover that provided facts on the housing crisis. The issues raised by the drama were widely debated, and policy changes followed, so families were not broken up so readily.


Cathy Come Home was voted the best drama in the BFI100 poll of British Television. Stanford went on to write Edna the Inebriate Woman. Loach has had notable success in the cinema, from Kes, to The Wind that Shakes the Barley. The BBC has continued to make original dramas that raise social concerns, such as the acclaimed Five Daughters.


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The Singing Detective 16 November 1986

The first episode of The Singing Detective, Dennis Potter's original drama series, aired on 16 November 1986. The drama, in which Potter's non-naturalistic style was perfected, was directed by John Amiel and produced by Kenith Trodd. The cast featured a BAFTA Award winning performance from Michael Gambon, with support from Bill Paterson, Imelda Staunton, Joanne Whalley, Patrick Malahide, Alison Steadman, and Janet Suzman. The success of the drama was not compromised by the controversy surrounding a sex scene in episode three.


Gambon played a writer called Marlow, hospitalised by psoriatic arthropathy - the same condition that affected Potter. As Marlow lay in bed he hallucinated scenes from his novel, which also featured a character called Marlow, and from his childhood in the 1940s. The different elements of the plot were united by the use of vintage songs in musical sequences, and characters would lip synch to old recordings. Elements of Potter's life appeared in the drama, but he always denied that it was autobiographical.


Today The Singing Detective is recognised as a high point in television drama, which acted as a successful calling card in the participant's subsequent careers. When Potter died in 1994 the series was repeated. Although it is such a singular work and hard to emulate, it was remade in the US in 2004. Its influence can also be seen in the musical drama Blackpool.


Start of television broadcasts from the House of Commons,
21 November 1989

First discussed in 1964, television cameras were finally allowed to transmit proceedings live from the House of Commons on Tuesday 21 November 1989. The first broadcast was of the Queens's Speech Debate, with Ian Gow the first MP to speak.


Broadcasting came to Parliament gradually, with regular radio broadcasts from the House of Commons starting in 1978, and television entering the House of Lords in 1985. Filming of the Commons was heavily regulated. Eight cameras were installed and allowed to film head and shoulder shots of any MP who was speaking, shots of the Speaker and occasional wide shots of the entire chamber. Reaction shots of MPs were not permitted, and the rules agreed by the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House stated that this applied particularly during "incidents of disorder or altercations between the Chair and other Members".


These rules were relaxed as the experiment was a success, arguments that television would somehow trivialise Parliament were swept away, and MPs realised the benefits of having their words reach a wider audience. Today almost all proceedings of both houses of Parliament are available on the dedicated channel BBC Parliament.


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First TV gardening programme 21 November 1936

Television gardening began on 21 November 1936 when Mr Middleton presented In Your Garden from a purpose-built garden at Alexandra Palace. The programme was in the first month of the BBC's official television service, at a time when very few people had television sets. However, it inaugurated a programme genre that has remained an evergreen favourite.


Cecil Henry Middleton - invariably called Mr Middleton - was a well established voice on the radio, known for his relaxed tone at a time when many radio voices were stilted and formal. Introducing Mr Middleton to television was a move intended to provide more popular programming and encourage the uptake of televisions. By the end of 1937 some 2000 sets had been sold. When the war started the television service ended for the duration. Mr Middleton became involved with the war effort on the radio, and the Dig for Victory campaign that encouraged people to grow their own food crops.


Mr Middleton died in 1945 but television resumed after the war, and eventually programmes such as Gardening Club and In the Garden made new gardening stars, like Percy Thrower. Gardeners' World began in 1968, and continues to flourish through changing fashions in horticulture.


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Doctor Who first episode 23 November 1963

The first episode of Doctor Who was aired on 23 November 1963. The cover of the Radio Times that week announced "a new Saturday-afternoon television series of adventures in time and space". Viewers heard the ominous theme tune - written by Ron Grainer in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and arranged by Delia Derbyshire - and saw the title sequence designed by Bernard Lodge.


In an Unearthly Child, Jacqueline Hill and William Russell play teachers who are intrigued by their pupil Susan Foreman, played by Carole Anne Ford. They follow her home to an old junk yard and - in a revelation that took the audience into the realm of science fiction - are surprised to discover that the police box in which she lives has a bright futuristic interior, much bigger inside than out. Susan's grandfather is the Doctor, played by William Hartnell. Alarmed that the teachers will reveal the secret that he and Susan are time travellers, the Doctor kidnaps them. The final shot shows the Tardis in a barren landscape as a human shadow falls across it, setting the scene for future adventures.


Doctor Who ran until 1996. However its lasting popularity ensured its return in 2005, and that it played a large part in the revitalisation of Saturday evening family viewing. In 2013 Peter Capaldi was introduced as the 12th Doctor.


That Was The Week That Was
That Was The Week That Was


That Was The Week That Was 24 November 1962

That Was The Week That Was began on 24 November 1962. The late-night satirical show took aim at the establishment in a way that had never been seen on the BBC before, inspired by the success of the stage review Beyond the Fringe. TW3 - as it was known for the sake of convenience - was produced by Ned Sherrin, and presented live by David Frost. The talented cast joining him for the first programme was Millicent Martin, Kenneth Cope, David Kernan, Roy Kinnear, Bernard Levin, Lance Percival and William Rushton. It quickly became essential Saturday night viewing.


Each week TW3 mixed songs with sketches and cartoons in a free-wheeling format overseen by Frost. The incredible team of writers were helped by the fact that the programmes coincided with the Profumo scandal, and were not afraid to highlight the murkier areas of political life.


TW3 only ran for two series, and was cancelled before the 1964 Election year, as the BBC Governors worried about its impact. Despite this fact, it came to symbolise the new freedom of the "permissive" Sixties. Many of the stars and writers went on to further success, with Frost in particular helping to recreate the show in the US. Today political satire is alive and well on the BBC, with programmes like The Now Show on radio, and The Thick of it on television.


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