History of the BBC

History of the BBC

September anniversaries

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Chamberlain announces Britain is at war with Germany
3 Sept 1939

The news that Britain was at war was broken by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain at 11.15am on Sunday 3 September 1939. In a 5 minute broadcast on the Home Service, he announced that as Hitler had failed to respond to British demands to leave Poland, "This country is at war with Germany". Chamberlain went on to say that the failure to avert war was a bitter personal blow, and that he didn't think he could have done any more.


Following the Prime Minister's speech there were a series of announcements. All places of entertainment were to close with immediate effect, and people were discouraged from crowding together, unless it was to attend church. Details of the air raid warning were also given and it was emphasised that tube stations were not to be used as shelters.


In London the air raid sirens sounded only 8 minutes later, and - although most BBC staff had been evacuated in preparation for hostilities - many of those remaining, including commentator John Snagge, donned tin helmets and rushed to the roof of Broadcasting House to watch the bombs falling. It was a false alarm.



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From Fawlty Towers to Gavin and Stacey, our slideshow celebrates the best of BBC comedy programmes. For details of the featured programmes click here.


Only Fools and Horses 8 September 1981

The first ever episode of Only Fools and Horses, Big Brother, aired on the 8 September 1981. The series was written by John Sullivan, who had already seen success with Citizen Smith. Only Fools and Horses introduced the Trotters, and created career-defining roles for David Jason as Delboy and Nicholas Lyndhurst as Rodney. The much loved sitcom followed their lives until 2003, and is often voted amongst the top British television programmes.


Del and Rodney lived in Peckham with Grandad, played by Lennard Pearce. Their friends included Trigger, Boycie, Marlene, Denzil and Mike. When Pearce died, his character was replaced by Buster Merryfield, as Uncle Albert. Sullivan allowed his characters to develop and mixed tragedy with the comedy. In the 1996 Christmas specials Rodney's wife Cassandra suffered a miscarriage, but in the following episode 24 million viewers watched as the Trotters finally became the millionaires they had always hoped to be.


The versatile Jason and Lyndhurst have enjoyed continued success. The enduring popularity of Only Fools and Horses led Sullivan to revisit the characters before he died in 2011. In The Green Green Grass, Marlene and Boycie started a new life in the country. In 2010, Rock and Chips looked at Del and Rodney's early life, with Lyndhurst returning to play Rodney's father.


Phillip Schofield
Phillip Schofield


First live Children's BBC from 'the Broom Cupboard' 9 September 1985

When, at the age of fifteen, tv presenter Phillip Schofield hosted his first programme for Hospital Radio Plymouth, no one realised that by 1993 he would become a West End star in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. But to 30 and 40 somethings across the UK, he will be remembered fondly as the first face of the BBC's 'Broom Cupboard'.


It was at the start of another school year in Autumn 1985, that 'Children's BBC' went live, with dedicated links between the programmes, from a tiny control room at BBC Television Centre - hence the broom cupboard nickname. Schofield not only told viewers what was coming up, but he partially controlled what was seen on the screen through a mixing desk in front of him.


The small space, where the action took place, was normally reserved for a duty continuity announcer - then a rather serious disembodied voice heard between programmes on BBC One or BBC Two during the rest of the day.


Schofield continues to present programmes for ITV, but his success today owes a lot to being stuck for hours amongst a collection of mops and brooms 25 years ago.


Click below for blogs and archive links celebrating 25 years of the Broom Cupboard.


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The Saga of Noggin the Nog first transmitted 11 September 1959

The Saga of Noggin the Nog first aired on 11 September 1959. Peter Firmin was inspired to create the characters by the 12th century Norse chess pieces - discovered on the Isle of Lewis - that he saw in the British Museum. The cartoon was written and produced by Oliver Postgate, who was also the narrator with Ronnie Stevens.


Noggin was King of the Nogs, son of King Knut and Queen Grunhilda. His Queen was Nooka Princess of the Nooks, and their son was Prince Knut. The gentle Noggin was aided by his warrior captain Thor Nogson, by the inventor Olaf the Lofty, and the bird Graculus from the Hot-Water Valley. During the sagas Noggin encountered others including Groliffe the Ice Dragon, Ronf, and the Omruds. Opposition to Noggin came from his uncle, Nogbad the Bad, who coveted Noggin's throne. When Nogbad was thwarted, he would sometimes retreat over the mountains to visit his granny in Finland.


The cartoon ran until 1965 and then returned in colour in 1979. As production company Smallfilms, Firmin and Postgate produced many greatly loved children's programmes for the BBC, including Pogles' Wood, Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss and the Clangers. Oliver Postgate died in 2008.


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Crackerjack 14 September 1955

When children first sat down to watch Crackerjack it was 5.15pm on Wednesday 14 September 1955. So the famous rallying cry "It's Friday.. It's 5 to 5... it's Crackerjack" was not from the original programme, but appeared several years later.


From the outset the live audience of children was crucial to the energy of the show, whether shouting out "Crackerjack" every time the word was mentioned, singing along with the pop acts that appeared, or as contestants in the games. Lucky winners were given a Crackerjack pencil. When Queen Elizabeth visited the production in 1961 she was presented with Crackerjack pencils for her children.


Crackerjack featured a host of presenter stars over the years. Leslie Crowther followed Andrews, then Michael Aspel, Ed Stewart and Stu Francis. Comedy support came from Peter Glaze, Don Maclean, Jack Douglas and The Krankies, among others. The programme also featured the quiz game Double or Drop, devised by presenter Eamonn Andrews.


Crackerjack survived until 1984, with some changes to its basic formula: 'gunge' was introduced, and the Crackerjack pencil became a pen. The show was the forerunner to many Saturday morning children's programmes, and still inspires a reflex "Crackerjack" from many viewers who hear the name.


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From Fawlty Towers to Gavin and Stacey, our slideshow celebrates the best of BBC comedy programmes. For details of the featured programmes click here.


First episode of Fawlty Towers 19 September 1975

The first episode of Fawlty Towers aired on 19 September 1975. Audiences were keen to see what John Cleese would do after Monty Python, but at first the situation comedy received some less than enthusiastic reviews. However the strength of the writing and casting - with Cleese as hotelier Basil Fawlty - ensured the series was a great success.


Fawlty Towers was written by Cleese with his wife Connie Booth. The shows were intricately plotted farces, and no dialogue was written until the plot had been finalised. The ensemble cast included Prunella Scales as Basil's wife Sybil, and Andrew Sachs as the well-meaning but incompetent waiter Manuel. Booth provided an important element of sanity and calm as Polly the chambermaid. The character of Fawlty, was based on a real hotelier Cleese had encountered while filming in Torbay, as were some of the events.


Only 12 half hour episodes were ever made. The decision to stop making Fawlty Towers when it was at its creative height, leaving a distinct legacy, inspired later comedians such as Ricky Gervais. In 2000 Fawlty Towers was voted the best British television programme of all time in a BFI poll, above Cathy Come Home and Doctor Who.


Derek Jacobi
Derek Jacobi in I Claudius.


First episode of I, Claudius 20 September 1976

The first episode of historical drama I, Claudius aired on 20 September 1976. The 12 part series was adapted by Jack Pullman from two novels by Robert Graves - I, Claudius and Claudius the God. The story of decadent imperial Roman life proved a critical and ratings success, and its mix of political intrigue, sex, and violence, helped turn Derek Jacobi into a star.


Jacobi's portrayal of the stammering Claudius was matched by an outstanding performance from Sian Phillips as Livia, his scheming grandmother. Both actors had to age though the series, and required hours in the makeup chair. The fine ensemble cast also featured memorable turns from George Baker, Brian Blessed, Christopher Biggins, Patrick Stewart and John Hurt (as Caligula).


I, Claudius proved that historical drama did not have to be staid. The popularity of the programme led to a repeat the following year, and inspired other historical dramas not to shy away from adult themes. I, Claudius won BAFTA Awards for Jacobi and Phillips, as well as one for Designer Tim Harvey. The title sequence featuring a snake slithering across a mosaic portrait of Claudius was parodied in the second series of comedy Blackadder.


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The Old Grey Whistle Test 21 September 1971

The Old Grey Whistle Test began on 21 September 1971. As the only regular outlet for non-chart music on television, it provided many seminal musical moments for its dedicated viewers, with performances from artists as diverse as Bob Marley, Free, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Roxy Music and Randy Newman. It also made "Whispering" Bob Harris the archetypal laidback presenter.


The first presenter of The Old Grey Whistle Test was rock journalist Richard Williams. Williams explained the title in the Radio Times: "before a new record is released a rough mix is played to the grey-haired doormen. If they can whistle the tune after hearing it once, it passes the 'old grey whistle test' and is released". Harris took over from Williams and presented the show through the seventies. With the changing musical landscape came new presenters, including Annie Nightingale, Mark Ellen and Andy Kershaw.


The Old Grey Whistle Test - shortened to Whistle Test in 1983 - ended in 1988. Its focus on the straightforward studio performance by a band, coupled with creative use of black and white archive to illustrate album tracks when the bands were unavailable, influenced later music shows. Bob Harris has survived many affectionate parodies and can now be heard on BBC Radio 2.


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CEEFAX: world's first teletext service, 23 September 1974.

When CEEFAX started in 1974, it was the first teletext facility in the world - enabling the viewer to "see facts" - and the start of interactive television services that are now taken for granted. CEEFAX was developed two years earlier by BBC engineers who exploited the unused capacity of the 625 line television signal to send information. The text could be displayed instead of the television picture or overlaying it, and accessed at the touch of a button.


CEEFAX was a minority interest at first, as a new television was needed to receive it, but the popularity of rented televisions, which could easily be upgraded, ensured uptake steadily increased. The service received a great boost once gaps in the television schedule began to be filled with a selection of pages from CEEFAX, accompanied by music. Eventually it had 22 million weekly users. Apart from news and sport coverage, including chess and racing, CEEFAX offered pages of weather, music reviews, travel information, jokes and even an alarm clock. At its height as many as 600 pages were available.


As part of the analogue television signal, CEEFAX will finish when the network becomes totally digital in 2012, but more advanced interactive services have already replaced it.


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The Epilogue 1935


The Epilogue 26 September 1926

The Epilogue, a quiet moment of reflection to mark the end of the broadcasting day, was first heard on Sunday 26 September 1926. It initially comprised themed Bible readings but over time hymns were added. Amongst the BBC's Sunday output - which was restricted to programmes that were deemed appropriate to the Sabbath - the Epilogue stood out and was greatly appreciated. By 1928 the BBC could report that the Sunday Epilogue was "the most popular single item in all the programmes".


Internal documents reveal that the Epilogue was intended to stand apart from the rest of the evening's radio by preserving an "improvised, unexpected quality". Thus Christian thought was distilled, and presented without sectarian bias. The title Epilogue was chosen by London Station Director Basil Nichols, although in later years the programme was not always the last thing on at night. It was an idea General Manager John Reith had originally proposed, and was prepared by Director of Education John Clarke Stobart, who chose the readings along with Stuart Hibberd and others.


The Epilogue finally ended on Good Friday Sunday 1980. The moment of stillness in the broadcasting day that the Epilogue brought to radio is continued today with Thought for the Day on Radio 4, and Pause for Thought on Radio2.


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First BBC News Bulletin read in French by D. Grinnel-Milne 27 September 1938. Picture shows the senior French announcer L..A.P de Valence (left) and J.G. Weightman, newsreader, with A.J Fransella May 1947.


Start of BBC European Service, News in French, German and Italian 27 September 1938

On 27 September 1938, the BBC broadcast across Europe its first news bulletins in French, German and Italian. Although the BBC Empire service had begun in 1932, the new service was a response to the Munich Crisis, beginning with a translation of Chamberlain's speech to the British population. Over the course of the next year, the European output increased by nine thousand hours and a composite service with music, shows and news formed.


Yet the greatest development was brought about by the Second World War. Despite German attempts to block the European service with heavy jamming systems, the output of these three languages increased sevenfold. It was through the BBC that Charles de Gaulle broadcast his famous Appeal of 18 June speech to inspire the French resistance, while it was Belgium broadcaster Victor de Laveleye who began the V for victory campaign. For this service the BBC received over four thousand letters of gratitude from France alone in the first month of peace.


The BBC emerged from the war as the largest international station in the world, a title which it still holds seventy five years later. The present day BBC World Service broadcasts in 28 languages, including English, and reaches massive audiences of two hundred million.


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War and Peace 28 September 1972

On 28 September 1972 the BBC began its ambitious dramatisation of Leo Tolstoy's epic novel War and Peace. The drama was written by Jack Pulman and unfolded over 20 weeks. From the grand opening theme music - the Imperial Russian Anthem, played by the band of the Welsh Guards - the series established its intention to capture the scope of the source material. It went on to win several awards and confirmed Anthony Hopkins as a great actor with his memorable turn as Pierre.


Filming took place over a year. Many exterior scenes, including the battles, were filmed in Yugoslavia, with 1000 Yugoslav territorials as extras. Interiors were shot for the most part at Television Centre, but some of the grander locations were provided by Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. Apart from Hopkins, the large cast featured Morag Hood as Natasha, Alan Dobie as Andrei and Angela Down as Maria. War and Peace was directed by John Howard Davies and produced by David Conroy.


The successful adaptation of War and Peace encouraged the transfer of more classic novels to the small screen, including Anna Karenina in 1977. The BBC continues to make dramatisations of books - both classic and modern - with Great Expectations and Birdsong recent examples.


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First episode of Come Dancing 29 September 1950

The evening of 29 September 1950 saw the first televised Come Dancing, a live broadcast of the final of the British Formation Dancing Trophy, from the Lyceum Ballroom in London. In later years the programme became known for the commentary on the costumes - typically made by the dancer's mother with sequins sewn on by hand - but at the time it brought a welcome touch of glamour and elegance to a country still suffering in the aftermath of the war.


The format of Come Dancing enlarged on its forerunner, Television Dancing Club, and featured dancers from different regions of the country in couples and formation. The first programme was presented by Peter Dimmock, with Leslie Mitchell as the master of ceremonies. Music was provided by Harry Roy and his band. An illustrious list of presenters over the years included Terry Wogan, Angela Rippon, Judith Chalmers, David Jacobs, and Rosemarie Ford.


Come Dancing ended in 1998. However the success of the film Strictly Ballroom rekindled interest in dance and so, in 2004, Strictly Come Dancing was born. "Strictly" updated the Come Dancing formula, mixing celebrity contestants with professional dancing partners. The programme became an international success, and aided the revitalisation of Saturday evening family viewing.


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Start of Radio 1 30 September 1967

A new national radio station was launched on 30 September 1967 with the start of Radio 1. Radio 1 offered a diet of pop music, and was intended to replace the pirate radio stations recently outlawed by the Marine and Broadcasting (Offences) Act. "The swinging new radio service" - according to the Radio Times - took much of its style from the pirates and employed several ex-pirate disc jockeys. One was Tony Blackburn, who launched the station with the song Flowers in the Rain, by The Move.


Other ex-pirates joining Radio 1 included John Peel, Kenny Everett and Emperor Rosko, who were recruited alongside Light Programme regulars like Alan Freeman and Pete Murray. Pirate radio had bypassed any agreement with the record industry and unions about the amount of time devoted to recorded music, and played almost non-stop music. The BBC was restricted by strict rules on "needle time" and had to make up time with jingles and chat. The popularity of the new station was demonstrated in the year following its launch, when record sales increased by 10%.


At the same time as Radio 1 was launched the Light, Third and Home Services were rebranded as Radio 2, 3 and 4. The 4 stations together offered something for everyone. In 1994 Radio 1 moved from its initial frequency of 247 metres MW, and is now available on FM, digital radio and online. Today Radio 1 continues with a strong identity as the BBC's main provider of pop music, in its many forms, and has a sister station in Radio 1Xtra.


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Neville Chamberlain at Heston Aerodrome 1938.


Chamberlain returns from Munich 30 September 1938

During the Munich Crisis of 1938, when Hitler threatened to invade Czechoslovakia, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain visited Nazi Germany three times in an attempt to avert war. On 30 September he returned to Heston Aerodrome with an agreement which removed the imminent threat, while allowing Hitler to annexe parts of Czechoslovakia. He brandished a statement signed by the two leaders which said the agreement was "symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again". Speaking at Downing Street a short while later he said it promised "peace for our time". This optimism was short lived, as the Munich Agreement was broken within a year and Britain went to war over the Nazi invasion of Poland.


Richard Dimbleby described the scene at Heston on 30 September for radio and for the small television audience. As Chamberlain's plane arrived a large excited crowd gathered to greet him. He was received by the Foreign Secretary and The Minister of War, then spoke to the expectant crowd and waiting media.


The BBC reported the 1938 crisis in some detail, rescheduling many programmes to cover it. It also made civil defence announcements and instituted news broadcasts to Europe. When the War began the Corporation was ready to take its place at the heart of national life, providing news, information and morale-boosting entertainment.


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