Start of The BBC Television Shakespeare 3 December 1978
On 3 December 1978 the BBC began its ambitious plan to broadcast a television version of each of Shakespeare's 37 plays, starting with Romeo and Juliet. The project was devised by Cedric Messina and took seven years to complete. The Bard's most obscure and rarely performed works got equal treatment to his best known plays, and the BBC built a comprehensive resource that was widely used in schools, boosted by the new popularity of video recorders.
Romeo and Juliet was a popular play and a safe choice with which to begin the series. It boasted an impressive cast, typical of the series, alongside leads Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire. Established stars Celia Johnson, Michael Hordern and John Gielgud appeared with newcomers Anthony Andrews and Alan Rickman – making his television debut. The BBC Television Shakespeare plays were sometimes criticised for being traditional productions in period costume - a condition imposed by co-producer Time-Life - but they often exploited the television medium by filming on location.
The final play - Titus Andronicus - aired in 1985. By that time Jonathan Miller and then Sean Sutton had served as producer. Some of the plays remain the only television adaptation. In 2016 the BBC will mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death by releasing the whole of the BBC's Shakespeare archive for educational use. The BBC Television Shakespeare will form the backbone of this new endeavour.
Also in December...
Morecambe and Wise Christmas Shows 25 December
From 1969 to 1977 the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was the highlight of Christmas night viewing for millions of viewers. Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise were the nation’s most popular double act, a fact confirmed by the calibre of the stars who seemed to be queuing up to appear on their specials. Their popularity peaked with the 1977 Christmas Show, when a phenomenal 28 million viewers sat down to watch, the most watched comedy programme in British television history.
The Morecambe and Wise Show came to the BBC in 1968, following several successful years at ITV. Eric and Ernie entered their golden age with the second BBC series, in 1969, when Eddie Braben became their main writer. Braben developed Eric and Ernie’s comic personas, so Ernie was less of a traditional straight man to Eric, getting his own laughs. The Christmas Shows were longer versions of the main series, with more big name guests, and bigger routines.Eric’s heart condition limited their output in later years, but this only added to the sense of anticipation when the Christmas Show came around.
Eric and Ernie went back to ITV in 1978, but never recaptured the momentum of their BBC years. Although both comedians are now dead - Eric died in 1984 and Ernie in 1999 - their influence can be seen in double acts such as Reeves and Mortimer.
BBC Reith Lectures 26 December 1948
The inaugural Reith Lecture was given on 26 December 1948 by Bertrand Russell. In a series of 6 talks Russell spoke on the theme of Authority and the Individual. The Reith Lectures were named in honour of the first Director-General of the BBC, Sir John Reith, to mark his contribution to the idea of public service broadcasting. They allowed a speaker to talk at length on a subject in the "field of thought". The lectures were viewed as highly prestigious by the BBC and repeated on the Third Programme and given a global audience via the BBC's Overseas and Transcription Services.
Russell was a good candidate as first speaker, being highly regarded as a philosopher and known to the public for his appearances on The Brains Trust. The list of people who have delivered The Reith Lectures since they began includes Richard Hoggart, Nikolaus Pevsner, Robert Oppenheimer, Daniel Baremboim, Marina Warner and JK Galbraith. In 2013 artist-potter Grayson Perry lectured on contemporary art.
The Reith Lectures have been broadcast every year since 1948. Transcripts of all the lectures are on the BBC website and many are available to download. In recent years the lectures have been delivered in front of an audience, who then have the opportunity to question the lecturer.