History of the BBC

History of the BBC


Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill


Winston Churchill's first wartime broadcast 1 October 1939

On 1 October 1939 Winston Churchill gave his first wartime broadcast, on the recently created BBC Home Service. Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, delivered his assessment of the first month of hostilities. He did not like the BBC - which had defied the government to carry statements from strike leaders during the 1926 General Strike - and had only broadcast infrequently before the war. However, he understood the power radio gave him to speak to the nation.


The speech is not as famous as the ones Churchill delivered as Prime Minister during the summer of 1940, but did contain his opinion of Russian intentions as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". Churchill spoke of the defence and fall of Poland against the onslaught of Germany and Russia. He suggested that Russia’s natural interests would not coincide with those of Germany. He also asserted that the Germans were not winning the U-boat war, despite initial success. Churchill said the nation should prepare for a long conflict of 3 years and ended by likening the struggle against Nazism to the American Civil War fight against slavery.


It is hard to quantify the significance of Churchill's wartime speeches in bolstering national morale during the long years of the war. But more than half the adult population tuned in to them and the nation came to a virtual standstill as utility companies reported a fall in demand while he was on air.


Also in September...


Michael Palin
Michael Palin


Around the World in Eighty Days 11 October 1989

The first episode of Around the World in 80 days was broadcast on 11 October 1989. Michael Palin followed in the footsteps of the fictional Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne's novel. The frustrations, delays and joys of the 79 day journey became an entertaining 7 part series that was a celebration of travel itself and kick-started a whole new phase of Palin’s career.


Palin set out from London on the Orient Express, waved off by his family and Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. He travelled by land or sea but not by air, to keep to the spirit of the original, though he did once venture into a balloon. Palin acknowledged that he was not travelling alone, but attended by a BBC production crew of 5, including director Roger Mills. He dubbed them Passepartout, after Fogg's manservant.


The success of Around the World in 80 Days extended to a best-selling book and DVD of the series. Palin went on to make a whole series of travel documentaries, including Pole to Pole, Full Circle with Michael Palin, Sahara with Michael Palin, Himalaya with Michael Palin and Michael Palin's New Europe. In 2008 he made 20 Years On, in which he revisited Dubai and India to track down the crew of the dhow Al Shama with whom he sailed 20 years previously.


Birds of a Feather
Linda Robson, Lesley Joseph and Pauline Quirke


Birds of a Feather 16 October 1989

Birds of a Feather began on 16 October 1989. The sitcom starred Pauline Quirke and Linda Robson as sisters Sharon and Tracey. They lead contrasting lifestyles but have to adapt to life together when their husbands are jailed for armed robbery. The comedy, written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, was inspired by Gran's observation of 2 couples - whom he imagined to be gangsters and their molls - having lunch together. Lesley Joseph co-starred as man-mad neighbour Dorien Green. The first episode drew complaints as it featured women talking about sex. However it was an immediate hit with viewers, who found it refreshing and a hastily commissioned Christmas special cemented its success.


Quirke and Robson had worked with the writers before and were chosen to play the sisters. As childhood friends the onscreen relationship they created worked perfectly. Joseph was an actor whose performance made Dorien sympathetic. The series was one of the first British sitcoms to use the American system of employing a team of writers.


Birds of a Feather ran until 1998, attracting audiences as high as 20 million. Marks and Gran went on to write Love Hurts and Goodnight Sweetheart. After a successful run on the stage, Birds of a Feather returned to the screens on ITV in 2014.


In order to see this content you need to have both Javascript enabled and Flash installed. Visit BBC Webwise for full instructions


The Wednesday Play first broadcast 28 October 1964

The Wednesday Play, first broadcast on 28 October 1964, started a run of single dramas that developed a reputation for controversial and ground-breaking material. It included Cathy Come Home, Stand Up Nigel Barton and Up the Junction. The opening play was A Crack in the Mirror, an adaptation by Ronald Eyre of a Nikolai Leskov short story, starring Bill Fraser, James Maxwell, Derek Newark and Michael Hordern.


The Wednesday Play was instigated by BBC Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, with the intention of saving the full-length single drama on television - then threatened by the success of faster-moving drama series. The plays adopted some of the techniques of series, such as a pre-title teaser sequence. Newman wanted the plays to dramatise 'the turning points in contemporary Britain'. Cathy Come Home, directed by Ken Loach, was the most celebrated example of this intention, raising the problem of homelessness and giving a great boost to the charity Shelter. Playwrights featured over the years included Dennis Potter, David Mercer, Nell Dunn, Simon Raven, Johnny Speight and Harold Pinter (the latter as actor).


The series lasted until 1970, when it moved to Thursday nights and became Play For Today.


Related links

Also on 1st October 1939...

What does the BBC mean to you?
Share your memories with Memoryshare.
BBC Memoryshare

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.