History of the BBC

History of the BBC


Alexandra Palace
Alexandra Palace


Close down of Television service for the duration of the War 1 September 1939

On 1 September 1939, with war looking unavoidable, the BBC took steps to prepare for the conflict. Shortly after noon the television service was unceremoniously shut down, following the cartoon Mickey’s Gala Premiere. It was said that the strong signal from the transmitter at Alexandra Palace would provide a navigational aid for enemy aircraft. At the same time the radio service was re-organised, with the National and Regional Services brought into one Home Service. While television remained silent during the war, BBC Radio – after an initial hiccup when the airwaves were filled with organ music - provided a welcome distraction.


Only 20,000 households had television sets, and as television programmes were expensive to produce, it was felt the resources saved could be better used elsewhere during wartime. Fifty engineers were redeployed to work on radar projects.


Television started again on 7 June 1946, with a brief opening ceremony and a repeat of the Mickey Mouse cartoon that preceded the closedown. The post-war television audience was almost non-existent and - although the service was a monopoly – the BBC had to work hard to convince sceptics it could offer an alternative to the radio, which had proved so successful during the war.


Also in August...


Richard Beckinsale and Ronnie Barker in Porridge


Start of first series of Porridge 5 September 1974

The first series of Ronnie Barker's much loved sitcom Porridge was broadcast on 5 September 1974. Barker starred as Norman Stanley Fletcher, "an habitual criminal who accepts arrest as an occupational hazard" serving time in HMP Slade. It was written by Dick Clements and Ian la Frenais, who managed to mine comedy gold from the disparate characters banged up together, while not ignoring the unpleasant facts of prison life.


Fletcher shared a cell with the impressionable Godber, played by Richard Beckinsale. Other prisoners were played by a fine cast, including Brian Glover, Christopher Biggins, Tony Osoba, David Jason and Peter Vaughan. Fulton McKay played the strict prison officer Mr McKay, while Brian Wilde was the gentler Mr Barrowclough, showing 2 extremes of the system. The only regular female role was Fletche's daughter Ingrid, played by Patricia Brake. The characters of Fletcher, Mr McKay and Mr Barrington were first seen in the pilot, Prisoner and Escort, which aired as part of Barker's Seven of One series the previous year.


Porridge ran for 3 series until 1977, with two Christmas specials. In the final episode Godber is released on parole, and goes on holiday with Ingrid. Brake and Beckinsale were back with Barker in Going Straight, which followed Fletcher's life after his release. There was also a Porridge feature film. Porridge is frequently voted among the top sitcoms of all time and its enduring popularity ensures it is still repeated today.


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.


The BBC Singers
The BBC Singers


BBC Singers 28 September 1924

The BBC Singers were formed in 1924 as the Wireless Chorus. Their first broadcast was on 28 September, when they sung Mendelssohn's Elijah. The BBC's professional chamber choir has been known by several names, from the Wireless Singers to the BBC Chorus, and also the Variety Chorus, Theatre Chorus and the Kentucky Minstrels. They finally became the BBC Singers in 1972. Their reputation over the years has been built on their ability to tackle over five centuries of choral music, though in particular the demanding cutting-edge contemporary repertoire.


The BBC Singers have premiered many compositions that are now in the choral repertoire, including Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia and Poulenc's Figure Humaine, along with works from composers including Berio, Boulez, Tavener, Tippett and Xenakis. Peter Pears was a member of the choir when they premiered Britten's A Boy Was Born in 1934. He went on to become the composer's muse and lifelong partner. Among other notable past members have been Sarah Connolly and Judith Bingham.


Today the BBC Singers are based at BBC Maida Vale Studios. Celebrations for their 90th anniversary include a typically diverse and challenging series of concerts, performing American classics, works written for them and the world premiere of a new piece by Kevin Volans.


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