History of the BBC

History of the BBC


First BBC Two logo


First night of BBC Two 20 April 1964

The BBC launched BBC Two - the third national TV station – on 20 April 1964. The debut evening was planned as an enticing showcase of the best of the new service, but was ruined by outside events, as a fire at Battersea Power Station caused a blackout across much of central and west London. All that was broadcast was the news, which came from Alexandra Palace. The first full programme to go out on BBC Two was Play School, transmitted at 11 the following morning. The opening night line-up was eventually shown that evening, featuring a performance of Kiss Me Kate - starring Howard Keel and Patricia Morrison.


BBC Two was transmitted on the European standard 625 lines. This gave a better quality picture but viewers had to get a new television and aerial to watch it. Despite some criticism the channel scored many notable successes in its first months, including The Great War, Jazz 625, and Play School. As a channel which complemented BBC One – as the existing television service was now known – BBC Two featured more adult educational programmes and minority interest features, such as weekly news digests for the hearing impaired.


BBC Two has honed a reputation for innovation – from ground breaking social comedy such as Goodness Gracious Me to new arenas of sport broadcasting including tennis at Wimbledon, snooker and skiing, and fresh perspectives on the arts and music in series as different as Arena and The Old Grey Whistle Test.


Also in April...


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Margaret and Terry Wilkins in The Family


The Family first episode 3 April 1974

The Family was the first example of a fly-on-the-wall documentary on British Television. It became the model for the observational style of programme making. The idea for a camera crew following a family as they went about their everyday lives was taken from the US by producer Paul Watson, where An American Family had aired two years previously.


The Wilkins family of Reading were chosen as representative of a working class household. They agreed to be filmed for 18 hours a day over a three month period. Margaret and bus driver Terry, both 39, lived in a flat above a greengrocer's shop with their four children Marion, Gary, Heather and Christopher, along with Gary's wife Karen, baby Scott and Marion's fiancé Tom.


The Wilkinses were unhappy when they first saw themselves on screen and thought the programme had been unfairly edited. Audiences were divided and there were calls for it to be banned. However 8 million watched Marion and Tom get married in what was called "the television wedding of the year".


The series was repeated in 1983, with a new programme filling in the intervening years. When Margaret Wilkins died in 2008 Paul Watson remembered her as "a truly wise woman". The Family started a trend for observational documentaries that has evolved over the years, offering glimpses of real life as varied as the 1982 series Police, Driving School in 1997 and - in 2013 - The Call Centre.


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BBC Networking Club


11 April 1994 launch of BBC Networking Club

The BBC's first co-ordinated effort on the internet began with the launch of the BBC Networking Club on 11 April 1994 and the supporting television programme The Net. The aim was to demystify the information superhighway - still a novelty for most of the population - and offer access to the internet. In the first instance this meant the opening of the BBC bulletin board Auntie, to encourage feedback about BBC programmes. Because of the need to make the software clear to non-technical users, the Club's plan to provide direct internet access was delayed until August.


The first episode of The Net gave an idea of how new the online world was in 1994. Davey Winder explained that all that was needed to access the internet was a home computer, modem, phone line and the relevant software. The sound of a dial-up connection was heard. There were also stories on German Neo-Nazis use of the web and on music for video games by Thomas Dolby.


The Networking Club closed at the end of 1995 but the BBC online presence continued to grow as programme makers saw the potential for interaction with audiences. The service consolidated with the launch of bbc.co.uk in 2004 and today is among the most popular and trusted websites.


Play School
Brian Cant on Play School


Play School 21 April 1964

The first episode of Play School went out on BBC Two on the morning of 21 April 1964. Its target audience of under-fives were unaware that it was a double first – being the debut programme transmitted on the new channel, following the disastrous opening night. Producer Joy Whitby introduced the programme in the Radio Times, saying it "will use all the advantages of television to do the job of a nursery school in its own exciting way".


In Play School the world outside the studio was glimpsed through the magic windows. Every day the viewers were invited to guess whether this would be through the square, the round or the arched window. The first presenters were Virginia Stride and Gordon Rollings. Presenters over the years included Brian Cant, Toni Arthur, Julie Stevens, Floella Benjamin, Carol Chell and Johnny Ball. They were joined by the toys Humpty, Jemima, Hamble, Big Ted and Little Ted. Hamble was replaced by Poppy in the final two years of the programme, which finished in 1988 after more than 5000 episodes.


When Play School started it stood alone on BBC Two at 11am, and the channel then went off the air until the evening. Today young children have their own dedicated channel, CBeebies, and the presenters can be seen interacting with the audience much as they did in 1964. Elements of Play School, including the windows, were revived in Tikkabilla in 2002.


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