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Scrapbook: What was on TV in 2001?

Simon Mahon

BBC Genome

The Office started in 2001, but it wasn't until the second series that Ricky Gervais performed this now infamous dance routine

BBC Genome's occasional Scrapbook series looks back at a past year in broadcasting.  

With a new millennium in full swing, 2001 was a fascinating year for television. Reality TV was still in its early stages - the participants in Castaway 2000 returned to society and the first series of Celebrity Big Brother was broadcast as part of Comic Relief. Political change was afoot with a UK general election (in the days before national voting became an annual event) and a new US president was inaugurated. In light entertainment, some seminal sitcoms launched (and ended), and soap fans waited with bated breath to find out who shot Phil Mitchell.


A new high point for Slough-based sitcoms was set when Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant unleashed David Brent onto our screens with the first series of The Office, broadcast on 9 July. The mockumentary-style programme focused on the day-to-day lives of its characters, in a fictitious office environment. As part of the BBC Two Comedy Night strand the episodes were sandwiched between The Fast Show and Have I Got News For You (then presented by Angus Deayton). From these humble beginnings, the programme went on to launch some glittering careers: alongside Gervais and Merchant, Martin Freeman and McKenzie Crook went on to star in Sherlock and Pirates of the Caribbean respectively.

The Kumars - alongside Gareth Gates - had a charity hit single for Comic Relief in 2003

Another comedy that leant on mockumentary genre was The Kumars at No. 42, which added a surreal element to the chat-show formula. The nominal premise was that the family of Sanjeev Kumar (played by Sanjeev Bhaskar) had built a television studio in their back garden to help his television career. After the success writers Bhaskar, Richard Pinto and Sharat Sardana had had with Goodness Gracious Me, the show was given a big build up: four pages of that week’s Radio Times were dedicated to it. The first episode was broadcast on 12 November 2001 and the programme was an instant hit. Guests, including Graham Norton and Davina McCall were invited to answer the peculiar and invasive questions of the pretend-family. The show ran for seven series on the BBC, switching from BBC Two to BBC One midway through, until the final episode on the BBC in August 2006.

The highest television viewing figures of the year - and indeed the decade - went to the hit comedy Only Fools and Horses, which returned to the screens for a Christmas special. If Only They Could See Us Now centres on Del Boy and Rodney having to start again after going bankrupt. It had over 20 million viewers in the prime Christmas day slot. If anyone could produce a programme with those viewing figures these days, then this time next year they’d be millionaires.

Reality TV

Although Reality TV now seems ubiquitous across the schedules it was still a fairly new phenomenon back in 2001. Throughout 2000, the BBC’s experimental programme Castaway 2000 had followed 36 people cast adrift on a secluded Scottish island for a year. Early in 2001, when the Castaways returned to civilisation, there was a clutch of programmes showing how the participants readapted to normality and reflecting on their year away. Later on in the year the programme's breakout star Ben Fogle took part in the national hedge-laying championships for Countryfile.

Celebrity Big Brother first appeared on our screens in 2001. Although for its first 10 years on British TV, Big Brother was on Channel 4, the first Celebrity-version of the series was tied to Comic Relief and was partly broadcast on BBC. The programme saw six celebrities including Vanessa Feltz and Chris Eubank enter the Big Brother House for a week and Jack Dee was named champion on the night of Red Nose Day.

Ben Fogle on the Scottish island of Taransay


In January the BBC covered the inauguration of George W Bush. (It was an international evening for BBC Two - they followed up with World Indoor Bowls.) It was also a big year domestically, with a general election dominating the spring schedules. In the lead-up to the election, leaders from the major parties took part in separate Question Time specials, facing questions from a live audience. The nation at large seemed less engaged, with voter turnout at just 59.4% - the lowest in the UK’s democratic history. BBC coverage of the results on the night of 7 June was presented by David Dimbleby, Jeremy Paxman and Fiona Bruce. Peter Snow was on hand with the swingometer, in his penultimate general election as presenter.

Peter Snow covered every general election from 1983 till 2005

The most challenging event of 2001 was the devastating 9/11 attacks in the US. The BBC Genome schedules show what was due to be broadcast on that day. After the attacks, this was abandoned for blanket coverage from the events in New York. The following Thursday a special Question Time was dedicated to the political implications of the attacks. The episode received complaints about strong anti-American sentiments being expressed by members of the studio audience and a few days later Director General Greg Dyke issued an apology


The big soap story of the year came from Albert Square and the mystery of who shot Phil Mitchell. In the 1 March episode Phil (played by Steve McFadden) was wounded by a mystery shooter outside his house. The episode had 17 million viewers and the culprit remained unknown for more than a month. The BBC even had to provide security for scriptwriters following the theft of a computer containing future EastEnders plotlines. On the morning of 5 April, Gaby Roslin presented a programme live in Albert Square profiling the suspects. That evening nearly 20 million viewers discovered that Phil’s former girlfriend Lisa Shaw was the guilty party. It was the most-watched EastEnders episode of the decade and to allow for the big reveal, the episode was extended to 40 minutes. The listings show that to accommodate this, the Uefa Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Barcelona had to have a delayed kick-off (We don’t know if Steven Gerrard was watching pre-match.)

What did you think of the programmes mentioned above? Or have we missed one that you liked? Let us know in the comments section below:

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