The first episode of Ireland: A Television History, began on 2 December 1980. It was written and presented by Robert Kee. The series was made at a time when The Troubles were still ongoing, and Kee attempted to explain them against a background of 800 years of Irish history. Interviews with eye witnesses with memories extending as far back as the 1890s helped to bring it to life and the success of the series earned it the BAFTA for Best Documentary Series.
Ireland: A Television History was a co-production between the BBC and Irish broadcaster RTE, which allowed for a bigger budget. The producer was Jeremy Isaacs. The series unfolded over 13 episodes in the tradition of the great authored documentary series like Civilisation.
In 2011 BBC Northern Ireland and RTE revisited Irish history with The Story of Ireland, presented by Fergal Keane as a more compact five part series. Keane’s documentary – made in a time of peace - changed the focus from Kee’s to reveal Ireland’s place as a modern European nation and to examine how it got there.
Start of The BBC Television Shakespeare 3 December 1978
Patrick Ryecart and Rebecca Saire in Romeo and Juliet. The clip is from the opening titles of Henry VIII.
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.
The World About Us 3 December 1967
The World About Us first aired on 3 December 1967. The programme set out to combine natural history with an element of adventure. The first episode was Volcano, made by HarounTazieff and Pierre Bichet, which featured exciting footage of active volcanoes. TheWorld about Us was one of several series commissioned by David Attenborough, Controller of BBC Two, which effectively promoted the advantages of colour television.
The World About Us took in all aspects of the natural world, and its exploration. It often featured well-known naturalists such as Jane Goodall and Gerald Durrell, and the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau. Cousteau's films were broadcast as The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, and featured life aboard his ship Calypso. The haunting flute tune which introduced each episode was written by John Scott.
The World About Us ended in 1986, but was succeeded by The Natural World. The full potential of nature programmes on the BBC was realised in 1979 when the Natural History Unit made Life on Earth, which attracted a huge audience worldwide. This time David Attenborough was the writer and presenter. The Natural History Unit has continued to innovate with pioneering work in HD and 3D.
Edward VIII Abdication speech 11 December 1936
On 11 December 1936 the former King Edward VIII spoke to a stunned nation and announced that he had abdicated the throne in favour of his brother, so as to be free to marry the woman he loved - Mrs Wallis Simpson. The historic broadcast and climax of the constitutional crisis was heard by the whole country, most of whom had been unaware of the royal love affair only a week earlier.
Edward had made the first ever royal broadcast, and so knew the power of radio to reach people in their homes. As the crisis developed he was keen to put his side of the story to the country. However the speech he wrote, in which he argued the case for a morganatic marriage - that he could marry Wallis without her ever becoming Queen - was vetoed by the Cabinet. When Edward did eventually broadcast, George VI was the new King, and Edward was preparing to go into exile.
The Abdication speech survives today as it was recorded by BBC engineers in defiance of orders. For many years archivists denied its existence, but today it is recognised as one of the most important broadcasts of the twentieth century.
Harman Grisewood speaking to Frank Gillard, founder of the BBC Oral History Collection, 1994
Harman Grisewood who later went on to mastermind the BBC‘s first classical music station, the Third Programme, was working as a radio announcer in 1936. He was in Broadcasting House in London, when he received instructions from Sir John Reith, the then BBC Director-General, that the abdication of HRH King Edward VIII was about to be announced at 22.01 live from Windsor Castle. The abdication speech, read live by the outgoing monarch, was introduced by Reith himself, and interrupted a repeat edition of the popular Comic Opera programme.
News that the speech would be made on the evening of Friday 11th December percolated through the BBC bureaucracy, with programmes being dropped and re-scheduled, and booked artists cancelled. The transmission time of the speech was announced at 21.00, and the evenings programmes ended early. This Programmes as Broadcast document (PASB) shows how the actual days schedule looked.
The innovation of the internet was championed internally by Director-General John Birt, who saw how it could transform BBC's global media role, and mobilised R&D and managerial expertise to make it happen. There were initial problems that publication of web pages did not sit within the BBC Charter, but this obstacle was overcome, and on 15 December 1997, the BBC website was officially launched.
Online milestones quickly followed: that Christmas Day, the Queen's Christmas Speech was shown live online for the first time. Burgeoning sites for sport, weather and children's content quickly followed, the latter transforming a generation's use of media. By 2005, BBC's online service was reaching almost 12m users a month. Then in December 2007, BBC iPlayer launched, now the most popular video on-demand service in the world. Finally, this year BBC Online delivered the first comprehensively digital Olympic Games attracting a record-breaking 55 million browsers around the world.
Jackanory 13 December 1965
"I'll tell you a story about Jackanory". The first episode of the children's storytelling programme went out on 13 December 1965, with Cap of Rushes, told by Lee Montague. It was illustrated with dance sequences from Marion Diamond. Over the week Montague told different traditional tales, sometimes aided by illustrations or costumes, as on the day he dressed as Lord Mayor to tell the story of Dick Whittington. But for most of the time Montague was sitting on a bench, talking directly to the viewer.
Actors loved Jackanory because of the connection with the audience, and it attracted big names including Kenneth Williams, Geraldine McEwan, Alan Bennett, Michael Hordern, Rik Mayall and Tony Robinson. Bernard Cribbins presented 111 episodes, more than anyone else. Authors also appeared. Some were well known, like Prince Charles, who read the Old Man of Lochnagar in 1984. Others became well known by the spirited reading of their own books, like John Grant with his stories of Littlenose the caveboy.
Jackanory succeeded in persuading many reluctant readers to pick up a book. The success of spin-off Jackanory Playhouse encouraged the BBC to develop more children's dramas, such as Jonny Briggs. Jackanory ended in 1996, but returned in 2007 as Jackanory Junior.
Comedy Playhouse 15 December 1961
Comedy Playhouse began on 15 December 1961. The series was initially a vehicle for the talents of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, who - freed from writing for a specific comedian - wrote 10 short comedy plays that could each be developed into a future sitcom. One episode, The Offer, provided the pilot of what became Steptoe and Son. From 1963, with Steptoe taking much of Galton and Simpson's time, other writers were drafted in. Comedy Playhouse ran until 1974 and originated several other notable sitcoms, including Till Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, The Liver Birds, Not in Front of the Children, Up Pompeii, Happy Ever After, and Last of the Summer Wine.
Not every Comedy Playhouse episode became a full series, including the first episode, Clicquot et Fils. This starred Eric Sykes as an undertaker in a small French town in 1926, with Warren Mitchell as his assistant. The strong supporting cast - including Joan Hickson, Frank Thornton and Charles Lloyd Pack - demonstrated Galton and Simpson's intention to cast the right actors for the part.
The Comedy Playhouse idea as a testing ground for new and experimental comedy continued with Comedy Special, which spawned Citizen Smith. In 2012 the BBC plans to air a fresh season of sitcom pilots, with the aim of nurturing the enduring comedy hits of tomorrow.
Culloden 15 December 1964
Culloden was broadcast on 15 December 1964. The film by Peter Watkins was a remarkable achievement, boldly combining documentary filming techniques and historical re-enactments to vivid effect. It depicted the 1746 battle and its bloody aftermath, when the English army, commanded by the Duke of Cumberland, defeated the forces of Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – and brutally supressed the second Jacobite rebellion. There was some criticism of the violence depicted but the programme was a critical success, and became a landmark documentary.
Culloden debunked the romantic myth of Bonnie Prince Charlie, showing him to be vain and indecisive. It also showed the atrocities committed by the English army against the Highland Scots. Historical accuracy was ensured by John Prebble, who acted as adviser. Local people were employed for the staging of the battle, some of whom were descended from the original participants, adding to the sense of realism.
Watkins was disappointed that critics didn’t see Culloden as his critique of the Vietnam War, but made a more direct political point in his next film, The War Game. It dealt with the very contemporary fear of nuclear war, imagining its effect on the UK. This proved too shocking for the BBC and the Labour government and was banned. It was not shown on television until 1985, by which time Watkins role as a drama-documentary pioneer was appreciated.
The Likely Lads 16 December 1964
The first episode of The Likely Lads was shown on BBC Two on 16 December 1964. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it was one of several programmes made for the new channel, and was intended to offer a fresh approach to the situation comedy by featuring the lives of two best mates from the North East.
The Likely Lads starred James Bolam as Terry Collier and Rodney Bewes as Bob Ferris. Terry was working class and secure in his life, whereas Bob was more aspirational, determined to work his way to a better place. Both friends viewed the others worldview with disdain, but they were united by events, generally revolving around the pursuit of women. In the first episode, Entente Cordiale, the lads return from holiday in Spain determined to continue relationships they made there.
The Likely Lads ended in 1966 after three series. It returned in 1973 as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, and picked up the story with Terry returning from the army to find Bob settled into a domesticated life with Thelma. This series was even more successful than the original. Its legacy can be traced in sitcoms such as Men Behaving Badly. Clement and La Frenais went on to create Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Porridge.
BBC World Service launches 19 December 1932
The BBC launched its Empire Service (as it was then called) on 19 December 1932, helped by new short-wave radio technology that allowed signals to be broadcast over vast distances. Despite gloomy predictions from the BBC's director-general John Reith - "The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good", the broadcasts received praise, and were further boosted by the support of a Christmas message from George V (the first ever) to the Empire a few days later.
World War II saw a huge expansion of the international remit of the service, now re-named the Overseas Service, with coverage in over 40 different languages by the end of the war. It also saw the development of the Service as a lifeline news broadcaster, especially in occupied Europe, where the seminal broadcasts of General De Gaulle launched the Resistance. The Cold War years were challenging for the Service which was blocked in many countries, and BBC Service journalists were often targeted personally, memorably the Bulgarian correspondent Georgi Markov who was killed by a poisoned umbrella in London in 1978.
Later political shifts saw the closure of many European language services, and a re-prioritisation of other zones and media, notably the expansion of a television service for Arabic in 2008 and for Persian in 2009. In 2012, World Service (renamed yet again in 1965) left its iconic home Bush House, where it had been since 1941, and joined other BBC journalists in Broadcasting House, where it continues to broadcast to over 180million listeners and viewers around the globe.
Zoo Quest 21 December 1954 - The first on-screen appearance by David Attenborough
David Attenborough in a 1956 edition of Zoo Quest
The celebrated television naturalist David Attenborough first appeared on our screens in Zoo Quest, which began on 21 December 1954. He went - as a producer - to Sierra Leone with zoologists Jack Lester and Alfred Woods, to film them collecting animals for London Zoo. The footage shot in the wild by cameraman Charles Lagus was augmented in the finished programme with studio sections, where some of the creatures collected were seen up close. When Lester fell ill Attenborough stepped in as presenter.
In a time before mass tourism the places and animals filmed in Zoo Quest were unfamiliar to the majority of the audience and had not been seen on television before. The second series of Zoo Quest went to Borneo in search of the komodo dragon, resulting in more unique footage. Attenborough continued presenting throughout the decade, although officially just a producer.
Attenborough went on to become Controller of BBC TWO and oversee the introduction of colour television. Eventually in 1979 he realised his ambition to make a large scale natural history programme using the latest technology, with the landmark 13-part series Life on Earth. Now, instead of describing the animals as he had to in Zoo Quest, Attenborough was able to let the colour pictures speak for themselves.
Just a Minute 22 December 1967
As the sound of Chopin's Minute Waltz - played at breakneck speed by Arthur Rubinstein - faded away on 22 December 1967, the first edition of Just a Minute began. Chairman Nicholas Parsons explained the rules of the comedy game show, in which contestants had to speak for a minute without hesitating, deviating from the subject, or repeating themselves. He introduced regular contestants with guests Beryl Reid and Wilma Ewart. Subjects in the first programme included Things to do in the bath, The English Nanny and Keeping Fit.
Just a Minute was devised by Ian Messiter. The basic idea came to him when he was at school. Told off for inattention, he was asked to repeat what his master had been saying for the previous minute, without repetition or hesitation. The programme has thrived for over forty years with the benefit of contributions from Peter Jones, Kenneth Williams, Linda Smith, Paul Merton, Ross Noble, Stephen Fry, and Graham Norton, amongst many others.
Just a Minute has remained essentially unchanged - with Parsons still in charge as host and straight man - and yet has been reinvigorated with each generation of comedians. It remains one of Radio 4's most popular programmes, and tickets for recordings are in such demand they are allocated by ballot.
First Empire Address by King George V, 25 December 1932
The first Christmas Day message by a British monarch was in 1932, when King George V broadcast live from Sandringham. In the speech, which was written by Rudyard Kipling, the King celebrated the power of the wireless to unite all the people of the Empire, and wished them a Happy Christmas. He began; "Through one of the marvels of modern Science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire."
The speech came at the end of a special programme, All Over The World, where British citizens from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Gibraltar and The Irish Free State sent Christmas greetings. The time of 3pm was chosen as the best time to ensure the King's broadcast was heard in the most countries across the Empire. The idea for the royal broadcast came from BBC Director General Sir John Reith, who recognised the communicative potential of radio.
The reaction to the broadcast was hugely favourable, and the King was said to be "very pleased and much moved" by the response. The Christmas message from the monarch became a fixture during the war, and continues as a traditional feature of Christmas broadcasting to this day.
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.
Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special 1996
Among the festive treats and specials the BBC has served its viewers over the years, the three Only Fools and Horses Christmas specials from 1996 - starting on Christmas Day - are among the most loved. With no new episodes of John Sullivan’s sitcom for three years, anticipation was high. The first show - Heroes and Villains - attracted a record audience of 21 million. By the time of the finale – Time on Our Hands - on 29 December, 24 million people were watching as Del’s generally misplaced optimism paid off and the Trotters became millionaires at last.
Only Fools and Horses matured as the audience’s love of the characters grew, mixing tragedy with the comedy. The 1996 Christmas specials exemplified this, so high comedy - Del (David Jason) and Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst) dressed as a mismatched Batman and Robin - contrasted with the tragedy of Cassandra’s(Gwyneth Strong) miscarriage. They also featured the last appearance of Buster Merryfield - who played Uncle Albert - before his death in 1999.
Demand for Only Fools and Horses led to three more specials up to 2003, and the spin-off series The Green Green Grass, featuring Boycie (John Challis) and Marlene (Sue Holderness). Sullivan also wrote the prequel Rock and Chips, featuring young Del Boy and the birth of Rodney. John Sullivan was awarded an OBE in 2005, for services to drama and died in 2011.
BBC Reith Lectures 26 December 1948
Bertrand Russell and W.M. Newton, Editor, BBC Talks Department.
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.
Alice in Wonderland 28 December 1966
Picture shows (seated, l-r) Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, Wilfrid Lawson as the Dormouse, Michael Gough as the March Hare, Anne-Marie Mallik as Alice and the production team, at work during the filming of the Tea Party in Jonathan Miller's production of the Lewis Carroll classic.
Jonathan Miller’s production of Alice in Wonderland debuted on BBC television on 28 December 1966. Miller said the film “although it is about children, is not really for them”, and so it went out in the slot generally filled by The Wednesday Play. Miller was keen to strip Alice in Wonderland of any associations – such as the Tenniel illustrations – that had built up over the years and had his actors perform without elaborate character makeup, in everyday Victorian dress. This approach proved controversial, but Miller’s talent was undeniable and the following year it was repeated at a time when children could see it.
Alice was played by the 13 year old unknown, Ann-Marie Mallik. Mallik’s stillness and slight air of detachment emphasised the dreamlike quality of the action that went on around her. The stellar cast included Alan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Leo McKern, Peter Cook, Michael Gough, Wilfrid Brambell, Alison Leggatt, Peter Sellers and John Gielgud. They performed what Miller described as “a poetic summary of life’s journey” sealed within “a clever child’s dream”. Ravi Shankar’s music heightened the mood, while also adding – in Miller’s words – “a faint suggestion of Victorian empire”.
Alice in Wonderland is now viewed as an important programme of the time and a reflection of sixties psychedelic culture. Jonathan Miller has made many more acclaimed programmes including the Body in Question, Whistle and I’ll Come to You and the BBC Shakespeare project.
Big Ben chimes broadcast at New Year for the first time 31 December 1923
The first time the chimes of Big Ben were heard outside of their immediate environment was on 31 December 1923, when the BBC broadcast them to the nation, heralding the New Year. The engineers were not allowed inside the building so had to access the Clock Tower – which houses Big Ben and the four other bells – from the roof of the Palace of Westminster. As a result, their microphone picked up a lot of traffic noise besides the chimes. But a tradition was started and from 1924 - when the Big Ben bongs were broadcast every day - they quickly became synonymous with the BBC.
For regular broadcasting of Big Ben, low sensitivity microphones installed right by the bells were found to be best to avoid picking up the sound of the clock mechanism. During the Second World War the sound of Big Ben was broadcast to occupied Europe and acquired a new meaning, proving to be a great morale booster.
The continuing importance of the Big Ben time signal is revealed by the reaction any time it is interrupted. When the bells were silenced for important repairs in 2017, the live sound of Big Ben heard before the Six O’clock and Midnight News on Radio 4 was replaced by a recording. Throughout the restoration - scheduled until 2021 - the Big Ben Bongs will still ring live for important events such as Remembrance Sunday and New Year, with the sound carried around the world by the BBC.