Ten BBC2 programmes that shaped our world

The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, started out on BBC2. Picture: BBC
The Office, starring Ricky Gervais, started out on BBC2. Picture: BBC
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FIFTY years after the channel’s launch Dani Garavelli recalls the shows that made their mark

When BBC2 was launched 50 years ago next weekend, it quickly established itself as a welcome alternative to the “light entertainment” ethos of BBC1 and ITV, producing landmark documentaries, dramas, comedies and special interest series which challenged their audiences and broke new ground. Here are the most influential programmes it has broadcast.

Play School 1964-1983,then on BBC1 until 1988

Due to a power cut at Battersea station which wrecked BBC2’s launch plans, Play School was the first BBC2 programme to be transmitted in full, which seems fitting, given the channel’s commitment to educational material, including those Open University broadcasts in the small hours. The long-running series featured a collection of toys: egg-shaped Humpty, Jemima, the rag doll, Big Ted and Little Ted and Hamble, a very ordinary-looking doll which seemed to terrify young children. Its many presenters, including Floella Benjamin, Brian Cant and Johnny Ball, all eager to clown about. Ball has claimed two of his co-presenters, Rick Jones and Lionel Morton, shot a nativity scene while stoned.

Along with story time, Play School always included an “educational” film about a workplace or a leisure pursuit, and several generations of children grew up guessing which window – the round, the arched or the square – they would travel through on this excursion into the outside world.

Civilisation 1969

“A Personal View” by Kenneth Clark, produced when David Attenborough was controller, was a landmark television documentary series outlining the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy since the Dark Ages. The first programme to give an expert presenter (in this case an art historian) a huge budget and the freedom to travel extensively, it became a template for later series such as Alistair Cooke’s America (1972), Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent Of Man (1973) and Attenborough’s Life On Earth (1979). Filmed in 11 different countries over three years, Civilisation won many awards and was sold to 60 countries, though it attracted some criticism from those who thought it patrician and Euro-centric.

The book which accompanied the series became a bestseller and Clark was awarded a peerage. Last month, the BBC ann­ounced it was to be remade, although some have questioned how its slightly staid and gimmick-free style would go down with modern audiences.

The Old Grey Whistle Test 1971-87

The music show for those who wanted more than just chart hits, The Old Grey Whistle Test eschewed Top Of The Pops-style glitz with bands performing on pared down studio sets (although this may have been as much to do with its tiny budget as its elitism).

TOGWT was, for much of its existence, the only place British music fans could see underground acts, as well as the stars who regarded albums as more important than singles. It was a music education, spanning a variety of rock and pop genres, and shook off a reputation as a bit of a hippy back­water in the late 1970s to showcase some of the most exciting acts of the new wave. Among many firsts, the programme aired the British TV debuts of Bob Marley and the Wailers and the US punk glam band the New York Dolls. It also included rare archive footage of acts from earlier eras. In 1976, it famously aired Jimi Hendrix’s legendary lost 1969 appearance on Happening For Lulu. The footage, which showed him sabotaging the show, had been discovered at the end of a soon-to-be-wiped BBC tape about trains. Though “whispering” Bob Harris is the presenter most closely associated with TOGWT, it was originally hosted by Melody Maker columnistRichard Williams and also presented by Annie Nightingale, Andy Kershaw and Richard Skinner.

Arena 1975-2003, when it moved to BBC4

Voted by TV executives in Broadcast magazine as one of the most influential programmes of all time, the multi-award-winning Arena has produced definitive documentaries on a vast array of cultural icons.

Ambitious and unashamedly intellectual, it defined how serious television covers the arts. Writers Jean Genet and VS Naipaul, artists Francis Bacon and Louise Bourgeois and singers Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse have all been the focus of the in-depth profiles, which are themselves often directed by internationally respected figures, including Martin Scorsese and Alan Yentob, who was the programme’s first editor.

Much of the series’ early acclaim was down to the partnership of Nigel Finch and Anthony Wall, who made My Way, a programme devoted to Frank Sinatra’s signature song, and Chelsea Hotel, about the building which became a temporary refuge for so many of the 20th century’s greatest artists. The duo took over the running of the programme in 1985, after Yentob was appointed head of music and arts. Arena now goes out on BBC4. Film director Werner Herzog once praised it as “an oasis in the sea of insanity that is television”.

Boys From The Blackstuff 1982

Written by Alan Bleasdale, this series about a group of Liverpudlian tarmac layers has been described as “TV’s most complete dramatic response to the Thatcher era” and as “a lament for the end of a male, working-class culture”. It began life as a one-off drama, The Blackstuff, written as a BBC1 Play For Today, which was shown in 1980. The award-winning BBC2 series, screened two years later, followed the five, now-jobless men as they struggled to deal with a loss of income and status at a time when unemployment had topped three million.

Although the series saw many moving performances – not least those of Michael Angelis (Chrissie) and Julie Walters (Angie) – the most enduring character was probably Yosser Hughes (played by Bernard Hill) a man driven to the edge of a breakdown by the loss of his job, his wife and repeated att­empts to separate him from his children.

His catchphrases “Gies a job” and “I can do that” resonated with many touched by the decline of manual labour in the 1980s.

The Young Ones 1982-84

In many ways the antithesis of BBC2’s traditional “highbrow” output, The Young Ones’ anarchic approach to comedy was an instant cult hit with younger audiences. It set the tone for the age of “alternative” comedy that still dominates today. The premise – four students who live in a bedsit – was traditional, but its structure, which included fragmented and often surreal storylines, random asides, the trashing of the set and sudden cuts to hamsters singing in a fridge, was energetic, punky and pioneering. Written (mostly) by Ben Elton and starring Adrian Edmondson (Vyvyan), Rik Mayall (Rick), Nigel Planer (Neil) and Christopher Ryan (Mick) – it also featured Alexei Sayle as landlord Mr Balowski.

Since light entertainment programmes were allocated bigger budgets than sitcoms, it was decided every episode would also feature a band. These bands – which included Dexy’s Midnight Runners, and Madness – would perform songs which had no relevance to the plot.

Memorable scenes include Footlights versus Scumbag College in University Challenge; Vyvyan’s head being cut off and then rolling along a train track still speaking; as well as the last shot of them all toppling over a cliff in a stolen double-decker bus.

The Life And Loves Of AShe Devil 1986

The country was agog when Fay Weldon’s very raunchy feminist novel about a dowdy housewife seeking retribution against her unfaithful husband was broadcast. Its treatment of sex shifted the boundaries of what it was permissible to show on television. She Devil starred the then unknown Julie T Wallace as Ruth, who, having been called a she-devil by her husband (Dennis Waterman), decides to live up to the tag.

Embarking on a revenge spree, she engineers her mother-in-law’s expulsion from her retirement home (so she has to live with her son and his mistress) and frames him for theft. She also has a string of meaningless sexual encounters. Most notoriously these led to shots of the thrusting posterior of Tom Baker, who played priest Father Ferguson. The series was notable for embracing the novel’s weirdness and for not shying away from its odd ending – in which Ruth gets plastic surgeons to transform her into an exact likeness of the woman who stole her husband, Mary Fisher, played by Patricia Hodge.

This Life, 1996-97 (Reunion Special, 2007)

THE definitive drama about the lives of twentysomethings in 1990s London, This Life pushed the boundaries when it came to depictions of sex and drugs use and was among the first UK shows to use the shaky hand-held cameras popular in US programmes such as ER.

Written by Amy Jenkins, it focused on the professional and soc­ial lives of five law graduates sharing a house and was set to a Britpop soundtrack that emphasised its Cool Britannia feel. One of its most controversial features was its matter-of-fact depiction of gay sex: there were three gay characters – Warren, Ferdy and Lenny – explicit gay sex scenes, and some exploration of homophobia and identity.

This Life made stars of many of its young actors – Andrew Lincoln (Egg), Jack Davenport (Miles), Ramon Tikaram (Ferdy) and Amita Dhiri (Milly) – but it was Daniela Nardini who shone the brightest as the sweary, promiscuous, coke-snorting barrister Anna.

The Office 2001-2003

Although BBC2 produced many landmark comedy series, The Office was notable for establishing a new genre – the mockumentary. Fictional, but filmed as if it were a fly-on-the-wall reality TV show, it was written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant and gave us the grotesque (but inst­antly recognisable) character of David Brent, the socially awkward, yet self-important boss from hell presiding over a workplace in Slough which sucks the soul out of its employees. The Office reinvigorated the flagging British sitcom format. A touching blend of egotism, self-delusion and desperation, Brent is an incredible comic creation, but the show’s other characters: Tim (Martin Freeman), who is all-too aware of the pointlessness of his work; Gareth (Mackenzie Crook), the self-inflated assistant regi­onal manager and the butt of Tim’s jokes; and Dawn – the secretary with the fit but selfish boyfriend – were all beautifully drawn. It was the first British comedy to win a Golden Globe.

Top Gear 1978-2001, 2002-

Today, Top Gear is known for its laddish presenters – James May, Richard Hammond and Jeremy Clarkson – its “hilarious” antics, such as dropping a piano on top of a Morris Marina, its vehicular expeditions in far-flung lands and, of course, mystery driver, The Stig.

It is all a far cry from the original show, which started life on BBC Midlands in 1977, transferring to nat­ional BBC2 the following year. In the early days, when it was presented by the likes of Angela Rippon and Noel Edmonds, it covered issues such as new car road tests, fuel economy, safety, speeding, insurance, second-hand cars, holiday touring and the Le Mans 24 Hour race.

It was only in 1988, when new pres­enters, including Clarkson, were brought on board, that it began to take on a more humorous and irreverent tone. The more it was criticised for being macho and encouraging irresponsible driving, the more the viewing figures rose, becoming BBC2’s most viewed programme.

Top Gear attracted opprobrium in 2007 when it marked Hammond’s rec­overy from a near-fatal accident by showing footage of the crash and feting him as a hero. It has also come under fire for promoting national stereotypes, such as suggesting Mexicans are dirty and lazy.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1