The biggest revelation of this celebration of BBC2’s 40th birthday was when snooker commentator Ted Lowe revealed the reason why he whispered his commentary. In the early days of the BBC’s coverage of snooker, Ted was forced to sit among the paying spectators and so adopted a quiet tone out of politeness to the players and crowd.
Such deferential courtesy was also the mood of the BBC’s celebrations as a whole that took the form of a low-key meal in a restaurant as opposed to a raucous night on the tiles.
In what was initially a welcome change, only the people directly involved in making the profiled programmes were asked to comment. This meant an absence of inane wisdom from Stuart Maconie and Paul Ross. The programme took an uncomplicated chronological order, beginning with the infamous opening night when a power cut led to the BBC2 studios being blacked out, and led on to how the early successes delineated the BBC2 traits for producing innovative challenging television.
The format of the celebration was nicely broken up with sketches by the Dead Ringers team, and the best complaining letters written to the Radio Times, which were often accompanied by clips of the offending show. But the backbone was a chronology of BBC2 successes. The Likely Lads was cited as a brilliant early comedy, closely followed by the antics of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, with Cook causing Moore to snigger beneath his breath during the live shows. Meanwhile, Late Night Line Up started the channel’s trend for hard-hitting arts review shows, a bloodline continued by The Late Show and, more recently, Late Review. And Desmond Wilcox set a high benchmark for documentaries with Man Alive, while Call My Bluff was commissioned to be an “intelligent quiz show”. David Attenborough, who was the first controller of BBC2, gave an insight into how the channel which gave birth to Match Of The Day, also helped popularise tennis and snooker thanks to the introduction of colour television.
The 1970s continued to mark out BBC2’s remit to produce thought-provoking television. Such a policy caused a diplomatic incident surrounding Louis Malle’s scathing series about India. He criticised Hindus from drinking dirty water from the sacred Ganges, prompting the Indian government to temporarily sever ties with the BBC.
The 1970s also saw Delia Smith present her first cookery show and a whole host of costume dramas such as Jane Eyre and Middlemarch. But the jewel in BBC2’s crown was I Claudius. Filmed entirely in a studio, which star Brian Blessed said gave it “an intensity” unachievable outdoors, the drama told the story of a quivering imbecile, Derek Jacobi’s Claudius, who became head of the Roman Empire, and despite initial ridicule, became essential viewing in much the same way as The Forsyte Saga had in the 1960s.
Oddly, two of the biggest successes of the era were swept past with very little analysis. Fawlty Towers was acknowledged by a quick excerpt, while the monumental Life On Earth made do with the scene with David Attenborough sandwiched between two playful gorillas. Perhaps the reason for such brief focus on those programmes is that both were classics and would have the same impact whenever they were made, whereas this celebration concentrated on shows that were more relevant to their time.
This was nowhere better illustrated than with Newsnight’s coverage of the Falklands War in 1982. Each evening, Peter Snow would assess the reports of both British and Argentine propaganda machines and then try to determine which was closer to the truth. This caused a storm with the hopelessly prejudiced tabloids calling the BBC traitors, as if somehow it was acceptable to tell lies rather than to seek for the truth.
The 1980s also saw an excellent succession of dramas such as Boys From The Blackstuff and Edge Of Darkness, while expensive flop The Borgias was depicted as a victim of a smear campaign by prudish print journalists.
The review of the 1990s began a worrying fashion. While only the seminal shows from previous decades were featured, the 1990s included many decent, though hardly groundbreaking shows. Trivial pleasantries like The Naked Chef and Two Fat Ladies were held up as paragons of BBC2 output, but most perplexing was the inclusion of When Louis Met… Jimmy Savile. It may have been a fascinating profile of one of the nation’s most eccentric stars, but it was not deserving of a five-minute clip which mostly consisted of Louis being confused by Jimmy’s obstructive circumlocution.
The review of the past five years became increasingly like a glossy press release that will form a decent backbone to the BBC’s appeal for charter renewal. Soon-to-leave BBC2 controller Jane Root appeared more and more as The Weakest Link and Simon Schama’s superb A History of Britain were featured. As the uncritical deification of all these programmes mounted up that, you wished for Stuart Maconie’s little face to pop up with some barbed criticism, or for the over-enthusiastic Paul Ross to roll his eyes in disgust at how lame Hippies was. But it didn’t happen.
Instead, the festivities ended with a recent high in BBC2’s history – The Office. Ricky Gervais was given licence to go off at a tangent while discussing its success and, while the clips are always welcome, the cynical way in which the end of the three-hour marathon was cut like the end credits of The Office merely reinforced the impression that while the original intent for this show was admirable, somewhere it was hijacked by the BBC spin doctors to demonstrate how indispensable to contemporary life the BBC is. But it shouldn’t need to, this programme perfectly illustrated the BBC has been an essential part of this nation for the past 40 years.