The Custard TV’s Top Fifty Shows of BBC2’s 50 Years

by | Apr 20, 2014 | All

As well as being Easter Sunday, today marks the fiftieth anniversary of BBC Two which broadcast its opening night on the 20th April 1964. Although said opening night was plagued with problems BBC Two has since gone on to produce some of the nation’s most loved programmes. Here at The Custard TV we’re honouring the channel with a chronological look back at fifty shows that the channel have produced that have become iconic in one way or another.

The Likely Lads

One of the channel’s best-remembered comedies, this black-and-white gem starred Rodney Bews and James Bolam as two young men who were trying to find their way in the world during the swinging sixties. Although the BBC One sequel is probably better remembered by most, due to the fact that a lot of the original BBC Two episodes have been lost, The Likely Lads still remains one of Britain’s most iconic sitcoms. 

The Forsythe Saga (1967)

This adaptation of John Galsworthy’s classic novel is one of the BBC’s most celebrated costume dramas and aired on BBC Two as an attempt to get audiences to retune their TVs in order to receive the channel. However this plan didn’t work and The Forstythe Saga only really gained prominence the next year when it was repeated on BBC One. 

Civilisation (1969)

One of the BBC’s first documentaries to be produced in colour, Kenneth Clark’s look at the history of Western art, philosophy and architecture is still viewed as groundbreaking TV. Clark’s series became world-renowned and in 2011 was aired on BBC4 having been converted into High Definition. 

The Goodies (1970-1980)

A combination of sketch show and sitcom, The Goodies’ television programme demonstrated the titular trio’s surreal comedy stylings. Using the tagline ‘We Do Anything, Anytime, Anywhere’, The Goodies show was definitely a mixed bag but it’s influence could definitely be seen in a number of sketch shows that came after. The show ran for a massive eight series before the trio decamped to ITV for a less successful final run. 

The Old Grey Whistle
Test (1971-1987)

With BBC One already showcasing the music charts with Top of the Pops, BBC Two produced The Old Grey Whistle Test in order to promote more serious bands. With the emphasis on music rather than glamour, The Old Grey Whistle Test was home to many exclusives over the years including Bob Marley and The Wailers’ first performance on British TV. Over sixteen years the programme charted the course of alternative music and provided a haven for fans of music that didn’t necessarily bother the Top 40. 

The Ascent of Man (1973)

Produced as a direct companion to the aforementioned Civilisation, Jacob Bronowski’s documentary also looked at the development of society over the years but this time in terms of science. This thirteen part series went right back from the evolution of ape into man to more modern subjects such as the darker side of cloning. 

Fawlty Towers

The programme that has often been considered the best British sitcom of all time is definitely one of the country’s most iconic comedies. Despite only two series of John Cleese and Connie Booth’s hotel sitcom being produced there’s no denying that every episode is as funny now as it was back in the 1970s. With so many memorable one-liners and set-pieces, Fawlty Towers is one of those television programmes that will live on from generation to generation. 

I, Claudius (1976)

Another legendary costume drama I, Claudius is still regarded as one of the Best British TV programmes of all time thanks in part to Derek Jacobi’s BAFTA-winning performance. 

Pennies from Heaven

One of many series from the legendary Dennis Potter to mix reality and fantasy, Pennies from Heaven featured extended sequences of characters breaking into song. Another of Potter’s truly memorable series, Pennies from Heaven also gave Bob Hoskins one of his earliest leading roles. 

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)

Based on John le Carré’s tense espionage thriller, this seven-part series has really stood the test of time and some consider it superior to the book’s recent film adaptation. Featuring a superb central turn from Alec Guinness, this gripping drama was rightfully rewarded with a glut of BAFTAs and an equally well-received sequel in Smiley’s People. 

Life on Earth (1979)

David Attenborough’s ‘Life’ series have become synonymous with the BBC over the years and it’s now a whopping thirty-five years since the first instalment of the franchise was produced. Life on Earth followed a similar structure to Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, with both series being commissioned by Attenborough in his position as head of BBC Two. I personally believe that Life on Earth is definitely Attenborough’s most influential series and is certainly the one that inspired most of the nature documentaries we see today.

Not the Nine O’Clock
News (1979-1982)

As the title would suggest, this fast-moving sketch show was broadcast opposite the nine o’clock news on BBC One. Not the Nine O’Clock News was a much more structured sketch show than something like The Goodies with most of the segments being incredibly topical in nature. The programme gave early exposure to stars Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones all of whom would become some of the most famous faces on the BBC over the next few decades. 

Yes Minister (1980-1984)

Political satire at its finest, Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s sitcom came around at the perfect time for those who were experiencing the woes of the Thatcher years. Paul Eddington’s put-upon Jim Hacker was the perfect representation of an MP who doesn’t quite know what’s going on around him. The scripts were always clever but never alienated a wider audience and overall it proved that comedy can both be smart and funny at the same time. 

Boys from the Blackstuff

A more dramatic response to the Thatcher era, Alan Bleasdale’s five episode series focused on a quintet of Liverpudlian men who all found themselves struggling with unemployment. A hit with critics and audiences alike the drama’s realistic elements rung true with those who were experiencing similar problems at the time. 

The Young Ones

Featuring the leading lights of the alternative comedy scene of the 1980s, university sitcom The Young Ones coupled anarchic stupidity with a high level of surrealism. Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan were all brilliant in the lead roles of four students who got themselves embroiled in all sorts of extraordinary mishaps. The Young Ones would go on to be an incredibly influential sitcom primarily due to its use of surrealist humour. 

Edge of Darkness (1985)

This gripping six-part thriller from Martin Campbell was a combination of political thriller and crime drama as Bob Peck’s policeman was drawn into a world of corruption following the murder of his daughter. Edge of Darkness’ focus on the government’s involvement in the nuclear industry really demonstrated that this was another drama that was influenced by the political unrest that was rife during the 1980s. 

Red Dwarf (1988-1999)

Rob Grant and Doug Naylor’s sitcom relied on classic comedy stereotypes however the big difference here was that it was all set on a space ship. Red Dwarf was an incredibly different sitcom from those that had come before it and included numerous episodes that were very unique indeed. At its heart though this was a comedy about a dysfunctional family albeit one that included both a cyborg and a hologram. 

Oranges are Not The Only
Fruit (1989)

Plenty of BBC Two’s programmes have courted controversy over the years and that’s especially true of Jeanette Winterson’s adaptation of her own semi-autobiographical novel. The drama centred around Charlotte Coleman’s Jess discovering her own lesbianism while growing up in an extremely religious community. Due to its focus on both religious extremism and lesbian sex scenes, the drama received a large amount of complaints but went on to find success nonetheless, winning the BAFTA award for Best TV Drama.

Have I Got News for You

The first of many BBC Two shows that have later been promoted to BBC One, this satirical panel show was definitely a lot more cutting edge than it is today. The earlier Have I Got News For You episodes definitely had more of a satirical bite to them with host Angus Deyton’s sardonic air setting the perfect tone for the rest of the show.

Bottom (1991-1995)

Although a lot of people saw it as just a silly sitcom about two men who hit each other with frying pans a lot, Bottom was nonetheless incredibly hilarious. Reuniting Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, Bottom was a show about two men who lived together despite having very little in common. Juvenile in nature, this one of my favourite comedies when I was younger and I feel it’s still as funny now as it was back then.

Later with Jools Holland

The natural successor to The Old Grey Whistle Test, musician Jools Holland has been welcoming musical acts to a BBC Two audience for well over twenty years. Originally a host on Channel 4’s The Tube, Holland proved the perfect host of this combination of new music and classic acts. In addition to the regular show, Jools has been provided the channel with its annual New Year’s Eve show in the form of his legendary Hootenanny.

University Challenge

After running on ITV for twenty-five years, University Challenge returned after a seven year hiatus on a new channel and with a new host. Jeremy Paxman is a harsh-but-fair quiz master on this incredibly simple format which is a basic test of knowledge and still provides enjoyment for millions of viewers on a weekly basis.

The Fast Show

Harry Enfield’s co-star Paul Whitehouse took the lead here as part of a troupe who were dedicated to producing fast-moving sketches and memorable characters. Alongside familiar faces such as Charlie Higson, John Thompson and Arabella Weir; Whitehouse never let the pace of The Fast Show lag and this was part of its charm. Over three series, Whitehouse and company created a cavalcade of memorable characters as well as plenty of repetitive catchphrases which were repeated in school playgrounds up and down the country.

The Day Today (1994)

Chris Morris’ satirical news programme was an incredibly forward-thinking show and one that definitely should have lasted more than one series. It did well in mocking the newsroom style of the time and in addition introduced a classic comedy character in sports reporter Alan Partridge, but more on him later.

Shooting Stars

Continuing the theme of anarchic comedy; this satirical take on the panel show saw Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer ask nonsensical questions to a group of unsuspecting celebrities. Giving us memorable characters such as George Dawes and rounds such as ‘the Dove from Above’ Shooting Stars definitely deserves its place on this list even if the programme’s various revivals have somewhat marred its legacy.

This Life (1996-1997)

A drama that really shone a light on the youth culture of the 1990s, this series focused on five young law graduates sharing a house together. This Life won praise for its realistic nature which was reinforced by the use of shaky camera angles and the constant focus on drugs and sex. Despite an unsuccessful reunion episode, This Life is still held up as one of the best TV dramas and is the definition of a true cult classic.

Our Friends in the North

Set over the course of thirty years, Peter Flannery’s drama told the story of four Geordie friends as they tried to deal with the changing attitudes of the country. Over nine episodes, Flannery’s drama told a gripping tale of friendship and lost love while it also made stars of its four lead actors Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Mark Strong and Daniel Craig.

I’m Alan Partridge

From sports reporter on The Day Today to host of his own satirical chat show, Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge was definitely one of BBC Two’s most iconic characters. But it was with this sitcom, chronicling his attempt to claw back his fame, that he became a national treasure.  I’m Alan Partridge was funny and tragic in equal measure as it demonstrated the fickle nature of fame and how well-recognised figures can quickly be forgotten.

Teletubbies (1997-2001)

Anybody who was around in the late 1990s couldn’t help but be bombarded with images of the Teletubbies, even if you didn’t quite know what they were. This children’s series went on to become somewhat of a phenomenon with its repetitive narrative and colourful quartet really striking a chord with children of the late twentieth century. In addition to being a hit at the time, Teletubbies has influenced a glut of children’s programmes that are similarly surreal in tone.

The Royle Family (1998)

Another series that quickly made its way to BBC One, we first saw The Royles sitting on the sofa on BBC Two as we witnessed the run-up to Dave and Denise’s wedding. Arguably the best series, this first run of The Royle Family definitely felt the most natural and introduced us to one of the most believable comedy broods in TV history.

Louis Theroux
documentaries (1998-)

Since January of 1998, Louis Theroux has been a staple of BBC Two documentaries with his first set of weird weekends looking at everything from porn to UFOs. The charm of Theroux’s documentaries is Louis himself who definitely has a unique reaction to some of the strange people he encounters. After sixteen years with the channel Louis is still going strong as his recent L.A. Stories series gained critical acclaim. 

The Cops (1998-2000)

A controversial look at the police force, this drama set in a fictional Northern town certainly didn’t pull the punches when it came to its portrayal of certain officers. Employing a documentary-film style, The Cops earned numerous plaudits due to its tense stories and brilliant acting. However, the series didn’t go down too well with the police force as they withdrew their consultation services after series one.

Goodness Gracious Me (1998-2001)

Making the move from Radio 4 over to television, Goodness Gracious Me featured a troupe of Indian comedians poking fun at themselves and the British perception of them. Featuring future household names like Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal; Goodness Gracious Me was another example of a BBC Two comedy that was both groundbreaking and incredibly funny at the same time.

The League of Gentlemen

Also making the move from radio to television was this incredibly dark sketch sitcom in which actors Mark Gattis, Steve Pemberton and Reese Shearsmith played the majority of the roles. Featuring characters as diverse as Tubbs and Edward and Papa Lazarou, this was definitely a macabre sitcom which set to shock audiences while also making them laugh.

Marion and Geoff

A tragi-comedy featuring a number of to-camera monologues, the first series of Marion and Geoff were a collection of ten minute episodes starring Rob Brydon. Brydon played hapless taxi driver Keith who failed to realise that his wife was having an affair until it was too late. The first series proved so popular that a second series of thirty minute episodes was later produced in which Marion and Geoff had since got married. The combination of Brydon’s performance and Hugo Blick’s script made for an incredibly memorable and poignant comedy that has stuck with me till this day.

The Office (2001-2003)

Although I’m not as big a fan of Ricky Gervais’ sitcom as others there’s no denying that it’s one of BBC Two’s biggest hits and made its creator a global star. The Office was a programme people gravitated towards as many saw themselves in one of the characters. Funny in places, poignant in others, The Office was a comedy that has been imitated many times but has never been bettered.

Top Gear (2002-)

Initially a simple motoring show, Top Gear only real came to prominence when it was revived in the early 21st century. Jeremy Clarkson was joined by Richard Hammond and James May for plenty of foreign hijinks and competitive jaunts that had a tenuous link back to the programme’s roots. The ‘Star in a Reasonably Priced Car’ feature also allowed celebs the chance to ride a car around a track whilst plugging their new project at the same time.

QI (2003-)

With panel shows having been a staple of the channel for many years, QI was a different breed as it explored obscure facts in a comedic manner. The chemistry between host Stephen Fry and regular panellist Alan Davies is part of the show’s charm as is its extremely tricky questions. The regular troupe of guest comedians have made sure the show has maintained its light touch and it’s still going strong over ten years since its original debut.

Early Doors (2003-2004)

After co-writing The Royle Family, Craig Cash’s next project was a similarly low-key sitcom all based in the same setting. Early Doors’ base was The Grapes public house where landlord Ken had a group of loyal regulars who he both loved and loathed in equal measure. Early Doors really rang true and had a great collection of comic actors all of whom breathed life into their well-observed characters. The sitcom also achieved that rare feat of seeming realistic and being incredibly funny at the same time.

The Apprentice

Most people believe that Lord Sir Alan Sugar’s business competition show started life on BBC One but for two series the programme aired on BBC Two. I personally believe that these series were the show’s most believable as, at the time, the contestants appeared primarily to get a job with Sugar rather than further their own media careers. The BBC Two shows also gave us the mighty Ruth Badger who would later go on to appear on other programmes on the channel.

Dragon’s Den (2005-)

This business reality show has definitely stayed the course despite having a fairly simplistic premise. Over the years many offers have been made in the den with Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae Sauce later becoming a fixture of many barbecues up and down the country. Even though it’s been on for years, Dragon’s Den is still engaging as ever thanks in part to the entrepreneurs themselves.

Lead Balloon (2006-2011)

Jack Dee’s sitcom definitely took its cues from Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm as both featured stand-up comics who really weren’t that likeable at all. Dee’s Rick Spleen was constantly trying to make himself the centre of attention and was surrounded by a group of comic characters all of whom attempted to make his life as stressful as possible. Although it wasn’t universally admired, I was a big fan of Lead Balloon and felt it represented the style of comedy that BBC Two were producing in the new millennium.

Psychoville (2009-2011)

The League of Gentlemen’s Reese Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s later project was much more of a sitcom than their earlier offering. Although using a traditional narrative, the story was anything but as it featured a group of characters who had all previously met in an insane asylum. I felt Psychoville was better written than some dramas and the conclusion of both series were just spectacular.

Wonders of the Solar
System (2010)

Professor Brian Cox brought the science documentary into the noughties with this unique look at the night sky. The former D:Ream member’s presenting style was incredibly accessible meaning that the entire audience could enjoy his experiments as well as his exploration of the different aspects of the solar system.

Rev (2010-)

Another BBC Two sitcom that was poignant as much as it was hilarious, Tom Hollander and James Woods’ study of modern religion featured the former’s Adam Smallborne being dispatched to a rundown urban parish. Brilliantly acted and splendidly funny, Rev is also incredibly relevant as it deals with the dwindling number of people attending church and the way in which churches are now run as business rather than places of worship.

The Great British
Bake-Off (2010-2013)

A programme hosted by a pair of comediennes about people baking cakes shouldn’t work, but The Great British Bake-Off does. A balance of reality programme and village show, GBBO has become a phenomenon over the years thanks to the presentation style of Mel and Sue and the judging combo of Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry. The programme’s popularity means that the impending fifth series will be the latest BBC Two show to move to BBC One.

The Shadow Line (2011)

One of my favourite dramas of recent memory, Hugo Blick’s thriller boasted a fantastic cast of actors headed up by Christopher Eccleston and Stephen Rea. Over the course of seven episodes, Blick told a story of police corruption and criminal intrigue that was truly gripping. This was an example of the sort of drama that BBC Two do so well and everything about it was just completely perfect.

Twenty Twelve

Originally shown on BBC Four, this mockumentary set in the lead-up to the London Olympics was incredibly well-observed and completely believable. Hugh Bonneville headed the cast as the nice but often perplexed Ian Fletcher who attempted to navigate through the PR jargon to actually produce a successful Olympic Games. The recent follow-up, W1A, was equally successful at spoofing the way in which the BBC is run.

Line of Duty (2012-)

The first series of Jed Mercurio’s police corruption series was well-received upon release as we followed AC-12’s quest to bring down Lennie James’ Tony Gates. But it was only in the recent second series that the drama truly became a must see as the whole nation was gripped by Keeley Hawes’ Lindsay Denton and whether or not she was guilty of participating in the ambush of a police convoy.

The Wrong Mans (2013-)

James Corden and Matthew Baynton’s comedy thriller had big budget thrills but a rather British sensibility about it when it aired last year. The show was perfectly constructed, as we saw two of life’s losers become embroiled in a scheme that involved both Russian spies and double agents. While I loved the first series of the show, I’m doubtful that the recently-announced second series can live up to last year’s brilliance.

Do you agree with our choices? Have we missed something out? Let us know by leaving a comment below. 

Matt Donnelly

Matt Donnelly


Made in Staffordshire, Matt is the co-editor of the site and co-host of The Custard TV Podcast. Matt has been writing about TV for over fifteen years and has written for the site for almost a decade. He's just realised this makes him a lot older than he thought he was.


Follow us:

Our Latest Posts:

Borgen proves TV revivals can work.

Borgen proves TV revivals can work.

Borgen is the best political series on television. It's not an area television drama dabbles in that often. There's the original House of Cards and the Netflix version...

The BBC confirm second series of Sherwood.

The BBC confirm second series of Sherwood.

As the critically acclaimed Sherwood finishes its much talked about run on the BBC tonight (28 June) it has been confirmed that it will return for a second series with...


Submit a Comment