A furry number 2, perched on a neatly-draped table set with fruit and little cakes, peers at a bowl of strawberries. In the background birthday cards pinned to a cheerful yellow wall spell out the number 50.  But with its colourful balloons and table full of goodies, this is more like a nursery party than a marker of maturity.  Perhaps this is a second childhood for the channel originally portrayed as a baby kangaroo ready to leap from its mother’s pouch.

Hullabaloo and custard

As an avid recorder of television in all its shapes and forms, the 50th anniversary of BBC2 made me dust off my old VHSs to track down celebrations of the 40th and 30th decades of the channel. And 30 years ago, I found, viewers were offered a similar ambivalence.  In 1994 the screen was filled with a huge birthday cake, into which a metallic number 2 crashed -apparently from a great height.  The cake was effectively squashed.

BBC Birthday Cake

Of course, 1994 was a difficult year for the BBC. It was preparing for the up-coming review of its Royal Charter in the shadow of the 1990 Broadcasting Act, and against a background of dire threats from the Conservative Government. No wonder it feared its cake would be crushed.

Ten years later, in 2004, birthday cakes were dispensed with, and the Conservatives were in opposition.  But the sense of foreboding was, if anything, greater. A three hour compilation was kicked off by a convincing ‘Tony Blair’ who congratulated the channel on its numerous popular programmes (actually from every channel but BBC2) and ended with a tribute to ‘the watchful eye of your Controller, Rupert Murdoch’.

Back in 1994, the 30th anniversary had been marked by an ‘evening with David Attenborough’. The second Controller of the channel made his commitment clear as he introduced a review of BBC2 genres, including One Pair of Eyes, with James Cameron reporting from India; a revival of the game show Call My Bluff, and an early version of Gogglebox,  in which the Video Nation team assembled comments from a diverse group of contributors on their relations with their television set.

2004 was rather different. That disturbing opening moment was soon forgotten.  The message of this compilation was ‘look at our great programmes’ (‘great’, of course, is a favourite commissioner’s adjective). There was little sense of the ideas which underpinned the channel nor of its development and its positioning in relation to other channels, issues which certainly concerned the Controllers past and present, who introduced the clips.  Clips were interleaved with Dead Ringers Birthday Treats -welcome moments of mild mockery from the group who had given us ‘Tony Blair’.

So how is the BBC marking the channel’s 50th? Blair -if not Murdoch- is in the past, but we are back with an anti-BBC government, threats to the licence fee, swingeing cuts across the Corporation, channels being closed down and others threatened. In addition, Charter renewal is looming.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that this anniversary output has been rather low-key: We’ve been offered some  jazzy montages of swirling 2s interleaved with David Attenborough playing with gorillas; a rather naff quiz hosted by Dara O’Briain; an hour of comedy, a programme on the Open University (originally broadcast in 2009) and lots of snooker.  Then there were four late-night half hours of reminiscence and archive.  I wondered why they felt rather familiar…then realised that the 2014 programmes were actually abbreviated re-runs of the 2004 compilation (I’d been wondering why Joan Bakewell looked younger than when I’d last seen her on TV). I’m sure there’s other stuff I’ve missed, but with no high profile presentation, no input from the current Controller, no Radio Times cover, and even those furry logos tucked away in obscure places, the 50th birthday is easy to miss.

Of course, there have been other anniversary events: I was at the British Film Institute’s tribute evening: an illuminating chat between ex-BBC2 Controllers David Attenborough and Alan Yentob following a programme of clips similar to, but fuller than, the broadcast compilations.  For example we got to see more of the first night’s programming (actually transmitted on the second night) which included a skit by the ‘Soviet Union’s leading comedian’ Arkady Raikin,…in Russian.  And it’s said that Channel Four was obscure!   It was left to Tim Boon, Head of Research at the Science Museum, to organise a reflective, academic conference.

So what have we learned from the broadcasts, the academics and the debates?  Well, the disaster of the opening night still makes good television. If I’ve seen Gerald Priestland in his comfy jersey explaining why those few viewers in London and Birmingham who had splashed out on  a new TV set could not see the high definition programme they’d been waiting for, but had to put up with him in the newsroom at Alexandra Palace fielding telephone calls (‘No-one there. Not like BBC1’) and leafing through his scripted news items, I feel as if I’ve watched him a dozen times. In fact a fire at Battersea power station had blacked out the Television Centre in West London.

But it has been good to hear the first Controllers of the new Channel, Michael Peacock and David Attenborough speaking of their aims and aspirations.  Peacock, who was only in place for 10 months, has had a bad press (‘he even scheduled an evening of repeats!’ they say). His idea of themed days has been dismissed as hopeless (hobbies on Tuesdays, education on Thursdays repeats on Wednesdays -or something like that), but he explained the problems he’d faced: a new technical system with 625 lines and not enough cameras capable of using it; frequent technical hitches; the need to commission programmes to fill the schedule, with no backlog available (hence the day given over to repeats).

We were reminded how important the engineering department was at the BBC in the 1960s, relishing the challenge of 625 lines, and then of colour. The first colour broadcasts were inconsistent and unconvincing: ear make up was necessary because back lighting showed up the veins and made them glow red; contributors were warned against five o’clock shadow and the ruddy effect of taking a drink before going on air.  Because of the problems, David Attenborough launched colour with a programme about volcanoes because ‘even the greatest critic would not know the precise shade of red volcanic lava should be’. He warned against mistakes made in America where colour was ‘gaudy’, ‘self indulgent’ and ‘never the same colour twice’ (1994).

But wonderful examples of early colour ranged from Billy Smart’s Circus to Swan Lake, from nature programmes to snooker, and its rather garish quality was said to mesh with the psychedelic experience of the hippie 1960s. Some viewers had ecstatic memories. ‘It was the most wonderful experience of my life.  I was glued the screen’ said one. I was a trainee film editor at the time, and remember editors being sent on special courses to learn how to edit for colour. (Presumably the stress was on the aesthetics as the practical exercise of splicer and synchroniser remained the same.  Personally I never learned the difference).  At the Science Museum Iain Baird (grandson of John Logie) and Leah Panos both gave greater insights into the development, perils and problems of early colour.

It was also helpful to be reminded that, two decades before Channel Four, BBC2 had a brief to make programmes that are ‘different from any other network in subject and style’, even though that did not mean instant audience appeal.  “Why shouldn’t we do biassed reporting’ mused Attenborough (1994) so One Pair of Eyes was launched.  In fact, Hugh Carlton Greene, Director General in the 1960s, had campaigned for a second channel by strategically lobbying key members of the Pilkington Committee: arguing for  ‘creativity as an end in itself -not as an audience pleaser’ explained Jean Seaton at the Science Museum.

So given those aspirations for innovation and creativity, what programmes were those who switched to BBC2 at 10.30 in April 2014 reminded of? (of course, since these were repeats of 2004 we saw nothing from the last ten years).  Comedy loomed large: The Likely LadsNot Only but Also with Pete and Dud, Fawlty Towers, and a series if successes right up to The Office which concluded the series.

Costume dramas loomed even larger, from the late 1960s they exploited the use of colour: we saw The Forsyte Saga in numerous languages, Elizabeth R and I Claudius.  In 2004 the Dead Ringers linked the two most popular colour formats in ‘costume drama for people who don’t like snooker’ which pitched Elizabeth 1st in full regalia against Philip of Spain at the snooker table (“And there’s a magnificent break from Her Majesty…’).  Sadly the Dead Ringers Birthday Treats: were omitted from the 2014 version.

Of course, BBC2 shares its anniversaries with those of World War One, and The Great War  series of 26 episodes (1964) was quoted as the channel’s first blockbuster. Other major documentary series, fronted by charismatic presenters, featured large in all accounts of the history Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, Life on Earth.  Even John Berger’s disrespectful Ways of Seeing got a look in.

There was innovation a-plenty: Late Night Line Up discussion and review was open ended, disputatious and irreverent.  But one significant innovation, which indirectly sprang from Late Night Line Up  was not mentioned.  From 1972 the Community Programme Unit pioneered ‘access’ programming, giving total editorial control to non-professionals -usually campaigning organisations, or informal groups with a point to make.  They ranged from campaigns to keep hospitals open to a programme about their lives by young students at a ‘special’ school.  The more personal Video Diaries, launched by the CPU from the 1990s, were recognised by Alan Yentob as revolutionising documentary making, but their roots in activist programming were overlooked -apart from a panel at the Science Museum, which I chaired.

But times have changed.  If, in 2014, all we can do is to echo 2004, and if in 2004 it had not seemed appropriate to place the channel within its context and clarify its aims, it’s worth noting that, in 1994, David Attenborough had issued a resounding call. He pointed out that BBC2 tackled minority subjects which were nevertheless available nationwide. But already cable and satellite were getting into their stride, and

‘if those in charge by their own choice or at the dictate of politicians create so many channels that there’s no longer sufficient money to finance any of them properly;  if they put price tags on important programmes so that only the wealthy can afford them, and they’re denied to the audience as a whole.  If they use programmes simply as devices to sell things and seek to maximise audiences by reducing fine programmes to mindless pap, visual chewing gum, then they will have betrayed the skill and genius of the electronic engineers who have created those opportunities, and trivialised and prostituted the greatest potential improvement in human communication since Gutenberg used moveable type to print books 500 years ago’.

Twenty years later, the landscape he anticipated is in place.  Television is far from being reduced to visual chewing gum -but arguably we are in an age when brands matter more than content (recognised by the wonderful WIA).  At the Science Museum it was the man from Lambie Nairn who expressed the spirit of the times.  He reminded us that, in the 1990s the channel had been ‘seen as worthy and dull’, and that the inspirational designer Martin Lambie Nairn, had come to the rescue with those wonderful metallic 2s which had paint thrown at them in slow motion, which trundled around on roller skates and were hurled into birthday cakes. (They were, indeed, works of genius, and, apparently got their own fan mail). Adrian Burton was enthusiastic in his brand talk:  ‘a brand make people feel and behave.  It’s about creating powerful and enduring relationships’.  BBC2 could now be seen as ‘witty and engaging’. But he explained how his job has changed: ‘now you get a call from the Middle East.  They want to launch a new channel and you’ve got £100 thousand pounds to spend’. So, ‘Does BBC2 live up to its brand’?  asked a conference participant. The reply was a mumbled…er..er.


Pat Holland is a part-time lecturer at Bournemouth University.  Her most recent book is Broadcasting and the NHS in the Thatcherite 1980s: The Challenge to Public Service  with Sherryl Wilson and Hugh Chignell Palgrave Macmillan 3013.