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BBC2 (1964-)


Main image of BBC2 (1964-)

The UK's third TV channel started transmission in 1964 using the new high-definition 625-line standard. But despite the success of ITV, the nation's favourite broadcaster, the new service was awarded to the BBC. Since starting transmission in 1955, commercial television had surpassed expectations but its audience-winning mix of light entertainment and variety was also its failing, at least in the eyes of politicians. The Conservative government didn't want to entrust the new service to a broadcaster that it regarded as downmarket. The solid, reliable BBC, with its emphasis on 'quality', was seen as the natural home for the UK's third TV channel.

BBC2, like ITV before it, faced an immediate problem - to watch the new channel viewers needed to replace their TVs as existing sets were designed to receive the old 405-line picture standard. Unfortunately, the service, under the leadership of Michael Peacock, failed to make an impression with the viewing public and pressure for change started to grow, especially from TV retailers who, quite naturally, wanted people to buy replacement sets.

The launch of the new service wasn't helped when a fire at Battersea power station blacked out most of London, including BBC Television Centre, on BBC2's first night. But there were other, more fundamental problems at the heart of the channel. The introduction of the Seven Faces theme, in which each night's programmes were loosely grouped around a subject, wasn't helped when one of the topic groups was hobbies and another repeats. And the channel's logo - a kangaroo and its baby named Hullabaloo and Custard - looked like a child's doodle.

Within a year Peacock was replaced as channel controller by the wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, whose first act was strangely at odds with his naturalist credentials - he killed off the Kangaroos, which he saw as the embodiment of "demented public relations". Other changes quickly followed, including the launch of regular science, business and natural history programmes as well as slots for new comedy talents such as Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Attenborough also started Match of the Day, partly as a production training ground for the forthcoming World Cup. But it was with authored documentaries that BBC2 really made its name. Alistair Cooke's America (1972-73), Dr Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man (1973) and Kenneth Clark's Civilisation (1969) transformed the channel's image from being BBC1's predominantly uninteresting twin in to the home of groundbreaking and innovative programme making.

"BBC2's brief, as far as I was concerned, was to cover all those aspects of human activity that BBC1 didn't," Attenborough later explained. But it was his contagious enthusiasm for the creative process as much as his vision that transformed the channel's fortunes.

Attenborough's success with the new channel earmarked him for promotion, but the veteran broadcaster decided that he'd rather make programmes than commission people to make them on his behalf. This was a major disappointment for the corporation's senior executives, but by the time Attenborough returned to programme making with The Tribal Eye (1975) BBC2 had already reshaped the TV landscape.

Anthony Clark

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Ascent of Man, The (1973)Ascent of Man, The (1973)

Dr Jacob Bronowski discusses the cultural evolution of mankind

Thumbnail image of Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)Boys from the Blackstuff (1982)

Pivotal drama about unemployment and desperation in 1980s Liverpool

Thumbnail image of Civilisation (1969)Civilisation (1969)

Sir Kenneth Clark examines the ideas underlying Western Civilisation

Thumbnail image of Kumars at No.42, The (2001-03)Kumars at No.42, The (2001-03)

Comedy chat-show featuring the Kumars interviewing genuine guests

Thumbnail image of Late Night Line-Up (1964-72)Late Night Line-Up (1964-72)

Pioneering arts discussion programme that made Joan Bakewell a star.

Thumbnail image of Not Only... But Also... (1965-71)Not Only... But Also... (1965-71)

Definitive 1960s sketch comedy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore

Thumbnail image of Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979-82)Not the Nine O'Clock News (1979-82)

Satirical sketch show that paved the way for a new comedy generation

Thumbnail image of Office, The (2001-03)Office, The (2001-03)

Fly-on-the-wall sitcom about life in a Slough paper merchants

Thumbnail image of Play School (1964-88)Play School (1964-88)

Long-running BBC programme for pre-school children

Thumbnail image of This Life (1996-97)This Life (1996-97)

Influential drama series about a group of young lawyers sharing a house

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1982-84)Young Ones, The (1982-84)

Anarchic sitcom which launched a generation of alternative comedians

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