Tuesday, June 10, 2014

And Now On BBC Two.....

As an American, some of what I know about British television was learned a long time after I what I had seen on PBS. When I was watching these shows that would mold my viewing habits, I would have very little idea of the broadcast history of them. Yet, eventually that is what really caught my interest as I got older. I wanted to know more about how they aired and what the social climate was like when they were on TV.

There are people around, mainly in the UK, that track such matters closely. They want to know (and log) the date a program aired, what region of the country and everything else to do with it. What is in interesting about this is that as an American I want to know all of this too about my favourite British television shows. This is why whenever possible, when I am writing about a specific series, that maybe I could find the Radio Times listing for the series. These listings about programs are just as important as the programs I am writing about for my articles. This is why I was shocked by what I didn’t know.
I think for some time, I had known that there was a second BBC channel. I say this in the sense of back in the 1980s and 1990s. Obviously now there are many more channels than that. In fact, I think it is funny that many people thought the idea of a BBC3 from The Dæmons would be fantastical. I knew of BBC2 for some time. I thought it was a cool idea to have a second channel for BBC output. The thing was is that I figured something with a two behind it would mean that it wasn’t as good as the original. Of course this is naïve but I had strong evidence to back this up. As I was watching all of the grand BBC output that my local PBS stations would show, I knew that this was all stuff from BBC1. It stands to reason that all of the grand stuff would be on BBC1 and I figured that all of the “artsy” stuff would be on BBC2. BBC1 is the place where everyone would enjoy such classics as Yes, Minister, Red Dwarf, The Young Ones, I Claudius, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Surely I wasn’t wrong, was I?

It’s always fun to learn new things. Sometime ago I learned something that was going to finally bring me up to speed with the rest of the world, but I will get to that later. On April 20th of this year, BBC2 celebrated its 50th anniversary. I learned some time ago that this is a channel of quality. There is a lot of great series and concepts that came from the channel. It started its output on 625 line television which was the native PAL resolution until the turnover to HD. BBC1 still had their output in 405 line. BBC2 was the first network in the UK to broadcast in colour in 1968. In 1979, it heralded the first computer generated television ident. Jane Root was the first woman television controller for the BBC and she was the Controller of BBC2.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of BBC2, of course I can’t watch anything recent about the channel. That would make too much sense.  In my usual way I have to look at something that in itself was made years ago. I looked back at a series of specials that was made in in 2004. I liked it because it was a nice overview of the archival content of the channel. Unfortunately, this only covers up to 2004 and obviously BBC2 has done much more in the last 10 years but I still really wanted to watch this again because it opened up my eyes.

Happy Birthday BBC Two TX: 20/04/04
This special is broken up into 4 parts by decade. Obviously, the stuff from the 1960s through 1980s was the most interesting to me. There was much I didn’t know and I love that so many clips were pulled from the archive to be represented here. The first treat that we are introduced to is the night of the first broadcast of BBC2 on April 20th 1964. That night, as things were progressing, there was a fire at the Battersea Power station which is where the BBC2’s power came from and the channel went off the air on its first night. BBC1 stayed on the air because it was transmitting the signal from Alexandria Palace. There would be brief news updates anyway on BBC2 throughout the evening but it was thought that the videotape recording of the night had been lost but it was in fact found in 2003. I forgot about that bit of information. It was so cool that it had been found but even better that parts of it made its way onto this program.

The things that stands out to me the most about the 1960s segment is that there were a lot of innovation and creativity in type of programs that were being presented. They knew the type of programming that was coming out of BBC1 and wanted to make sure they were doing something different. I heard it said a couple of times throughout the program that they wanted to make sure they were giving the licence payer their money’s worth. I suppose there must be some truth in that, it would be interesting to see what the general public thought about BBC2 being created at the time since most of the public’s TV sets wouldn’t be able to get the channel. Most of the TVs at the time would only pick up the 405 line signal and not the 625 line one.
Some of the innovation that came out of the BBC at the time was stuff like Late Night Line-Up. It was a series that brought people together to discuss the channel’s output. They showed one of the famous clips when the comedy writers were invited on the program. I think the program was put together relatively quickly earlier in the evening so these writers were invited while drinking at the BBC bar at Television Centre. One writer wasn’t invited yet broke into recording and had to be led away. There were the Beat Girls which included some dancers that would go on to be in Pan’s People. Pan’s People were a group of female dancers who would often be on Top of the Pops in the 1970s. It was cool to see more about Not Only…But Also. It was cool to see how Peter Cook was not originally thought of on the same level as Dudley Moore until people saw them together and thought he needed to be part of the series. A big deal is made about The Forsythe Saga which is a DVD set that sits on my shelf and I still have not watched all the way through. I keep wishing it would come up in my random picking one day so I can properly sit down and watch it.

This program also showed some of the truly thought-provoking programming throughout the decades and one that stood out for me from the 1960s was an edition of Man Alive. The episode was called Gale is Dead and it was about this 19 year old girl who was addicted to drugs. She is interviewed for the episode. Sadly, she dies during the making of the program which is especially upsetting as she believed she was going to die alone and unloved.
It also shows programs that have stayed on the air for years such as Call My Bluff and they do a montage of the some of the great celebrities that appears on the program.

Speaking of wanting to make sure the licence payers got their money worth, David Attenborough talks about a program that looked really good called Civilisation. It was a series about Western art, philosophy and architecture since the Dark Ages. Shot on film, it took viewers to places they have never seen before. Seeing it from the DVD-R I was watching, I thought it looked great but immediately thought it would be amazing if this was available on Blu-ray. I found it is and I ordered it!
I think something I was trying to get my head around for a while finally came to me when I started seeing some of the clips from the 1970s segment. I was trying to find a way for me to understand BBC2 in a way that I could relate; I thought I could but wasn’t sure how. Suddenly it came to me. In my opinion, I relate BBC2 (the early years) to that of the early years of PBS (Public Broadcasting) in the US. It’s not because they imported programs I had no idea that ever aired on BBC2 such as Fawlty Towers but there was a sort of raw experimental energy to it. At times there was something quite intimate to it.

I think something that made think that was the shots from The Old Grey Whistle Stop. Some of the clips that were shown reminded me of something like Austin City Limits. It’s sort of a stripped down program. I think another relevant example would be a series such as Ways of Seeing. It’s looking at art but from different perspectives. It can be high-level thinking which can either put viewers off or challenge them to think differently or be critical thinkers.
Something that stood out that I think I want to see is a series called Arena. One of the famous films from this series was Ford Cortina but I want to see the film about My Way. It is not only about the famous song but what it means mainly to the many people who have sung it.

I think while watching the 1970s segment I started to realize what I didn’t know. I figured everything we saw on our PBS stations just came from BBC1. There is no reason for this kind of thinking, it was just something I assumed. While watching this, I started to see programs that I figured came from BBC1 but in fact originated from BBC2 such as FawltyTowers, I Claudius, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Not The Nine O’Clock News. It made me finally realize that one channel isn’t better than the other, they are just different channels. It seems silly that I need to admit that but here I am in 2014, the 50th anniversary of the channel doing just that.

We move into the 1980s with more series that shocked me to see them originate from BBC 2 such as The Young Ones, Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, The Borgias, and The Edge of Darkness. For some reason, I always knew that Red Dwarf had aired on BBC2. What I didn’t know was that Top Gear had been running on BBC2 since 1977. It was re-worked in 2002 but Jeremy Clarkson had been on it since 1988.
From 1980s we get Newsnight. In fact, you could own Bill Paxman’s desk from the program as part of the big auction of stuff from BBC Television Centre. Paxman hosted the series Did You See….? which originated with Ludovic Kennedy. The series looked at the television output from that week with interviews and features. Many a Doctor Who fan will know this as there is some incredibly good archive content that is on the DVDs thanks to this program.

Moving into the 1990s we see how technology influences how series are made. There was a series called Video Diaries. It was using cameras that are portable to be able to shoot and tell a story. In some cases the video looked like it was shot on consumer equipment and while some people who worked in the industry weren’t fans of the series based on the technical quality, there was a large viewer base for the program. BBC2 also had a serious coup of sorts with their program Death of Yugoslavia which was made at the time when Milosevic was taking over. There is a scene with the government calmly discussing the invasion of the area.
Other series that came up in the 1990s on BBC2 were Have I Got News For You and showed a clip where Pierce Morgan is on the program making a very unfounded claim. He is now on CNN as he replaced Larry King. The UK can take him back any time now. Other shows, Later with Jools Holland, The Fast Show, Our Friends in the North (which I need to see), I’m Alan Partridge and Goodness Gracious Me.

I completely forgot that Two Fat Ladies was a program on BBC2. When I fell in love with the Food Network (which is basically shit now), this was one of the series shown at weekend. I loved it for the locations they would go to cook. Unfortunately the show came to an abrupt end when Jennifer Patterson died in 1999. Only this last March did the other half of the duo, Clarissa Dickson Wright passed away. It’s a fun light hearted show with a lot of character. I love cooking shows and I loved watching this show. That being said, I would never want to make any of the dishes those two ever made. None of it ever looked good to me. Another series that came out around this time on BBC2 that I saw on the Food Network was Jamie Oliver in The Naked Chef. Two great series that I had no idea were on BBC2.
I found it interesting that there was a small segment around the fact that although it wasn’t getting a lot of viewers that people were outraged that the simple country series One Man and His Dog was cancelled. It looked like people felt good knowing that it was there but didn’t actually want to watch it. Well, if you like a series enough, you should probably watch it. Seems sensible and it seems that is what people do with the program Gardener’s World. It started in 1968 and is still running. Granted it may have slightly more appeal than One Man and His Dog.

In the “why have I never seen this before?” category, I am seriously baffled why I never watched the BBC2 produced film Shooting the Past. Starring Lindsay Duncan about the imminent closure of a photographic library and its staff, the film looks emotional and great. Luckily it is only available on DVD because I am sure something like that could never benefit from a Blu-ray release! Ok, sarcasm over. One final entry into the 1990s is a series, for some reason, I have no interest ever seeing. The League of Gentlemen started in 1999. Many people I knew watched it so I when it got its premiere on Comedy Central, my friend Robert and I decided to watch it together. Neither of us was impressed and I never went back to it again. Maybe someday I will take another look but there is so much more I want to get to first.
Into this century, the list becomes smaller. As I mentioned, this program covered stuff up to 2004 and it is now 2014. That being said, the amount of programs covered by this point is pretty staggering.

I forgot that The Weakest Link was a BBC program. Of course there was The Office back when Ricky Gervais was funny. I always have a soft spot for Little Britain. It is funny and it gave jobs to two favourite actors Tom Baker and Mollie Sugden. When I worked at Best Buy, I had a friend who loved the series and we would quote lines back and forth to each other. We even had a viewing of episodes at her house once and it was a lot of fun. It’s fun when you find out about people who watch the stuff you love and you can start sharing the joy of the programs. As British television is regaining ground in the US, this is becoming more and more common. Series such as Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Foyle’s War and of course Doctor Who are just as mainstream in the US as any of the programs on US cable or even network stations.
There is one piece that almost overshadows everything throughout the entire 4 decades shown in this program. That being said, it certainly didn’t at the time. In 2000, Broadcaster Louis Theroux did two series of documentaries on interesting people. It was called When Louis Met….. and the first episode was titled When Louis Met…..Jimmy as in Jimmy Savile. At the time, Jimmy was an interesting, eccentric character. Known as a charity worker and best known for his series Jim’ll Fix It. That series was about making children’s wishes come true. The documentary focuses on Louis trying to crack Jimmy as Jimmy doesn’t feel like he has any certain type of emotions. One sign of how eccentric he was is when we see that he kept all of his mother’s clothing long after she died, keeps it in a closet of just her things and has the clothes taken out once a year for dry cleaning. One of the things Louis says in the interview for Happy Birthday BBC Two was trying to get down to the subject to answer claims of is he or isn’t he (Jimmy Savile) a pedophile.

Jimmy Savile died in 2011 and almost immediately afterwards hundreds of people came forward claiming that Savile had molested them when they were children. There were countless allegations of sex abuse and rape towards Savile. This led the police to believe that Savile was a predatory sex offender and may have been one of Britain's most prolific sexual offenders. Like I said, this program aired in 2004 and since the allegations came out it put the BBC in a very sticky situation considering that Savile’s career was with the BBC, he was closely identified with the BBC and people who worked with him turned a blind eye to his horrible activities. My guess is that in the 50th anniversary, this may not have been touched on. But then again, this program was rebroadcast in April of this year, was that segment edited?
That being said, the overall theme should be one of celebration especially since BBC2 has had an amazing history full of great programs and wonderful innovation. The lesson I learned is never judge a channel by its number! Happy birthday BBC2!

Next week: I look at Missing Believed Wiped. Not so much the event but the concept. So much of the past of British television is missing but over the years a great deal has been returned and I am going to focus on that. I look at the 2004 BBC4 documentary for TimeShift Missing Believed Wiped, two episodes of The Complete and Utter History of Britain, Till Death Us Do PartState Visit, The AvengersHot Snow, Adam Adamant Lives!D for Destruction, Steptoe and SonMy Old Man’s a Tory and although I said I wasn’t going to include it, I will include some Doctor Who. That will be The Underwater Menace Episode 2.
Have a great week!
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