BBC2 at 50: The 50 facts you might not know

The corporation’s second channel has come a long way since a power cut marred its launch night

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The Independent Culture

Today marks 50 years since audiences first clapped eyes on a new channel: BBC2. Since then it’s given us classic sitcoms, quiz shows, Sir David Attenborough and the gorillas and, more recently, Jeremy Paxman’s beard. To mark 50 years, we’ve compiled 50 things you might not have known about BBC2.

1 A kangaroo was present at its launch. The logo of a mother kangaroo with a baby emerging from her pouch was used to advertise BBC2 in the run-up to the channel’s first transmission, and a live animal was brought in for opening night. It became stuck in a lift and “went berserk”, according to witnesses. It was, as it happened, the least of producers’ worries that night.

2 The channel was the result of a recommendation in the Pilkington Committee review of broadcasting in 1962.

3 On launch night, 20 April 1964, a huge power cut in west London forced transmissions to switch to Alexandra Palace, where newsreader Gerald Priestland stoically delivered a news bulletin before the channel was cut off.

4 As a result of the disastrous first night, the first programme to be aired in its entirety was Play School, the following day.

5 The main programme on the opening night was a production of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate.

6 On the day that BBC2 was born, Nelson Mandela gave his Rivonia Trial speech from the dock.

7 Michael Peacock, the channel’s first controller, had been the editor of Panorama responsible for the Spaghetti Tree April Fool.

8 The channel started with loose nightly themes known as the “seven faces of the week”, but this was abandoned within months. After four months, only 90,000 people were watching.

9 The first edition of Match of the Day aired on BBC2 in August 1964 – only 20,000 people watched.

10 The channel’s first genuine hit was the documentary The Great War – commissioned to mark the conflict’s 50th anniversary.

Channel stars: David Attenborough (left) and BBC2’s first controller, Michael Peacock

11 David Attenborough became BBC2 controller in 1965. He went on to become director of BBC programmes in 1969.

12 BBC2’s 1967 hit, The Forsyte Saga, was the first BBC programme to be sold to the Soviet Union.

13 On 1 July 1967, BBC2 became the first European channel to broadcast regularly in colour, allowing a previously neglected sport to pick up TV coverage for the first time – snooker. Pot Black became one of the more successful shows.

14 The first colour pictures broadcast were of the Wimbledon tennis championships in 1967.

15 The announcement of the plan for regular colour broadcasts was made in Parliament by Tony Benn, the then Postmaster General, in March 1966.

16 All three cast member of The Goodies – whose show first aired on BBC2 in November 1970, are OBEs.

17 The Old Grey Whistle Test, which ran from 1971 until 1987, hosted the first British TV performance by Bob Marley and the Wailers in 1973.

The cast of The Goodies


Also in 1973, Labour MP Marcus Lipton said in Parliament: “Are there not a number of people who are grateful for the fact they cannot receive BBC2?”

19 Early on in BBC2’s history, the channel struck a deal with the Open University. Professors hosted brief lectures on air in a collaboration that continues to this day.

20 Despite BBC2’s reputation for comedy, Monty Python’s Flying Circus spent only one series – its last – on the channel in 1974.

21 Play School presenter Johnny Ball revealed many years later that co-presenters had been “stoned out of their minds” during a nativity scene in the 1970s.

22 The five toys which were always present on the Play School set are now on display in the National Media Museum in Bradford.

23 Morecambe and Wise broke records on Christmas Day, 1977, when 27 million people – about half of the UK’s population at the time – watched their festive special.

24 Perhaps BBC2’s greatest ever sitcom, Fawlty Towers, ran for just two series, with only 12 episodes made.

25 Top Gear aired nationwide for the first time on BBC2 in 1978. Originally it had been viewable only in the Midlands.

26 Top Gear’s theme music comes from a song called “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band.

27 BBC2’s production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which starred Alec Guinness as George Smiley, also featured Patrick Stewart in the role of Soviet spy Karla.

28 Former BBC2 controller David Attenborough’s first documentary on the channel was the hugely successful Life on Earth, in 1979.

29 During his much-viewed encounter with a family of gorillas, Attenborough departed entirely from his script: “It seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not – and that we are.”

30 The channel’s twin-striped “2” symbol, introduced in 1979, was the first computer-generated logo to appear on TV anywhere in the world.

31 The Young Ones featured live music in each episode because it allowed the series to classify as “light entertainment” and draw from a larger budget than that for comedy.

32 The highest ratings for BBC2 date back to 25 April 1985, when Dennis Taylor took on Steve Davis in the world snooker final. More than 18 million people were hooked to their tellies well past midnight for the gripping match.

33 Red Dwarf, which began in 1988, ran for 10 series, making it the longest-running British sci-fi series after Doctor Who.

34 Jeremy Paxman presented Newsnight for the first time in 1989 – a quarter of a century ago.

35 Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, an adaptation of Jeanette Winterson’s autobiographical novel of young lesbian love, was broadcast in 1990.

36 Have I Got News for You, which started on BBC2 in 1990, has run for 46 series but moved to BBC1 in 2000.

37 Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge made his television debut in 1994’s The Day Today.

38 James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli first noticed future 007 Daniel Craig in his breakthrough role in BBC2’s 1996 drama series Our Friends in the North.

39 BBC2’s idents, the small breaks between programmes showing the channel’s logo, have been through many versions which include the number two pictured as a kebab and as chocolate on top of a cappuccino.

40 When Noel Gallagher of Oasis was asked whether his song “Half the World Away” could be used as theme music for 1998’s The Royle Family, a bad phone line led him to believe that the Royal Family wanted to use it for a documentary.

41 It was the first BBC channel to have a female controller, Jane Root, who took over in 1999. She was nicknamed “the High Priestess of Lifestyle Television”.

42 In 2004, one of her commissions, The Office, became the first British sitcom to receive a Golden Globe award.

43 The Weakest Link first aired on 14 August 2000. Forty-six countries have adopted their own version.

44 A 2005 revival of 1960s quiz show Ask the Family was derided by the original’s presenter Patricia Owtram and ran for only one series.

45 Out of a total of 1,234 episodes, the challengers have beaten the Eggheads only 105 times.

46 The Kumars at No 42 transferred to the US, where it became The Ortegas – a Hispanic family that better suited the American demographic.

47 The international success of BBC2’s Top Gear was marked by the launch in 2011 of Top Gear Korea, joining Top Gear Australia, Top Gear USA and Top Gear Russia.

48 Later … with Jools Holland has been running for 22 years.

49 The final of 2013’s Great British Bake Off, with Mary Berry (above), drew 8.4 million viewers – the most of any BBC2 show since the current ratings system began.

50 There is an “I Love BBC2” campaign in Nashville, Tennessee, but this is actually the name of a fundraising drive for Bellevue Baptist Church’s new building.