Opinion: Happy birthday, BBC2. But it's not all worth celebrating

The channel that brought us 'Civilisation' is 40. Charlie Courtauld on why the lustre of that era has been lost

It began - as all great things do - with a whimper rather than a bang. The blackout caused by a short at Battersea power station on the night of 20 April 1964 ensured that BBC2's night schedule launch was dumped, and the channel opened instead with Play School the following morning.

It began - as all great things do - with a whimper rather than a bang. The blackout caused by a short at Battersea power station on the night of 20 April 1964 ensured that BBC2's night schedule launch was dumped, and the channel opened instead with Play School the following morning.

Appropriate, really, because BBC2 has always been associated with pre-school output. Play School and Play Away may be long gone, but Teletubbies, Fimbles and the excellent Balamory have plugged the void.

Now, with the corporation's cradle-to-grave channel positioning (Cbeebies-Cbbc-BBC1-BBC3-BBC2-BBC4) becoming more blatant by the week, the channel seems increasingly aimed at the intelligent over-35s. With a new chairman installed, a new DG on the horizon and the ads out for a new channel controller, this seems a watershed moment for BBC2. So, in a spirit of helpfulness, here are a few observations that a new controller may wish to bear in mind.

In a week in which BBC2 has offered us two excellent dramas - Hawking and Every Time You Look At Me - it would be churlish and wrong-headed to dismiss everything that the outgoing controller, Jane Root (pictured), leaves on the channel. Some of the stuff (Newsnight, Bilko repeats, University Challenge and Coupling spring to mind) is still compulsory viewing. But one can't escape the feeling that BBC2 is underperforming just now - failing to live up to its 40-year heritage.

First, there were the landmark series that made the channel famous: Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, Simon Schama's History of Britain and so on. Today's replacements - the interactive, discussion-round-the-water-cooler shows like Great Britons, The Big Read and even the much-praised Restoration - are no substitute. There's a limit, anyway, to how many subjects this chalk-and-cheese technique can cover: I dread the day that we are all asked to vote on The Nation's Favourite Motorway.

Innovative comedy was once BBC2's signature: Monty Python; Fawlty Towers; Yes, Minister, The Office. These days the channel seems overly keen to get the cheapo stuff that BBC3 has already shown. And the critical praise doled out to second-rate stuff like 3 Non Blondes, Nighty Night or Little Britain is more a sigh of relief that these shows aren't totally awful, and of the parlous state of BBC1's sitcoms, rather than an indication that they stand comparison with the channel's heyday shows.

Nature programmes, too, have taken a downturn. There was a time when The World About Us, The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau or Life On Earth ensured that BBC2 was the channel on which the best nature footage could be found. Now - perhaps because the programmes are prohibitively expensive, perhaps because all the most jaw-dropping shots have already been taken - the channel just can't seem to compete with BBC1 anymore.

BBC1 has always had a keen eye on poaching stuff from its junior sister. From Have I Got News For You to Ground Force, shows have been nurtured by BBC2, only to be nicked by BBC1. But BBC2 has done did its own poaching, picking up the best of the US: The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, Buffy, Twin Peaks. But now it's got BBC4 and Channel 4 on the block too. The Great Unwatched BBC4 has pinched Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Simpsons has gone to Channel 4, so the new controller of BBC2 must look over several shoulders if the channel is to get the cream.

Controller of BBC2 is, arguably, the best job in television. A canny risk-taker (like Michael Jackson, who famously bet an entire year's drama budget on the wonderful Our Friends in the North) could carve a unique niche in the nation's heart, single-handedly justify the licence fee for the upcoming charter review, and ensure that BBC2 is as fondly celebrated in 40 years' time as it will be on Tuesday. It's a lot to ask.

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