There are a few points to note about British television programming. The first is that is not uncommon for certain programmes--particularly, but not solely, light entertainment ones--to change production base and transmission channel. The second is that all programmes not listed here as BBC productions have been produced either by one of the ITV companies or an independent commercial TV production company. The third is that production information about U.S. shows and those from other countries, which air in the United Kingdom, are not indicated in this history.

The BBC provided the world's first public high-definition regular domestic television service from 3:00 P.M. on 2 November 1936. After the initial introductory speeches the first programme began with a cinema newsreel and an international variety show involving British, American and Chinese performers. After closing down at 4:00 P.M. the service resumed for another hour at 9:00 P.M. when a short documentary, a magazine programme were screened and the newsreel was repeated. In the three years until the closedown of British television on 1 September 1939 (due to the announcement of Britain entering World War II) a complete range of television programmes had been transmitted on this fledgling service. These included newsreels, documentaries, dramas, magazine shows, light entertainment and children's programmes. Drama productions were almost solely theatrical productions of classics and on 28 March 1938 Cecil Madden established the principle of Sunday night offering TV drama with the transmission of Pirandello's Henry IV.

From the very earliest days an outside broadcast unit was utilized. Thus the coronation of King George VI was covered in 1937, with a viewing audience of more than 10,000 people. The unit also covered other public occasions such as the Lord Mayor's Show, the Armistice Day Service, and a range of sporting events such as tennis and the FA Cup Final (association football). Undoubtedly the most popular offering was the twice-weekly one hour magazine programme of topical and general interest Picture Page which ran from 1936-39 and then returned in 1946 for a further 300 editions which ran until 1954.

The immediate post-war years saw the continuation of Picture Page and the continued presentation of outside broadcasts particularly of events such as the Victory Parade (8 June 1946) and royal and sporting events such as tennis and test cricket. The largest such coverage of this period was the televising of the XIVth Olympiad held in London in 1948.

Many plays were transmitted--including some written especially for TV--although very few films and filmed newsreels were broadcast due to the industry fearing the competition. The few that were shown were recognised film classics such as D. W. Griffiths' The Birth of a Nation (1915), Josef von Sternberg's Der Blaue Engel (The Blue Angel 1930), Sergei Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Marcel Carne's Les enfants du paradis (1945). The introduction of a ballroom dancing competition programme entitled Come Dancing, began I 1949 and is still running.

The early 1950s saw a rapid expansion of TV set ownership, with the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II often cited as one of the driving causes. More than 2 million licenses were registered in 1953 (representing approximately 20% of all households). Licenses rose to over 10 million by the end of the decade. The coronation was broadcast for seven hours; it is estimated that 20 million people in the United Kingdom saw it before it was shipped for screenings in Europe, North America and across the Commonwealth.

In the 1950s the BBC's monopoly of TV broadcasting ended. The government ushered in television funded through the sale of advertising revenue at the end of July 1954, with transmissions starting on 22 September 1955. Commercial TV transformed the safe, traditional and cosy world depicted in many programmes produced by the BBC.

The early part of the 1950s saw the production of the United Kingdom's longest running police series Dixon of Dock Green (BBC, 1955-76) which was created by Ted Willis, one of the world's most prolific creator of television series. The Good Old Days, an Edwardian style variety show, ran from 1953 to 1983. What's My Line? (BBC, 1951-62, 1973-74; Thames, 1984-90) could be characterised as a quiz show but belongs to a typically British Radio and TV genre which continues to this day. This genre is best described as a parlour game show played by guest celebrities. Other examples include Face the Music (BBC 1967-84), A Question of Sport (BBC, 1970- ), Celebrity Squares (ATV/Central, 1975-79; 1993- ), Call My Bluff (BBC 1965-88), Give Us A Clue (Thames 1979-91).

Commercial television introduced new ideas and many new areas of programming. British television drama, for instance, was transformed by Armchair Theatre (ABC, 1956-69, Thames, 1970-74) which was an umbrella title for a series which provided opportunities for new writing talent particularly under the producership of the Canadian Sidney Newman. A new type of more North American-style entertainment was also produced, such as the variety show-- Sunday Night at the London Palladium (ATV, 1955-67, 1973-74), and game shows such as Double Your Money (A-R, 1955-68) and Take Your Pick (A-R 1955-68). One example of the BBC buying an American format was the BBC's This Is Your Life (BBC, 1955-64) but Thames took it over from 1969 to the present day.

A very popular production was the science fiction/horror serial The Quatermas Experiment (BBC, 1953) from which there have been a number of spin-offs. It was the half-hour filmed period action series which became the most popular drama. These included The Adventures of Robin Hood (ABC/Sapphire/ITP, 1955-59), The Adventures of Sir Lancelot (Sapphire, 1956-57), The Adventures of William Tell (ITC-NTA, 1958-59), The Count of Monte Cristo (Vision Productions, 1958), Ivanhoe (Sydney Box Prods.-Screen Gems/ITC, 1958).

In comedy the first edition of The Benny Hill Show was produced by the BBC in 1955. The BBC continued to produce it, with a one year gap in 1967, until 1968. Thames (ITV) took it over in 1969 and ran it for the next 20 years. Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60) showcased the talents of Britain's best loved radio comic, Tony Hancock, and Alfie Bass and Bill Fraser, the two main characters of the situation comedy The Army Game (Granada, 1957-61). The American shows The Phil Silvers Show and I Love Lucy were very popular.

In the 1950s, ITV established the practice of buying in American shows to supplement its own production. The most popular purchases were traditionally American genres: westerns such as Gunsmoke/Gun Law, Wagon Train, Cheyenne, The Lone Ranger, Rawhide, or fast moving police series such as Highway Patrol and Dragnet. Gradually British TV began to imitate such police series and the first of these was No Hiding Place (A-R, 1959-67). The Alfred Hitchcock series were also popular (Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour). In the area of light entertainment The Black and White Minstrel Show (BBC 1958-78) ran for 20 years until eventually the offensiveness of white performers "blacking up" was finally acknowledged. Opportunity Knocks! (A-R, 1956; ABC, 1964-67; Thames, 1968-78) was a talent show a genre which has continued in many guises since.

Popular Music shows began with Six-Five Special (BBC, 1957-58) and was followed by Oh Boy! (ABC, 1958-59), Juke Box Jury (BBC, 1959-67; 1979; 1989-90), Thank Your Lucky Stars (ABC, 1958-59). The notorious Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 and the United Kingdom has broadcast it from 1957 to the present day.

The first twice weekly soap opera was set in a hospital (Emergency Ward 10, ATV, 1957-65) which was soon to be followed by the popular American import Dr Kildare.

Current affairs began to develop as a key area of television broadcasting in the 1950s with the introduction of an early evening five-nights-a-week programme Tonight (BBC, 1957-65). General arts programmes were launched with Monitor (BBC, 1958-65). Surprisingly, the 1950s also saw the introduction of a number of programmes that still ran 40 years later. These include Grandstand (BBC, 1958- ) the longest running live sports series on TV; The Sky at Night (BBC, 1957- ) which is an astronomy programme presented by Patrick Moore; and the range of programmes with many titles fronted by Alan Whicker which offer his idiosyncratic travelogues of the world. The children's programme Blue Peter (BBC) also enjoyed surprising longevity running from 1958 until the present day.

On 21 April 1964 the BBC launched its second channel--BBC2. To the annoyance of the commercial TV companies (who were not to be allocated their second channel--Channel 4--for nearly two decades) the BBC could schedule some of its more specialist programming to this "minority" channel and therefore compete more directly with ITV with popular programming on BBC1.

To further restrict the commercial companies in August 1965 the ITA instructed that from 8:00-8:55 P.M. Monday to Friday no more than two out of five programmes could be from the U.S. and no more than three could be crime or western series. This was followed by the rule whereby only 14% of output could be originated in the U.S. with a further 2% allowed from the Commonwealth and 1.5% from Europe. These proportions were not to be changed until the development of cable and satellite in the 1980s, and still pertain to broadcast television.

The largest national audience in British broadcasting history to date watched the final of the World Cup 1966 in which England beat West Germany 4-2 at Wembly. It is estimated that over 33 million people watched the final.

On 2 December 1967 colour TV was officially introduced on BBC2. It is generally considered that the 1960s saw some of the most innovative and imaginative programming in the history of broadcasting in Britain. In the field of drama the BBC introduced The Wednesday Play (BBC, 1964-70) which, like Armchair Theatre was similarly innovative and commissioned a number of controversial and subsequently famous plays. These included Jeremy Sandford's Cathy Come Home (1966), Nell Dunn's Up the Junction (1965) and Dennis Potter's Vote, Vote, Vote for Nigel Barton (1965). Peter Watkins' made Culloden (1964) about an important battle in Scottish history and The War Game (1966) about the devastating results of nuclear war was made but not transmitted for 25 years because it was considered too distressing. On the popular TV drama series front one of the most enduringly popular shows was the espionage series The Avengers (ABC, 1961-69). Popular too was the BBC's production of the French novelist George Simenon's Maigret (BBC, 1960-63) and the medical series set in rural Scotland Dr Finlay's Casebook (BBC, 1962-71) which STV began as a new series in 1993.

The BBC also introduced a new form of gritty realism with the creation of Z Cars (BBC, 1962-78), a police show, which was supported with the spin-off Softly, Softly (BBC, 1966-70). Another highly successful espionage series was Danger Man (ATV/ITC, 1960-61; 1964-67) starring Patrick McGoohan. As a result of this success McGoohan was allowed to produce the enigmatic The Prisoner (Everyman/ATV, 1967-68) which, although only 17 episodes long, became one of the great cult series. Roger Moore starred in two "mid-Atlantic" thrillers, The Saint (ATV, 1962-69), which was followed unsuccessfully in the 1970s by The Persuaders! (Tribune/ITC, 1971-72) in which he starred with Tony Curtis.

BBC's most successful series Doctor Who (1963-89), a science fiction programme about a Time Lord who travels through time, was designed for children but developed a cult status enjoyed by a huge and faithful adult audience. This was also the decade in which some major soap operas were created. In 1960 Granada TV launched Coronation Street, a representation of daily life in a Northern working class community, in the North West but it was soon to be networked across the country. It still remains at the top of the audience ratings after over 35 years and transmissions have been increased from twice to four times a week.

In 1964 ATV introduced the highly popular Crossroads, a soap set in a Midlands motel, which ran for 24 years. Until 1985 when the BBC introduced the highly successful EastEnders the BBC did not fare well with its soaps. Two were experimented with: Compact (1962-65) was set in the offices of a magazine, and The Newcomers (1965-69) presented the story of a London family that moved to a country town.

In the 1960s Comedy Playhouse (BBC, 1961-74) was created. This was a premiere comedy showcase in which pilots were written by writers such as Alan Simpson and Ray Galton. A number of the pilots went on to become some of the best loved comedy series on British TV. They included Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-65; 1970; 1972, 1974) and Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1966-68; 1972; 1974-75 which later became In Sickness and in Health BBC 1985- ). In the 1960s there was a rise of satirical shows such as That Was The Week That Was (BBC, 1962-63) and Not Only - But Also... (BBC, 1965-66; 1970), innovative shows such as Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-70; 1972-73), and the enduring favourite Dad's Army (BBC, 1968-77)--a sitcom about a partially geriatric Home Guard in the early days of the World War II. A number of Gerry Anderson's puppet productions were also produced: Supercar (ATV/AP/ITC, 1961-62) Fireball XL5 (AP/ATV/ITC, 1962-63); Stingray (AP/ATV/ITC, 1964-65), Thunderbirds (ATV/AP/ITC, 1965-66) and Captain Scarlett and The Mysterons (ITC/Century 21 TV Prod, 1967-68).


Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise grew in popularity to the level of national institution. Their show, under different titles ran from 1961 to 1983, regularly changing channel. In the pop music field Thank Your Lucky Stars (ABC, 1961-66), Ready, Steady Go! (A-R, 1963-66), and the BBC's Top of the Pops was launched in 1964 and continued through the 1990s.

In the non-fiction fields a number of notable series were broadcast. In 1967 the BBC initiated David Attenborough's long-running The World About Us (BBC, 1967-86) a natural history series which resulted in the creation of the BBC's Natural History Unit at their Bristol studios. There was also Sir Kenneth Clark's renowned Civilization (BBC 1969) charted the history of western culture from the collapse of Greece and Rome to the 20th Century.

A number of series were initiated which continue to this day. ITN created the first half-hour evening news bulletin, News at Ten, in 1967; Granada TV's pathbreaking current affairs series World in Action was first transmitted in 1963; the BBC's science series Horizon began in 1964 and the BBC's science futures programme Tomorrow's World started in 1965; and the BBC's seasonal weekly football magazine Match of the Day was first broadcast in 1964.

Television in the 1970s moved away from the experiments of the 1960s into safer territory. For example, apart from Play for Today (BBC, 1970-84), original TV drama was replaced with period and novel-based serials. These included such series as The Six Wives of Henry VIII, 1970), Upstairs Downstairs (LWT, 1971-75). It was also the decade of the major, solemn documentary series such as The World at War (Thames, 1973-74), The Ascent of Man (BBC, 1973), Life on Earth (BBC, 1979).

Comedy moved more into the fairly bland with Are You Being Served? (BBC, 1973-83). There were, however, some notable exceptions such as the sitcoms Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975; 1979), Porridge (BBC, 1974-77), Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (BBC, 1973-75; 1978), Rising Damp (YTV, 1974-78) and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79), The Liver Birds (BBC 1969-79), The Last of the Summer Wine (BBC, 1973-). There was also the zany The Goodies (BBC, 1970-77; 1980) and the perennially popular The Two Ronnies (BBC, 1971-86).

American westerns virtually disappeared in the 1980s and American crime series were in ascendance. However, programmes like Kojak were influential and indirectly encouraged the development of more action-oriented British crime series. One company in particular--Euston Films Limited (a wholly owned subsidiary of Thames TV) developed a portfolio of such programmes for the ITV network. These included Van der Valk (Thames, 1972-73; Euston 1977; Thames 1991-92), The Sweeney (Euston, 1975-78), Minder (Euston, 1979-85; 1988- ), Widows (Euston 1983; Widows II 1985), Reilly-Ace of Spies (Euston, 1983). Series from other commercial companies included The Professionals (LWT, 1977-83) and two grittily realistic and much applauded serials made by the BBC, Gangsters (1976; 1978) and G. F. Newman's four-part Law and Order (1978).

There were also a number of highly successful drama series two of which focused on court-room situations--the day-time (three days a week) Crown Court (Granada, 1972-84) and the immensely popular Rumpole of the Bailey (Thames, 1978-79; 83; 87-88; 91-present day). There was also a highly successful serial set in a secondary school, Grange Hill (BBC, 1978- ), devised by the ex-teacher Phil Redmond (who went on to found Mersey Productions and to produce Channel 4's equally successful soap Brookside).

On the soap front Yorkshire TV produced a rural daytime serial, Emmerdale Farm which began in 1972 and became increasingly popular as Emmerdale. The BBC also experimented with an all black soap (written by a black author), Empire Road (1978-79).

In light entertainment there was Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game (BBC, 1971-77), a very popular format which has continue on and off (with Larry Grayson taking over his role); the chat show Parkinson (BBC, 1971-82) featuring Michael Parkinson; the long running That's Life (BBC, 1973-94); Jim'll Fix It (BBC, 1975- ); The Muppet Show (ATV/Central, 1976-81); Blankety Blank (BBC, 1979-89). There were quiz shows ranging from the long-running Mastermind (BBC, 1972-) where contestants simply compete for a title by answering complex general-knowledge questions and obscure questions about specialist areas of knowledge they possess through Sale of the Century (Anglia, 1972-83) to the banal Mr and Mrs (ATV/Border, 1972-88).

There was a great deal of television activity in the 1980s. Commercial television's second channel was launched on 2 November 1982; Breakfast TV was introduced on three of the four channels; there was a massive growth in video recorder ownership; cable and satellite networks were eventually established. It was also the decade in which American soaps such as Dallas and Dynasty dominated both the ratings, media coverage and popular debate. From a European perspective possibly the most disastrous attempt to compete with the United States head on was the production of Chateauvallon (1985) where five European networks attempted to produce a competitive European equivalent to Dallas.

In programming terms the 1980s represented a period when some very expensive classic drama was produced. This included Death of a Princess (ATV, 1980) which gained notoriety because it was about the public beheading of a Saudi princess and her lover. The Saudi government tried to stop it being transmitted and banned its importation to Saudi Arabia. Because of video technology it was being clandestinely viewed in that country within 24 hours of first transmission in the United Kingdom. Almost as controversial was the BBC's Boys from the Blackstuff (BBC, 1982) about unemployment in Liverpool. Granada TV produced the hugely expensive but highly successful 13-part The Jewel in the Crown (1984) which was entirely shot in India. The BBC also produced the film-noir style six-part drama, Edge of Darkness (1985),about the attempt to sabotage a nuclear power station.

Police dramas proliferated in the 1980s. Both the BBC and ITV had female detectives--Juliet Bravo (BBC, 1980-85) and The Gentle Touch (LWT, 1980-84) respectively; there was a black detective - Wolcott (ATV 1981); a local radio detective Shoestring (BBC, 1979-80); a Chinese detective The Chinese Detective (BBC, 1981-82); a Scottish detective Taggart (STV, 1983-); the long-running series set on the island of Jersey Bergerac (BBC, 1981-91); and the highly acclaimed series set in Oxford starring John Thaw Inspector Morse (Central, 1987-92); and literary private detectives The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Granada, 1984-85; The Return of Sherlock Holmes 1986-88; The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes 1991; Sherlock Holmes 1993) with Jeremy Brett offering what is currently considered to be the definitive performance of the great detective; and two famous Agatha Christie detectives--the BBC produced Miss Marple (1984-92) and ITV's Poirot (LWT/Carnival 1989- ).

Popular non-crime series included the BBC's A Very Peculiar Practice (1986 and 1988) set in a university health centre; and two highly realistic long-running series, one based in a fire station London's Burning (LWT, 1988-) and the other an equally long-running hospital series Casualty (BBC, 1986-).

A number of new soap operas started in the 1980s. First there was Scottish TV's daytime soap Take the High Road (1980-); Channel 4's Brookside (Mersey, 1982-); the BBC's first successful soap which rivals Coronation Street in the audience ratings EastEnders (1985-); and a police soap, The Bill (Thames, 1984- ).

In the 1980s a range of highly successful and, in some cases, long running sitcoms developed. There was Carla Lane's long-running Bread (BBC, 1986-) and Yes, Minister (BBC, 1980, 1982) was successful enough for Paul Eddington (the Minister) to return as the Prime Minister in Yes, Prime Minister in 1986 and 1988. Hi-De-Hi! (BBC, 1981-88); 'Allo, 'Allo (BBC, 1984-92) and Only Fools and Horses (BBC, 1981-) are long running series that, like Dad's Army and Fawlty Towers, continue to be regularly repeated. Over the decades the BBC has always been more successful with sitcoms than the ITV companies (as can be seen from the above listing) but in the 1980s ITV enjoyed significant success in this field with Rik Mayall's The New Statesman (Yorkshire, 1987-92).

In the 1980s U.K. TV produced its first all-black sitcom, No Problem! (C4, 1983-85), Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder (BBC, 1983-) and Peter Fluck and Roger Law's award winning satirical puppet show Spitting Image (Central, 1984-). This last show has enjoyed significant international format sales.

In the area of light entertainment the BBC's The Lenny Henry Show (BBC, 1984-85; 1987-88) and French and Saunders (BBC, 1987-88) were very successful and Channel 4 enjoyed success with the innovative pop music show The Tube (Tyne, Tees 1982-87) and the even more original Max Headroom (Chrysalis, 1985).

A number of new game shows were introduced in the 1980s. Bulleseye (ATV, 1981-), a show based on the game of darts continues to run as does Channel 4's Countdown (Yorkshire, 1982-), is a word game with which C4 opened transmissions. Two American formats were hugely successful, The Price is Right (Central, 1984-88) and Blind Date (LWT, 1985-) which also still runs. In current affairs the BBC introduced Newsnight (1980-) and LWT made the first ethnic minority current affairs programmes for Channel 4, Black on Black (1982-85) and Eastern Eye (1982-85).

In the 1980s programmes about cooking e.g. Food and Drink (BBC/Bazal, 1982-) and holidays e.g. Holiday (BBC, 1969-), which has a number of rivals including ITV's Wish You Were Here...? (Thames, 1976-) proliferated and became hugely popular.

The 1990s saw the development of the power of the satellite companies and the purchasing of the rights to major world sporting events, with Rupert Murdoch seeming to win most of the battles. It was also the decade that the Australian soaps such as Neighbours and Home and Away dominated the U.K. daytime schedules.

The major drama successes were Prime Suspect (Granada, 1991-95), The Darling Buds of May (Yorkshire, 1991- ), Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit (BBC, 1990) and Jeeves and Wooster (Granada, 1990-93) starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry.

The BBC made another foray into soap territory with a spectacular failure set on the Costa del Sol, Eldorado (Cinema Verity/J Dy T, 1992-93) which ironically was just beginning to improve significantly its audience ratings figures when it was cut from broadcasting.

Successful sitcoms included One Foot in the Grave (BBC, 1990-), Channel 4's set in a TV newsroom Drop the Dead Donkey (Hat Trick, 1990-) and Absolutely Fabulous (BBC, 1992-). However, probably the most acclaimed comedy show of the decade was the wickedly funny Have I Got News For You? (Hat Trick, 1990-) which is a panel game recorded the day before transmission to ensure its biting satire is completely topical.

-Manuel Alvarado


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