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.
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).
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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).
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.
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.
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 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).
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).
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).
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).
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).
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,
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.
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.
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- ).
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,
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
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, and John Stewart. Made for Television: Euston Films Limited.
London: British Film Institute, 1985.
Anthony. Television: The First Forty Years. London: Severn
House, 1976. Halliwell, Leslie, with Philip Purser.
Television Companion (published as Halliwell's Teleguide, Granada
Publishing, 1979); retitled and published (3rd edition) London:
Hilary, and Geoff Tibbals. Box of Delights: The Golden Years
of Television. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Tise, editor. British Television: An Illustrated Guide. Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1994.