As Ringo Starr famously said, sorry for the lateness of my reply. This is what happens when you spot a suspiciously quiet spell in a broadcast history of a long-running series, look into it and discover it spent two years billed as “Weather, followed by [PROGRAMME NAME]”, meaning I have to recalculate a load of stuff and the show I’ve just written 1500 words on is unceremoniously yeeted up to a part of the league table we won’t get to for ages. Still, if it’s that or a half-arsed dataset, the delays are worthwhile.
Now we’re well into the territory of programmes broadcast more than a thousand times, it’s probably a bit much expecting everyone to read through entire potted histories of each programme, so instead I’m going to – at least in some cases – try and pick out some interesting detail from perhaps under-represented periods of a show’s history (or even pre-history). If only to keep things a bit more brief. So, settle down and look out for flying sausages as we get to…
75: Great British Menu
(Shown 1184 times, 2006-2021)
Long before Bake-Off became the default Google autocomplete option for ‘Great British’, another BBC2 cookery contest set a lofty bar for highfalutin haute cuisine. How high is the falutin we’re talking about here? Falutin high enough to require hosting duties from a former BBC Royal correspondent, that’s how high. Indeed, Jennie Bond was the inaugural host of Great British Menu, where a pair of chefs from a region of the UK would compete to create a menu fit for a monarch. And I mean that literally – the goal of 2006’s first series was to concoct a birthday meal for Queen Elizabeth II, along with 300 other guests at a summer banquet.
The first series was a hit, and winning chefs from that first run returned for the second series in 2007. This time the goal was to set a menu for an Ambassadors’ Dinner at the British Embassy in Paris. Yes, yes, spoiling us etc. For 2008’s third series, Jennie Bond was replaced as host by Heston Blumenthal, and the grand finale was a little less continental, with the winning menu served at London’s Gherkin building.
The series would continue to pit top regional chefs against each other for the carrot of providing menus to distinctly British scenarios, ranging from local community groups all the way up to HRH Sir Prince Charles (now, of course, HRH Sir King Prince Charles III). It’s a format that shows no signs of stopping, with the final of 2022’s seventeenth series – themed around the 100th anniversary of the BBC – containing what might possibly be the greatest judging panel in the long history of TV judging panels: Steve Pemberton, Floella Benjamin, Alison Steadman and Huw Edwards. The Beeb in a nutshell? Pretty much.
74: Tom and Jerry
(Shown 1188 times, 1967-2003)
Here’s one that comes with a caveat: it’s likely to be the case that episodes of T&J have also been broadcast under non-specific ‘cartoon time’ slots, especially prior to 1967. Here, I’m just counting instances where they’ve been billed as such in the Radio Times. The overall broadcast total is actually likely to be higher – I’ve memories from my childhood of seeing ‘bonus’ episodes of Tom and Jerry when the news had to be trimmed down due to industrial action, meaning an unbilled T&J would often be parachuted in to fill the gap. In at least one case, doing so after an abridged 9 O’Clock News. Post-watershed Tom & Jerry. It happened. The total also misses out any episodes of T&J shown wholly within other, longer shows such as Saturday Superstore or Going Live. The former being the first place I ever saw one of the Chuck Jones T&J cartoons, and no, I don’t have a clue why my brain bothered to register that memory.
Anyway, here we’re only looking at empirical, RT-sanctioned evidence of Tom & Jerry being screened on the BBC. The earliest billed example of a T&J outing on the BBC that seems to be on Genome is a BBC-1 broadcast of 1942’s ‘Dog Trouble’, where Tom and Jerry join forces in an attempt to stop Spike the Bulldog mauling both of them. Fun times!
From there, Thomas Jasper “Tom” Cat Sr and Gerald Jinx “Jerry” Mouse would be an early evening fixture on BBC-1, forming a formidable triple-act with Simon Dee on Tuesday and Thursday evenings throughout 1967. By September of that year, Tom, Jerry and Dee were even sharing a Saturday night schedule, joining forces with with Doctor Who (and, erm, The News) to make up an unlikely televisual supergroup. It surely wouldn’t have killed them to have Tom and Jerry hopping into Simon Dee’s convertible motor car in the title sequence of Dee Time, surely? Imagine that.
The Tom & Jerry & Dee alliance continued through much of the remainder of the 1960s, until Saturday 13 September 1969 came along and Dee hopped into his convertible for the last time, roaring off to upstart broadcaster LWT (and ultimately, obscurity*). T&J meanwhile went on to gobble up spaces in the BBC-1 schedule like chunks of cheese (or cat food). In 1972 alone, their cartoons aired on 122 different occasions. Most frequently as a buffer between Nationwide and the 7pm starter on an evening’s Light Entertainment menu, but also being deployed as tasty Bank Holiday snack, as post-Who Saturday night dessert, or even right in the middle of prime-time. T&J aired at 7.30pm on Tuesday 11th July 1972 (preceding an airing of a Margaret Rutherford Marple film) and at 7.40pm on Tue 8th Aug 1972 (before a screening of Bob Hope’s The Cat and the Canary). Sure, they were being deployed to avoid an awkward five-minute gap between the end of each film and the Nine O’Clock News, but it shows how much faith the BBC had in the cat-mouse duo in keeping entire families entertained.
(*Topical reference: Simon Dee later did a Victor Lewis-Smith produced final episode of Dee Time for Channel 4 in 2003, as a companion piece to the VLS documentary on Dee. As a result, Dee’s last ever chat show guest was current notoriety’s Jerry Sadowitz.)
From the mid-1980s, Tom and Jerry started to be less frequent visitors to our screens, Michael Grade’s revamped BBC1 seemingly having little room for sociopathic cat-mouse shenanigans. The cartoon found itself largely confined to filler slots on Sunday afternoons, or even (shock) used to fill in space on BBC2. It did still get a few airings where it likely attracted a decent audience – such as a double-bill on BBC1 bridging the gap between Esther Rantzen’s Children of Courage and the evening episode of Neighbours on Good Friday 1989. By 1991 though, Tozza and Jezza were BACK where they belonged, kicking off evening entertainment on Saturday evening BBC1, sharing a slot with ‘Allo ‘Allo, Bergerac and, ugh, let’s refer to it as ‘The Fix-It Programme’.
Alas, everything fades, and by the late 90s those appearances were again becoming as sparse as Good Mouse-Catching Ideas in Tom’s brain. After a final flourish in 2000 (preceding the EastEnders omnibuses each Sunday afternoon on BBC1), and one solitary appearance in 2001 (again, preceding the Sunday repeats of EastEnders, and billed in the RT with the underwhelming summary “Cartoon fun”). And so, Jerry assaulted Tom for the final (RT-listed) time on the Corporation’s flagship channel.
Not that it was a full-stop for the pair on the main BBC channels. The much less uberviolent ‘Tom and Jerry Kids’ was a part of the CBBC rota from 1998 to 2005, except that doesn’t count because it’s not proper Tom and Jerry. And even now, the CBBC channel regularly hosts the newer, longform, less good Tom and Jerry adventures.
[UPDATE 04/09/2022: Reader ‘Retro71‘ writes in to mention an episode of Tom and Jerry that received complaints about swearing, with the word ‘bloody’ being mild to American ears, less so to British ones. After a little digging, the scene in question is apparently one where a pirate yells “get off my bloody boat”, though the T&J filmography doesn’t include any classic episodes set on a pirate ship – more likely it’s 1952’s Cruise Cat, which sees Tom hired as mouser on a cruise ship. Rather than that particular episode being shown in full, the scene seems to have been aired during an episode of Tony Robinson’s superb toon history show Stay Tooned!, in an episode looking at censored toons. Unfortunately, while Genome has episode descriptions for most BBC One showings of Stay Tooned!, the banned episode isn’t one of them. Anyone know any more about this? Get in touch in the comments or on the Twitter.]
73: The Sky at Night
(Shown 1201 times, 1957-2013)
Well, here’s another one that will require some frantic reformatting of the ‘BBC Broadcast History’ table. That’s what happens when you stumble across (or if you prefer, “don’t properly plan for”) a programme that has aired on the main BBC channels for 57 years, meaning you suddenly need to cram in a bunch more broadcast years.
Back when the programme first started, on 24 April 1957, few hobbyist astronomers could have predicted the programme would run for so long. Even fewer could predict that the same host, one Patrick Moore, would still be hosting the series in Space Year 2013 (albeit posthumously – Moore died in December 2012). If nothing else, surely such a programme wouldn’t be needed that far into the 21st Century? We’d all be up there ourselves, popping to Mars for to visit Uncle Alan before nipping into the moon branch of Ikea on the way home. Surely?
Okay, that particular dream didn’t make it to reality, but Sky at Night’s marathon tenure displays an amount of longevity that deserves to be held up against humanity’s expanding understanding of the universe. When that first episode went out, Yuri Gagarin was still four years from being the first man in space, Neil Armstrong was still a test pilot and NASA hadn’t yet been formed. The vast expanse of space was still very much something that could only be explored from Terra Firma, but with the starter’s pistol poised to start the great USA-USSR Space Race, interest in worlds beyond our own was growing.
Issue 1745 of the Radio Times used the following to welcome viewers to this new programme promising to explore all things astronomical:
Stars, in our particular workaday world, tend to be people with agents, and success stories, and temperaments, and talents, and a certain unpredictability that can make then either tiresome or fascinating. But when we talked to Patrick Moore the other day about this month’s stars, we found ourselves in a very different world. “People tend to think,” he told us, “that astronomy is a difficult, expensive, and unrewarding subject that has become the prerogative of old men with long white beards. It is in fact none of those things, and anyone can find interest and excitement in the night sky, if he knows what to look for.”
This is to be the theme of his new series which begins on Wednesday, and which will introduce each month the highlights of the current astronomical news.Radio Times, issue 1745, 21-27 April 1957
As explained by the future GamesMaster there, the remit of the programme wasn’t specifically to monitor humankind’s efforts in reaching the stars, but rather helping the British population carry out their own exploration of space in the most British way possible: treating it as an endeavour best enjoyed at home whilst not spending too much money.
The programme would go on to be an invaluable resource for anyone interested in knowing more about what’s out there, and stuck pretty rigidly to that monthly schedule throughout, with same-week repeats often aired at times of day friendlier to younger astronomers. Of course, it didn’t always go to plan – as highlighted in Sean Lock’s trek through the TV archives ‘TV Believe It or Not’ for BBC Four in 2008 – with Moore embarking on a live episode where high-powered telescopes would roam the night sky and put the enthralling results up on screen, only for a bunch of clouds to get in the way and the whole thing to fizzle out like a damp banger.
Of course, if you were a dedicated viewer of the programme, you’d very likely need access to a similarly powerful radio telescope to spot the series’ ever-changing place in the schedules. The table at the bottom of this entry only accounts for the most commonly-used timeslots. If you want to know the full range of times when The Sky At Night was shown, here you go:
(big inhale….) 00:00, 00:05, 00:10, 00:15, 00:20, 00:25, 00:30, 00:35, 00:40, 00:45, 00:50, 00:55, 02:10, 02:30, 06:30, 06:35, 06:40, 06:55, 07:00, 07:05, 07:15, 08:35, 08:40, 09:20, 09:30, 09:40, 09:45, 09:50, 10:00, 10:20, 10:25, 10:30, 10:40, 10:45, 10:50, 10:55, 11:10, 11:25, 11:30, 11:35, 11:45, 11:50, 11:55, 12:00, 12:05, 12:10, 12:15, 12:20, 12:25, 12:30, 12:35, 12:40, 12:45, 12:50, 12:55, 13:00, 13:05, 13:10, 13:15, 13:25, 13:30, 13:35, 13:40, 13:45, 13:50, 13:55, 14:00, 14:05, 14:10, 14:15, 14:20, 14:30, 14:40, 14:45, 14:50, 14:55, 15:00, 15:05, 15:10, 15:15, 15:20, 15:25, 15:30, 15:35, 15:40, 15:45, 15:50, 15:55, 16:00, 16:05, 16:10, 16:15, 16:20, 16:25, 16:30, 16:35, 16:40, 16:45, 16:50, 16:55, 17:00, 17:05, 17:10, 17:15, 17:20, 17:25, 17:30, 17:35, 17:40, 17:45, 17:50, 18:05, 18:10, 18:15, 18:20, 18:25, 18:30, 18:35, 18:40, 18:45, 18:50, 18:55, 19:15, 19:20, 19:35, 19:40, 21:45, 22:00, 22:15, 22:20, 22:25, 22:30, 22:35, 22:40, 22:45, 22:50, 22:55, 23:00, 23:05, 23:10, 23:13, 23:15, 23:20, 23:22, 23:23, 23:25, 23:28, 23:30, 23:33, 23:35, 23:37, 23:38, 23:40, 23:42, 23:45, 23:47, 23:48, 23:50 and 23:55.Got all those? Which was your favourite? Mine was ’23:13′. What? No, you’re trying to artificially inflate the word count. (Christ, huge apologies to anyone who might be using a screen reader to get through all that. I’ll put a joke in one of the alt-text boxes for one of the images to try and compensate.)
Perhaps that’s a factor in the programme instead drawing viewers in by adopting some brilliantly interest-piquing episode titles, many of which would make equally suitable titles for Doctor Who adventures. In fact, if anyone is running a quiz night and wants to throw in a round on ‘Doctor Who or The Sky At Night Episode Title?’, feel free to throw in some of the following:
- 12/01/1959: Life and Death of the Sun
- 11/04/1960: Visitor from Space
- 23/05/1962: The Space Fog
- 17/10/1962: The Demon Star
- 10/01/1964: The Ghosts of the Universe
- 18/09/1964: Explosion in Space
- 05/11/1965: The Unsteady Universe
- 09/12/1966: The End of the World
- 08/12/1967: Lumps from Outer Space
- 21/06/1968: The Unquiet Sun
- 04/11/1968: The Clocks of Space
- 12/01/1970: Wanderers in Space
No actual episode of anything could ever live up to the title ‘Lumps from Outer Space’, of course. Nothing that could pass compliance, anyway.
In 2013, The Sky at Night’s long association with BBC1 would finally come to an end, with only a handful of first-run episodes ever going out on BBC2 (most of that BBC2 broadcast figure being afternoon repeats). Any fears that the programme was to be cancelled outright were dispelled by the Beeb however – it would be moving over to BBC Four, and there it remains.
BONUS CONTENT UPDATE 17/08/2022: Over on Twitter, Chris Lintott has informed me that for many years, episodes of The Sky at Night were broadcast each new moon. The thinking there was that serious amateur astronomers in the 1950s would likely have been studying it, so scheduling the programme that way made a lot of sense. It switched to monthly in the 1990s, when (as Patrick Moore put it) “The BBC lost track of the moon”. Superb (and thanks, Chris!).
72: Call My Bluff
(Shown 1208 times, 1965-2005)
University Challenge isn’t the only programme on the list to have had a slightly surprising origin story from the other side of the Atlantic. Despite feeling like the very epitome of dry early 1980s BBC-2 output (well, it does to me), the programme actually had a much more glamorous birthplace: Studio 6A at NBC Studios in Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center. That was where the original incarnation of the series was recorded in 1965, where host Bill Leyden challenged two teams (each comprising one celebrity and two contestants) to determine the true meaning of various obscure and archaic words. The winners would pocket a jackpot of $100 (rising to a potential $200 in the end-of-show bonus game).
Despite the glitz of a celebrity guest roster (which included Betty White, Lauren Bacall and Abe Burrows), the format wasn’t a success, lasting only a matter of months before being cancelled by NBC. Recordings of the programme were believed to have been destroyed, though the complete premiere episode does survive and is available to view at the show’s Lost Media Wiki page.
It took no time at all for the BBC to leap upon the format, pausing only to rip out the cash jackpot and replace the four contestants with additional wry celebrities, then shove it onto BBC-2 in October 1965. The quizmaster (or as the show had it, ‘Referee’) gig changed hands a few times at first – actor and musician Robin Ray took the reins for the first series, followed by actor Joe Melia for the next, then Peter Wheeler for a spell before finally landing on the referee most closely associated with the series: Robert “England’s Answer To Magnus Magnusson” Robinson. Cue countless impressions on the likes of Spitting Image, Now… Something Else, End Of Part One, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and many, many more.
The roles of team captain would also become inextricably linked to the series too, especially in the case of comedy writer-cum-raconteur Frank Muir. During a lengthy writing career alongside Denis Norden working for everyone from Jimmy Edwards to The Frost Report, followed by management stints in the LE departments of the BBC and LWT, Muir had built up quite a reputation as a wordsmith (indeed, with Norden he coined the immortal Carry-On phrase “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”, originally used for radio comedy Take It From Here). Call My Bluff offered the loquacious Muir a prime opportunity to put his wordmongery to good use. [EDIT: As reader Paul R Jackson points out, credit should also be showered on Muir’s long-term opponents, namely Patrick Campbell (1966-80) and Arthur Marshall (1980-88). You are quite correct, Paul.]
The original run of Bluff, from October 1965 to December 1988, plus a one-off special in 1994 to mark thirty years of BBC2, clocked up 25 series’ and 542 episodes. Quite the innings, but as the channel geared up for a new generation of panel shows (kickstarted by the success of Have I Got News For You), the decidedly old-school Bluff had run its course. But not, it would turn out, for too long.
In 1996, the series was retooled as a daytime BBC1 series, with a suitably brighter, more 90s-friendly set and a new referee, Bob Holness. Alan Coren and Sandi Toksvig took on team captain roles. While it might not be the first line-up you’d think of for Call My Bluff, it was certainly a success – lasting for a further twelve series and a total of 555 episodes before the final Bluff in 2004. By that time, the line-up had changed a bit – 2003 seeing Toksvig replaced by Rod Liddle, and Fiona Bruce had picked up the referee’s baton (yes, I know referees don’t have batons).
In May 2014, Call My Bluff received a further anniversary shout-out in satirical retrospective Harry and Paul’s Story of the Twos. Rechristened ‘Speech Impediment’, an impersonated panel of Bluff mainstays were challenged to determine the meaning behind the word ‘paedophile’ (a nod to the BBC of the 1970’s nonchalance about the number of absolute dangers working there than anything to do with individual Bluff regulars, it would appear).
EXTRA SUPER BONUS CONTENT UPDATE:
Ever wondered what one of the TRUE/BLUFF cards from Call My Bluff looks like in close-up? Well, with a weighty chunk of thanks to Paul R Jackson, here’s a look at one in more detail. It was sent to Paul in February 1979 by producer Johnny Downes and is signed by the Bluff regulars plus Nigel Havers.
71: Grange Hill
(Shown 1244 times, 1978-2008)
“Don’t you realise the way you act is influencing millions of children to talk cockney and be insubordinate?”
“Come on sir, don’t be silly. We’re the only kids in Britain who don’t say…”
As previously mentioned in this rundown, Z Cars proved to be a revelation for an audience who’d grown weary of the idealised world of cosy TV coppers like DIxon of Dock Green. While the more uncompromising approach taken by the series attracted criticism from those preferring an idealised version of British life in their living rooms, it was a reflection of gritty reality that went on to become the norm, with Z Cars ultimately becoming the 94th most-shown BBC programme of all-time (as EXCLUSIVELY revealed here).
Welp, the same applied to dramatic portrayal of school life. The 1970s offered little in the way of television reflecting the everyday experiences of pupils, meaning that all a kid was likely to see was sepia-tinged Tom Brown’s Schooldays or the rambunctious ribaldry of Please, Sir. It all seemed to be aimed at keeping parents entertained (and indeed, comforted) rather than accurately reflecting what real-life schoolkids were living through.
Then, along came Phil Redmond.
Redmond first tried to sell the idea of a more realistic look at events in a modern-day school in 1975, and in 1976 he succeeded in convincing the BBC to give it a go. An initial run of nine episodes began on 8 February 1978. That first episode focused on characters such as Trisha Yates (Michelle Herbert), Benny Green (Terry Sue Patt) and misunderstood rogue Peter ‘Tucker’ Jenkins (Todd Carty) as they shared their first day at Grange Hill High School with the BBC1 audience.
Within a few years, the volume of angry tabloid copy about the series was rising as quickly as the viewing figures. This was a topic that needed a little more space than a spare fifty seconds at the end of Points of View. And so, on 4 March 1980, BBC-1 set aside some time in the schedule for a one-off discussion programme, where the future of the series – and presumably whether it should be allowed to have one – would be debated.
It’s little surprise that parents and teachers were taken aback by events at Grange Hill. Early storylines covered topics such as bullying, organised protests and child molestation, presumably much to the surprise of anyone tuning in early for The Magic Roundabout. Not that Redmond was willing to dampen down the programme’s rhetoric. By the mid-1980s, the focus had shifted to topics such as shoplifting, racism, knife crime, suicide, teenage pregnancy and heroin addiction. Much to the surprise of anyone tuning in early for Masterteam, I’ll wager.
Not that it was all doom and/or gloom. Weightier topics were often offset by japes, jokes and scrapes, and school-age viewers had the added fun of comparing their own teachers to those within Grange Hill. Was your PE teacher as much of an arch bastard as Roger Sloman’s Mr ‘Frosty’ Foster? Was your English teacher as good natured as Anna Quayle’s Mrs ‘Marilyn’ Monroe? And were any of your teachers anywhere near as bad as Mr Bronson, played by a Michael Sheard tellingly more used to playing the part of Adolf Hitler?
To say Grange Hill quickly became a huge success feels a bit of an understatement. But, looking through the British Newspaper Archive for stories about the series (see above), there can’t have been too many Children’s BBC dramas that warranted a double-page style spread in the ‘Mirror Woman’ section of the Daily Mirror (27 Feb 1980). The article claims ratings for the series were as high as ten million (which strongly suggests it wasn’t only the kids watching it).
One particularly handy aspect of running a school-based drama is, of course, the natural cast attrition that goes with it. No need to have an endless parade of characters suddenly deciding to move to Manchester – they hit Sixth Form, get to wear their civvies for a year or two, then they’re leaving the series to make their way into the real world (usually a role in EastEnders). As each group of cast members leave at the end of the academic year, a fresh intake of pupils arrive. A process which saw the programme run for a total of thirty years.
Sure, there were changes along the way (such as in 2003, when production of the series moved to Mersey TV’s studios in Liverpool, meaning a new intake of pupils who’d suddenly developed Granadaland accents), but for remaining so popular with generations of British children over three damn decades, Grange Hill deserves a place amongst the hardiest of television programmes in the BBC’s history.
Okay, that’s it for this helping. Expect the next instalment ‘soon’, or your money back. Until then, keep ’em peeled for any suspicious lumps from outer space.
One response to “BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (75-71)”
Another fabulous post. Thank you!
Minor typo in TSAN “tend ot be people” unless it’s the Radio Times to blame, and you are reproducing it faithfully 🙂