As you may well be aware, I recently embarked on a foolhardy quest to tot up the hundred programmes shown most often on BBCs One, Two and Television Service since it launched in 1936. Taking data from the BBC’s Genome Project (now known as the BBC Programme Index), I scoured through 855,361 individual programme listings to determine which ones have appeared most frequently on Britain’s television screens.
And then… it soon became clear that some programmes were missing from the list. While most programmes in the Programme Index are listed nice and neatly, like this:
Quite a lot are listed like this, with individual programmes appearing within what would normally be a programme description.
This clearly Would Not Do. Capturing all this missing info would be even trickier than the initial data-scrape. The syntax used for each listing-within-a-listing varies quite wildly, an inconsistent method is used to display time (sometimes a show is on at ‘9.05’, sometimes it’s ‘9.5’, sometimes due to OCR quirks it’s ‘g-o5’), often there’s no gap between the programme title and the episode description, it’s all a bit of a mess.
Anyway, I’ve gone and snuffled out an additional 27,002 programme listings (mostly from the 1980s and 1990s), removed a few duplicates that had crept in elsewhere, tidied up a few other bits, dug a bit deeper into listings of Laurel and Hardy films (adding a bunch from the 1940s to the 2010s not specifically billed as L&H), and filled in a number of days wholly missing from the Programme Index (with huge thanks to Steve at The Radio Times archive).
In short, the whole list now encompasses a total of 879,344 programmes, and the list thus far now looks like this:
- =99: Five to Eleven (Shown 883 times, 1986-1990)
- =99: The Flintstones (883 times, 1985-2010)
- 98: Saturday Kitchen (890 times, 2001-2021)
- 97: Final Score (897 times, 1971-2021)
- 96: Postman Pat (911 times, 1981-2012)
- 95: Z Cars (920 times, 1962-1998)
- 94: Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is (933 times, 2008-2021)
- 93: Sportsnight (934 times, 1968-1997)
- 92: Rugby Special (976 times, 1966-2005)
- 91: For the Children (983 times, 1937-1952)
- 90: Strictly – It Takes Two (1006 times, 2004-2021)
- =87: QI (1010 times, 2003-2021)
- =87: Nai Zindagi – Naya Jeevan (1010 times, 1968-1982)
- =87: The Simpsons (1010 times, 1996-2004)
- 86: ChuckleVision (1055 times, 1987-2012)
- =84: Dad’s Army (1065 times, 1968-2021)
- =84: Murder, She Wrote (1065 times, 2002-2011)
- 83: Laurel and Hardy (1066 times, 1948-2005)
- 82: The Magic Roundabout (1070 times, 1965-1985)
- 81: In the Night Garden (1106 times, 2007-2012)
- 80: The Phil Silvers Show (1107 times, 1957-2004)
- 79: Doctor Who (1138 times, 1963-2021)
- 78: Watchdog (1141 times, 1985-2019)
- 77: Wogan (1142 times, 1982-2010)
- 76: University Challenge (1182 times, 1994-2021)
- 75: Tom and Jerry (1186 times, 1967-2003)
- 74: The Sky at Night (1201 times, 1957-2013)
- 73: Call My Bluff (1208 times, 1965-2005)
- 72: Grange Hill (1243 times, 1978-2008)
- 71: Mastermind (1291 times, 1972-2021)
The eagle-eyed amongst you may have noticed a few programmes there that weren’t there before: Chucklevision, Call My Bluff and Mastermind. That’s because the newly-added Children’s BBC listings sent a few programmes much higher up the list (and in one case, booted a show out of the list entirely. ‘Money For Nothing’, if you’re wondering). And best of all, meant the mighty Chucklevision makes the Top 100 after all.
I’ve now edited the previous parts of the listing on the site to account for these changes, adding entries for Chucklevision, Call My Bluff and Mastermind in the correct positions accordingly. But, to save you from having to go find them, here they are:
Shown 1055 times, 1987-2012
Here’s an entry that took quite a lot of digging to get some accurate numbers on. But, given the importance and gravitas of the programme in question, I’m sure you’ll agree it was worth the time poring through Genome to pick out individual episodes buried within faux-programme listings for ‘Saturday Starts Here’, ‘Children’s BBC’ and ‘CBBC’, then checking everything against an episode guide for CV to ensure I’d not missed anything. I’m not kidding, either. This one took ages. And I’m not kidding about the importance of the programme, either. A cultural touchstone for entire generations of children (and adults) across a quarter-century on our screens, and two of the absolute nicest people in showbusiness.
Not that the Chuckle Brothers first arrived on our screens fully-formed. Their first appearances on TV in the early 1980s came when Paul and Barry were joined by older brothers Jimmy and Brian Patton to make up a four-man Chuckle Brothers outfit, as can be seen in programmes such as 3-2-1 and The Good Old Days, a bepermed Barry referred to as ‘Legs’ throughout and still the target for most of the slaps from their slapstick act. Despite putting together a thoroughly enjoyable variety turn, the quartet soon span off into a pair of double-acts, Jimmy and Brian becoming The Patton Brothers, Paul and Barry retaining the Chuckle Brothers name. Not that this was an acrimonious parting of the ways – Jimmy and Brian would regularly feature in their younger siblings’ future programmes.
Not that Barry and Paul went straight to the personas we now know them for. Their first programme as a double-act on Children’s BBC seems almost surreal when viewed now (and I recall, pretty weird even at the time). Following a few appearances on 1983’s Roger The Dog Show, The Chucklehounds (“featuring The Chucklehound Brothers”) earned a standalone episode for their antics, The Chucklehounds Christmas airing on Christmas Eve morning BBC1 in 1984. That was followed by a full series, starting in February 1986, with the lead actors now billed as ‘The Chuckle Brothers’.
The programme – a full episode here, if you’re curious – was pretty much a low-budget attempt at a live-action cartoon, with the pair wobbling about in dog costumes and getting up to all manner of slapstick shenanigans. No dialogue, but soundtracked with the zaniest sounds a Yamaha PSS-170 could muster. Problem is, while actual cartoons airing on BBC1 at the time were carefully choreographed chaos from the likes of Chuck Jones, here you had an undoubtedly talented variety act donning great big dog heads that limit mobility and visibility, with a modest budget likely offering little time for retakes. If you’re feeling charitable, it was okay for what it was, and they certainly had few qualms about what they got up to (the episode I’ve linked to includes a Chucklehound on a motorbike. Inside the studio. No, it probably wouldn’t happen nowadays) But they were capable of so much more.
And so, from the morning of Saturday 26 September 1987, Chucklevision first hit our screens as a weekly precursor to Going Live. And watching it now, it still holds up very well. Not that this should be any surprise – they are actual brothers, after all – but the rapport that we’re so familiar with is immediately obvious, you have to wonder why the blazes they’d just spent eighteen months wobbling about in dog costumes and not speaking to each other. Right from the opening episode, Chucklevision is so packed with Tim Vine-grade jokes, you can’t help but grin throughout.
PAUL: Let’s take a look at the latest videos.
[A GRINNING BARRY HOLDS UP SEVERAL VHS TAPES]
PAUL: Very nice, aren’t they?ChuckleVision, s01e01, BBC1, TX: 08:40 Saturday 26 Sept 1987
As you can see there, the first couple of series combined studio-based humour with outdoor footage – a departure from what most Chucklefans would be used to, but their dynamic works every bit as well in that setup. I think it works so well because despite it being such a traditional double act – the idiot who knows nothing and the idiot who knows everything – they shun the traditional trope of having the Oliver Hardy/Bud Abbott/Tommy Cannon/Stewart Lee one regularly express anger or frustration at the foolery of his counterpart, Paul being (for the most part) relentlessly cheery throughout makes all the difference. And it was a formula that worked tremendously well – as the show’s run of 21 series suggests. TWENTY-ONE SERIES, with new episodes being produced from 1987 to 2009.
It took until 2008’s twentieth series before episodes of Chucklevision debuted anywhere but BBC One, but premiering on the CBBC channel was clearly no demotion. The opening episode of that series (‘Mind Your Manors’) took in guest turns from Harry Hill and Seinfeld’s Guy Siner (oh, okay: Allo Allo’s Guy Siner. He was in Seinfeld once, though), and was later repeated on BBC One.
In short, the brothers Chuckle were and are a true phenomenon in children’s television. At the time of writing, a BBC Programme Index search for ‘Chucklevision’ (it really helps that it has such a unique title) returns details of 2,976 broadcasts of the programme (many of which were on the CBBC channel). But perhaps the greatest legacy they’ve left the world can be found by going into a room containing anyone between the ages of 20 and 45 and saying “To me…”.
73: 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 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’ (here I should add: in reference to the BBC of the 1970s failing to recognise the number of absolute dangers working there, rather than in any direct reference to specific Call My Bluff regulars).
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.
Shown 1291 times, 1972-2021
“One’s a Trade Union leader, the other’s a member of the Cabinet.”
You know, there can’t be too many quiz programmes based on their creator’s experiences of being interrogated by the Gestapo. But that’s precisely the inspiration television producer Bill Wright has given for the intimidating environment for British television’s longest-running (and most parodied) quiz programme.
As we’ve seen a few times to far, it’s a format that really doesn’t need laying out here. Dark room, Magnus “Iceland’s Answer To Robert Robinson” Magnusson, black chair, specialist subject, I’ve Started So I’ll Finish. Originally airing in 1972, it didn’t became the nation’s favourite Serious Quiz Programme overnight. Initially going out at 10.45pm on Monday nights (with an afternoon repeat each Wednesday), it took the downfall of another series for Mastermind to get a wider audience.
1969 saw upstart London channel LWT broadcast a new series of TV comedy plays by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, which featured an impressive cast: Harry H Corbett, Stratford Johns, Bob Monkhouse, Pats Coombs and Hayes, plus Leslie Philips. The first episode of The Galton and Simpson Comedy – “The Suit” – saw Phillips play an adulterous scoundrel whose suit is stolen during a night at his mistress’s flat. As a result, he needs to find a way to make his way across London to his marital home sans underwear, dignity and excuses.
This premise would provide the basis for a new Galton and Simpson sitcom on BBC-1 four years later. Casanova ’73 saw Leslie Phillips play duplicitous PR exec Henry Newhouse, whose happy marriage to wife Carol doesn’t stop him seeking freelance relationships at any given opportunity. While the programme itself wasn’t remotely as smut-packed as the premise might suggest (the first episode focuses on Newhouse repeatedly trying to disrupt postal deliveries to prevent Carol from seeing a love letter addressed to Henry), such pre-watershed displays of infidelity attracted a lot of negative attention for the Corporation, and the series was swiftly shunted to a 9.25pm slot.
That left a gaping hole at 8pm each Thursday evening. What’s something so inoffensive, so sedate, so sober that nobody could complain? Not even Whitehouse? Step forward. Mastermind. By that point, it had been going out in a post-11pm slot each Monday night, and yet here it was – Magnus and his darkened interrogation chamber thrust unexpectedly into the spotlight. The irony.
From there it became a television institution, not only clocking up a huge number of episodes, but also a variety of spinoff series:
- Celebrity Mastermind (247 eps, 2002-now, initially as ‘Mastermind Celebrity Special’)
- Des Lynam’s Sport Mastermind (18 eps, 2008, initially billed as ‘Sport Mastermind’)
- Doctor Who Mastermind (1 ep, 2005)
- Junior Mastermind (24 eps, 2004-2007)
- Mastermind Champions (3 eps, 1982)
- Mastermind International (6 eps, 1979-1983)
- Mastermind Masters (4 eps, 1995)
A note also has to be made of how widely parodied Mastermind is as a format, with everyone from Morecambe & Wise to Hey Duggee featuring scenes centred on the famous chair. But, of course, by far the best-known nod to Mastermind has to be David Renwick’s “Answer the Question Before Last” sketch for the Two Ronnies in 1980. Anyone resident in Britain for more than seven minutes is well aware of this superb routine (it’s playing on a loop on a big screen at Heathrow arrivals, you know), but did you know there’s a longer version of the sketch?
In 1983, the Ronnies had a live residency at the London Palladium, performing many of their favourite routines to thousands of fans. And, as transcribed by the marvellous UK Gameshows website, that included an extended version of the famed Mastermind sketch, Renwick having written additional questions and answers to maximise the merriment. I’m not going to quote any of it here, it’s too lovely a thing to steal any clicks from the UKGS site, if you want to read it go here (and as an even more special super bonus, it also includes a transcript of the original version of the sketch from an episode of Radio 4 comedy show The Burkiss Way).
Phew. There’s an update that took you ten minutes to read and me a lot longer to put together. Tune in again soon for a the next few entries in the countdown, now the damn thing is a bit more stable. Hopefully my sanity can remain stable, at least until I need to error check the broadcast history of Blue Peter.
2 responses to “BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (100-71 again, sort of)”
Great research, Mark! Just one question about Laurel and Hardy, please: what were the two transmissions in 1946? I’ve not found any earlier than 1948.
CURSES. I’ve just checked, and that’s an error on my part. I’d thought there were two showings of Way Out West in 1946, but they’re both broadcasts of something else that shares the name – https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/0c6163d06f0f45a9bcf6f56321c43332. I’ll correct the entry accordingly.