BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (65-61)

Here’s the next bit. I appreciate it’s been a while. Back when the last update came out, we had a different Prime Minister, a different Monarch. and a different Chelsea manager. So, that’s enough pre-ambling, on with the list. And it only took one Friday night spent looking through 1920s radio listings to see which region had the first programme about farming.

65: Top Gear

(Shown 1396 times, 1978-2021)

Well, here’s a thing. Something that started out as a regional programme in the Midlands, which would go on to become the most-watched motoring programme [theatrical voice] In The World.

Indeed, one of the most profitable programmes in the BBC’s history started out as a monthly programme restricted to the BBC Midlands region. Producer Derek Smith suggested one of the region’s weekly opt-outs could be used for a look at subjects such as family cars, road safety and the like. It’s a format that Thames has been using for a while, with ‘Drive-In’ first roaring out of London’s ITV outpost in 1974, and it was a topic also likely of interest to BBC viewers. And so, from 22 April 1977, nine monthly episodes of Top Gear were transmitted, to the delight of any motoring enthusiasts not still stuck in traffic on the M6.

By 1978, national BBC bigwigs had been sniffing around the format, and a full ten-episode series of Top Gear was set to roar into life on BBC-2 from July. Main presenters Angela Rippon and Tom Coyne were retained from the BBC Midlands series, with Barrie Gill also added to the presenting team. Despite the petrol-tinged titillation you might expect from a motorsports commentator joining the line-up, topics were largely low-octane throughout the first series. Unless that is holiday driving, MOT tests, traffic jams, treatment of rust or tachographs are enough to send your particular pulse racing.

With the format proving a sizeable hit amongst drivers, the number of episodes per year accelerated from 1980, with two full series hitting the schedules per year (one in spring, one in autumn). The team of presenters was freshened up regularly, with imperial phase Noel Edmonds hosting a couple of series, along with William Woollard of Tomorrow’s World, while Chris Goffey and Sue Baker defected from Gears’ rival programme at Thames. That was before a pair of presenters who’d become more closely associated with the programme joined towards the end of the decade – former F1 driver Tiff Needell and motoring journalist Jeremy Clarkson. By this point, the remit of the show was less Watchdog For Cars and more about how cool and awesome cars could be. And it was an approach that worked – Top Gear was regularly top of the BARB ratings for the channel, and comfortably so.

BARB ratings w/e 16/10/88 (The Stage/Television Today, 27/10/88)

But, nothing lasts forever, and by the late 90s the audience figures were beginning to slip. The Beeb decided to wait before deciding whether to recommission the programme, and as a result, several members of the presenting team scarpered off to Channel Five’s new show Fifth Gear.

And that was it for Top Gear, or at least Top Gear V1. Because – as highlighted in the RT listing for the last episode of ‘old’ Top Gear (Mon 04/02/02), “Top Gear is scheduled to start a new series later this year.” And indeed it was, with Clarkson and Hammond and, erm, Dawe (later replaced by May), and in the new guise of Jackass With Cars it would go on to conquer the world.

All this has been written about much more comprehensively (and competently) over on the Creamguide email, so instead of going into the latter history of Top Gear, I’m going to present a Compleat List of BBC2 9pm Comedy Shows That Meant You Saw The Last Bit of Top Gear Even If You Didn’t Want To. All on Thursdays unless stated otherwise. Hey, not really relevant, but it least it’s an honest reflection of what Top Gear meant to me.

  • Tuesdays 09/09/80 – 21/10/80: Butterflies
  • Tuesdays 21/09/82 – 12/10/82: The Kenny Everett Television Show
  • Wednesdays 03/11/82, 16/03/83: MASH
  • Tuesdays 17/09/85 – 22/10/85: Lame Ducks
  • 15/10/87 – 19/11/87: Alas Smith & Jones
  • 13/10/88 – 17/11/88: Alexei Sayle’s Stuff
  • 14/09/89 – 12/10/89: Police Squad!
  • 19/10/89 – 23/11/89: Alexei Sayle’s Stuff
  • 27/09/90 – 01/11/90: Rab C Nesbitt
  • 08/11/90 – 29/11/90: Harry Enfield’s Television Programme
  • 28/02/91 – 21/03/91: Red Dwarf
  • 28/03/91 – 18/04/91: Up Pompeii!
  • 03/10/91 – 07/11/91: Alexei Sayle’s Stuff
  • 14/11/91 – 19/12/91 (Except 05/12/91): Murder Most Horrid
  • 27/02/92 – 26/03/92: Red Dwarf
  • 02/04/92 – 07/05/92: Harry Enfield’s Television Programme
  • 01/10/92 – 29/10/92: Bottom
  • 05/11/92: Blackadder Goes Forth
  • 12/11/92 – 17/12/92: Absolutely Fabulous
  • 18/02/93 – 01/04/93: French and Saunders
  • 22/04/93 – 10/06/93: The Comic Strip Presents….
  • 07/10/93 – 11/11/93: Red Dwarf
  • 03/03/94 – 07/04/94: Murder Most Horrid
  • 14/04/94: Reeves and Mortimer’s Shooting Stars
  • 05/05/94 – 12/05/94: Joking Apart
  • 17/09/94: Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge
  • 23/02/95 – 06/04/95: The Glam Metal Detectives
  • 20/04/95, 27/04/95: Steptoe and Son
  • 04/05/95: The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin
  • 16/11/95 – 21/12/95: The Ghostbusters of East Finchley
  • 11/04/96 and 02/01/97: Sykes
  • 24/10/96 – 27/03/97: Third Rock from the Sun
  • 08/05/97, 15/05/97: Absolutely Fabulous
  • 04/09/97 – 18/12/97: Third Rock from the Sun
  • 26/03/98, 02/04/98: Steptoe and Son
  • 23/07/98 – 03/09/98: The Simpsons
  • 20/08/98 & 17/09/98 – 17/12/98: Third Rock from the Sun
  • 18/03/99 – 01/04/99: Red Dwarf
  • 15/04/99: Goodness Gracious Me
  • 09/09/99 – 14/10/99: Red Dwarf
  • 02/03/00: Not the Nine O’Clock News
  • 30/03/00: Dad’s Army
  • 13/04/00: Harry Enfield and Chums
  • 25/05/00: Steptoe and Son
  • 12/10/00: Harry Enfield and Chums
  • 28/06/01, 05/07/01: Dad’s Army
  • 19/07/01: Morecambe and Wise
  • 10/12/01, 17/12/01: The Kumars at No 42
  • 04/02/02: Never Mind the Buzzcocks
  • 02/01/05 – 30/01/05: Never Mind the Buzzcocks
  • 30/12/07: Extras
  • 17/07/08 & 31/07/08: Mock the Week
  • Sunday 30/12/08: Shooting Stars: the Inside Story
  • Sunday 27/12/09: Steve Coogan – Inside Story
  • Monday 28/12/09: Not Again: the Not the Nine O’Clock News Story
  • 13/07/10 – 03/08/10: That Mitchell and Webb Look
  • Sunday 11/05/14: The Comedy Vaults: BBC2’s Hidden Treasures
  • Sunday 25/05/14: Harry and Paul’s Story of the Twos
  • Wednesday 30/12/15: Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe
  • Sunday 16/06/19, 23/06/19: The Ranganation
See, this was relevant to this update

Yes, that was a long list. No, I didn’t realise how many there would be until I generated the list. But at least I didn’t mention steak, chips or fisticuffs.

Here’s the broadcast history, which DOES NOT include:Top Gear Rally Report, Top Gear Motorsport and stuff like Top Gear of the Pops. Nor does it include the Midlands-only series of Top Gear. Just imagine if the Dave channel was included in these figures, eh?

=63: Antiques Road Trip

(Shown 1449 times, 2010-2021)

Despite a programme name that makes it sound like an Aldi version of Antiques Roadshow, Antiques Road Trip is a very different proposition. Well, not that different. It’s still about antiques. But anyway.

The programme pits a pair of antique experts against each other, each armed with a budget of £200. The money is used to purchase antiques and collectibles, which are subsequently sold at auction. After each auction, the amount in each expert’s kitty (after costs) becomes their budget for the next leg of the titular trip. The winner is the expert who makes the greater profit over five legs, with any remaining cash donated to Children in Need.

Each daily programme covers a single leg of a ‘match’, offering a compelling reason for viewers to return each day. And each week, the ‘trip’ aspect of the programme involves the experts zooming between auctions in a different classic car. And that’s the format.

As you may have gleaned from the write-up on other, similar programmes in the list, I’m not going to go all-in on this show. After all, I’ve a history of Farming programmes to get to. But I will say one thing: one thing that has always bugged me about the whole “brilliant antique experts pick up amazing bargains from antique shops” premise.

The owners of antique shops don’t just sit there with a shop full of gems they somehow fail to understand the true value of. Nor do they let any Tom, Dick or Tarquin wander in and start haggling. But they are canny enough to know that giving Johnny TV Expert a twenty quid discount on a Victorian teapot will result in their shop making it into the edit of a popular daytime programme on BBC1, thereby generating a spot of advertising much more valuable than a tatty teapot. Expert gets a bargain that’ll sell for a profit, shop owner gets increased trade, a forty-five minute slot is filled in the daytime schedule. Everyone wins.

Well, everyone except me. I’m just waiting for Pointless to start.

=63: The Natural World

(Shown 1449 times, 1983-2021)

While the BBC is rightly lauded for big-name natural history documentaries like Planet Earth, Blue Planet or Life in Cold Blood, long-running nature strand The Natural World (since 2003, just ‘Natural World’) has long been the less-glamorous midfield workhorse putting in the hard yards. Attracting far fewer column inches than those stablemates of global renown, it’s nonetheless been there almost forty years, bringing an entire global ecosystem to the homes of BBC2 viewers.

The roots of The Natural World actually belong to a different programme. The World About Us (3 December 1967 to 20 July 1986) was created by David Attenborough to make the most of the colour TV sets starting to trickle into British homes, offering sights from all around the world in full living colour. The series would go on to clock up 714 broadcasts on the second channel (and 121st place in the big list, if you’re wondering), and almost as many awards from television societies around the world.

That said, despite being commissioned by (then controller of Two) David Attenborough, the remit for World About Us needed to extend beyond just the world of wildlife, such was the paucity of colour wildlife film available for the new medium. As a result, the remit of the series was expanded to cover geography and anthropology as much as natural history. By 1983, there were enough film-makers capturing wildlife footage in full colour to warrant a tighter remit, and a rebrand to suit.

In contrast to World About Us, The Natural World seems to have initially enjoyed a relatively low status within the BBC. In trying to find out a little more about the genesis of the programme, I looked at BBC Yearbooks from 1983 onwards, and the first reference I can find to the programme comes in the BBC Yearbook for 1985. Even then it’s only a passing reference to George Fenton’s music for the series picking up a Bafta. Yeah, just a Bafta, barely worth writing about, eh?

The BBC’s coquettish attitude to the programme early on certainly didn’t hinder its budget, thankfully. It being a format that could easily be sold to other TV markets, along with it being part of co-production partnership with American broadcaster WNET afforded the series a generous budget, and a prime spot on PBS stations on the other side of the Atlantic.

It also didn’t hurt that a plethora of famous voice-owners lent their vocal chords to narration duties. While – as you’d expect – Sir David Attenborough lent his voice to a fair number or episodes, in those early years it was Barry Paine who took to the microphone most often. As years went on, narration duty took in the likes of (deep breath) Robert Powell, Laurie Emberson, Jane Goodall (in an episode looking at her work with chimpanzees), Andrew Sachs, Hywel Bennett, Siân Phillips, Libby Purves, Tom Conti, Judi Dench, Sally Magnusson, Brian Blessed, Anthony Hopkins, Tony Robinson, Rula Lenska, Tim Pigott-Smith, Robert Lindsay, Ian McShane, John Hurt, Geraldine James, Joss Ackland, Des Lynam, Ian Holm, Bernard Cribbins, Patricia Routledge, Nigel Hawthorne, Tom Baker, Stephen Fry, Eleanor Bron, Bill Oddie, Miranda Richardson, Meera Syal, Richard Briers, Charles Dance, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Charlotte Rampling, John Peel, Steven Berkoff, Lenny Henry, Olivia Colman and Adrian Edmondson.

With a reputation as the planet’s go-to broadcaster for high-quality natural history films, it’s little surprise so much talent could be coaxed into working on the series, but the narrator rarely took top billing in a series where wildlife always took centre stage.

62: Diagnosis Murder

(Shown 1472 times, 1993-2011)

Brought to you by the content warning message

Yes, I am very glad I’d extracted info from all the broadcast years before the Genome redesign and addition of ‘offensive content’ autofilter warnings. Anyway, on with American action-comedy-mystery-medical crime drama Diagnosis Murder, starring D*** Van D***. One day I’ll try and work out a list of most-censored programme listings on the BBC Programme Index.

Anyway, A Diagnosis of Murder, to use the title of the TVM-cum-pilot episode. A kind-of spin-off of US crime series Jake and the Fatman (for which season 4 episode 19 served as a backdoor pilot for Diag Murder), the show featured medical doctor Mark Sloan (played by D-word Van D-word) as he solved crimes in all the bountiful spare time medical doctors have. Aided by son and sidekick Detective Steve Sloan (played by real-life son Barry Van Dyke), the pair frequently team up to solve hospital-adjacent crimes.

Despite the initial series of Diag Murder arriving on CBS in October 1993, it took until 1999 for it to debut on the BBC. For most of the 90s, any viewers seeking some hot Van Dyke action were restricted to numerous airings of the three TV movie outings for Dr Mark Sloan. The first of these came in a prime post-Christmas slot, with original pilot Diagnosis of Murder going out (with a billing of “a quirky murder investigation from the producers of Perry Mason”) in an 8:30pm slot on BBC1, three days into 1993. This was positioned in that day’s schedule at a point where a quirky murder investigation would have been a welcome relief for anyone who’d just seen the preceding programme: a surprising repeat of the darkest ever episode of Last Of The Summer Wine*.

(*Said ‘episode’ was actually a now-infamous feature-length 1983 Christmas special of the series, called ‘Getting Sam Home’. The plot involved Foggy, Compo and Clegg visiting their pal Sam in hospital, and agreeing to his request that he wants to spend one last night with his fancy piece, “Lily-Bless-Her”. The unseen exertions at Lily’s are too much for Sid’s ticker, meaning it’s up to our intrepid trio to get Sam’s corpse (yep, corpse) back home so that his wife Sybil thinks he died in his own bed. Shown at 7pm! Even the original broadcast was mostly post-watershed. If you were previously unaware of that episode and think I’ve made all that up, I honestly didn’t. It was even released as a rental VHS tape, and I know that because I got my mum to rent it when I was nine years old, such was my love of Last of the Summer Wine. All shot on film, as was the style at the time, which added an extra layer of grimness to it. I really enjoyed it, too. Probably the closest I ever got to a video nasty. BONUS FACT: it was the first BBC sitcom to earn a 90-minute Christmas special episode. Anyway, we’re not here for that.)

I must admit, until seeing this original RT listing, I was unaware this particular LotSW story is actually a book adaptation, Roy Clarke having first written it as a spin-off novel. It was Bill Owen who’d suggested adapting it for TV. But, as I say, we’re not here for that.

So, back to Dr Mark Sloan. As I say, by the time the BBC started showing the series proper, it was well into its seventh season in the USA. That’s usually a sign something has been picked up on the cheap and is being used as schedule-grout until something better comes along, but it proved to be very popular with the daytime audience. A bit more comic than many of its contemporary crime shows, BBC1 schedules for the show’s original broadcasts put it in good company – nestled between the afternoon showing of Neighbours and repeats of To The Manor Born, it serving as a suitably meaty centre in a whimsical TV sandwich. Ten years later, it was still a fixture in a daytime BBC1 line-up, offering a double dose of medical mayhem (alongside Doctors) amongst the forest of Heir Hunters/Homes Under the Hammer/To Buy or Not to Buy/Trash to Cash/Cash in the Attic-style shows.

Clearly, with the BBC1 schedule gorging itself on property and antique programmes, there was no longer any room for a light-hearted hospital-based detective series. And so, from 12 October 2009, Diagnosis Murder moved to BBC2, where it was shown alongside [checks Genome] oh. Property series Open House and best-of repeats of Flog It. Bloody hell, bring back Open Air already. And (save for a brief return to BBC1 in 2010), the second channel was where Diagnosis Murder saw out its days at the Beeb. A flickering lighthouse against the tsunami of property and antique shows.

NOTE: With thanks to Steve Williams for Summer Wine novel clarification.

61: Farming

(Shown 1488 times, 1957-1988)

Even accounting for the early years of television roll-out concentrating on viewers in The South, it took a surprisingly long time for the medium to provide any programming for those living off the land. The assumption seems to have been radio programming provided all the information farmers might need (and indeed, not everything needs to translate to television – there’s a reason The Shipping Forecast has never transferred to the small screen). Radio had been serving the agricultural community since January 1924, with the first edition of Farmer’s Corner broadcast on 5NO Newcastle. That was followed by similar programmes serving farmers broadcast from Glasgow, Manchester and Cardiff.

From September 1937, wireless receivers all around the nation were able to receive the latest agricultural goings-on, with ‘Farming Today’ airing on the National Programme. No longer would farmers finding themselves in the wrong region miss out on advice from W. S. Mansfield, Manager of the Cambridge University Farm, on topics such as grassland improvement, High versus Low Farming, or alternate husbandry (saucy).

Meanwhile, any glances the nascent BBC Television Service were giving at farmers seemed to have an aim of extracting information from them, to provide knowledge and background for townsfolk with television receivers. 1 February 1939 saw the first episode of ‘This Month on the Farm’ (renamed ‘Down on the Farm’ thereafter), a monthly series where “A. G. Street visits Bulls Cross Farm and surveys with the farmer the work to be done”, which ran until August of that year. All very commendable, but not doing much to serve the rural community itself.

By contrast, any programming actually aimed at the farming community failed to happen until 31 March 1950, when an entire hour of programming for farmers – helpfully titled ‘For Farmers’ – was broadcast. Split into three twenty-minute modules on Fruit, Poultry and Pigs, it seemed things were changing when it came to television serving the needs of farmers.

But – as far as I can find – that was it for the ‘For Farmers’ strand. In the same slot the following week was a similar hour aimed at gardeners, and subsequent weeks saw the 3pm slot reserved for children’s programming. Any similar hopes and dreams were subsequently dashed in February 1951, when a fifteen-minute programme called ‘Farming Review’ aired, offering a look at farm life rather than anything serving the needs of farmers. And again, this was merely a one-off short film, rather than a full series.

It took until 4 October 1957 before anything substantial appeared to serve the farming community.

At last, “a new series of weekly agricultural magazines for those who live by the land”, introduced by farmer, agricultural journalist and broadcaster John Cherrington. The first edition included the current Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Derick Heathcoat Amory MP, who provided an outlook for British farming, and a Q&A session on the same with Sir James Turner and EG Gooch (CBE, MP). There was also the promise of a film from the International Potato Harvester Trials, and a visit to the Earl of Bradford at his Tong Norton Farm within his Staffordshire estate.

Heady stuff, and best of all it was followed in the schedule by the magnificently-named ‘The Weather Situation for Farmers and Growers’. Not a bad attempt at making up for lost time, especially given from that point on, Christmas week and special occasions aside, the weekly Farming round-up (not forgetting ‘The Weather Situation’) would be a Sunday lunchtime fixture for just over the next thirty years.

In July 1988, Les Cottington and Philip Wrixon presented the final edition of the programme (the RT listing for that finale suggests I’m missing some episodes from the total I’ve totted here, but on closer inspection it seems they went out under the title ‘Farm Forum‘ which I’ve decided DOES NOT COUNT). Of course, that wasn’t the end of early-afternoon countryside coverage – the final episode included a preview of the programme that would be picking up the Farming mantle, a little series called Country File. More on that… later?

Includes programmes listed as ‘The Weather Situation for farmers and growers; followed by Farming’, ‘Farming and Weather for Farmers’, ‘Farming in 1961’, ‘Farming in the Outer Hebrides’, ‘Farming in Europe’, ‘Farming: Mallingdown Syndicate’, ‘Farming in Britain’, ‘Farming in Westminster’, ‘Farming in the North’, ‘Farming in Wales’ and ‘Farming Special’. All in the regular slot on the regular day containing the regular content. So they count. This is important you know this, and I’m not just showing off how much data I’ve pointlessly gathered.

Okay, that’ll do. Next update sooner than you might expect (because I’ve already written 60% of it, thanks to me adding a further 12,133 individual listings from Daytime on Two to the database like an idiot who doesn’t know when to stop making his own life more difficult). I refuse to ever learn.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: