BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (60-56)

Closing in on the half-century. Ready for another look at five formidable formats, regularly interrupted by ill-considered meanders down distraction avenue? Hopefully the answer is yes, else you’re in the wrong place.

60: Tomorrow’s World

(Shown 1511 times, 1965-2003)

As the trope has it, a series inextricably linked to a nation of pop kids who just want TOTP to start already, Tomorrow’s World spent almost forty years tottering on the tightrope between reporting on scientific breakthroughs and entertaining a primetime BBC1 audience.

As seems to have been the style at the time, this long-running series hardly had a long gestation period, but rather was hasily conceived by producer Glyn Jones after being tasked with finding a way to fill a half-hour hole in BBC-1’s summer schedule. How hastily? Enough for the programme’s now-household name to have been quickly dreamt up by Jones and his wife the night before submitting the programme’s mission statement to the Radio Times:

From such beginnings (slightly tempting to use the word ‘haphazard’, but let’s face it, BBC producers of that era knew how to quickly weave an entire programme format from thin air), it would quickly go on to be a programme of national renown. Indeed, on top of everything else it achieved, Tomorrow’s World would go on to be the genesis of at least two great comedy series. Yes, the second series of Look Around You, but also mostly-forgotten ITV Sunday 10pm sitcom Not With A Bang, the opening scene of which saw Judith Hann wipe out 99.999% of the world’s population by accidentally releasing a hazardous hormone into the wild (“Bugger!”).

Such an accident was likely a nod to a particularly memorable aspect of Tomorrow’s World. As the programme went out live, it wasn’t uncommon that live demonstrations of exciting new technology (many items of which were likely still at a pre-release just-past-concept stage) went wrong. Such as in 1981,where a live demonstration of ‘Sid the snooker-playing robot’ went about as smoothly as a punch-drunk Sam Beckett Quantum-Leaping into the body of Steve Davis during a World Matchplay Final. But it wasn’t all quirky future-meme fodder – far from it. The Wayback Machine’s capture of the programme’s website from 1998 includes an illustrative synopsis of episodes throughout that decade: Picking one episode from November 1994, we see stories on a new breakthough in contraception, improvements to the flea breeding process, the development of heroin-eating bacteria, a new kind of telescope, and early mass market gas-powered motor vehicles.

Even on a technological level, TW offered Britain an early glance of items that would soon become part of many households, from mobile phones (albeit ones coming with a suitcase-sized battery) to the ‘Web, from PVRs to VR.

The Tomorrow’s World website of yesterday. Source: Wayback Machine

You might expect that, what with exciting ScienceFutures perpetually just around the corner, the series was one that could conceivably run forever. Never gonna run out of tomorrows. However, the fundamental irony of a programme focused on the world of tomorrow feeling quite old-fashioned finally dawned on Beeb bigwigs, and the series proper came to a close on 19 June 2002, with a special episode looking at the tech behind that year’s Spider-Man movie.

Following on from that finale, there was still time for a few more excursions for the famous brand. 14 August 2002 brought a Commonwealth Games Special of the series, looking at how science is furthering athletic endeavour. 25 September 2002 saw the ‘Tomorrow’s World Awards 2002’, the last of the programme’s annual ceremonies celebrating the best of the previous twelve months of innovation. June and July 2003 saw a short run series of Tomorrow’s World Roadshows, a final hurrah that allowed presenters Katie Knapman and Gareth Jones a look at some VR tennis tech and an update on the Beagle 2 Mars mission.

Ultimately, any news from the world of tomorrow would have to be served by other outlets. But, to mark the long-standard programme, let’s do a little experiment of our own, and research the long-held received wisdom (i.e. it got mentioned on Spitting Image at least once) that Tomorrow’s World Was Always On When You Were Waiting For Top Of The Pops To Start. Was that really the case? LET’S EXPLORE SOME DATA.

Okay, taking every episode of TW running on a weekday and broadcast between 6pm and 9pm (1,408 broadcasts in total), and then marking which programmes followed each episode in the schedule, here are the Top Ten contenders. In reverse order, natch.

10. The Likely Lads (1967), Russ Abbot (1990-91), Changing Rooms (1998-2002), Celebrity Ready Steady Cook (2000-02) (17 times each)

What better way to begin our too-much-infoburst with a four-way clamour for fourth place? So, TW was followed by The Likely Lads on Wednesday evenings in 1967, by repeats of series’ four and five of the Chester jester’s sketch comedy on Thursday evenings in 1990 and 1991, by those Changing Rooms on Wednesday evenings in 1999 (plus one-off episodes in 2001 and 2002) and by celebrity chef-offs on Wednesdays between 2000 and 2002.

9. Birds of a Feather (18 times, 1990-1998)

The second series of Sharon and Tracey’s misadventures followed TW on Thursday nights in 1990, a May 1992 repeat of series three opener “Keeping Up Appearances” and a few repeats of series five episodes in April 1998.

8. David Nixon on The Nixon Line (20 times, 1967-1968)

Presenter, magician and Vice President of The Magic Circle David Nixon hosted this programme perhaps now best known for introducing the nation to vociferous vulpes vulpes Basil Brush on Wednesday evenings between 1967 and 1968.

7. Mastermind (21 times, 1988)

The 1988 series of the gestapo-inspired quizzer teamed up with TW to make for an hour-long brain eisteddfod each Thursday night between January and June.

6. The Newcomers (44 times, 1968-1969)

New-build estate soap opera The Newcomers followed epsiodes of TW each Wednesday night between September 1968 and September 1969.

5. A Question of Sport (45 times, 1985-1999)

Imperial-phase Coleman-Beaumont-Hughes QoS followed episodes of TW on Thursdays between December 1985 and December 1987. Their paths would cross again in 1997 (for TW special ‘Megalab 97’), 1998 (for ‘Megalab 98’) and 1999 (for Megal… oh, ‘2000 and Beyond’).

4. Only Fools and Horses (48 times, 1987-1999)

With OFAH repeats peppering the primetime schedules in the late 80s and 90s, it’s no surprise that they appeared together quite often, on Thursdays in 1987, Wednesdays in 1992, Fridays in 1994-96 and Wednesdays between 1996 and 1999. Which also proves how often Tomorrow’s World was shunting around the schedules at the time.

3. The Virginian (51 times, 1968-1971)

Nearly at the top spot and yet to see anything disrupting our TOTP hypothesis, with James Drury’s tales from the frontier of the Great American West appearing after TW on Friday evenings between 1970 and 1971 (plus twice on Wednesdays in 1968). Note how I’m too classy to refer to the series as “The Virgin Ian”.

2. EastEnders (52 times, 1989-2000)

With ‘Stenders rampant throughout the schedules since 1985, it was always likely to crop up here, the only slight surprise being it took until 1989 for it to be scheduled after TW in the listings. Cutting to the raw numbers, EE followed TW on Tuesdays in 1989 (37 times), on Mondays in 1996 (nine times) and on Wednesdays in 1998 (six times). Plus, a special Olympic edition of Tomorrow’s World preceded EastEnders in June 2000.

1. Top of the Pops (477 times, 1965-2000)

Thus, the theory is proven to be true, with TOTP following Tomorrow’s World on far, far more occasions that any other programme. The two came together too many times to comfortably summarise here (I appreciate the even people who’ve come this far have a boredom threshold), but it’s basically lots and lots of weeks between 1972 and 1985, and once in 2000 (following one-off “Tomorrow’s World – the Live Event Special”). Almost always on a Thursday, but once on a Friday (that special in 2000 again). But it’s also worth noting that Top of the Pops wasn’t the programme that followed the first episode of Tomorrow’s World in 1965. That was the magnificently-titled Miss Interflora-G.P.O. 1965, where finalists Mrs Sylvia Williams, Miss Mary Grimmond and Mrs Valerie Bignell came under the gaze of judges Ted Moult, Drusilla Beyfus and Turlough O’Brien. The chairman of the whole affair was Kenneth Horne, and the prizes were presented by then-Postmaster General, The Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Benn M.P. I mean, no wonder beauty contests fell from favour. How could they ever hope to top all that?

59: The Money Programme

(Shown 1514 times, 1966-2011)

All together now…

There is nothing quite as wonderful as money.
There is nothing like a newly minted pound.
Everyone must hanker for the butchness of a banker
It’s accountancy that makes the world go round.

Eric Idle, The Money Song. But you already knew that.

I’m not going to lie, there have been a few times since I embarked on this endeavour where I wondered if it had really been a good idea. Oh, it was simple enough in principle – grab details of every television programme the BBC has ever broadcast on its main channels, all the way back to 1936, then pick out the programmes that appear most frequently from the 800,000+ records. Stupidly easy. Ahem. But then you get to the gritty bits. Entries on the list that had been OCR’d incorrectly (“Tom & Jeny”). Entries that were buried within But First This, Animal Zone or Daytime on Two strands. And when it comes to the next entry on the list, a programme that wasn’t billed under its own title for ten whole years.

Yep, since 2001 most episodes of The Money Programme were listed under the episode title, with ‘Money Programme’ mentioned in passing within the associated blurb. Quite why that was could be down to one of a few reasons. Having programmes stand out a bit more in the EPG, attracting the attention of people interested in the subject? Very likely. Trying to avoid association with the stuffy reputation The Money Programme had before then? Also likely. Whatever the reasoning, the end result was me going one-by-one through ten years of results for ‘Money Programme’ in the BBC Programme Index to make sure my list was accurate, because I just care too damn much.

That said, I can’t blame the producers for taking that approach. I doubt I would’ve even registered episodes of The Money Programme when scrolling through my PVR’s TV guide looking for something to watch, but billing them as The Money Game: Football’s Cash Crisis (19/11/2003), Dotcoms Bounce Back (23/02/2004), Microsoft’s Big Games Gamble (04/11/2005) or The Chewing Gum War (25/05/2007) was much more likely to prick my curiosity bubble.

This approach almost certainly helped The Money Programme survive for so long as a strand. Starting in April 1966, producer of The Money Programme Terry Hughes explained the show’s mission statement in the Radio Times.

Britain is like the son of a rich man who has inherited the family fortune and is spending the lot, said a Belgian banker who has extensive dealings in the City. With the recurrent tale of lost export orders, balance of payments trouble and pressure on the pound, people abroad now speak of ‘the English sickness’ which has dogged us since the war, rather than any spectacular business achievements. They must wonder what happened to the British flair for business.

This year is bound to see dramatic developments. With a debt of £899 million round our necks to be repaid in four years, and a current balance of payments deficit, we cannot escape the pressure to Improve our efficiency. Things have got to change. Industries have got to be reorganised. Traditional approaches to business problems have got to be questioned. The changes we can expect in this country will reach into the lives and prospects of many people.

The aircraft workers, for example, must see their working lives in a very different light now, and many in our more traditional industries are expecting change. Even without the pressure of our economic difficulties, the impact of automation, and the computer (felt increasingly in America) is bound to raise many painful issues for management, labour, and Government, in this country. We must prepare for a second industrial revolution.

The Money Programme will comment on the issues and broaden the whole field of discussion about our business and economic life.

The argument about how to handle the economy will grow louder with more and more suggestions on how to tackle our basic problems and with a greater readiness to look at the experience of other countries which have similar economic problems; Sweden and Holland on prices and incomes, Italy on industrial reconstruction.

Behind the argument about policy lies the complex business mechanism of the country. Many people want to know more about it. They want to know the background to some of the spectacular happenings they read of in the newspapers, why the pound comes under speculative pressure, how take-overs are mounted, how large companies are run, how fortunes are made, how pay claims are argued through.

The decisions taken in the board rooms of our large companies or In City offices are often as Important as political decisions. Some of our companies are enormously powerful. They have budgets larger than those of many of the countries in the United Nations. They have Planning Departments examining what the world will want in 1990 and complete Foreign Services for handling their diplomatic business.

Where the large corporation Invests its money, what kind of plant it builds, what kind of training it gives its employees, what products It designs and what influence it has on social amenities—these are important decisions.

The Money Programme will look at the way these companies are managed. It will also aim to broaden interest in business, in a year when it matters how well we manage our money.

Terry Hughes, The Money Programme, Radio Times (31 March 1966)

Hughes had been handed his mission in a memo from then-BBC Secretary Harman Grisewood, suggesting that it was “time we should do something about the economy for the people”. The suggestion didn’t go down too well with some executives at the Corporation, their reaction reportedly being that money was boring, and “the idea that there might be an audience for a regular TV programme on money struck producers as absurd.” But, as a time when the Pound was in freefall and national debt was ballooning, an attempt had to be made to explain the wider picture to the viewing public.

The initial reaction to the series was… less than enthusiastic, with around half-a-million viewers tuning in, and critics finding little positive to say about the series, save for the theme tune being quite nice (it having been borrowed from 1964 film ‘The Carpetbaggers‘). But, lack of popularity aside, it was certainly seen as An Important Programme, and as Britain’s economy continued to crash about the place like a drunk robot, interest in the series slowly began to grow.

By the 1980s, and the rise of Thatcherite economics, money finally became sexy. Heads of industry became nationally-known figures for (apparently) positive reasons, and every kid in the country excitedly filled in their Times Rich List Panini Sticker Book. Rightly or wrongly, interest in the business sector became much more commonplace, and by the early 1990s The Money Programme was joined in the BBC Two schedules by various other business-centred programmes (such as Troubleshooter and Doing It Right, and they’re just the ones fronted by Sir John Harvey-Jones, former Chairman of ICI).

By the noughties, the BBC had somehow even managed to make business-related TV cool enough for mainstream consumption, with both Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice making the transition from BBC Two to primetime BBC One. And so, perhaps as a result of business- and financial-based programming no longer needing to be ghettoised under the Money Programme umbrella, the strand was gradually phased out in the last few years of the 2000s.

The actual programme’s name floating about briefly at the bottom of the screen, hoping you don’t notice it, there.

So, in summary: if you want a programme about business, you’ve got both The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den. Just try to ignore that they’re basically talent contests for people in power suits.

58: Scooby-Doo

(Shown 1522 times, 1970-2012)

RICK: God, isn’t it all simply enchanting? It’s like one of those wonderful drawings by Roy Hill with lots of working-class people, thrashing about the place with pitchforks.

NEIL: Yeah! They look pretty angry, don’t they?

RICK: Just think. No nuclear power, no pollution, no electric cables ruining the landscape…

MIKE, NEIL, VYVYAN, RICK: [together] No telly!

NEIL: Oh, no! I’ll die if I miss Scooby Doo!

The Young Ones, “Time”, BBC2, 05/06/1984

Yeah, everyone already knows about Scooby-Doo, so here are a few things to note about the programme titles here: I’ve treated ‘Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!’ (CBS 1969–76), ‘The Scooby-Doo Show’, ‘Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo’ (ABC 1976–91), ‘What’s New, Scooby-Doo?’ (WB 2002-08) and ‘Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated’ (Cartoon Network/Boomerang, 2010-) as being the same entity to reach this total, as they’re all basically the same, even if the latter years are a lot more self-aware than the earlier ones, and some episodes in the middle have that annoying sidekick.

I think it’s probably true to proclaim Scooby-Doo as one of the most instantly recognisable animated series of all time. So recognisable that several other programmes have happily thrown in little nods to it.

Spaced, ‘Beginnings’, Channel 4, 24/09/1999
Hey Duggee, ‘The Spooky Badge’, CBeebies, 28/10/2017
Biffovision (pilot), BBC Three, 05/06/2007

The rise of Scoob can be traced back to 1968, and a time when (and try your best to look surprised here) an American parent-run pressure group were complaining about supposedly violent fare children were seeing on Saturday morning TV. And so, something had to be done. At the time, many of the contentious toons were produced by TV animation powerhouse Hanna-Barbera. As a result, a range of popular Saturday morning cartoons were swiftly cancelled. Bye-bye Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, so long Young Samson and Goliath, g’bye Space Ghost and Dino Boy, farewell Frankenstein Jr and the Impossibles. All canned as a result of pressure from Peggy Charren’s pressure group. Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon production line suddenly found itself with little to do.

None of this, thanks.

And so, in their place came a range of new programmes, several of which would go on to be tremendously popular with kids of a certain generation on both sides of the Atlantic. For starters, there was a pair of Wacky Races spin-off vehicles: Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines (no, not ‘Catch the Pigeon’) and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Alongside those came a wholly new property, which saw a group of relatable teens and their loyal hound travel the land to investigate a variety of spooky happenings. And that programme was, of course, to be called… The Mysteries Five. And that five were: Geoff, Mike, Kelly, Linda and W.W., plus their bongo-playing dog, ‘Too Much‘.

Not a joke. The initial premise was that this new programme would be heavily inspired by then-popular animated series The Archie Show, which wasn’t only a hit on television, in-show band ‘The Archies’ were a recording phenomenon in their own right. Their most popular song – Sugar, Sugar – went on to become a number one hit in the US (for four weeks) and the UK (for eight weeks). Who wouldn’t want a piece of that cross-platform pie?

The twist for The Mysteries Five would be that when not performing sell-out gigs at the hippest joints, they’d spend their downtime investigating ghostly mysteries. During development of the series by writers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, a number of changes were made. At various points in the process, ‘Too Much’ was small and feisty, then a cowardly sheepdog before finally being changed into a Great Dane (Ruby and Spears having initially been wary that breed would be deemed too similar to comic-strip canine Marmaduke).

As development went on, inspiration for the series changed from The Archie Show to live-action proto-beatnik sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (CBS, 1959-1963), which featured a quartet of teens. The mystery element wasn’t present in that show, but the characterisations were – Fred Jones based on clean-cut lead Dobie, Daphne Blake on attractive but calculating Thalia, Velma Dinkley on keen and nerdy Zelda, and Shaggy Rogers on the brilliantly-named Maynard G Kerbs, a jazz-loving beatnik who’d run a mile from hard work and punctuates every statement with at least three ‘likes’.

17 years old. Shaggy is supposed to be 17 years old. Any suspension of disbelief is further stymied by having him voiced by Casey Kasem.

This was a combination nailed on to be a surefire smash, it just needed a better name. And so, CBS exec Fred Silverman came up with a new title… ‘Who’s S-S-Scared?‘. Which was deemed s-s-shite by CBS president Frank Stanton, who duly passed on the series.

After frantic re-tooling,the horror element of the series was toned down, the comedy aspect was ramped up, and the focus of the series shifted to the shaggy dropout and his panicky mutt. All that was left to be tidied up was the same of the series. Also, ‘Too Much’ really didn’t work as a name for what was now a central character. Legend has it that Silverman found inspiration for the new name from Frank Sinatra’s famed scattery “doo-be-doo-be-doo”.

Radio Times, 12/09/1970

Scooby-Doo stuck at the next development meeting, and it’s a name that certainly sticks to the memory. With such a memorable character name in place, the show was retitled Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, and from that point an animated TV legend was born.

57: Westminster (aka Westminster Daily, Westminster On-Line)

(Shown 1567 times, 1970-2001)

Here’s one that seems unlikely to generate much excitement. But for much of it’s life, a programme that came with the unenviable challenge of not being able to show any footage of the thing they’re talking about.

Originally a weekly programme, when ‘Westminster’ launched in January 1970, it wasn’t just a programme designed to frustrate people trying to Google information about it fifty-two years later, it promised a review of the political week just gone. At that time, TV cameras were almost twenty years away from entering the House of Commons for the first time, and the prospect of dipping into a bespoke BBC Parliament channel would be the fever dream of a madman. So, here was a round-up where events of each day’s business could be discussed, audio could be played of discussions in the Commons chamber (along with a stock slide of the Parliament building and an inset box of the relevant MP), and later offering viewers a chance to quiz any MPs offering themselves up to public scrutiny.

Despite those limitations, it was a programme that would run and run. And yet seems to have left very little footprint on the internet. The original incarnation of Westminster ran until July 1979 (with BBC Political Editor David Holmes at the helm), but political programming under the same name would return to BBC2 in November 1989. Now going out most weekday mornings at 08:15, it still provided a summary of the previous day’s debates, but was now able to provide actual video footage of those debates, with cameras finally permitted in both chambers of Parliament. That’s not to be confused with the afternoon programme ‘Westminster Live’, which provided live coverage of the Commons.

It also doesn’t help that, at least as far the Radio Times were concerned, the programme didn’t even have a consistent title. From that 1989 relaunch all the way up to 12 November 1993, it went by the title of ‘Westminster’. The following week, it started being billed as ‘Westminster Daily’, right up to 4 November 1994. A few months later, it was back – in the same 08:15 slot, but now billed as ‘Westminster On-Line’ (ooh, modern).

On a couple occasions in 1992, the show was referred to under the curious-sounding moniker ‘Sam Westminster’.

What could that be? The name of the reporter giving the Parliamentary update, in a staggering display of nominative determinism? Maybe a politically-themed spin-off of Fireman Sam? Only one way to find out. To the newspaper archives!

Oh, okay. That makes more sense. Anyway, the ‘On-Line’ suffix lasted until July 1995, after which the programme title ‘Westminster’ was adopted for the afternoon slot, covering the current day’s events as they happened rather than those of the previous one. So, basically the same thing the previously-titled ‘Westminster Live’ (which I’m not counting in this entry) was doing, just to make this a bit more confusing.

By February 2000, it rebranded again – this time back to Westminster Live, but with the original name making the occasional cameo in Radio Times listings (presumably in error, rather than a title change reflected on-screen, but I’m including those in the total, so there). On 19 December 2002, the ‘Westminster [&whatever]’ title format was rolled out for the last time, Zeinab Badawi offering a final ten-minute report from Parliament before a repeat of Yes, Minister (Series 3 Episode 5: ‘The Bed of Nails’, if you’re wondering).

From that point on, ‘The Daily Politics’ seized BBC2’s political baton, and run with it. But more about that programme later. Possibly. (Okay, definitely.)

Trying to find any footage of the programme itself on YouTube – a real challenge given YouTube’s infuriating habit of returning a bunch of results you didn’t ask for, coupled with the vagueness of the programme title – results in little more than a second-long glimpse of Zeinab Badawi at the end of a continuity video posted onto YouTube Shorts.

For the record, I’ve combined results for these three programme titles as there’s a clear lineage between them. If you don’t like it, well, why not write to your MP?

56: Have I Got News for You

(Shown 1578 times, 1990-2021)

There’s a case to be made for claiming Have I Got News For You is Britain’s answer to The Simpsons. Both have been putting out new episodes for more than thirty years, both were a definite fresh breath of comedic air when they first arrived, both hit their imperial phase after a few years on-air, during that 1992-97 peak period phrases from each became part of the public lexicon (with ‘…allegedly!’ rivalling ‘…not!’ as the suffix of choice for people who aren’t as funny or clever as they think they are). And indeed, while each once felt cutting-edge and new, they’ve since become part of our TV wallpaper – not truly objectionably bad in their own right, but something that you might as well watch and enjoy seeing as it’s there.

Despite it now being an immovable part of our national TV furniture (yes, I know I just said it was wallpaper, but shush), it once seemed so young, so fresh, so cool. That Paul Merton from Whose Line Is It Anyway?, that Angus Deayton from KYTV, and that Ian Hislop from the writing credits on Carrott’s Lib, Three of a Kind and Comic Asides pilot ‘The Stone Age’.

Originally piloted as John Lloyd’s Newsround, it’s probably for the best that the storied producer stepped aside from hosting duties to make way for the almost dangerously wry Deayton. And so, in a set that now looks claustrophobically close, Have I Got News For You thundered onto our screens at 10pm on Friday 28 September 1990. The main competition in that slot at the time was The Golden Girls on C4, and the Florida quartet initially pummelled the upstart panel show in the ratings, 2.79m to 1.88m.

Source: Television Today, 11/10/1990

However, by the end of that first series in November, things were very different. And by ‘very’, I mean ‘not’, with HIGNFY slipping to 1.76m viewers to the Golden Girls’ rising 2.90m.

Source: Television Today, 30/11/1990

When it came to the second series of the nascent news quiz (billed in the ever on-the-ball Daily Mirror as “a new TV version of Radio Four’s News Quiz” despite it no longer being new, nor an actual remake of the radio property), the competition on the fourth channel was a little less severe: Friends-before-Friends (but with more swearing and nudity) HBO sitcom Dream On, which never really found an audience in the UK. As a result, an increased 2.23m tuned in to see Angus, Paul and Ian (plus guest panellists Sandi Toksvig and David Thomas) for that opening episode of the series, while Dream On managed to be the only C4 Friday night show to fall outside the channel’s Top 30 for the week.

Source: Television Today, 24/10/1991. Note that “Fall Merton The Series” (sic) grabs over 3m viewers on C4.

By the end of that second run, audiences had ballooned to an impressive 4.29m viewers, meaning HIGNFY was now BBC2’s most popular comedy show.

Source: Television Today, 03/01/1992

From that point on, popularity of the series only increased, with viewing figures north of eight million on several occasions. Even today, when viewing figures are much more modest and you’d expect the programme (having recently wrapped series 63) to feel much less of a draw, HIGNFY still performs incredibly well – the closing episode of the sixty-third series in May 2022 drew 4.1m viewers (going by BARB data), behind only Silent Witness, a documentary about The Queen and The Great British Sewing Bee as far as BBC programmes go for that week.

HOT TAKE: Paul Merton shouldn’t have apologised for calling Ian Hislop a “little shit” during that episode, because Ian Hislop was acting like a little shit.

But anyway, you all already know about HIGNFY since that point (quick recap: Tub of Lard, Sperm of the Devil, Savile, the spoof-taken-for-real Savile transcript, move to BBC1, Angus sacked, stunt guest hosts, helping to raise the profile of a human cartoon who somehow became PM, then failing to learn from that and start inviting Rees-Mogg onto the programme), so what other info can we wring out of it? How about a Guests With The Longest Periods of HIGNFY Relevance Top Ten? That is to say, people who’ve had the longest spell between their first and most recent appearances in the programme. Figures correct as of the last complete series in Spring 2022.

  1. Ken Livingstone (12 appearances 02/11/1990-12/04/2013, 8197 days)

Then still a serving MP, once-cuddly Ken first appeared on Paul’s team opposite Ian and Rory McGrath in the programme’s sixth ever episode. He last appeared in series 45, under the umpireship of guest host Brian Blessed, this time on Ian’s team and opposite Paul and Bridget Christie. Probably won’t be back again any time soon, given he’s a bit too ‘divisive’ these days.

  1. Bill Bailey (8 appearances 30/04/1999-29/10/2021, 8218 days)

First appearing in the show’s late-BBC2 era (and presumably then still donning his Bastard Bunny long-sleeve t-shirt) helping Paul to a 16-11 defeat against Ian and Trevor Phillips. Last seen in the show’s 62nd series, this time in the guest host chair, stewarding guest panellists Fin Taylor and Dawn Butler MP.

  1. Maureen Lipman (5 appearances 17/12/1993-11/11/2016, 8365 days)

Beattie herself first appeared in series six, joining Ian as they took on Paul and Lesley Abdela (the early years of the programme having no qualms about having two female panellists). She would reappear most recently in series 52, under guest host Charlie Brooker and facing opponents/rhyming couplet Paul and Rich Hall.

  1. Germaine Greer (10 appearances 16/11/1990-28/11/2014, 8778 days)

Germaine “Fuck You Shoes” Greer first appeared in the final episode of the first series, on Ian’s team versus Paul and late MP Tony Banks. Greer most recently participated in 2014’s 48th series, facing Ian and Josh Widdicombe under the watchful eye of regular guest host Xander Armstrong.

  1. Janet Street-Porter (15 appearances 26/04/1996-29/05/2020, 8799 days)

80s impersonator go-to Street-Porter has been a regular participant over the years, first appearing in the Paul-hiatus 11th series alongside guest captain Eddie Izzard as they took on Ian and much-missed Dermot Morgan. More recently, she appeared in the lockdowntastic 59th series, Zooming into an episode along with Fin Taylor and host Martin Clunes. (And also in the first episode of the current series, but we’re not counting that here.)

  1. Frank Skinner (12 appearances 06/11/1992-01/06/2018, 9338 days)

The Midlands mirth merchant probably made a bit of HIGNFY history in 1992’s fourth series, when he became the first guest to appear twice within one series, the first of which saw him appear opposite Jerry Hayes MP. More recently, Frank returned to the show in 2018, where he hosted the finale of series 55, with guests Lucy Prebble and Henning Wehn.

  1. Martin Clunes (19 appearances 28/10/1994-17/12/2021, 9912 days)

No surprise to see the always-welcome Clunes here, who despite primarily being an actor has always swung effortlessly into the topical comedy panel jungle. First appearing in series eight, Clunes first appeared against stunt-guest James Pickles. Most recently Clunes appeared in the guest host hotseat, invigilating the antics of guests Jon Richardson and Kirsty Wark.

  1. Jack Dee (17 appearances 13/05/1994-15/04/2022, 10,199 days)

Crumpled curmudgeon Dee first appeared in series seven of the show, facing off against Paul and Tony “Fridge Yes Skateboard No” Hawks. His most recent reappearance came as guest host in 2022’s sixty-third series, refereeing comic Nabil Abdulrashid and Professor Hannah Fry.

  1. Jo Brand (31 appearances 04/12/1992-29/04/2022, 10,738 days)

A name you might well have expected to see in the top spot, Jo Brand first appeared in series four, helping Ian to victory over Paul and Neil Kinnock. Now one of the go-to guest hosts, Brand was seen most recently in April 2022, keeping a watchful eye on columnist Camilla Long and comedian Susie McCabe.

  1. Joan Bakewell (6 appearances 01/05/1992-27/05/2022, 10,983 days)

Yeah, here’s a name you may not have expected to see here. Broadcaster, columnist, Governor & Chair of the BFI and future Baroness Bakewell first appeared in 1992, opposite stand-up Donna McPhail. While her appearances on the series would only be sporadic over the years, Bakewell most recently reappeared in the most recent episode under consideration here, the closing episode of series 63, along with host Jon Richardson and fellow guest Phil Wang.

Jeepers, that was a long one. Tune in next time to see if I can reach the halfway point of the hundred before the BBC’s Actual 100th Anniversary on 18 October.

3 responses to “BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (60-56)”

  1. If you want some off-air examples of ‘Westminster’, I can give you ‘Westminster Live’ 2 November 1994 or most of ‘Westminster’ from 26 February 1996 and two ‘Westminster’ specials with results of Conservative leadership ballots: 17 June 1997 and 19 June 1997


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