The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (34 and 33)

Here comes the next bit. Look out, Britain.

34: Tonight

(Shown 2582 times, 1957-1992)

Heeeeeeeeere’s, um, Cliff Michelmore!

Yeah, so nothing to do with The Tonight Show, but rather billed (repeatedly) in the Radio Times as “a topical programme for all the family”, the initial incarnation of Tonight arrived on the screens of teatime Britain on 18 February 1957. Tonight appeared just a few days after the official abolition of the Toddler’s Truce, a Postmaster General-sanctioned telly-free zone between 6pm and 7pm each night, so that children could be put to bed away from the watchful gaze of the cathode-ray cyclops.

After cries of “we don’t have any children!”, “tellies do have an off-switch, you know” and “we’re only going to spend that time talking about tonight’s telly” from the viewing public (plus “please, our potential revenue” from ITV franchise holders), the Truce was finally done away with on Saturday 16 February 1957. On Saturdays, the spot was filled with the pop-pickin’ Six-Five Special. On Sundays, the blank space remained in the schedules because God. And on Monday to Friday, a brand new current affairs television programme was to air. While the slot would later be associated with cosy old Nationwide, the new programme would go on to be described as something that “helped to shape the national mood in an age of change and growing mistrust of authority”.

It was a commendable commission by the BBC, who’d seemingly been perfectly content with that truce being in place – great, an hour each night that we don’t need to fill with expensive programmes – so to throw a team of experienced producers (such as future BBC1 Controller Donald Baverstock and future DG Alasdair Milne) along with a team of storied reporters such as Alan Whicker, Fyfe Robertson, Kenneth Allsop, Chris Brasher, Julian Pettifer, Brian Redhead and Polly Elwes was a true statement of intent. Plus, placed in the main presenter’s chair, a tyro Michelmore, fresh from two years fronting uncompromising current affairs show Highlight.

In a piece for the Radio Times in December 1957, as Tonight prepared to move from 6:15pm to 6:45pm, producer Donald Baverstock considered some audience feedback on the series, both good and less-good:

“It’s always so topical, isn’t it, so up to the minute.”

Well, not really. Without trained cameramen, and television reporters with fast cars in every world capital, topicality must remain an aim not a claim, Consider two alternatives. This afternoon at 5.0 p.m. a government White Paper on, say, agricultural instruments has been published. Last week there might have been riots in South America. Which would you prefer in the programme tonight-three minutes of someone giving you a précis of the government paper, or an interview with the first man to return to this country after having seen the riots a week ago? The production team faces this kind of choice every day-a wordy but unremarkable reference to an important event, or a human revelation of something already passed over, perhaps, by the newspapers.

We prefer to describe our present aim as relevance rather than topicality. The items we like to see in the programme are on subjects that we can safely assume are already in the viewers’ minds.
This does not mean that they will necessarily be in the headlines of the papers. Health, money, food and great religious issues are always in people’s minds. They are always relevant, but only in a very general sense, topical.

“That programme, Tonight, is being controversial again…”

NOBODY on the Tonight programme deliberately sets out to stir people up.’ You won’t see us pacing up and down our offices, pursuing hunches. We never dramatically snap our fingers and say, ‘If we do it this way, it’ll get ’em.’

No staged rows are ever arranged. There’s no point in doing so. Among the large number of people who appear on Tonight, even in the course of a week’s programmes, there are bound to be some who have strong opinions on important subjects. We don’t dissuade them from speaking honestly. Nor do we exhort them to speak with false passion. Perhaps it is this attitude behind the programme which leads people to call it controversial.’

“What we tike about it is that everybody — Cliff Michelmore especially — seems so relaxed.”

RELAXED. yes, but we hope not slovenly. When you appear on television in front of millions of eyes, you would be a fool if you hadn’t prepared yourself first. To do the kind of jobs that Cliff does (and Geoffrey and Derek as well) have to know all the complications so well that coping with them becomes instinctive. In front of those cameras you’ve first got to be competent; only then can you start being confident.

“Tonight, which you can describe as a mosaic of bits and pieces”

How do you define a bore – a person who when asked how he is proceeds to tell you? Night after night our chief problem is to avoid boring you (and incidentally boring ourselves). All the time we have to remember that to you at home. Tonight is a one-way conversation, an endless monologue. Our instinct, therefore, is always to offer too little rather than too much.

“Tonight is based on American models, isn’t it — “the see-it-happen, let’s be-spontaneous-at-all-costs sort of thing”

WE think the programme very British. The Americans, as everybody knows, have been doing regular daily programmes for a long time. But the British viewer, I think, would find them very slow and wordy. The Americans have not aimed, as we have, for compression of ideas, nor for the pace with which a variety of items can follow one another.

I sometimes think ordinary Americans would find the Tonight programme night after night, just a little too fast to comprehend. But so far we’ve had few complaints from Britain.

Radio Times issue 1781, 27 December 1957

Proof, were it needed, that even if it found itself needing to fill a programme five nights per week, it was far from flung together. Plus, it’s nice to know the host certainly wasn’t slovenly.

The programme would become such an institution that Michelmore even devised his own snappy sign-off at the end of each episode. “That’s all for tonight, the next ‘Tonight’ will be tomorrow night. Until then… good night!”. Lovely stuff.

The formula was certainly a popular one. The Times’ Radio and TV Supplement was effusive in its praise for the programme, writing in August 1957 that it was “one of the happiest exercises in casual presentation yet to be seen on English television”. The paper wasn’t alone in pouring praise on Tonight – in 1958, the Guild of Television Producers and Directors awarded Michelmore a gong for Personality of the Year and the production team behind the show won the title for Best Factual Presentation.

The programme notably offered a regular outlet for Guyanese actor, musician, writer and poet Cy Grant, who would regularly appear to perform a ‘topical calypso’, likely making Grant the first black person to be featured regularly on British television.

The production team’s dedication in getting the programme to air was tested in April 1961, when an electricians’ strike threatened a broadcast of the show. With no studio lighting on offer, the cast and crew of Tonight made the decision to present that night’s edition from a fire escape at the back of Lime Grove studios, using a combination of evening sunlight and light from the Metropolitan District railway opposite the fire escape. According to the press reports at the time, despite rainy conditions during the broadcast, Cliff Michelmore didn’t even wear a coat. Nails. November 1963 also included an unexpected turn for an edition of Tonight, but in a very different way. It was during the edition airing on Friday 22 November that news broke of the Kennedy assassination, with Michelmore taking on the task of informing BBC viewers about events in Dallas.

Tonight’s popularity even resulted in a weekly ‘highlights’ programme, The World of Tonight (“The world and its events as the Tonight team reported them last week”), which enjoyed a short run on Sunday afternoons between 1964 and 1965. All good things must et cetera, however, and on Friday 18 June 1965, the final edition of Tonight v1.0 would air. That’s despite news of a series refresh coming a month prior to that finale – promising a later slot, more on the-spot reports, plus live satellite link-ups to America and other parts of the world. As it would turn out, that refresh turned out to be a completely different programme – Twenty-Four Hours would launch in October of that year, and run until 1972.

Not the best picture, is it?

However, that wasn’t the end of the Tonight brand. It would re-emerge in September 1975, just over ten years after the end of the original version, this time with the hosting triumvirate of Nationwide’s Sue Lawley, Late Night Line-Up’s Denis Tuohy and Newsnight-in-the-future’s Donald MacCormick. This time, the remit was to “listen to the people whose lives are affected and invite your opinions on the events of the moment”, aided by BBC correspondents around the globe, and more locally using the Tonight Outside Broadcast Unit.

As if to cement the update’s Not Like The Old One credentials, the first edition of the programme promised “a correspondence column of the air”, alongside a profile of former-child-star-turned-US-ambassador-to-Ghana Shirley Temple. No, I had no idea, either. Reporters for the series included John Pitman, Richard Kershaw, David Lomax, David Jessel and Michael Delahaye, while Ludovic Kennedy, Robin Day and a young Jeremy Paxman would later appear to man the hosts’ desk.

The revamped version of Tonight proved to be a suitably sturdy format for BBC-1, running for a total of 756 editions between 1975 and 1979, and (unlike OG Tonight) at least received a special send-off billing in the Radio Times, with “Tonight: Goodnight Tonight” airing on 5 July.

However, that wasn’t the last we’d see of Tonight on the BBC. 24 July 1979 – yes, just a few weeks after the purportedly final episode – saw a one-off special hosted by Valerie Singleton for a studio panel discussion on the preceding programme, Rachel Billington’s Play For Today film Don’t Be Silly, which offered an uncompromising portrayal of domestic violence.

February 1982 saw a one-off special to mark 25 years since the original incarnation of Tonight, with Cliff Michelmore returning to help “illustrate what the programme stood for, how it worked and what it led to, with the help of those who worked on it”.

Finally, in 1992, BBC Two’s Black and White in Colour season included a screening of a 1963 edition of Tonight. West Indians, directed by Jack Gold, examined the troubles facing working-class Afro-Caribbeans in Britain at that time, and came with commentary from Barbadian poet and writer George Lamming.

33: Ready Steady Cook

(Shown 2633 times, 1994-2021)

There have been quite a lot of cooking shows on the BBC. In fact, since the Television Service launched in 1936, a total of 5,970 programmes have been broadcast on the Beeb with the word ‘cook’ somewhere in the title. Some of them have introduced new styles of cooking to the nation, such as the very earliest examples Cook’s Night Out (1937) and Foundations of Cookery (1939), both presented by French chef, restaurateur and author Marcel Boulestin. Others have taken a no-nonsense approach to making more from less, like Cookery (1947) introduced as rationing reduced the amount of ingredients on offer and demanding a much less glamorous title. A few others just happen to have the word ‘cook’ in the title, like a documentary on Alistair Cooke – Postcards from America (2003) and thrillingly-titled flick Robin Cook’s Formula for Death (1998), so you can bet I’m not even going to mention those. Bugger.

Out of all the cookery shows ever aired on the Corporation, nothing has aired as frequently as the next item on the menu, taking up 44.1% of all programmes ever aired on the BBC that have the word ‘cook’ in the title. Now, there’s a stat. Ready Steady Cook (sometimes billed with commas, sometimes not) was indicative of the Great Celebrity Chef Surplus of the mid-1990s. By October 1994, the problem had become so grave, the government had to pick one of two options. Option one: a daily cookery show that would see a pair of celebrity chefs compete in a cook-off, cramming double the amount into each episode, and providing the nourishing exposure they so dearly require. Option two: the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Celebrity Chefs would have to announce a mass cull.

Luckily, John Major chose envelope ‘A’.

The show was based on a cooking competition format, where two professional chefs competed against each other to create the most delicious meals that a £5 ingredient budget could allow. An additional twist was that the ingredients for each dish were chosen by the studio audience, who brought in a selection of items from their own kitchens. Oh, for a time when Britain didn’t need so many food banks, eh?

From 1994 to 2000, Fern Britton hosted the series, before she scarpered off to ITV to seize the controls of This Morning. From 2000, the most well-known of the participating chefs (also actor, half of comedy double act The Calypso Twins and unlikely ‘pop star’ with same) Ainsley Harriott took over hosting duties. Having been the resident chef on the BBC One’s failed-but-lasted-longer-than-you-think This Morning knock-off Good Morning with Anne and Nick, Harriott was certainly no stranger to television, and indeed, before getting the main Can’t Cook gig, he’d hosted a one-off special episode of the series to mark the tenth anniversary of Red Dwarf in 1998. Which came with the depressingly inevitable title Can’t Smeg, Won’t Smeg.

The Wikipedia page for Harriott claims this was a hit single. The Official Charts company website claims otherwise.

Under Harriott’s stewardship, the original series would continue to be produced until 2010, though such was the programme’s popularity repeats of existing episodes would continue until 2014.

You can’t keep a good format down (or a food format, for that matter), and as such the series made a return to Britain’s screens in March 2020, this time with Rylan Clark-Neal at the helm. The programme reboot had actually been announced the previous September, but happening to air during a period when the British public suddenly had to stop going out for chef-crafted meals, the option of being able to prepare them at home suddenly became that bit more tempting. Assuming, of course, viewers could get an online shopping delivery slot to avoid the queues at your local Tesco. And not fall foul of the Replacement Item Curse.

It was a very weird time, wasn’t it?

The rebooted series went out in a late afternoon BBC One slot throughout March 2020, with early morning repeats airing on BBC2. The programme was deemed enough of a success to return to the BBC the following March, this time running until mid-April. But, that was to be it for the format, with the September 2021 announcement that the second series of the Rylan-era was to be the last. Though I suspect not too many will fall off their chair with shock were a further reboot to be announced.

That’s all for this edition, see you next time for an edition that DEFINITELY won’t need to be hastily edited a few days later. At least that picture of Kilroy-Silk has gone. For now.

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