Here we go. Top twenty. Big leagues. Every programme from this point on an absolute titan of British broadcasting. Starting with…
20: Working Lunch
(Shown 3296 times, 1994-2010)
I’m willing to admit, this is a bit of a surprise.
For a programme that would go on to become the 20th most-broadcast programme in the BBC’s history (under the conditions laid out for the purposes of this list), it’s probably fair to say it was a little undersold in the Radio Times for the week of Working Lunch’s first-ever broadcast on Monday 19 September 1994. “A daily look at business and how it affects us.” That’s it. Publish. Done. To be fair, they did have the write-up for ‘1:00pm History File: The World Since 1945’ to crack on with. That one probably needed a bit more research.
So, that tiny informational morsel aside, what was Working Lunch? A cookery show? A documentary exploring the catering industry? William S. Burroughs’ surprisingly tame follow-up to Naked Lunch? Nope, it was – and I appreciate this makes it sounds much worse than it is – a weekdaily topical programme covering business, consumer and personal finance news, the twist being that it was all done in a relatably accessible manner.
Oh dear? No, dear. It certainly helped that the programme was captained by Adam Shaw and early-era Adrian Chiles (coming off the back of hosting Radio 4’s Financial World Tonight), who offered a clear contrast to the Beeb’s other business output, such as World Business Report or Business Edition. This was much a looser affair, where every day is Casual Friday and there aren’t many meetings and someone has brought cakes from home. Look, here’s a bit where Adrian Chiles is playing Super Mario 64.
Despite it having been originally planned as a vehicle for Jill Dando and George Alagiah, Chiles was considered to have been a boon for the new series, his Black Country burr certainly a lot more welcoming than what you’d expect from your average BBC financial programme. Aside from that, Working Lunch was the first live programme on the Beeb to rely on a virtual set, which certainly helped disguise the fact it was being recorded in the pokiest studio the News and Current Affairs department had to offer. While BBC News had been using a virtual set for opening and closing long shots at the time, close-ups and mid-shots employed an actual set with real furniture. With ‘Lunch, not even the desks were real. Heck, if mid-90s CGI had been up to the task, one wonders if we’d still have had the meatspace version of Adrian Chiles.
One illustrative if surprising signifier of how well-received the programme was become happened in February 1996. Chiles found himself at Heathrow Airport in the midst of screaming teenagers. Not there for him, of course (let’s not go crazy here), they were present as 90s popmonger Robbie Williams was due to arrive at the airport en route to some foreign clime. After working his way through the crowd and onto an escalator toward the departure lounge, the West Bromwich wag was tapped on the shoulder by none other than Williams himself, who took the opportunity to express his enjoyment of Working Lunch. See, he’s not all bad. That almost makes up for Swing When You’re Winning. Almost.
Those early years even offered up a fun little title sequence, where a goldfish finds some gold coins and tries to put them in a bank, only to get chased away by a shark. Granted, it didn’t hold a candle to the Westminster crocodile of On The Record, but this was only weekday daytime BBC2, expectations should be lowered accordingly.
That was replaced a few years later by an even more comic opening sequence to mark the shift to widescreen programming in 1998, with the goldfish and shark careering around a tremendously 90s CGI set. This is certainly not a scene you’d expect from the titles to a daily business news roundup.
For anyone wanting to know, the CGI goldfish is called Lloyd. And for anyone who wants to feel a bit sad, the real Lloyd died the week this new title sequence aired for the first time. Until that point however, he’d lived in a fishtank made out of a vintage 50s television, thereby making him Britain’s Coolest Goldfish. So, a life well-lived.
In later life, Declan Curry and future Breakfast host Naga Munchetty would join the series, but despite a revamp in 2008 that threw in things like a ‘Tech Shed’ to test out the latest gadgets, it seems the strand just wasn’t the cult hit it once was, and in 2010 the programme aired for the last time.
To be fair, if an episode where Terry Wogan gives a web surfing masterclass isn’t bringing in the viewers, the jig is probably up.
(Shown 3346 times, 1953-2021)
What am I supposed to tell the Panorama audience?
Let the strident tones of Francis Lai’s Aujourd’hui C’est Toi soundtrack a spinning globe, and let a nation of kids ask if they can put another channel on.
(Aside: of course, the best use of the Panorama title sequence came in Dave Allen’s 1990 stand-up series for BBC1, which came with no sketches, no opening theme, no title sequence or even anything showing the programme’s title. That was apart from episode three of the series, which used the opening titles for Panorama, with Allen claiming “we can’t afford any titles of our own, so we borrowed some”.)
At the time of writing (the year 2023, which makes it increasingly embarrassing this list only covers up to the end of 2021, but shush), Panorama is but months away from clocking up seventy years on British screens, the first ever episode arriving in November 1953. And, while much of Panorama has been of the cracker-dry variety, the Radio Times box-out for that first ever episode really goes gangbusters on the whole austerity aesthetic, with original host (or ‘guide’) Patrick Murphy staring you out in a way that would make you leave a pub immediately.
Originally airing on a fortnightly basis, those original reflections of the contemporary scene did at least include a tantalising “telecartoon of passing events”, which is surely now making you think of The Day Today’s Brant. In short, those very early years were a markedly different beast from the Panorama the nation would become used to in later years, being more of a magazine programme looking at the arts as much as current affairs, but it would soon evolve. In the case of the host, evolve very quickly, with initial host Patrick Murphy replaced in the second edition by Max Robertson.
For the first couple of years, the ‘Rama initially aired every other Wednesday evening, usually between 9pm and 10pm, but from September 1955 changes were afoot. The programme moved to Monday evenings, it moved to an earlier slot around 8pm, and it would become a weekly programme. On top of that, the programme’s tagline was changed to “Television’s Window on the World”. Indeed, the changes were outlined in an accompanying Radio Times article, which promised to comment on world affairs as much as home-based happenings, with co-producer Michael Peacock promising everything from “ships, jazz, people, ploughing, theatre, industry, art, books, buildings or bulldozers”.
To try and take that range of topics, Panorama was afforded access to all the BBC’s resources: outside broadcast cameras, film camera teams, Roving Eye cameras and use of the shiny new Eurovision link to provide live broadcasts from across Europe. While new host Richard Dimbleby would be keeping track of everything from the studio, Max Robertson wasn’t cast aside, but rather given a roving assignment with the outside units, while Malcolm Muggeridge was afforded a similarly roving remit as ‘entrepreneur for theatre, films, music and the arts’.
The choice of Dimbleby Sr as Panorama’s new guide proved to be an inspired one, pretty much forging a template for the current affairs presenter, offering a perfect blend of gravitas, insight, interview skills and background research. Little wonder that he would be chosen to helm BBC TV’s first ever foray into live overnight general election coverage.
It was no huge surprise that Richard Dimbleby had proved so capable in the big Panorama chair. Having initially joined the BBC in 1936, he’d become the Corporation’s first war correspondent, going on to report from the battle of El Alamein, the D-Day landings and the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp – Dimbleby threatening to resign over the latter due to the BBC initially declining to broadcast his despatch.
Back on Civvy Street, Dimbleby was the BBC’s choice on commentating on events such as the 1953 Coronation, the first live television broadcast from the Soviet Union and the funeral of George VI. All that experience was put to good use behind the Panorama desk, conducting probing but well-mannered interviews with key figures of the day, plus putting his reporting skills to good use by helming live on-the-spot reports from the UK and overseas. Plus, in a skill that proved invariably useful given the propensity of mid-20th century technology to misbehave, he was more than adept at improvising during problems in running pre-recorded items or live links.
That’s not to say Dimbleby didn’t also have a lighter side. This was most famously displayed on the first of April 1957, when he provided commentary to the infamous spaghetti-harvest hoax. So convincing was his delivery of the report, it’s said that even Director-General Ian Jacob was fooled by the pastariffic prank. All good things, however, must come to an end, and a tragically untimely end occurred in 1965, when Richard Dimbleby died at just 52. In his stead came a series of rotating anchors behind the Panorama desk, including Robin Day, Charles Wheeler and Leonard Parkin, but it would be Richard’s son David that would go on to have the longest association with the Panorama desk.
Indeed, it was at that very desk where the most memorable unplanned moment in Panorama’s long history would occur. With the studio-based portion of the programme broadcast live, in the event of developing news, the anchor’s role at this stage was largely to introduce each filmed report. It also meant there’d be someone to throw back to if there were ever a technical problem with a filmed report, as could sometimes be the case in that pre-digital era of television, but there’s normally be little need to panic in such a situation. There’d be a backup filmed report on standby, ready to run. Just in case.
Except for on 8 November 1976, when a there was a problem with film covering events in Rhodesia. Not to worry, thought the elder Dimbleboy (©Bernard Levin), onto the next filmed report looking at the IMF. Except, as a voice on the other end of the Dimblephone informed the presenter, the film on the IMF wasn’t available either. All there was to broadcast to millions of homes was live footage of Dave, the Panorama logo and an otherwise minimalist set. It wasn’t even as if he read out the script of the commentary from the report on Rhodesia, as it didn’t have any commentary, and the situation covered in the film on the IMF was deemed too “complicated” to simply explain. And so, the stricken presenter was left to announce that everyone would just need to sit in silence until something happened. Luckily for our intrepid host, that something was the issue with the Rhodesian report being resolved, and it could now be shown. Suboptimally however, it started playing out before he could introduce it.
Stuff your Succession, THAT is watercooler television.
Of course, for a large chunk of its run, Panorama wasn’t the only heavyweight current affairs strand on British television. Granada’s similarly weighty World in Action began in January 1963 and would run for 35 years. Initially, both aired at different times on Monday evenings, Panorama at 8:25pm, World in Action at 10:30pm, making a mouth-watering evening for anyone really into windows on the world. However, within a few years, both programmes were somehow sharing a slot at 8pm on Monday evenings (starting around July 1967, with World in Action having just returned as ‘World in Action’ after a couple of years under the unpopular – if less borrowed from the National Film Board of Canada – rebranding ‘The World Tonight’ and ‘The World Tomorrow’). Quite why this scheduling clash was suddenly the case is a bit of a mystery – a similar, if less Governmentally-sanctioned situation to God Slot programming going out on Sunday evenings? An admission that neither show would get large audiences unless there was more of the same on the other side? An attempt at encouraging some Whizzer and Chips rivalry? I’m not sure, but it certainly didn’t go unnoticed, and can’t have been popular with people who waited all week for some heavyweight reporting on current affairs before having to pick just one programme to watch.
World in Action arrived on British screens having been, in the words of former producer Gus MacDonald, ‘born brash’. That was an ethos the production team kept to, with early series editor Tim Hewat having declared viewers wouldn’t stick to a half-hour of current affairs unless grabbed by the lapels and “sturdily intimidated into staying with it”. It was an approach that worked, a determined effort to marry film-makers with facts and journalists with moving pictures, and took British film journalism in a new direction. While Panorama had the likes of Dimbleby or Day asking the questions, World in Action would see interviewees converse with unidentified off-screen interrogators, throwing the subject into sharper focus. Series producers soon understood that putting incriminating photographs or documents exposing wrongdoers on screen seldom make for compelling viewing, so instead reporters would use tactics such as posing as Rhodesian sanctions busters or Biafran arms dealers to capture hidden camera footage that would prove more visually arresting. A tactic that Panorama, inexorably tied to Auntie Beeb’s apron, would find hard to emulate.
Still, there was a tactic that Panorama could certainly employ to grab the attention of the audience: scare the living shit out of them. The programme had hardly been incident-free in the past – 1955 saw Christopher Mayhew take mescaline on camera and report on his experiences, though skittish management preventing the footage from airing at the time (it would later air as part of 1992 BBC2 theme night TV Hell, and lead to a fun series of sketches by Limmy). But with nuclear paranoia rising at a time when the threat of World War Three seemed an increasingly likely possibility (plus ca change, eh viewers?), 1980 saw arguably Panorama’s most controversial episode to date. If The Bomb Drops was an investigation fronted by Jeremy Paxman about what would actually happen if, well, the big one went up, along with the UK Government’s preparations for the public in such an event. A pretend spaghetti harvest it wasn’t.
A similar furore had erupted in 1979, with a film on the Carrickmore incident attracting accusations that the Panorama editorial team were a little too friendly with the IRA. In 1982, a Panorama report on the RSPCA led to complaints (and ultimately, Broadcasting Complaints Commission censure) over the programme’s tactics in covering the society, but it was January 1984 that saw a real storm emerge. Panorama episode Maggie’s Militant Tendency claimed that three Tory MPs (Neil Hamilton, Harvey Proctor and Gerald Howarth) had links to far-right organisations in the UK and Europe. The story originated out of an internal Conservative Party report compiled by the chair of the Young Conservatives, and the programme makers had confirmed the status of the report with a Conservative vice chair, but the party was no less angry with the outcome. The MPs named in the report diligently avoided providing comments to the programme, and two of the MPs (Hamilton and Howarth) subsequently sued the Beeb and the Panorama production team. The trial was to start in October 1986, but within days of opening statements, the decision was made for the BBC to settle out of court. But not before Neil Hamilton’s “I’m very much not a racist” defence involved him doing a Basil Fawlty Hitler impression, so that’s something.
And yet, despite hundreds of column inches being employed to cover Panorama, it still didn’t mean that viewers were flocking to it. And with World in Action still airing on ITV at the same time, it at least meant BBC-2 had a chance to attract a bumper audience. In the 1970s, this often meant American imports like The Waltons, The High Chaparral or Alias Smith and Jones found an appreciative audience before the slot was handed to popular homegrown offerings like Dave Allen at Large, The Mike Reid Show and Des O’Connor Tonight and the occasional curio I’d love to see, like The Amazing Randi Magic Show.
Perhaps the best current affairs counterweight came in 1983, with the first episode of chat show/international comedy showcase The Bob Monkhouse Show. If you were going to give Lord Bob carte blanche to make any programme, this would undoubtedly have been the result, featuring interviews and live performances from comedy greats of the past, present and future, including the likes of Tommy Cooper, Bob Hope, Joan Rivers, Sid Caesar and Spike Milligan, plus early UK exposure for US-based acts like Steven Wright or The Unknown Comic.
Back at Panorama, and 18 February 1985 saw the programme moved into a post-watershed slot for the first time since the mid-sixties, being shifted into a slot following the Nine O’Clock News. New BBC1 controller Michael Grade couldn’t have helped but notice that BBC2 was clobbering BBC1 in the ratings each Monday while Panorama was on, so the decision was made to afford the slot to something a little more popular with the viewing millions. Indeed, the first week of the Monday 8pm hour being freed up on BBC1 saw the opening episode from the tenth and final series of Are You Being Served? air to an audience of 14.5m viewers. Quite an increase on the 3.5m average figure Panorama had been enjoying in the same slot beforehand.
The new post-news slot also led to a few format changes for the programme. Out went a desk in a dark studio, with the majority of episodes now dedicated to a single filmed report, with no in-vision host at all, and the runtime was reduced from fifty to forty minutes. People may not necessarily been watching in larger numbers – in early 1986, circumstance meant that it was still going out against The Bob Monkhouse Show on BBC2, though the presence of proper competition on ITV meant Bob’s audience had dropped from eight to around four million – but it was deemed worth the ratings hit to have something that weighty on air, and there would generally be a popular The Monday Film on straight afterwards to coax some viewers back over.
For several years, BBC2 would continue using the Panorama Is On The Other Side slot to put out popular shows – from Moonlighting in 1987 to The X-Files seven years later. But the hardy current affairs strand was certainly sturdy enough to be rolled out into a major slot when something big came along, such as a series of interviews with leaders of the main political parties in the run-up to the 1997 election, plus – famously or infamously – a certain Martin Bashir interview with a certain princess in 1995.
In October 2000, with the Nine O’Clock News being moved to 10pm (it’s okay, they renamed it to fit) and the 9pm hour being afforded to popular comedy series One Foot In The Grave and The Royle Family, there suddenly wasn’t much room in the schedule for Panorama on Monday nights, at least without shunting it into a slot skirting 11pm. And so, for the first time in the programme’s history, it was to start airing on Sunday nights. A slot at 10:15pm was hardly going to attract a lot of new viewers however, and despite the production team’s efforts to cover topics that would appeal to the viewing public (the first couple of Sunday night editions covered working conditions in Nike and Gap factories, and the US election campaign, nothing especially off-putting), it was a slot unlikely to attract many casual viewers.
Thankfully, by 2007 BBC1 had a new Controller in Peter Fincham, and he made the decision to move Panorama back where it belonged – Monday evenings, and in a primetime 8:30pm slot to boot. Admittedly, that was the slot opposite ITV’s second Monday helping of Coronation Street, but that slot had worked well for the previous occupants Rogue Traders and DIY SOS, proving that as long as that slot contained a suitable alternative for soap naysayers, there’d be an audience happy to tune in. It certainly didn’t hurt that the new slot demanded the programme be trimmed to a leaner thirty-minute slot, and concentrate on topics likely to draw attention. Plus, of course, there were now dynamic sweeping shots of Jeremy Vine in the introduction for each episode.
It was a tactic that was deemed to be a success, and indeed, Monday nights remains home to Panorama to this very day. The slot has been tweaked a little – it’s now going out at 7:30pm, still opposite Corrie, and occasionally airs on nights other than Monday, but it remains a programme that seems set to remain on our screens for a long time to come.
Another one out of the way. Phew. Hopefully the next installment won’t require as much time-consuming research. Or, at the very least, have more things written about them than Working Lunch.
SEE YOU NEXT TIME ARMCHAIR BRITAIN.