Pride of a Peacock 

22 September 2014

Look forward to BBC2

BBC-2 reached its 50th anniversary this year, having gained a reputation for championing new styles of programming and promoting new talent.  How did the idea of BBC-2 develop from the planning stage to its opening night in 1964?

A management team had to be appointed who could make the new channel very different to the then existing BBCtv and the ITA offering. The new BBC network could inform, educate and entertain, but with limited hours of broadcasting and a smaller budget, the emphasis would have to be on being smart and innovative. The job fell to a man who up to then had been Editor of Network News and an earlier Editor of Panorama, who invented the now legendary April Fools Day Panorama about spaghetti growing on trees. As a former editor of network News he had produced big events like General Election coverage and other major live broadcasts. He was Michael Peacock, and was appointed as the first Controller of the putative BBC 2 in 1963.

Peacock’s background was in sociology, having graduated from the London School of Economics, but his entrance to the BBC was as a trainee producer with the Television Talks Department based at Alexandra Palace in 1952. The appointment of Michael Peacock as Controller 11 years later was a chance to mould BBC 2 in his own image.

The channel had a 7.30pm start most evenings  (7 pm when adult education was included) but in offering a new service the serious had to be provided along with the entertaining. The idea pioneered by Michael Peacock was branding each week night with a different kind of programming.

In the early days of the channel this would serve as device to catch new viewers. Educational and factual programming was a feature with the commission of a twenty-six part documentary on The Great War key to helping the channel establish its reputation for strong programming. With the programme a co-production of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Imperial War Museum the information and stories of men  fighting on the front line made for powerful television. Each episode averaged eight million viewers per (later) showing on BBC-1. As the idea had originated with BBC 2, a precedent had been set for major productions to typically move from one channel to the other to increase exposure, so that viewers who could not yet receive BBC-2 could see what the press had been talking about. BBC-2 was not initially available nationally, and this was a corporate problem for the BBC.

BBC-2 set out from the start to gain cultural prestige with programmes like Jazz625 with legendary performers such as Duke Ellington brought to screen by producer Terry Henebery.

This spirit of new creativity brought forth The Likely Lads  by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais. The formula was two men and their girlfriends dissecting their nights out and other adventures the morning after. Many sitcoms around this time were domestically based but this series took kitchen sink drama and turned it to comedy with stark outspoken realism and working class Northern irony, letting a whole generation see themselves and their aspirations in the characters of Bob and Terry, as played by Rodney Bewes and James Bolam.

Among the entertainment and serious programming on BBC-2, no greater contrast could be found with the old styles than the new Match of the Day. Traditionally, football highlights had been contained within Sports Special, packaged up with other sporting action that may have taken place. The idea of showing evening highlights of top football matches was new to both viewers and to the football authorities, though ITV, through ABC Weekend, had experimented with this idea in the early sixties but without full backing of the football authorities who had worried about gate takings.

The radical idea of taking the top games of the day and showing the highlights during one programme was almost new. If BBC 2 was set up to make a mark in the broadcasting world, then Match of the Day would help seal the deal. For the the first time, it gave viewers at home the chance to see the top footballers the country had to offer, with the famous hard tackling of Billy Bremner and Dave Mackay and the artistry of George Best.

Match of the Day  made football and footballers new big box office attractions in the later 1960s and made the new channel a name for sports coverage. The programme was so successful that it was quickly stolen by BBC-1, the channel controllers being well conscious that BBC 2 was still not available in all regions and was spreading too slowly for corporate comfort.  No extra money had been added to the licence fee for the new BBC-2 – it was not initially a national channel.

1969 Handbook - BBC2 transmitters

With the launch of BBC-2 came a supposedly new standard of television picture, broadcast on 625 lines in the UHF band. In fringe areas however, reception of the new channel was initially a disappointment for some, with some transmitters clearly under powered for the new UHF transmission requirement. It took several years for the provision of local booster masts to rectify this, but British television had at least taken a small step towards the colour television revolution later to come. Peacock’s role as the controller was to encourage viewers to take up ownership of the brand-new television sets or tuners and new aerials required to receive the channel, with the innovative productions offered. Worryingly, lower ratings than had been expected persisted (with a service not available in all regions). A plan was developed at corporate level to move Michael Peacock from BBC-2 to become controller of BBC-1, with current controller of BBC-1 Donald Baverstock heading in the opposite direction. Michael Peacock saw this move as potentially a good one for his talents. He relished the task of modernising BBC-1 against a thriving Independent Television, then dominated so successfully by the undoubted talents of Rediffusion, ABC, ATV and Granada.

With Peacock settled under the table in his new office came a problem with Donald Baverstock, who felt the BBC-2 controller position a step down. He resigned from the BBC, later to surface as one of the driving forces behind the new Yorkshire Independent Television consortium in 1967 – so allowing David Attenborough to become the controller of BBC-2 for the next four years, introducing colour television to Britain, on BBC-2 only, in 1967.

Michael Peacock’s work in establishing the channel was ground breaking. It ensured that the network found its feet at an early stage, developing and nurturing many classic and long lived programmes, some of which have gone on to have run as long as BBC-2 itself.

PE144 Cover

Later Michael Peacock moved into the commercial television with the putative London Television Consortium (later London Weekend) and as Vice President of Warner Brothers’ television arm from 1974. He helped to found the “Greater Manchester Independent Radio” (GMIR) consortium, later Piccadilly Radio, in 1974. He became Chairman of the Unique Broadcasting Company in 1989. The story of London Weekend is told elsewhere. It is his time as controller of BBC-2 and later the first boss of London Weekend for which he is best remembered.

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