100 Years of the BBC: #10-1

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10. Porridge (1974-1977)
Ronnie Barker was one of the UK’s most outstanding comedic actors, and Porridge represents his personal master work. Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, it featured Barker as professional burglar Norman “Fletch” Fletcher, sentenced to five years imprisonment for his criminal activities. Co-stars included Richard Beckinsale as cellmate Lennie Godber, Peter Vaughn as crime boss Harry Grout, and Fulton Mackay as chief guard Mr Mackay.

It is not simply that the comedy was spectacularly on point, or that the performances were uniformly superb – the interplay between Barker and Mackay was a particular highlight. It is that the humour was always underlined with a soft, melancholic foundation. Clearly the series was a comedy, so eschewed the real-life horrors of prison life, but the sense of entrapment, futility, and regret was sorely felt. Few dramas managed this level of character depth, let alone comedies. The series also got remarkably progressive and edgy, given the broadcaster and the talent. One episode, “No Peace for the Wicked”, is clearly based entirely about Fletcher trying to get 20 minutes alone in his cell to masturbate. The genius was in never admitting that out loud. After three seasons, Porridge concluded, but Fletcher’s story continued in the one-season sequel Going Straight (1978) and the BBC attempted a “next-generation” relaunch in 2016. The saddest aspect? Richard Beckinsale, who shot to fame as Godber, unexpectedly died of a heart attack in 1978. A hugely promising career was cut short.

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9. Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)
Monty Python happened, and television sketch comedy changed forever. Of course nothing is ever that simple. In truth, a group of student actors in Cambridge’s Footlights Revue got picked up for a series of 1960s comedy shows on radio and TV, sometimes as writers and sometimes as performers, and by 1969 five of them were assembled together and commissioned to create sketch comedy. Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, and Terry Jones were joined by American animator Terry Gilliam, and the resulting comedy completely up-ended how comedy on television was done.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus presented a groundbreaking combination of surrealism, post-modern self-awareness, animation, satire, and a brilliant manipulation of television conventions. Each writer/performer had their own style and humour, each distinctive enough that it is impossible to imagine the format working without them all. The series was followed by live shows, feature films, and all manner of solo projects. Projects as disparate as Brazil, Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, Labyrinth, The Fisher King, A Fish Called Wanda, Erik the Viking, and Spamalot likely would not have existed without Monty Python, and that’s just projects involving the Pythons themselves. Its influence on comedy is incalculable.

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8. Yes, Minister (1980-1984)
Not only one of the funniest BBC comedies of all time, but easily one of the smartest. Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay’s political satire starred The Good Life‘s Paul Eddington as MP Jim Hacker, whose efforts to curry favour with the voting public are constantly stymied by his manipulative Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). Along with Derek Fowlds as the idealistic aide Bernard Woolley, they formed one of the tightest and most effective comedy trios TV ever saw – and I mean everywhere, not simply at the Beeb.

The contrast of a venal, self-serving Parliament with a static, immovable civil service formed the core of the series’ satire which, while brutal, rang with truth for a public already becoming deeply cynical with the political process. While other series have tried to satirise the political process, none have come close to the sharpness and accuracy of Yes Minister. A sequel, Yes Prime Minister, ran from 1986 to 1988, but was never quite as brilliant. The original remains tremendously entertaining even today, with plots that – perhaps depressingly – still have relevance for and resonance with the public.

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7. The Quatermass Experiment (1953)
The Quatermass Experiment was not the first science fiction production made by the BBC; that would be 1938’s RUR. It is, however, far and away the most significant. This six-part series was aired in the Summer of 1953, and was an original invention by writer Nigel Kneale. It starred Reginald Tate as Professor Bernard Quatermass of the British Rocket Group, forced to defend London against an alien invader that has hitched a ride to Earth on an space mission. The serial was the BBC’s first case of appointment television: as many as six million people watched the final episode. A year earlier there were only four million television sets in the whole country.

The success of The Quatermass Experiment led to two sequels, Quatermass II (1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (1958). Many years later Kneale returned to his most famous character for Quatermass (1979); this time on ITV. In 2005 BBC4 presented a live-to-air performance of The Quatermass Experiment with a cast that included Jason Flemyng, Indira Varma, Mark Gatiss, and David Tennant.

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6. I, Claudius (1976)
This 1976 adaptation of Robert Graves’ historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God represents one of the high points of television drama. While it’s production values were limited, its script (by Jack Pulman) and performances elevated it so highly that its arguable it has never been bettered since. Ostensibly a historical saga of successive Roman emperors, I, Claudius (I, Clavdivs to its friends) is a profound examination of power, and the lengths to which people will go to attain and defend it.

As Claudius, Derek Jacobi effectively performs the first sentence of his eventual obituary, since nothing he has done before or since has quite matched it for popularity and acclaim. The full cast of the series leads like a “Who’s Who” of British theatrical and television talent at the time, including Siân Phillips, George Baker, John Hurt, Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, Margaret Tyzack, Patricia Quinn, Ian Ogilvy, Fiona Walker, Kevin McNally, John Rhys-Davies, Bernard Hepton, and genuinely many, many more.

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5. The Stone Tape (1972)
Nigel Kneale has cropped up multiple times on this list, due to a range of terrifically conceived and written dramas including The Year of the Sex Olympics, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Quatermass. While it is the latter for which he remains famous among television enthusiasts, it is The Stone Tape – a 1972 television play – that stands as his masterpiece. An IT company begins to refit an old country house as its new headquarters, only to find an apparent ghost haunting one of the rooms. An attempt to investigate the phenomenon leads to crisis, paranoia, and tragedy.

Without exaggeration The Stone Tape is the best work of horror ever produced for television. Its blend of science and the paranormal presages decades of television programs including The Omega Factor and The X Files. Its narrative was openly co-opted by director John Carpenter for his 1987 film Prince of Darkness. On Christmas Day 2022 The Stone Tape will celebrate its 50th anniversary, yet it still backs a huge emotional punch. It’s a television masterpiece.

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4. Blackadder (1983-1989)
Fresh from Not the Nine O’Clock News, actor Rowan Atkinson teamed with writer Richard Curtis to make The Black Adder, an ambitious – and, for the time, very expensive – medieval comedy about Prince Edmund, son of the fictional King Richard IV (Brian Blessed). Aided by sidekicks Baldrick (Tony Robinson) and Percy (Tim McInnerny), Edmund fruitlessly plotted to rise to the throne ahead of his older brother Harry (Robert East). Due to the huge production cost and lacklustre viewing figures, BBC Controller Michael Grade was unwilling to commission a second season unless the costs could be brought down severely and recording was confined to a BBC studio.

Blackadder II, then, broadcast in January 1986, represents one of the most radical and successful retoolings of a television comedy ever achieved. Relocated to the Elizabeth era, Edmund was reframed as an ambitious Lord Blackadder, a courtier striving to win the favour of a childlike and ruthlessly arbitrary Elizabeth I (Miranda Richardson). While Percy remained intact, Baldrick was reimagined as an idiot. Stephen Fry joined the cast as Lord Melchett, Elizabeth’s chamberlain. The smaller budget pushed the series to rely on character and dialogue over visual set pieces. Atkinson, who had co-written the first series, stepped back and was replaced by Young Ones writer Ben Elton. The set-up was rebooted again for Blackadder the Third (1987), and even more severely for Blackadder Goes Forth (1989) – which relocated the characters into the trenches of World War I. Its unexpectedly dramatic final episode is rightfully considered one of the best television episodes in the BBC’s history.

Everything works perfectly in Blackadder. The cast simply couldn’t be bettered. The dialogue sparkles with creative wordplay, jabs at history, and immensely funny insults. It is tremendously smart stuff as well. I can only think of one BBC comedy that was better.

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3. Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
It is fascinating to discover that Fawlty Towers, despite its immense legacy and long-term popularity, was not initially a success at all. Viewers did not warm to John Cleese and Connie Booth’s energetic hotel-set farce when it first aired on BBC2. It was only during repeat screenings that viewers clicked with its frantic pace and made it a popular success. One can point to its excellent cast as a reason for its success: Cleese, Booth, Prunella Scales, and Andrew Sachs are all marvellous. Its long-term impact on television comedy, however, comes down to pace.

In contrast to other sitcoms of its time, Fawlty Towers squeezed more jokes per minute into its scripts than anything else on screen. What is more, director John Howard Davies shot them to match. Episodes of Fawlty Towers cut from shot to shot at a rate roughly three times that of its contemporaries. It is a difference easily noticed today: quite simply, Fawlty Towers simply has not aged like other old comedies. Much of it works perfectly well today. Pound for pound, it still boasts some of the funniest moments and lines there has ever been. Despite demands from the BBC for more, Cleese and Booth cut their series off at the 12 episode mark, ensuring a quality that was never bettered.

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2. Doctor Who (1963-?)
Doctor Who has the most versatile and creative set-up of any television drama. It started in 1963 as a family-oriented drama about a mysterious “Doctor” (William Hartnell) and his granddaughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford), who inadvertently kidnap two English school teachers (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill) in a fabulous ship that can travel anywhere in space and time. Right from the very first series it was exploring all manner of story types and genres. Consider that first series, which featured (in order) a trip to prehistoric Earth, a scientific romance, a claustrophobic thriller, an epic journey across central and east Asia, an old-fashioned quest narrative, an ethical debate over interfering in history, an inverted morality tale where humans are the villains and bug-eyed monsters are sympathetic, and an espionage story during the French Revolution.
When William Hartnell proved too ill to continue, the production team replaced him with Patrick Troughton: an actor who bore no similarity whatsoever to Hartnell’s looks or personality. This change, widely accepted by the audience, opened Doctor Who up to a decades-long run. Since everything could be changed, including the stars, the writers, the producer, and the tone, there was no need for Doctor Who to ever end.

The key to Doctor Who‘s longevity is that it isn’t really just one show. It is something like 10 shows, laid out one after the other and reflecting the changing trends in television production and shifting audience taste. Some viewers most enjoy the charming imagination of Doctor Who in 1963-64. Others the more hard-hitting science fiction drama of 1965. There are the rubber suit monsters of 1967-69, the ITC-style adventure of 1970-74, and the gothic horror of 1975-77. By 1988 it had shifted again to anti-conservative political satire. It is about to change again, with incoming producer Russell T Davies promising a Marvel Studios-style shared universe of big-budget spectacle. There is something for everyone somewhere in Doctor Who.

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1. Life on Earth (1979)
Of course, my number one pick is a cheat. Of course it is. What else could it be? The truth is, were this countdown to include every BBC natural history program in some way derived from this series, roughly half of the other listed programs would be squeezed out of contention. Better to bundle them all into one enormous, multi-decade achievement, and classify them under the single, monumental television achievement that started them all: Life on Earth. If there is a single reason for BBC television to have existed at all, it is for Sir David Attenborough to showcase the natural world to us.

It seems weirdly apposite, in celebrating the BBC’s centenary, that David Attenborough was born just four years later. After gained a natural science degree from Cambridge, two years national service in the navy, and a brief career as a children’s book editor, Attenborough wound up being hired by the BBC as a producer for their fledgling talks department. He did not even own a television when he started producing works for it. His remit at the BBC soon expanded into presenting, which included bringing in animals from the London Zoo to BBC Television Centre. I was in the audience once for a talk in which Attenborough explained an incident in which a monkey panicked under the studio lights, broke free from its handler, and hid up in the lighting rig for the rest of the evening. As television was still being presented live-to-air there was no opportunity to collect the animal until broadcasts closed for the night – which seemed an acceptable situation until the monkey started defecating from the lighting rig onto the news desk on national television.

Attenborough’s first major television series was Zooquest in 1954, which would follow zoologists collecting specimens in the wild to display at London Zoo. When zoologist Jack Lester fell ill at the last minute, Attenborough was suddenly required to present as well as produce. In 1957, when the BBC established an internal Natural History Unit in Bristol, Attenborough turned down an invitation to join it, wishing to keep his family together in London. By 1965 he accepted a commission to become the controller of the then-fledgling BBC2. He immediately set about retooling and re-imagining what the channel could do. Since BBC2 was broadcast in colour, he developed concepts and programs that would take better advantage of the new technology. Televised snooker, still a popular BBC program today, was Attenborough’s idea: colour television meant the viewer could tell the difference between the coloured balls. During his tenure at BBC2 Attenborough commissioned a range of groundbreaking new programs, including Match of the Day, The Old Grey Whistle Test, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Critically, he also commissioned art historian Kenneth Clarke’s 13-part documentary series Civilization, the first series of its type. The Ascent of Man and Alistair Cooke’s America soon followed. When Attenborough co-developed the idea for a similar long-form documentary on the subject of evolution, he realised he was tiring of administration and wanted to write, produce, and present again for himself. He spent the following three years producing Life on Earth.

It is remarkable how much of the Attenborough audiences love worldwide emerged so fully-formed in Life on Earth. Over 13 episodes he explored and explained evolution via a series of showcases, each revealing the life of animals around the planet. The unprecedented length of production – three years – allowed camera operators to take as long as they needed to secure the perfect footage. One camera operator waiting literally hundred of hours to capture the first-ever footage of a Darwin’s frog spitting out its young (who it safeguards in its mouth). Specially built environments were constructed to film a naked mole rat burrowing its way through the earth. In one of the most famous scenes in television history, Attenborough himself – observing mountain gorillas in Rwanda – was unexpectedly accepted by the family group. The image of Attenborough, surrounded by calm, relaxed gorillas, is – once seen – never forgotten.

The winning formula of Life on Earth was repeated again and again: in The Living Planet (1984), The First Eden (1987), Lost Worlds Vanished Lives (1989), The Trials of Life (1990), Life in the Freezer (1993), The Private Life of Plants (1995), Attenborough in Paradise (1996), The Life of Birds (1998), The Blue Planet (2001), The Life of Mammals (2002), Life in the Undergrowth (2005), Planet Earth (2006), Life in Cold Blood (2008), Life (2009), Frozen Planet (2011), Africa (2013), The Hunt (2015), Great Barrier Reef (2015), Seven Worlds One Planet (2019), and The Green Planet (2022). The sheer length of Attenborough’s career is such that he is the only person to win British Academy Awards (BAFTAs) for programs made in black and white, colour, mono, stereo, and surround sound, standard and high definition, and both 2D and 3D. To look back at Attenborough’s career is to look back at the evolution of British television. This year he is 96 years old. He is still making television. I all-but-guarantee that when he does die, it will be somewhere on location being astonished at an animal’s behaviour.

To celebrate Life on Earth and its sequels is to celebrate those amazing gorillas, and the Darwin’s frog, as well as moving footage of red geese in flight, killer whales surfing onto a Patagonian beach to eat seals, the inside of a termite mound, time-lapse footage of rival plants fighting one another, a lyrebird imitating the sounds of cameras and chainsaws, crows cracking nuts in Tokyo by jamming them under the wheels of cars stuck at traffic lights, or millions of butterflies in migration.

To enjoy Attenborough’s achievements is to enjoy the best television ever made – and it was made, all of it, by the BBC.

100 Years of the BBC
#100-91 (Coupling, The Box of Delights, The Devil’s Crown, Top Gear, Jackanory, Not the Nine O’Clock News, The House of Eliott, The Mary Whitehouse Experience, 1990, Roobarb.)
#90-81
(Extras, Steptoe & Son, I’m Alan Partridge, Teletubbies, Adam Adamant Lives, The Trip, The Paradise Club, Doomwatch, Mr Men, The Year of the Sex Olympics.)
#80-71
(Star Cops, The Mighty Boosh, Blue Peter, The Onedin Line, Jonathan Creek, The Goodies, The Fast Show, Robin Redbreast, Torchwood: Children of Earth, Takin’ Over the Asylum.)
#70-61 
(Cracked Actor, The League of Gentlemen, The Office, To the Manor Born, Grange Hill, Tipping the Velvet, Survivors, The Omega Factor, Tenko, The Night Manager.)
#60-51
(Challenge Anneka, Top of the Pops, Our Friends in the North, Outnumbered, Look Around You, The Morecambe and Wise Show, Only Fools and Horses, Between the Lines, Antiques Roadshow, Spooks.)
#50-41
(This Life, Dad’s Army, Culloden, Red Dwarf, The Thick of It, Pennies from Heaven, Life on Mars, The Old Grey Whistle Test, Open All Hours, The Sarah-Jane Adventures.)
#40-31
(All Creatures Great and Small, The War Game, Fleabag, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, The Day Today, The Human Body, A Very Peculiar Practice, The Two Ronnies, Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Brimstone and Treacle.)
#30-21 (Wolf Hall, Walking with Dinosaurs, Bottom, Parkinson, The Wombles, House of Cards, The Forsyte Saga, The Singing Detective, Rome, Threads.)
#20-11 (Colditz, Absolutely Fabulous, Blake’s 7, Pride and Prejudice, The Young Ones, The Magic Roundabout, Hancock’s Half Hour, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Edge of Darkness, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.)
#10-1 (Porridge, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Yes Minister, The Quatermass Experiment, I Claudius, The Stone Tape, Blackadder, Fawlty Towers, Doctor Who, Life on Earth.)

Addendum
You may be asking “hey, where’s my favourite BBC show?” There are a couple of potential answers, depending upon the show in question, so please accept whatever of the following four responses seem most appropriate.

  1. I haven’t ever seen that show. There are some major BBC milestones – Civilization, Cathy Come Home, Boys from the Blackstuff – that I simply have never seen and therefore can’t properly judge.
  2. That show wasn’t made by the BBC. Where is Rumpole of the Bailey? Where’s Callan? They’re on the other channel, sorry.
  3. I forgot about that show. I assembled and ranked this list in a fairly arbitrary manner; this is intended as a celebration of BBC television generally, so I wouldn’t put too much weight on the choices or the order outside of the top 20 or so. So apologies to fans of Horrible Histories, Ghosts, The Good Old Days, and the BBC’s Christmastime M.R. James adaptations. I simply forgot they were there.
  4. Your favourite show is rubbish. Sorry, fans of Are You Being Served and ‘Allo ‘Allo – I am sorry you have such terrible, terrible taste. (This is a joke: genuinely, if you like those series you do you, and never let people like me try to tell you you’re wrong.)

2 thoughts on “100 Years of the BBC: #10-1

  1. I’m glad you included that addendum, because I was about to ask, “Did you forget BOYS FROM THE BLACKSTUFF or did you not see it?” (I would not have been surprised to see it in the top ten – but I don’t remember it ever being repeated, more’s the pity.)

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