Big-toothed David Attenborough’s emergency debut: 100 years of the BBC, part four

As the second Elizabethan age begins, the king of wildlife is crowned, radio gifts us an immortal country drama and music shows go pop. Plus, for the first time, the BBC has competition.

1952 – Flower Pot Men

The kindergarten ambitions of BBC Television created Watch With Mother, preschool viewing that began in 1952 with cloth doll puppets Andy Pandy (and his friend Looby Loo) and now expanded with The Flower Pot Men. Bill and Ben, with their flowerpot torsos, had a vegetating mate named Weed. The show made two discoveries that shaped the future of children’s TV – that a new target audience comes along every year (the same episodes ran for a decade and a half) and that characters who speak gibberish adapt easily to international sales (as The Clangers, Pingu and Teletubbies later did.)

1953 – The Coronation

The Queen’s coronation.
The Queen’s coronation. Photograph: PA

This outside broadcast was by far the longest (10.15am to 5.20pm), most complex (16 cameras) and durable (all recorded for archive purposes) in the BBC’s three decades to date. But it had to fight to reach the air at all. Sir Winston Churchill, in 10 Downing Street for a second spell, advised barring cameras (as they had been from the royal wedding). But the Duke of Edinburgh, chair of the coronation committee, agreed to live transmission, a highlights package to be flown by RAF jet to Commonwealth countries and even a version in 3D. Largely wiped from history, as female pioneers in many fields have been, Sylvia Peters was the main presenter, with Richard Dimbleby whispering inside Westminster Abbey.

1954 – Zoo Quest, Under Milk Wood

The 28-year-old David Attenborough, an almost exact contemporary of the young queen, was producing an animal show-and-tell when the host became unavailable and Attenborough stepped in, permitted in an emergency to override his boss’s belief that he should never be on screen because his “teeth are too big”. In a medium moving towards mass appeal – helped by the 20 million UK audience for the coronation, albeit crowded around only three million TVs – Zoo Quest effectively launched the mega-genre of BBC Wildlife, and Attenborough’s extraordinary seven-decade career.

David Attenborough at London airport (now Heathrow).
David Attenborough at London airport (now Heathrow). Photograph: Ron Case/Getty Images

At 7.25pm on 25 January, the Third Programme broadcast what remains the single most famous radio play, although its author was already dead. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was such a success that it was repeated four times in nine months. Thomas’s 90-minute lyrical archaeology of a bereaved lover, relieved widow, a homicidal husband and a depressed clergyman in the Welsh fishing village of Llareggub – the BBC censor either ignorant of, or ignoring, what it spelled backwards – set the standard for poetry and radio drama.

1955 – Dixon of Dock Green, The Archers

Panicked by the arrival of competition – from commercial network ITV – the BBC killed off Grace, scion of The Archers, on ITV launch night, and powered up its TV dramas. Pioneering the police procedural, Dixon of Dock Green followed a decent East End man in blue, played by Jack Warner, through the cases that came to his nick. All subsequent major cop shows either embraced or reacted against the Dock Green model.

1956 – Hancock’s Half-Hour

With 98% of the UK population now in reach of TV transmitters (thanks to a new mast at Crystal Palace), the most significant political programme saw Anthony Eden, on 27 April, making the first ministerial broadcast as the Suez Crisis developed. More vital to the history of TV, though, was the premiere, at 8.45pm on 6 July, of Hancock’s Half Hour, based on the long-running radio series. During the Covid pandemic, older viewers and journalists referred to nightly broadcasts by the health secretary Matt Hancock by the same name.

1957 – Eurovision Song Contest, All That Fall

Fourth Eurovision song contest in Cannes. Jacqueline Joubert provided with a baguette announces the results of Eurovision.
The fourth Eurovision song contest in Cannes. Photograph: INA/Getty Images

In the lead-up to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community, the attempt to prevent a third 20th-century war on the continent extended to singers, with the European Broadcasting Union establishing an annual pop sing-off. It began in 1956, but Britain joined late – the BBC’s first entry, Patricia Bredin’s All!, coming seventh in 1957. In the early decades, the UK won five times and most of the entries were in English, but the rest of the continent later bit back.

In a stark example of the BBC’s desire to make shows for both populists and elitists, the Third Programme’s contribution to European culture that year was an original radio play by Samuel Beckett, who had just transformed 20th-century theatre with Waiting for Godot. Beckett had not considered writing for wireless before, but was excited by a work of only sounds. All That Fall, in which an old lady has three encounters on an Irish road, explored the dramatic possibilities of the mind’s eye, silence and sound effects – such as a bicycle bell revealing a mode of transport.

1958 – Blue Peter

Having recently lost the Suez Canal, Britain perhaps compensated by building a children’s TV show around the symbol of a boat. If this seems odd, remember that many BBC producers at the time held naval rank. Inquirers were told that the show’s name invoked the “voyage of adventure” on which children would go. Remaining on air for two-thirds of the BBC’s history, it became a power franchise under Biddy Baxter, editor from 1962-88, and presenters – John Noakes, Valerie Singleton, Peter Purves – who established the tradition of British children being indelibly branded by “their” Blue Peter presenters.

1959 – Juke Box Jury

On a Monday night in June, BBC Television launched its most serious pop music project. Pete Murray, an early example of a profession billed in the first listing as a “dee jay”, and a panel including young singer Alma Cogan, judged new singles “hit” or “miss”.

1960 – An Age of Kings, Maigret

The increasing power of ITV – as it prepared for the December debut of Coronation Street – again galvanised the BBC to fatten its fiction offering. A year before the launch of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the corporation stuck a flag in the ground with An Age of Kings, a mashup of Shakespeare’s English history plays. It would do so again in Wars of the Roses, an RSC co-production in 1965, the BBC Television Shakespeare (1978) and The Hollow Crown (2012-16), periods when the corporation wanted to stress its public service credentials to win government support. With Rupert Davies as the French detective created by the Belgian author Georges Simenon, Maigret was the first, and for many the best, of several TV retellings of these stories.

1961 – Comedy Playhouse

As the expense of TV production became clear, companies often made “pilots” – single episodes to test the potential for a full run. Having effectively started BBC sitcom with Hancock’s Half Hour, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were so prolific that they wrote 10 pilots for possible future series, of which The Offer, about a dysfunctional father and son in a junk shop, became the classic Steptoe and Son.

• Coming up tomorrow (1962-1971): four new TV shows still on air in 2022.