The Daily Telegraph - Saturday

BBC Two is 60 – but it may not reach its 70th birthday

Once a beacon of creativity, the channel is now run on a shoestring. Liam Kelly asks if it still has a role in the streaming age

- Kate, Civilisati­on, Top Gear The Great British Bake Off. Fawlty Towers, Earth Arena Horizon My Way, Life of a Ford Cortina. Kiss Me The Private Arena. Life on Our Friends in the North, Only Connect, Antiques Roadshow. of Games, Newark Line

The launch of BBC Two did not go to plan. It was April 20 1964 and, after a weeks-long advertisin­g campaign featuring a cartoon kangaroo and her joey, Britain’s third television station was set to combine bold programme-making with cutting-edge technology.

Then disaster struck. Less than an hour before the appointed start time, 7.20pm, a fire at Battersea Power Station caused a power cut that plunged BBC Television Centre in west London into complete darkness. Rather than the scheduled set by

Soviet comedian Arkady Raikin and production of Cole Porter’s

it was left to a lonely Gerald Priestland at Alexandra Palace in the north of the capital to read the news on repeat. They tried again the following evening and, happily, the technology worked.

Despite that inauspicio­us start, BBC Two quickly became one of the most interestin­g channels on television.

Set up with the brief to “broadcast programmes of depth and substance”, it was given licence to be less populist than BBC One and ITV and broadcast

The second most watched show now is Flog It!, which has not broadcast a new episode since May 2020

highbrow programmes that became cultural icons.

The channel – run by broadcasti­ng greats such as David Attenborou­gh, Alan Yentob and Mark Thompson – was the first to show programmes in colour, gripped almost 20 million people with the “black ball” 1985 world snooker final and launched programmes as varied as Kenneth Clark’s and

Where else could you watch

Attenborou­gh’s own or Yentob chewing the fat with Orson Welles?

Its trademark was an eclectic mix of arts, comedy and documentar­ies that broadened minds and soothed souls. Science series has been going since the very beginning, and the

arts strand is still with us after almost 50 years. Two of its biggest hits were an exploratio­n of Frank Sinatra’s and a show called

“For me, what was important was trying to bring high culture and popular culture together,” says Yentob, controller of BBC Two between 1987 and 1993, and the driving force behind “It was a great period to be making programmes and commission­ing.”

As it enters its seventh decade this weekend, the channel has dramatical­ly changed. It has not had a dedicated controller since March 2021 and is commission­ing a fraction of the new, original shows it once did. A quick glance at today’s schedule is enough to make one wonder how dedicated it is to “depth and substance” now. There are three quiz shows, four travelogue­s and three programmes about gardens. Four hours, from 9am to 1pm, are taken up with a simulcast of the BBC News Channel.

It didn’t used to be this way. BBC Two was bold and was the place where

Alec Guinness played George Smiley and, more recently, was the landing spot for and

“Running BBC Two was definitely the best job I ever had, because you could be ambitious, you could be popular, you could speak to the zeitgeist and you’d get noticed,” says Michael Jackson, the channel’s controller between 1993 and 1996. Jackson’s hits included the seminal

which helped launch the careers of Daniel Craig and Christophe­r Eccleston, and Chris Morris’s

It is a very different picture now. Of the top 10 most watched individual programmes on the channel since the start of last year, four were episodes of

the cult quiz show, while another four were from the 43rd series of The show with the top ratings, live and after 28 days on iPlayer, was a spin-off chat show from BBC One’s hit murder mystery reality game. It drew 4.2 million viewers, 600,000 more than the second-placed August episode of according to TV data provider Barb.

Turning to the shows that had the most viewing minutes, which skews towards those programmes with the most episodes, the change is even more obvious.

an addictive game show in the 6pm weekday slot that broadcasts hundreds of episodes each year, is top of the tree. Second is programme that has not broadcast a new episode since it was cancelled in May 2020. has been shown more than 400 times on BBC Two since January 2023, a sad statistic for a channel that was once a beacon of innovation and creative excellence.

The corporatio­n has even started padding out the schedules with programmes that were broadcast years ago on UKTV channels, which have been wholly owned by its commercial wing, BBC Studios, since 2019. So far this year it has pinched

– the Nottingham­shire-set Morgana Robinson sitcom that debuted on Gold in 2022 – and the

wannabe fronted by David Mitchell, following its premiere on Dave.

Meanwhile, which was once a must-watch, has long since been denuded of its Paxmanian heft and from next month is to transform from an investigat­ive powerhouse to a half-hour discussion show, with the loss of 60 per cent of its staff.

The culprit, as with so many issues in TV, is the growth of streaming and, in the BBC’s particular case, the 30 per cent real-terms cut in income it has been forced to endure since the Conservati­ves came to power.

“We are entering into an age when the channel is on its last legs, in the age of iPlayer and when the brand of programmes are often bigger and speak louder than the channel,” says Jackson. “Whether anybody will be celebratin­g the 70th anniversar­y of BBC Two is a moot point. That would be a cause for sadness because it has an incredible record, but I am sure the values of BBC Two and its audience will be part of what the BBC does in the streaming environmen­t.”

Jackson draws a parallel with that other industry that has been disrupted by the internet – retail. “Once upon a time, department stores were an essential feature of the high streets of all big towns, because they were a catch-all,” says Jackson. “Now we don’t want a catch-all, we want to go to a very specific place where we can get exactly what we want, whether it’s online or on the high street.

“And so, in a way, the channels are an old-fashioned form of organisati­on. In a way, BBC Two is the Harvey Nichols of television when people are shopping online. That’s not a negative thing. It’s just the changing nature of choice and technology.”

Despite the changes, BBC Two is still regularly watched by more than half the TV-viewing public every month and its 5 per cent share compares favourably with rivals. “You’re still talking about millions of people watching,” says Tom Harrington of the media company Enders Analysis. “You compare it to 10 or 15 years ago and there’s a decline, but that’s still a lot of people.”

With the end of the licence fee in the near-term a real possibilit­y, tougher times may lie ahead. “The BBC has got to make decisions about the amount of programmes it can make; drama is more costly,” says Yentob. “There are many more challenges than there used to be.”

Yentob believes the corporatio­n needs to make better use of its archive as a way to grab new viewers, in the same way that Netflix and Disney have had millions of eyeballs glued to the services for things that are in the back catalogue.

“BBC Two is 60 years old and it was a pioneer,” says Yentob. “I believe those values – the need to support the arts, science and history – are incredibly important.”

Or, alternativ­ely, you could just watch five-year-old episodes of

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