While TV spent most of the licence fee, the BBC launched three landmarks of radio, darkened its comedy output and screened a show that now lies in disgrace.
1992 – Ken Bruce
One of the most natural radio broadcasters of my lifetime, Ken Bruce was for a long time in the shadow of Terry Wogan, whose Celtic tones and wit he echoed, and had previously been dropped from the mid-morning Radio 2 slot he has now occupied for three decades. Never seen or paid as a superstar, he has flourished through sheer weight of listener love and an exquisite quiz format (Popmaster) but, above all, a linguistic fluency and literacy second only to Wogan. Even after so long on the same show, the way he teases a joke or news reference out of a record or conversation is masterly.
1993 – The Ark/The Buddha of Suburbia
Starting its eighth decade, the BBC had moved from credit lists full of army and navy chaps to ones still dominated by white men but in which there were signs of wider recruitment. This was especially notable on BBC Two, where Molly Dineen confirmed herself as one of the great documentarians with The Ark, a sensitive four-part study of London zoo, in which the boardroom fight between traditionalists and reformers mirrored the revolutions on right and left under Thatcherism and Blairism. And Hanif Kureishi, who had been given his start at Channel 4 (with My Beautiful Laundrette, and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) brought some edge to the oldest broadcaster with an adaptation of The Buddha of Suburbia, his novel of sexual and political awakening in the 1970s, directed by the brilliant Roger Michell.
1994 – Knowing Me, Knowing You
BBC Two popularised two names with huge careers ahead of them: Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge, with his running commentary on the vanities, inanities and career crashes of presenters. Continuing two BBC traditions, Knowing Me, Knowing You had been workshopped in radio (Partridge was the sportscaster on Chris Morris’s On the Hour) and sent up BBC television. Subverting chatshows in Knowing Me, Knowing You, Coogan/Partridge would later mock local radio in I’m Alan Partridge and eviscerate The One Show in This Time With Alan Partridge. In his BBC career, Coogan didn’t so much bite the hand that was feeding him as devour it up to the shoulder.
1995 – Panorama: An Interview with HRH the Princess of Wales
After the then heir to the throne’s estranged wife gave her Kensington Palace staff the day off, a BBC crew and interviewer Martin Bashir were smuggled in to record a programme that changed the history of two institutions. Diana’s nods as questions began suggested that she knew what was coming, and her replies often felt headline-ready (“There were three of us in that marriage so it was a bit crowded”). But her glamorous candour won her a lucrative divorce from Prince Charles and freed her to date others, including Dodi Fayed, with whom she was fatally injured in a Paris tunnel in 1997.
The monarchy subsequently recovered much reputation, but the BBC lost a large part of its when, in a 2021 report, retired judge Lord Dyson confirmed claims, led by Diana’s brother Earl Spencer, that Bashir had used fake documents and told lies to win the interviews, actions that were ineffectually investigated by Tony Hall, head of news and later director general. The BBC is estimated to have paid several million in compensation and legal costs to those affected. The interview now belongs to a tiny number of programmes (the others mainly featuring convicted paedophile presenters) that the BBC has pledged never to repeat.
1996 – Our Friends in the North/This Life
A complaint familiar to prime ministers – favouring the south of England over the north – is also often aimed at BBC executives. As controller of BBC Two, Macclesfield-born, Notting Hill-resident Michael Jackson balanced his budget between ambitious dramas for both. Peter Flannery had been trying for more than a decade to turn his 1982 play into a TV series, but had been rebuffed. Jackson boldly green-lit a nine-part series following a group of Newcastle mates between 1964 and 1995 against a background of events public (council corruption, feminism, the Falklands) and private (infidelity, bankruptcy). The show created four new screen stars – Christopher Eccleston, Mark Strong, Gina McKee, Daniel Craig – and, as they had to age three decades, it was Christmas for the wig industry.
If Flannery focused on old Labour, the impending New Labour was previewed in Amy Jenkins’s This Life, about young professionals house-sharing in south London. Experienced producer Tony Garnett found star talent from a new generation in Andrew Lincoln, Daniela Nardini and Cyril Nri. Scenes of characters enjoying drugs, sex and money modernised a BBC Two most associated with gardening and snooker.
1997 – Driving School
After The Family in 1974, the genre of “docusoap” had been slow to take off, possibly because of a feeling that the Wilkins clan had been treated as zoo animals. So the big wave of UK reality TV dates from this summer series about driving instructors in the south-west. It was planned as an ensemble piece but Maureen Rees, a hapless multiple failure prone to selecting reverse instead of first, became a national comedy hero. The pleasure of laughing at others’ incompetence encouraged the climate in which cruelty TV elimination contests, such as The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, flourished.
1998 – In Our Time/The Royle Family
Even after 76 years, BBC radio could still innovate. When Melvyn Bragg, after accepting the Labour whip in the House of Lords, was forced to leave Start the Week on political impartiality grounds, Radio 4 controller James Boyle came up with a rare example of a consolation prize that proves to be a bigger trophy. Heading for its 25th birthday next year, In Our Time has educated more people than the Open University, with Bragg, sometimes amusingly tetchy at academic rank being pulled on him, in discussion with dons on topics from Aquinas to Zoroastrianism. The most significant TV debut was The Royle Family, Caroline Aherne and Craig Cash’s sitcom, which took TV on TV even further by focusing on a working-class northern family sitting around their set.
1999 – The League of Gentlemen
Talent-scouted on the Edinburgh fringe, Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson’s comedy-horror set in the xenophobic, psychopathic northern village of Royston Vasey had a Radio 4 run before a rapid transfer to BBC Two, then run by Jane Root, the corporation’s first woman channel controller in TV, after a 69-year wait. The three main men – Dyson was chiefly a writer – played all genders and races in a way that would be problematic now, but the series was remarkable for its deeply layered references to British film and TV such as Nigel Kneale’s serial about an experimental scientist beginning with The Quatermass Experiment, and sinister catchphrases (“A local shop for local people”).
2000 – Little Britain
Another Root transfer from Radio 4 – its success now also shadowed by doubts over male actors playing everyone – featured Matt Lucas and David Walliams as cross-dressed, ventriloquised multiple personalities including a monstrously rude slimming club moderator, a gay Downing Street aide in love with the Blairite PM, and an adult man still feeding at his mother’s breast. Looking at The League of Gentlemen and Little Britain now, it is striking how BBC comedy, on the cusp of a second century, looked forwards in terms of bold content but backwards to earlier broadcast tropes: Lucas and Walliams spoofed observational documentary with a voiceover by a major Doctor Who alumnus, Tom Baker.
2001 – The Office/Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review
The meaning of truth and reality – in politics and culture – proved to be a huge issue in the new century/millennium. Such doubts about what we were seeing was presciently reflected by a comedy filmed with such impeccable documentary vérité that one BBC board member believed that David Brent, a manager of Wernham Hogg paper company in Slough who is deluded about his coolness, was an actual person rather than a character played by Ricky Gervais.
In radio, a key launch was a Friday afternoon montage of movie reviews and interviews, perfectly pairing Mark Kermode’s obsessive knowledge of cinema with Simon Mayo’s civilian curiosity. It would eventually run on 5 Live for a fifth of the BBC’s first century and has been one of the corporation’s most popular and important arts programmes. The duo’s poaching in 2022 by commercial radio symbolised BBC radio’s journey from monopoly with the pick of stars to losing staff to richer rivals (Eddie Mair, Andrew Marr, Emily Maitlis, Jon Sopel have also been poached).
• Coming up tomorrow (2002-2011) – after Downing Street disaster, dancing and baking distract.