Strictly delights and Mrs Brown’s Boys divides: 100 years of the BBC, part nine
A fight with Downing Street decapitates BBC management, but revenge is taken with a foul-mouthed Tucker and a superfranchise that takes the biscuit.
2002 – The Kumars at No 42
In their breakthrough series Goodness Gracious Me, Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal brilliantly inverted racial stereotypes, most strikingly in their sketch about Indians, hungry for a takeaway, “getting an English”. Even more boldly, this series played with an Asian cliche – the suffocating loyalty of parents to their kids – by imagining the character Sanjeev’s mum and dad indulging their son’s broadcasting dreams by building him a TV studio at home, in which he interviews real celebrities (including Daniel Radcliffe, Diana Rigg and Adrian Lester).
Queen Elizabeth II is reputed to have confided that The Kumars at No 42 was one of her favourite programmes – an astonishing historical footnote, given that five immediate ancestors, including her father, held the title of emperor or empress of India.
2003 – Today
Although a radio show called Today has run since 1957, the form then – a lighthearted half-hour miscellany – was very different from what it would become: three hours of turkey-cocking political coverage. The most consequential interview in the programme’s history occurred at a time – 6.07am – when listenership is lowest. But the item, on 29 May 2003, destroyed several careers, and launched a chain of events that ended in a death. After Andrew Gilligan told presenter John Humphrys of the claim from an anonymous source that Downing Street had “sexed up” the dossier used to justify joining the US war against Iraq, prime minister Tony Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, complained to the BBC. The revelation of Gilligan’s source as UN weapons inspector Dr David Kelly forced Kelly into hiding, during which he was found dead, the cause ruled by a coroner as suicide. Campbell, a news manager who became the news, resigned in August. In January 2004, the Hutton inquiry into the affair questioned the reliability of Gilligan’s evidence: he resigned from the BBC, as did director general Greg Dyke and chair Gavyn Davies. Blair won a third term as PM in 2005, but his reputation never recovered.
2004 – Strictly Come Dancing
The rapid liberalisation of retail hours (including Sunday opening) meant advertisers were far keener to push products on Saturdays, making it ITV’s biggest night and shaping the fortunes of Simon Cowell (The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent) and Ant & Dec (Saturday Night Takeaway, I’m a Celebrity …). The BBC’s attempt to compete rested on reinventing an old format, Come Dancing, with the crucial twist that it was now pro-am pairs. It also reinvented an older Saturday-night presenter, Bruce Forsyth, who, at 76, became a star for a new generation, combining impossibly ancient jokes with impressively youthful feet. Newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, partnered by Brendan Cole, was the first winner.
2005 – The Thick of It
Armando Iannucci’s mock doc about useless New Labour ministers imaginatively sworn at by a brutal spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker (his surname a rhyme for a favourite insult), can be seen as BBC revenge for the David Kelly affair. Many saw Tucker as a lampoon of Alastair Campbell, with the Scottishness and scatological language spectacularly ramped up; the BBC and Iannucci always denied this, but their response was most likely PR and legal spin. Thought to be the first TV show to employ a “swearing consultant” (Ian Martin) to salt Tucker’s tirades, the show identified that the idea of civil servants really running the country in Yes, Minister had been replaced by freelance hardmen brought in to Downing Street as consultants. This proved prescient as Campbell was followed by Gordon Brown’s Damian McBride, David Cameron’s Andy Coulson, Theresa May’s Nick Timothy and Boris Johnson’s Dominic Cummings. Roger Allam’s Peter Mannion MP – a Conservative followed from opposition to eventual government – also skewered the post-Blair Westminster archetype of sleazy, lazy, scandal-prone Tory. Was Boris Johnson watching?
Related: Diana makes explosive revelations and Partridge devours the hand that feeds him: 100 years of the BBC, part eight
2006 – Gideon’s Daughter
Stephen Poliakoff, after a period in cinema and theatre, returned to the BBC in 1999 with the intention of “slowing television drama down”. The results were Shooting the Past (1999), Perfect Strangers (2001) and The Lost Prince (2003). All were complex, showing Poliakoff’s interest in what English society has chosen to forget or bury. Proving to be the most prolific and inventive male TV dramatist since Dennis Potter, Poliakoff went back to single films, including Gideon’s Daughter. A spin doctor (Bill Nighy) and the mother (Miranda Richardson) of a young boy killed on an unsafe road start a tense relationship in the period of the rise of Blair and death of Diana. Typically, Poliakoff identified wounds, weirdnesses and weaknesses beneath the surface of British society that would burst through in the next decade and a half: it could have been subtitled The Odd Country.
2007 – Gavin & Stacey
One of the biggest successes of the youth-targeted BBC Three was this BBC Wales sitcom about a Welsh-Essex culture clash. The title couple – played by Matthew Horne and Joanna Page – meet on a double blind date, accompanied by their respective best friends Smithy and Nessa, played by the show’s writers, James Corden and Ruth Jones. They had learned from Only Fools and Horses – a similarly warm depiction of working-class culture – the importance of supporting roles that major performers relish: in this case, Alison Steadman as Gavin’s mother and Rob Brydon as Stacey’s Uncle Bryn. Because of demand for the cast elsewhere, the regular series ended in 2010, but a 2019 one-off Christmas reunion attracted 18.49 million viewers – a tidy number indeed in this century.
2008 – A Matter of Loaf and Death
A big BBC problem this decade was the loss of a beloved dog. Gromit, created by Nick Park’s Aardman Studios, was signed by Hollywood for the 2005 horror spoof The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. This left him unavailable to TV for a decade. As consolation, repeats of Park’s earlier BBC shorts The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave were becoming a Christmas tradition when the plasticine superstars – eccentric cheeseaholic inventor Wallace and his wise but silent dog – were lured back for a yuletide special. Park’s status as one of Britain’s greatest creative figures – combining the cartoon vision of Walt Disney with the narrative knack of Alfred Hitchcock and Agatha Christie – was confirmed by this thriller based around the breadmaking business (a serial killer plots to kill a “baker’s dozen” of 13 victims) in which Gromit finds a life-saving use for dough. Peter Sallis did his Wallace (northern, kind, naive) for the last time.
2009 – Pointless/Graham Norton
With radio heading for its ninth decade and television its eighth, producers and critics increasingly feared format exhaustion, schedules becoming a web of repeats and reboots. But the continuing possibility of fresh approaches was shown by this quiz, co-hosted by Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman. Ingeniously, contestants were not required to give a correct answer, but to guess the least popular response in a category (say Shakespeare plays or garden flowers) from a 100-strong focus group. So, with beautiful counterintuition, the optimal score in any round was 0. Much loved by those spending a lot of time at home (a sector massively increased during the Covid pandemic), Pointless deserves a medal for combatting loneliness.
In a significant changing of the guard, Graham Norton took over Eurovision commentary after Terry Wogan’s retirement, and soon added a Radio 2 Saturday-morning show, also influenced by Wogan, to The Graham Norton Show that had been running since 2007. It still flourishes today, confirming him as the BBC’s best celebrity interviewer since Parkinson.
2010 – The Great British Bake Off
Although the schedules looked fresh, there was an undertow of worry about so many shows being created by independent production companies rather than in-house teams. Nightmare exhibit A was Bake Off: the most adored new programme since Strictly, and, like Pointless, reflecting a preference for wholesome material after the 2008 incident in which Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s offensive prank call to Andrew Sachs led to Ross’s suspension and the BBC paying a £150,000 fine to Ofcom. Love Productions invented a sort of kitchen version of Strictly, showcasing amateurs. While Michael Gove would soon suggest that “people have had enough of experts”, Bake Off understood that expertise, in any field, is compelling. The soft sponge/hard tart judging combination of Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood was entertaining but also informative, in a way that Reith would have approved. Who knew extreme patisserie would make such good television? Confirming a fault line of the corporation’s old age, intellectual property rights belonged to Love who, at contract’s end, could sell to a higher bidder, as it did in 2016, with Channel 4 the winner.
2011 – Mrs Brown’s Boys
Many will be horrified by the inclusion of this sitcom in which writer Brendan O’Carroll, with false breasts and hair-netted-wig, plays a foul-mouthed Dublin widow named Agnes Brown. But this show epitomises the crisis of identity and funding that engulfed the BBC in its 10th and 11th decades. Was its primary purpose public service content (which wouldn’t appeal to the mass audience implied by a universal licence fee) or content that a large part of the public wanted? Regularly given zero-star reviews in the lower-circulation newspapers, it attracted up to 12 million viewers, exceptionally high as its ribald content forced post-watershed slots. Its few critical admirers praised O’Carroll’s immersive drag acting, well-drilled physical farce and even postmodernist jokes – as when Agnes forgets her handbag and clambers across cameras and sets to fetch it from the room where the first scene took place. Like EastEnders three decades earlier, the show confused politicians smearing the BBC as a highbrow liberal institution.
• Coming up tomorrow (2012-2022) – big numbers: BBC 100, HMQ 70/96