On the 19th February 1985, the BBC’s flagship soap opera EastEnders was broadcast for the first time. Now airing four episodes a week, the series has been broadcast continuously ever since and remains one of the most popular television shows in the United Kingdom.
EastEnders was created by Julia Smith and Tony Holland, a producer and script editing partnership who had previously worked together on long-running police drama Z-Cars. In March 1983 they were asked to come up with a bi-weekly evening television drama by David Reid, the BBC’s Head of Series & Serials, who wanted a new show to run 52 weeks a year.
Smith and Holland were both from London, and opted to set the soap in the East End. They based the original twenty-four characters on their own families and people they had met in London’s ‘real’ East End, and contacted casting agencies in search of actors to fill the roles. Their repeated phone calls asking for ‘real East Enders’ provided Smith with the idea for the show’s name.
The show required a huge set to be built at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. Meanwhile, composer Simon May created the now-iconic theme tune. This was to play over an aerial view of London pieced together from 800 separate photographs taken from an aeroplane flying 1000 feet over London.
The show was first broadcast on the 19th February 1985 as part of new BBC One controller Michael Grade’s ‘relaunch’ of the channel. The first episode secured an audience of 17 million, which increased to 23 million by the end of the year.
On the 5th February 1924 the BBC ‘pips’ were broadcast for the first time. Five short pips signal the five seconds leading up to the hour, with a slightly longer pip marking the start of the new hour. Although now largely inaccurate as a result of the inherent delay in the encoding, transmission, and decoding of digital radio broadcasts, the pips are still a part of many BBC radio programmes.
The BBC successfully broadcast the chimes of Big Ben for the first time at New Year 1924. This led the Astronomer Royal at the time, Sir Frank Watson Dyson, to suggest that time signals could be broadcast more regularly. Having convinced BBC boss John Reith, the Royal Greenwich Observatory fitted the pendula of two mechanical clocks with electrical contacts that sent a signal to the BBC every second.
The equipment that generated the pips moved from Greenwich in 1939, but the pips are still known officially as the Greenwich Time Signal. The name was even kept after the Greenwich Time Service stopped transmitting the pips in 1990. Since then, the national BBC stations have generated the pips themselves using an atomic clock in the basement of Broadcasting House.
Due to their use as a time signal, the BBC doesn’t allow programmes to broadcast the six pip sequence for any other reason, and used to strongly discourage broadcasters from ‘crashing the pips’ – that is playing any other sound at the same time. Although this rule is now less rigorously enforced on most stations, some Radio 4 listeners still wait with baited breath to hear a presenter accidentally talk over them.
Desert Island Discs is Britain’s longest-running radio programme.
Devised by the English radio broadcaster and producer Roy Plomley in November 1941, each episode of Desert Island Discs features an interview with a celebrity who imagines that they have been cast away on a desert island with only a limited number of home comforts. In the early years they were permitted to choose eight songs to take with them, although a few years after the programme’s inception castaways were also allowed to take one book and one luxury item, in addition to a copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and an appropriate religious or philosophical work such as the Bible.
Plomley was commissioned to create the new radio programme by the BBC’s Head of Popular Record Programmes, Leslie Perowne. Just two months after he pitched the idea, he found himself in the bomb-damaged studio at Maida Vale conducting the very first interview with popular entertainer Vic Oliver who chose Chopin’s Étude No.12 in C minor, “Revolutionary”, as his first piece of music.
The first series was originally commissioned to run on the BBC Forces Programme for eight weeks but, excluding a break between 1946-51, has remained on air for 42 weeks a year ever since. Plomley himself presented the programme until his death in 1985, in which time he recorded 1,791 episodes. He was succeeded as presenter by Michael Parkinson.
Desert Island Discs still features the same theme music, “By the Sleepy Lagoon” by Eric Coates which is overlaid with sounds of herring gulls to conjure up the feeling of being by the sea. Some listeners, however, continue to take issue with this sound effect since herring gulls are not known to congregate near tropical islands.
On the 23rd November 1963, the first ever episode of cult science fiction television show Doctor Who was broadcast by the BBC. Called An Unearthly Child, the episode was the first of a four-part serial that saw actor William Hartnell take the role of the time-travelling Doctor – a character he played for three years. The show was greeted with a generally positive reception, even though its launch was affected by a power cut in parts of the country as well as being significantly overshadowed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy the previous day.
Doctor Who was originally conceived to bridge the gap in the Saturday evening television schedule between the adult-oriented sports program Grandstand and the more teenage-focused music quiz Jukebox Jury. The idea of a time-traveling science fiction series appealed to Sydney Newman, the BBC’s new Head of Drama, who came up with the idea of a time machine that was bigger on the inside along with creating the mysterious character of “the Doctor”.
Produced by Verity Lambert and directed by Waris Hussein, An Unearthly Child was taped ‘as live’ on the 27th September. However Newman was unhappy with many elements such as technical problems and performance errors including fluffed lines, so a second version was taped on the 18th October.
The overshadowing of the episode’s first broadcast by the Kennedy assassination led to it being repeated directly before the second episode the following week which saw increased viewing figures. Popularity skyrocketed with the second serial – The Daleks – a storyline that was initially rejected due to it featuring so-called “bug-eyed monsters”.
On the 18th October 1922, the British Broadcasting Company was established. Originally established as a private consortium of radio manufacturers to secure the first broadcasting license in the UK, the company later became the British Broadcasting Corporation when it transferred to government ownership under the Postmaster General, the ministerial position that was responsible for the postal system and telecommunications.
In the early 1920s, the UK’s radio set producers were keen to expand their market. At the time the government only granted occasional ‘experimental’ radio licenses, which meant that there were large periods when the airwaves were completely silent. This was no use to radio manufacturers themselves who needed broadcasts in order to make their products worthwhile.
As more and more requests were submitted for the ‘experimental’ licenses, the government declared its decision to instead grant a single broadcasting license to a consortium of the UK’s leading radio manufacturers. The six companies held an equal amount of shares in the new venture, which hired John – later to become Lord – Reith as its first Managing Director.
The new broadcasting company was funded through a royalty on the sale of radio sets sold by the member producers, and by a license fee. However, the number of amateur electronics enthusiasts who began building their own sets meant that the income did not produce adequate funds. Consequently the member companies found themselves making a loss, which contributed to their desire to extricate themselves from the arrangement. By the time the BBC had begun its first experimental television broadcasts in 1932, the company had been publicly funded for five years.
At 7am on the 30th September 1967, the words “… And, good morning everyone. Welcome to the exciting new sound of Radio 1” launched the BBC’s new popular music station. Created to compete with the successful offshore ‘pirate’ radio stations that had been outlawed by an Act of Parliament, Radio 1’s target demographic has continued to be the 15-29 year old age group, and so the music it broadcasts has continuously evolved throughout its history. While “Flowers in the Rain”, a song by The Move, was the first to be played on the new station you would never hear it on Radio 1 now!
The first voice on the station – that of DJ Tony Blackburn – had first been heard on the pirate stations Radio Caroline and Radio London. Having moved to the BBC earlier in 1967 his cheery presenting style made him the perfect person to host the breakfast show, which he did until 1973. However, his own dislike of heavier rock music made him unpopular with some listeners who were disappointed that the BBC had managed to get the pirate stations banned but then didn’t fill the hole in the airwaves with anything equivalent.
Adding to the complaints from listeners, the existence of so-called ‘needle time’ meant that Radio 1 featured more DJ talk than the pirate stations. This legally imposed limit on the amount of commercial music the station could play was initially a problem for the station, but it led to a large number of live broadcasts and recordings being made that have – over time – become prized in their own right.