Happy birthday, BBC, but…

15th November 2012

The BBC yesterday brought together all of its radio channels for a charming Damon Albarn composition to celebrate ninety years since it first went on air. Other offerings to mark the occasion include a neat online interactive timeline. I am frustrated, however, that the enthusiasm of the timeline’s creators seems to have led to a clutch of errors that while perhaps minor are nonetheless unforgiveable in a history of the corporation by the corporation. Take a look at May 1937, where the section about coverage of George VI’s coronation claims this as ‘the BBC’s first television outside broadcast’. Except that it wasn’t…

Show jumping demonstrations had been transmitted from the park at Alexandra Palace in November 1936 and again in February 1937. On 29 March scenes from a Bank Holiday fair at Alexandra Palace park were shown as an outside broadcast. At the nets on Saturday 3 April was an outside broadcast from the Alexandra Palace Indoor Cricket Club and there was a transmission from Alexandra Palace station later in the month. All were modest affairs and the locations were close to the television studios – but they were nonetheless outside broadcasts, and were celebrated as such in Radio Times.

Moving along, the BBC’s birthday timeline marks July 1948 and ‘the first televised Olympic Games’. Except that the London games that year were not the first to be broadcast on television. In Berlin in 1936 events from the Olympics were transmitted by television technology to viewing rooms in the German capital. London may have been the first games to be shown on television in Britain, but that’s not exactly what the timeline says.

Nor should the timeline get away with the claim that in April 1974 The Family was the first ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary. This is a particularly egregious claim, given that the tradition of ‘direct cinema’ or verité filmmaking stetches back at least to the pioneering work of Drew Associates from 1960 on. Primary, about John F Kennedy’s campaign in Wisconsin in the summer of 1960 has a far stronger claim to be the first ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary, and there were many other comparable films in the following years. The Space Between Words, made for BBC and PBS in 1972 by Roger Graef and Charles Stewart, is only one important example.

The BBC is a great and glorious and remarkable (though far from perfect) institution – and we need to remember that perhaps now more than ever. And its record is such that it does not need to make inflated claims for ‘firsts’ that were no such thing. With that caveat, it’s worth saying once more…

Happy Birthday, BBC!



  1. craig melson says:

    This is awesome. Critics would do well to read this!

    However its disappointing that in the last few years of their timeline, all the innovations and milestones are technical focused.

    Yes, iplayer/Super HD/red button have been great new ways to consume content, where is the innovative content itself? Last great success that was ground breaking was either castaway or walking with dinos.

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