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BBC Two (BBC2 until 1997) is the second major terrestrial television channel of the BBC, aimed at a wide range of subject matter and interests, and specialising in intelligent yet popular programme genres. Like the BBC's other domestic TV and radio networks, it is commercial-free and yet remains a comparatively well funded public service network, regularly attaining a much higher audience share than most current public service networks worldwide. It was the second British television station to be launched by the BBC (starting in 1964), and Europe's first television channel to broadcast regularly in colour, from 1967, envisaged as a home for less mainstream and more ambitious programming.


As a result of its criticisms of the populism of ITV, the 1962 Pilkington Report recommended that Britain's third television channel should be awarded to the BBC.

Prior to its launch, BBC2 was promoted on the BBC Television Service channel soon to be renamed BBC1; the animated adverts featured the campaign mascots "Hullabaloo" (a mother kangaroo) and "Custard" (her joey). Prior to its formal launch (and for several years afterwards) the channel broadcast 'Trade Test Transmissions', short films made externally by companies such as Shell and BP, which served to enable engineers to test reception, but became cult viewing.

The channel was scheduled to begin at 19:20 on 20 April 1964 and show an evening of light entertainment, starting with the comedy show The Alberts, a performance from Sovietmarker comedian Arkady Raikin, and a production of Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate, culminating with a fireworks display.

However, at around 18:45 a huge power failure, originating from Battersea Power Stationmarker, caused Television Centremarker to lose all power. BBC1 was able to continue broadcasting via its facilities at Alexandra Palacemarker, but all attempts to show the scheduled programmes on the new channel failed. Associated-Rediffusion, the London ITV franchise-holder, offered to transmit on the BBC's behalf, but their gesture was rejected, presumably for pride's sake.

However, at 22:00 BBC2 had no choice but to concede defeat and postpone programming until the following morning. As the BBC's news centre at Alexandra Palace was unaffected, they did in fact broadcast brief bulletins on BBC2 that evening, beginning with an announcement by the newsreader Gerald Priestland at around 19:25. There was believed to be no recording ever made of this bulletin, but one was discovered in early 2003.

By 11:00 on 21 April, power had been restored to the studios and programming began, thus making Play School the first programme to be shown officially on the channel. The launch schedule, postponed from the night before, was then successfully shown that evening, albeit with minor changes. In reference to the power cut, the transmission opened with a shot of a lit candle which was then sarcastically blown out by presenter Denis Tuohy.

To establish the new channel's identity and draw viewers to it, the BBC decided that a widely promoted, lavish series would be essential in its earliest days. The production chosen was The Forsyte Saga, a no-expense-spared adaptation of the novels by John Galsworthy, featuring well-established actors Kenneth More and Eric Porter. Critically for the future of the fledgling channel, the BBC's gamble was hugely successful, with an average of six million viewers tuning in per episode of a total of only 9 million able to receive the channel at the time, and BBC2 was safely established with the public.

Unlike the other channels available at that time (BBC1 and ITV), BBC2 was broadcast only on the 625 line UHF system, so was not available to viewers with 405-line VHF sets. This created a market for dual standard receivers which could switch between the two systems. The early technical problems, which included being unable to transmit US-made videotapes due to a lack of system conversion from the US NTSC system, were resolved by a committee headed by James Redmond.

BBC1 and ITV later joined BBC2 on 625-line UHF but continued to simulcast on 405-line VHF until 1985. In July 1967, BBC2 became the first channel in Europe to begin regular broadcasts in colour, using the PAL system. The thirteen part series Civilisation was created as a celebration of two millennia of western art and culture to showpiece the new colour technology. BBC1 and ITV simultaneously introduced PAL colour on UHF on 15 November 1969.

As the switch to digital-only terrestrial transmission progresses, BBC Two is (in each region in turn) the first analogue TV channel to be replaced with the BBC multiplex, four weeks ahead of the other four channels. This is required for those relay transmitters that have no current Freeview giving viewers time to purchase the equipment, unless they have already selected Freesat.


Jane Root, who was appointed in 1999 and was the first woman to be appointed controller of a BBC television channel, departed in May 2004 to become the executive vice president and general manager of the US-based Discovery Channel. BBC Two was channel of the year in 2007.

Present and past programmes

Nowadays, new BBC programmes often appear on BBC Two, especially if those behind them have not proven themselves elsewhere. A successful BBC Two programme has often been moved to BBC One, in the manner of Have I Got News for You and Torchwood (which was actually moved up to BBC Two from BBC Three). Over its first thirty or so years the channel developed a reputation for screening highly praised and prestigious drama series, amongst these Boys from the Blackstuff (1982) or 1996's epic, critically-acclaimed Our Friends in the North ; its "highbrow" profile compared to rivals is also in part attributable to a long history of demanding documentaries of all types, beginning with Civilisation and The Ascent of Man. Like the early Channel 4, BBC2 also established for itself a reputation as a champion of independent and international cinema.

The channel has sometimes been judged in more recent years increasingly to have moved away from this original role and to have moved closer to the mainstream. The perception of its greater minority interest nevertheless persists in today's multi-channel world, so that a programme moved from BBC Two to BBC One will often attract a much larger audience, even though no other change has been made. Since 2004 there have been some signs of an attempt to return closer to parts of BBC Two's earlier output with the arts strand The Culture Show and intermittent night-time repeats of programming from BBC Four. Its most popular programme at the moment is Top Gear.

During the evenings, alternative programmes are broadcast on BBC Two Northern Ireland, BBC Two Scotland and BBC Two Wales. Until December 2008, BBC Wales broadcast a special, digital-only channel, BBC 2W, which contained more opt-outs than analogue-only BBC Two Wales. BBC Two Northern Ireland's offering includes local news and weather updates, whilst BBC Scotland broadcasts variations from the main network on BBC Two Scotland, such as Newsnight Scotland, and Gaelic-language programmes under the banner BBC Two Alba.


Public service, educational and community programming

An important part of BBC2's founding mission was not only to provide minority interest entertainment but also to fulfil the public service functions of educational and community broadcasting.

Following a long and important association with the Open Universitymarker, which has always co-produced programming with the channel, BBC2 has also carried BBC Schools programmes from 1983 onward from BBC1. In recent years the Open University programming has been broadcast under the wider category of the BBC Learning Zone, in its long-standing slot late at night and during the early hours. However, in 2004 the Open University announced it was to end the late-night programmes in favour of more primetime co-productions, modelled on Coast.

As a result of the channel's commitment to community broadcasting and amongst other programming the channel produced the symbolic Open Space series, a strand developed in the early 1970s in which members of the public would be allotted half an hour of television time, and given a level of editorial and technical training in order to produce for themselves a film on an issue most important to them. BBC2's Community Programme Unit kept this aspect of the channel's tradition alive into the 1990s in the form of Video Diaries and later Video Nation. The Community Programmes Unit was disbanded in 2004.

On-screen identity

BBC Two ident "Copper Cutout" used from February 1991 to December 1999.
From 2001-2007 the '2' gained a personality as a 2 robot.
As well as programmes, BBC Two has also proved memorable for its numerous idents — various short films shown in between programme junctions that serve as the channel identity. Since it began in 1964, the figure '2' has almost always featured, using revolving, mechanical models and computer-aided technology, including the world's first computer-generated ident in 1979.

At Easter 1986 the computer-generated '2' was replaced by the word 'TWO' in red, green and blue on a white background. However, a survey carried out by the BBC in 1990 found that this ident gave the channel a 'worthy but dull' image. Then-controller Alan Yentob saw a major change of identity was necessary.

Branding agency Lambie-Nairn were commissioned, and in February 1991, the new custom '2' — and the signature colour, viridian — were unveiled on BBC Two, in idents that would successfully change public perception, and become world famous. The '2' always appeared in the same shape, in various forms; the earliest idents of 1991 featured solely inanimate '2' figures of different material in each, but also made use of camera angle tricks and properties such as refraction to achieve various effects. In later years it was given character, taking the form of a remote-controlled car, a rubber duck, a Dalek and a toy dog among many others (see BBC Two 1991-2001 idents). The expansive set of idents from 1991 to 2001 — lasting over a decade — are generally regarded as the best idents ever produced for a television channel; they ended in November 2001. The BBC corporate logo was updated within the idents in October 1997, though the idents moved away from the original viridan colour scheme in these latter years.

The subsequent presentation style, again created by Lambie-Nairn, was introduced on 19 November 2001 kept the same figure '2' — though it was now always shown white on a yellow background, and completely computer generated. Occasionally, to promote certain programmes on the channel the ident moved away from the standard style. For example, in a trail for the second series of The Catherine Tate Show, the character of Lauren Cooper was shown arguing with a '2' in the guise of a dog. This canine identity for the '2' was part of the BBC's Pedigree Comedy branding for comedy programmes in the Thursday night slot, and featured in 3 ident versions for use ahead of the programmes.

Withdrawn idents from years past have also made a return to BBC Two for special events. The "Garden" ident (in which a '2' grows out of flowers) returned for the 2001 Chelsea Flower Showmarker after having been retired in 1997, and remained in occasional use until the November 2001 rebrand. For the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Christmas 2000 ident was used again (renamed "Frosty"), and remained in use until the February 2007 refresh. For the 2006 Chelsea Flower Showmarker, "Predator" (where a '2' butterfly is eaten by a Venus fly-trap shaped '2') was used again (as "Venus Fly Trap"), and also remained in occasional use until the February 2007 rebrand. In each case, the branding was updated to match the then-current style.

The latest style of presentation was introduced on 18 February 2007, designed by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO and produced by Red Bee Media. The figure 2 — which has been altered from Lambie-Nairn's original '2' design for the first time in 16 years — became a 'window on the world'. The first ident broadcast from this set was "Cappuccino Scoop". Additionally, the plum coloured box previously used for the BBC Two logo was changed to a teal colour, along with a font change from Gill Sans to Avenir across the channel.

On 18 March 2007 the ident "Tagging Football" was used to introduce Match of the Day 2. This ident is shot from the viewpoint of a man carrying a pink template with a 2 shaped cut-out hole, through which everything is seen; it is held up close to the camera. The man runs across a pitch, and hastily sprays the side of a football with a crude, bright pink '2' using the template and a can of spray paint. The camerawork is jittery, though likely intended to convey the frantic pace. Despite being different in style from the other current sequences, it is one of the idents issued as part of the initial set from AMV & Red Bee, and there are other versions of the same concept yet to air.

BBC Two and BBC Four

Since the launch of the digital-only BBC Four, the BBC has been accused in particular of shifting its more highbrow output to the new channel, which a minority (12% in the second quarter of 2008) of viewers do not receive. The perceived strategy has been to allow BBC Two to show more popular programmes and to secure higher ratings. Many commentators have judged there to be a strong resemblance between the new Four and the earlier, more ambitious, BBC Two. Output from BBC Four (documentaries rather than foreign films) is repeated on BBC Two in a 'BBC Four on Two' branded area, although this is often in a late night broadcast slot after Newsnight.

See also


  1. David Attenborough extra on BBC DVD Civilisation by K. Clarke
  2. BBC Two idents
  3. Ofcom report
  4. The Guardian blogs

External links

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