Through the square window: 100 years of the BBC

When we consider the great moments that have bound our nation together over the past century, there is a singular thread that runs through them all. From Neville Chamberlain gravely informing the British people that “this country is at war with Germany” to Her Majesty The Queen assuring us during the Covid pandemic that “we will meet again”; from Kenneth Wolstenhome declaring “they think it’s all over… it is now!” to Bob Geldof’s heated plea for more money at Live Aid – all of these things were carried to us by the same messenger.

For a century, the BBC has been this country’s window on the world. In 1952, 38 million people watched or listened to The Queen’s coronation on BBC television and radio. And 70 years later, more than 32 million of us said our goodbyes to Her Majesty via the BBC’s coverage of her funeral. Clearly, then, despite all the seismic disruptions to the broadcasting landscape of recent years, it is to the BBC that the nation still turns in times of both sadness and celebration.

But the British Broadcasting Corporation – which came into existence (as the British Broadcasting Company) on 18 October, 1922 – hasn’t just been there to relay these shared national moments: over the past century, it has also created many of them. Think of Del Boy falling through the bar. Of Grace Archer’s death in a burning stable, and Den Watts snarling “Merry Christmas, Ange” while serving his wife with divorce papers in front of an audience of 30 million. Of Basil Fawlty failing not to mention the war, of “Don’t tell him, Pike!” and Eric Morecambe taunting André Previn by playing all the right notes… but not necessarily in the right order. Think of Gavin and Stacey and Margot and Jerry and Doctor Who and the Daleks; of Ted Hastings nicking bent coppers and the hush that fell across the land during Rose Ayling-Ellis and Giovanni Pernice’s silent Strictly dance. And think of Sir David Attenborough, just… being Sir David Attenborough.

Little wonder, then, that the BBC remains the envy of the world, and an enduring beacon of British soft power throughout the globe. But are we in danger of falling out of love with it at home? 

It’s been said that everyone respects the BBC except the British, and that certainly seems to be true of the people who hold its future in their hands. Successive Conservative governments have long had the Corporation in their sights over its state funding model and perceived “liberal bias”. But recent culture secretaries have escalated the conflict, with Nadine Dorries claiming earlier this year that the latest licence fee announcement “will be the last” and her successor, Michelle Donelan, dubbing the licence fee “an unfair tax”.

Perhaps the real existential threat to the BBC, though, comes not from politicians, but from us – the viewers. For decades, terrestrial broadcasters benefited from what was effectively a captive audience. But the rise of streaming services has sent shockwaves through the industry.

At the moment, the BBC and ITV are still winning on the raw numbers: even much-hyped streaming shows like Stranger Things and Game of Thrones are unable to match the mass audiences of Strictly Come Dancing or Call the Midwife (or even Countryfile), while Line of Duty and Vigil have proved reports of the death of ‘watercooler TV’ to be exaggerated. The BBC has also had some notable streaming successes of its own with shows like Fleabag and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which racked up an astonishing 62 million iPlayer requests during the first Covid lockdown, while co-productions such as Killing Eve (with BBC America) and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You (with HBO) have garnered international acclaim.

But down the road, storm clouds are gathering. The average BBC One viewer is now 61 years old, while a recent report by the broadcast regulator Ofcom warned that the BBC was facing an entire “lost generation” of non-engaged viewers, with under-25s increasingly drawn to hipper, more buzzy platforms like Netflix and Disney+ (to say nothing of YouTube and TikTok.)

For those of us who grew up watching with mother and going through the square window on Play School, before graduating to Grange Hill and Top of the Pops and Blackadder, the idea of a world without the BBC is unthinkable. More than a mere broadcaster, it’s an institutional pillar of British life. It is, for now at least, still the place where our national conversation takes place, and where we still gather for those shared moments, be they royal weddings, state funerals or Ed Balls salsa-ing to Gangnam Style. It’s the soundtrack to our car journeys, it chatters to us while we cook the dinner and, according to all polls, it’s still our most trusted source of news. (Though not, perhaps, quite as trusted as it once was.)

So, as the Corporation prepares to broadcast a special season of programmes to mark its centenary, it’s worth asking the question: who would replace all this, if the BBC were to disappear? Would Netflix broadcast The Queen’s funeral? Would Disney+ do Strictly, or Newsnight, or Ken Bruce’s PopMaster? Would Amazon carry the Shipping Forecast, or the CBeebies Bedtime Story? Would the US streaming giants invest in telling British stories, or would we all just have to watch American shows?

Clearly, the BBC’s second century will be very different to its first. But let’s hope that, whatever form it takes in the future, it continues to be a thread that pulls together our island story. Because it’s no exaggeration to say that, for all its flaws and imperfections, the BBC remains one of Britain’s guiding stars. And without it, who knows where we might end up?


To mark the BBC’s centenary, The One Show asked viewers to vote for their 20 all-time favourite BBC TV shows. The winners were: 

1. Only Fools and Horses 2. Doctor Who 3. Strictly Come Dancing 4. Line of Duty 5. Call The Midwife 6. Gavin & Stacey 7. Fawlty Towers 8. Blackadder 9. The Morecambe and Wise Show 10. The Vicar of Dibley 11. Dad’s Army 12. Planet Earth I and II 13. Killing Eve 14. Dinnerladies 15. Yes Minister / Yes Prime Minister 16. Sherlock 17. The Good Life 18. Top of the Pops 19. The Royle Family 20. Blue Peter

This article was originally published in Waitrose Weekend, October 13, 2022 © Waitrose Weekend

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