How the BBC Began, review: Inside Auntie’s long battle to remain impartial

Prime Minister Harold Wilson once fell out with the BBC over a disparaging documentary
Prime Minister Harold Wilson once fell out with the BBC over a disparaging documentary - Rolls Press/Popperfoto

How the BBC Began (BBC Two) began in 2022. For the centenary, the national broadcaster assembled many a grizzled old hand to recall some seismic moments from its history for two feature-length documentaries. Clearly much was left on the cutting-room floor because here was another episode.

With a nod to the tricky skill of observing impartiality, it was subtitled Shooting the Rapids. It didn’t seem to know which rapid to shoot first so, without so much as a cleared throat, it jumped in with Suez. In 1956, Anthony Eden was all set to address the nation about the looming crisis from Downing Street but, camera-shy, first sought advice on what to say from David Attenborough, a very junior producer he’d once played tennis with, whose best advice was to rest before the broadcast.

Before and since, from the General Strike to the Troubles, most politicians have preferred telling the BBC what to say, not the other way round. None was more illuminatingly petulant than Harold Wilson, who huffed and puffed when David Dimbleby had the temerity to ask how much he’d earned from a book deal. He was forever barred from meeting Wilson again, but remains jauntily free from remorse.

The presenter Tony Bilbow, on the other hand, has had 50 years to atone for the cheerful way he once squeezed a female colleague’s breast. He could even remember it was her left one, and that even his victim laughed. To get anywhere back then, even dauntless Women’s Libbers had to navigate men’s libidos.

Joan Bakewell, in a lively recollection of Late Night Line-Up, frankly conceded that her advancement “had to do with the fact that I was quite a pretty girl”. She added with a hint of a twinkle that working on it was “not strictly appropriate always”. Other female veterans recalled avoiding certain gropers and lungers in lifts and taxis in an era when the BBC, like other employees, turned a blind eye to sexual assault. Line-Up had much fun ripping to shreds programmes made elsewhere in the building.

It nowadays seems enshrined in the BBC’s constitution that it must sometimes punch itself in the face before anyone else does. Ending on a plea for its own survival, this rambling tour of old controversies and internal failings persuasively suggested that the BBC has always on balance got more right than wrong.