Stories We Missed: Celebrating the BBC at 100

Artists and writers, including Huw Lemmey and John Smith, select their favourite programmes from the broadcaster’s history

BY Juliet Jacques, Huw Lemmey, John Smith AND Tom Morton in Opinion | 01 DEC 22

The British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London on October 18, 1922, and commenced daily broadcasting a month later. Here, four leading artists and writers select their favourite show’s from the broadcaster’s 100-year history, including cult comedy series and harrowing independent films. In addition, I recommend a BBC Arena documentary from 1981 exploring the history of New York’s storied Chelsea Hotel – expect a candid dinner between William S Burroughs and Andy Warhol in the same room where Arthur C Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. – Sean Burns 

Elephant (1989) 

Alan Clarke Elephant
Alan Clarke, Elephant, 1989, film still. Courtesy: the artist and BBC

Nearly all on-screen depictions of violence serve to glamourize it, even if the television show or film in which it’s portrayed claims to be critical of actual violence. Extra gory blood-‘n’-guts are added or sanitized away, with bruiseless punches and roundhouse kicks. Tension is built, and spectacular violence provides satisfying relief. In the worst, most Quentin Tarantino-esque cases, violence is directly valorized, with good-looking stars wielding brushed gunmetal or brass knuckledusters as heroes and antiheroes. 

That’s why Alan Clarke’s Elephant, produced by BBC Northern Ireland and first screened on BBC2 in 1989, still hits like, well, a knuckleduster to the face. Shot on 16mm and running at just 39 minutes, the film depicts violence in a revolutionary way – as it really is. It starts with a title card: ‘For some of us, “The Troubles” is the elephant in our living room.’ The rest of the film lacks plot or music, with largely no dialogue. Just a series of killings, trailed by a short scene in which the camera tracks a character. You rarely know whether this is the victim or the murderer until they are killed. The shootings are short, clinical, without blood or drama, and contextless.

This is the opposite of glamourized violence. The lack of context adds to the paranoia, but the killing offers no relief to the tension. It is only followed by more killing. Soon, the surfeit of death weighs heavy on you. Despite the film’s short length, you begin to feel sick. How many more killings can you take? When will it end? – Huw Lemmey 

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969–74) 

Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, ‘Whicker Island’, 1972. Courtesy: Getty Images 

I was 17 in 1969, the year when I first started to experiment with mind-altering drugs and Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on BBC television. The series commenced a few months before I left home, and I still clearly remember having to sit with my parents in order to watch the show. There were only three television channels at the time, so whatever was showing on BBC2 and ITV must have been even more unpalatable to my parents than Monty Python, which they hated, but watched anyway. They hated it almost as much as I loved it, which made me love it even more. Through my newly opened and somewhat arrogant doors of perception, I could see things that their generation and all the other ‘straight’ people out there would never understand. The playfulness of the Pythons’ formal trickery, the unpredictability, the deliberate disorientation of the viewer and the ‘logic of the illogic’ that bothered my parents so much was precisely what I found so attractive and engaging. Most memorable for me are the numerous false endings to the programme, when, on more than one occasion, I found myself momentarily uncertain as to whether I was still watching Monty Python or the BBC news. When I take drugs now, it’s usually for medicinal purposes, but the fortuitous collision of Monty Python and Mary Jane in my formative years played a big part in my realization that there are many ways of perceiving the world around us – a premise that I’ve continued to explore in my life and art ever since. – John Smith 

Attention Scum (2001) 

Attention Scum
Attention Scum, DVD Cover, 2001. Courtesy: BBC

Attention Scum was made in 2001 on a budget of GB£60,000, broadcast on six consecutive Sunday evenings at 11:45pm with virtually no promotion, failed to be recommissioned and was never repeated on the BBC. Nonetheless, it remains one of my favourite things ever made for the UK’s national broadcaster. A vehicle for comedian Simon Munnery and his spectacularly strange persona The League Against Tedium, Attention Scum was directed by fellow comic Stewart Lee – a long-time admirer of Munnery – who made a brief cameo in one of its half-hour episodes.

The show was a mixture of sketches and stand-up, proclaimed by Munnery’s Nietzschean character from a transit van with a screen to small audiences around the country, having set out to ‘discover England and confuse it’. It had recurring sketches – memorably Johnny Vegas’s ‘24 Hour News’, ‘read by a man who’s been up for 24 hours’ and the bizarre Kombat Opera routines, sung by Loré Lixenberg – but the programme was at its best when Munnery was delivering excoriating one-liners straight to the viewers: ‘If you only ever read one book in your life […] then I highly recommend you keep your mouth shut.’

Something so weird, fragmentary and contemptuous towards its audience from its distinctive opening sequence to its end (where Munnery faces off against a tank driven by a monkey) was never going to get massive ratings. Only a broadcaster unencumbered by a profit motive could have made it at all and, even if it’s a shame that more people didn’t see it, I did, and I loved it. Not that this makes me feel superior: there are six episodes telling me I’m ‘scum’, after all. – Juliet Jacques 

I’m Alan Partridge (1997–2002)

Alan Partridge
Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, 2013. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Tim P. Whitby

‘That was “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, a song in which Joni complains they paved paradise to put up a parking lot, a measure which actually would have alleviated traffic congestion on the outskirts of paradise, something which Joni singularly fails to point out, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit in with her blinkered view of the world. Nevertheless, nice song. It’s 4:35am. You’re listening to Up with The Partridge.’ So begins BBC’s peerless sitcom I’m Alan Partridge, in which Steve Coogan plays the titular failed television presenter, now reduced to manning the graveyard shift on local radio, who has taken residence in a grim beige Travel Tavern (‘It’s equidistant between London and Norwich, that’s the genius of its location’) while he licks the wounds of his recent divorce from his wife, Carol, and stares down the barrel of a full-blown midlife crisis. This wasn’t Partridge’s first appearance on the BBC, and it wouldn’t be his last, but it remains his best. 

In that opening scene, we learn almost everything we need to know about Partridge’s character: not only his conservatism, pedantry and impregnable self-deception, but also his curdled creative soul. It’s this that provides the comic motor for the show’s most iconic scene, in which he desperately pitches television ideas to a commissioning editor (‘Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank’, ‘Monkey Tennis’). It’s also what gives Partridge pathos. When I first saw I’m Alan Partridge a quarter of a century ago, at the age of 20, what made me laugh was its surgical skewering of a generation of boorish, terminally naff British men, whose bible was Top Gear magazine (1993–ongoing). Now, I’m middle-aged myself, and have entered the Partridgean danger-zone, the show feels far bleaker, if no less hilarious – a vision of a lonely human being, caught in the snare of a fatuous culture, raging impotently against the dying of the light. – Tom Morton


'Celebrating the BBC at 100' is part of a series of short essays on the events and trends we missed in our coverage of art and culture in 2022. Read more – and last year’s stories – here

Main image: Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge, 2013. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Tim P. Whitby

Juliet Jacques is a writer, filmmaker, broadcaster and academic. Her short story collection, Variations, was published by Influx Press in June 2022. Her second short story collection, The Woman in the Portrait, will be published in July.



Huw Lemmey is a novelist, artist and critic. He is the author of Unknown Language (Ignota Books, 2020), Red Tory: My Corbyn Chemsex Hell (Montez Press, 2019) and Chubz: The Demonization of My Working Arse (Montez Press, 2014). He writes the weekly essay series ‘Utopian Drivel’ and is the co-host of the podcast Bad Gays. He lives in Barcelona, Spain.

John Smith is an artist filmmaker based in London, UK. A selection of his short films ‘Playing with Cinema: The Films of John Smith’ is currently streaming on MUBI.

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.