The Complete History of the BBC (Abridged)[author-post-rating] (3/5 Stars)

Being a BBC-obsessed weirdo can be a sad existence. Living in perpetual fear of a licence-fee-reduction, refusing to watch ITV out of spite, planning future holidays in the hotel they are turning Television Centre into… Just ask Terrence, quirky proprietor and curator of The Cathode Ray Museum of Broadcasting, East Cheam, which is essentially just a shed full of BBC memorabilia (or so he insists – most of the stuff looks like junk). Or, even better, ask his wife Ingrid, whose patience with Terrence has worn pretty thin (she too is an avid Beeb-lover, but much more grounded).

The Complete History of the BBC (Abridged) is as comprehensive as a one-hour show can be without simply reeling off a Britannica encyclopaedia entry; from The Shipping Forecast to the recent Director General scandal, even detailing Top of the Pops (“Do not mention that man’s name under this roof” Ingrid warns her husband), and numerous impressions, including the famously uncharismatic Michael Grade. The show is a cascade of interesting details, such as that Wilfred Pickles was introduced to BBC Radio during World War II because his Yorkshire accent made it harder for Nazis to imitate presenters, and that the BBC archive has no record of the moon landing, because some poor soul taped over it.

The characters that actors Paul Thomas and Alix Cavanagh (also the show’s writer) portray are an interesting way of delivering the history. Terrence – whose face is so expressive he could be a one-man silent film – is pompous, excitable and overbearing. He has an unconventional charisma, being so weird that even his bad jokes (and there are some stinkers) become hilarious, if only for the way he tells them. Ingrid anchors the performance somewhere in reality, being altogether more human than her husband and encouraging us to laugh at his peculiarity. Appropriately, their relationship dynamic is akin to that of Frank Spencer and the long-suffering Betty in BBC classic Some Mothers Do Have ‘Em. They provide an entertaining sub-plot. Ingrid maternally awaits the return of the mysterious Charlie (or Charles, since Terrence insists on speaking with received-pronunciation at least until they have finished with the 1930s). Terrence, meanwhile, awaits a call from the Beeb on a special telephone-line to the museum (cough, shed) which must be kept clear at all times.

Older viewers might find the show more amusing than youngsters, notably because they will have lived through more of the history being recounted, perhaps making them feel more engaged. They can laugh nostalgically, for instance, at House of Cards quotes, which whizz over the heads of us youngsters, who do not really get this until towards the end of the chronology, when it enters our living memory. Even so, the history itself should be interesting enough to keep your attention. At any rate, the bitter groan is unanimous, old or young, when Ingrid asks if anyone in the audience ever received a Blue Peter badge.

The curating is occasionally also structured by genre, like the children’s TV segment charting from when Listen With Mother became Watch With Mother, right up to Byker Grove, even squeezing in a brief homage to the animated creations of Oliver Postgate (Bagpuss, Clangers). There is also a segment for game show formats like Mastermind and Just A Minute.  These deviations prevent the narration from simply becoming a linear timeline.

Whether you are old enough to remember the halcyon days of Tony Blackburn on Radio One, or barely familiar with the Beeb’s Olympics coverage triumph (“Trevor Nelson aside”), this show should deliver an edifying story, humorously conveyed.

The Complete History of the BBC (Abridged) played at Sweet Grassmarket as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.