Still switched on

In its 40 years, BBC2 has gone from cleverness to consumerism, replacing learning with lifestyle pro

At his coronation as the new chairman of the BBC, Michael Grade said he was not interested in arguments about the quality of television that were conducted by reference to old programmes. He was right to say that examples can prove anything. It would, after all, be as fatuous to compare Kenneth Clark with Jeremy Clarkson in order to prove that BBC2 has fallen among philistines as it would be to argue that the appearance of Gardeners' World on Friday nights over 36 years shows that the ratio of consumer to intellectual programming on the channel has remained the same. However, what if we were to compare a whole week's schedule from the same month over four decades?

Rather than rely on memories of BBC2's "golden age", I took myself off to the archives of the Radio Times and pored over its bound volumes from April 1964, 1974, 1984 and 1994. Listings cannot tell you how good the programmes were, but they can at least tell you what was on.

Although they can't even tell you that for certain. Thanks to an explosion at Battersea Power Station, BBC2's first-night schedule was not broadcast as planned on 20 April 1964. I assume that Kiss Me Kate, a Russian comedian and the fireworks from Southend made it on air the next night. Or perhaps they didn't. Perhaps the thousands who had splashed out on a new 625-line set sat down on the Wednesday to view Mathematics '64, Men and Money, Materials for the Engineer and Power in British Politics. Suckers! This wasn't television. It was the Open University stillborn. In fact, aside from Jazz 625 with Duke Ellington and a US drama whose format pre-empted Law and Order by 25 years, the entire week's programmes - from the National Youth Theatre's Julius Caesar to Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush - smell distinctly medicinal.

This was a station rushed on air by a controller, Michael Peacock, who simply did not have the programmes to fill the four hours a night he had been allocated. Eleven months later, David Attenborough took over. By April 1974, he had left to return to the jungle, so you have to open the Radio Times of 16 April 1966 to see how he did.

What a difference! This is a real schedule. Line-Up, a ten-minute curtain-raiser under Peacock, has moved from 7.20pm to around 11pm and become Late-Night Line-Up, a relaxed, sometimes drunken, seven-nights-a-week studio discussion about that day's television. Famous fixtures are already in place: The Money Programme, Man Alive, Wheelbase and two shows that later graduated to BBC1, the interminable western The Virginian and Match of the Day, which was allowed on to BBC2 by football clubs because, with so few people receiving the channel, it couldn't possibly affect attendances.

Attenborough's philosophy was to air programmes about every aspect of life not covered by BBC1. So we get a little golf and a little boxing (Rugby Special came later). There is "variety" in the form of some science and The Danny Kaye Show, imported from the US. But predominantly this is a channel for arts graduates: subtitled films; highbrow plays; a Mahler concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein; a serialisation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame; documentaries about Mendelssohn by John Betjeman and about the American revolution.

Eight years on, in 1974, the Radio Times is rightly celebratory of the channel's first ten years. What is shocking is how many of the landmark programmes are already history: Civilisation, The Ascent of Man, The Forsyte Saga and Alistair Cooke's America have all been transmitted. Documentaries still dominate, however, many under the strands of Man Alive, Horizon, The World About Us and Chronicle. The historical drama series The Pallisers is complemented by another about Christabel Pankhurst, a contemporary serial by Allan Prior and a Caryl Churchill play. Serious films are discussed on Film Night and serious pop played on The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Yet there are also indications that ratings are becoming a consideration. The arrival of colour has brought with it Pot Black, a ratings banker at 9pm on Tuesdays. Full House, a whole evening of arts magazine on Saturdays presented by the Gollum-like Joe Melia, has been cropped back to 90 minutes and is presented by, yes, Melvyn Bragg. There is also M*A*S*H, an embarrassing Derek Nimmo chat show, Vera Lynn and, at 8pm on Thursdays, an embryonic lifestyle show, Collectors' World. Late-Night Line-Up had quietly expired 18 months ago. Returning this volume to its shelf, I felt a sense of foreboding.

1984: the broadcasting day is now longer, and for hours over the Easter weekend, BBC2 transmits the World Snooker Championship. The great innovation in the schedule is Newsnight, the BBC's first integrated news and current affairs programme. Snooker aside, the launch in November 1982 of Channel 4 - back then, brains with attitude - seems to have sharpened the network's commitment to public service. Easter Saturday brings Alan Howard in Coriolanus, and Easter Monday the new opera Where the Wild Things Are. Wednesday has a one-off play by Caryl Phillips about a West Indian ticket collector. There are documentaries on the history of work and of theatre. A regular book show survives: Bookmark. And the spirit of Late-Night Line-Up has returned in the TV review show Did You See? on Sunday nights.

The year 1994 finds BBC2 competing with Channel 4 on its new territory, satirised at the time as "yoof". Indeed, it has pinched Janet Street-Porter, from Channel 4's Network 7, to lead it into battle. The hour between 6pm and 7pm is retitled - with deliberate obscurity to anyone over 25 - as Def II. Between 8pm and 9pm, lifestyle is making inroads with Home Front presented by Caroline Quentin, Top Gear and something very cutting-edge about computers called The Net. Yet The Natural World remains in its place, Horizon is still on the science beat and there are one-off documentaries. On a dolorous note, however, Forty Minutes marks its final edition and the only new drama is Simon Shore's Northern Ireland comedy Henri, which is technically a film rather than a play. In fact, BBC studios are hardly used any more. Those over-lit intellectual discussion programmes, mercilessly parodied by Monty Python, have gone. Despite the new presence of Have I Got News for You, this seems the least impressive schedule so far.

It is less impressive than this past Easter's, for example, despite the incredible seven and a half hours that the controller, Jane Root, devoted to the Masters Golf Championship. At least she showed three major new single dramas: Caesar, Hawking and Every Time You Look At Me. It is the day-to-day programmes that look commonplace now and, if there is a debate about the decline of BBC2, it must concentrate on the hours between 6pm and 9pm. The qualification for turning on to the channel during these hours has gone from being clever to being young to being a consumer. The other week, the hour between 6pm and 7pm was filled every day by a relocation series, Escape to the Country. On one evening, this was shortly followed by Safe as Houses, another hour about a couple moving home. On Fridays, meanwhile, the once-humble plot occupied by Gardeners' World abuts a whole hour of gardening programmes.

BBC2 has not entirely lost its old inquiring spirit. The Chronicle tradition lives on in Professor Aubrey Manning's series Landscape Mysteries, and in Time Flyers. A little of Late-Night Line-Up reappears every Friday on Newsnight Review. The sociological frown worn by Man Alive plays across the face of Make Me Honest, a series of documentaries in which "ordinary citizens" mentor young offenders. The difference is in the packaging: Make Me Honest comes to us in the format of a life-swap programme; a history documentary, Ray Mears's Real Heroes of Telemark, is marketed by the Mears and cinema brand names.

We have come a long way from Mathematics '64. Thank goodness. But this comparison suggests BBC2 has ceased to be Mr Chips only to become a trendy teacher at a comp who knows from experience that her charges would prefer to be elsewhere and is desperate to tempt them into her classroom by any means. Up on the high ground, an old-fangled grammar school has opened. It is a little forbidding, a little inaccessible and more than a little like (in those respects and others) what was once called BBC2. Its name is BBC4 - and the Radio Times devotes four inches to its schedule every day.

Andrew Billen writes for the Times

Happy returns

Michael Grade Chairman of the BBC

"What memories . . . Late-Night Line-Up, Pot Black, Open University, uninterrupted sports coverage, The Young Ones, Arena, all kinds of music (jazz, country, folk, classical), Newsnight and much more. In other words, the arrival of BBC2 gave the BBC the chance to stretch its "broadsheet" agenda. It had nothing on its mind but reflecting more specialised interests and tastes than BBC1 (or ITV) could accommodate. Forty years on and that role is more relevant than ever, as commercial television programming becomes more and more of a commodity in the multichannel world."

Jane Root Outgoing controller of BBC2

"BBC2 brings surprise, sophistication and innovation to a range of programmes; a strong sense of variety has been there all the way through the channel's history. It has always been famous for creating both popular comedy and thought-provoking programmes. It introduces new flavours into the heart of television by taking risks, and manages to make a success out of something that nobody would have expected - The Office, for example."

Joan Bakewell Presenter of Heart of the Matter

"The arrival of BBC2 was awaited with breathless anticipation. We were all hungry for more than two channels. After a wobbly start - different themes for each weekday - it became the channel of first choice. Each day on Late-Night Line-Up we discussed that evening's television programmes, and BBC2 gave us plenty to discuss: ground-breaking comedy, Civilisation, serious documentaries, loads of arts programmes. Things have changed, but it's still the channel I turn to first."

John Humphrys Presenter of Mastermind

"I am old enough to remember when BBC2 started. I was 20 at the time and thought I was something of an intellectual. Because I didn't go to university and therefore didn't have one of those nice long stripy scarves to prove it, I watched BBC2 instead. Over the years, I don't think it has let us down. And it has reached new heights of excellence over the past 12 months, not only because they have reintroduced Mastermind, but because they asked me to chair it."

Sarah Dunant Presenter of The Late Show, 1989-94

"Happy birthday, dear BBC2. You were a hugely imaginative child, a charismatic if sometimes difficult teenager, and a suitably nonconformist twentysomething. Your thirties, however, were a disaster: wrecked by peer pressure and the need to be liked, you became all style and no substance. So now you're 40. Mid-life crisis, right? Take some advice from those who really love you. Stop worrying about your looks and your popularity. Reconnect with the passion that you had when you were younger and give up trying to compete with your neighbours. You can never please everyone - and anyway, you'd be surprised how many people are desperate for something different."