Channel Hopping featured image

It cannot have escaped anyone’s attention that Red Dwarf turned 35 years old this year. It’s easy to underestimate just how long ago that was in terms of television as a medium. The BBC Television Service was launched on 2nd November 1936. That was only 86 and a half years ago – the lifespan of Red Dwarf to date covers around 40% of the entire history of scheduled broadcasting. And so it goes without saying that British telly in 1988 looked very different to the landscape of today, but just how different? What else was on BBC Two when each series of Red Dwarf first aired, and what was the competition on the other channels?

Using a combination of the amazing BBC Programme Index and newspaper archives, we’re going to answer those exact questions for the first episode of each BBC series in detail, along with an overview of how the rest of the run panned out. For some readers, this will be a nostalgic reminder of the television of their childhood, adolescence or young adulthood. For those that are too young or too foreign to have lived through it, it’s a window into a bygone age. Either way, the power of hindsight allows us to spot the subtle clues that television was changing before our eyes, as we piece together the transition from one era to another, through a Dwarfy prism.

Monday 15th February 1988


5:30 Olympic Grandstand
7:40 Barry Douglas
8:10 Horizon
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 Moonlighting
10:15 Split Screen
10:45 Newsnight
11:30 Weatherview
11:35 Olympic Report
12:10 Open University
12:40 Close

Red Dwarf launched in the middle of Olympic season, specifically the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, back when the snowy edition would take place in the same year as the sunny one. Viewers of BBC Two on that fateful day would have been treated to action from the figure skating, men’s luge, cross-country and speed skating events, before soaking up a little culture from pianist Barry Douglas playing a bit of Rachmaninov and Shostakovich.

Immediately preceding The End was Horizon, BBC Two’s flagship science documentary strand, running from 1964 to the present day. This edition was titled Struggling For Control, and concerned air traffic control in an increasingly cramped airspace. It makes sense to schedule your new science-fiction programme after your established actual-science programme, and there’s a similar crossover of potential audiences afterwards, with comedy (albeit comedy drama) from American import Moonlighting starring Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepherd.

After this, the fun is over as the channel reverts to covering serious stuff considered too niche for BBC One, firstly Split Screen, a pair of short films presenting opposing views on single-faith schools, Newsnight (another series that’s still going today) and the weather, and some highlights from the day’s Olympics. Finally, a couple of things that will be foreign to any readers currently under the age of 20 – televised modules for Open University courses, which ceased linear broadcasting in 2006, followed by the channel shutting down for the evening, rather than just chucking out repeats or joining a rolling news service.

Other programmes are available

Looking to the immediate left of Red Dwarf‘s spot in the schedules will show the same thing for 51 of the 52 20th Century episodes – BBC One’s main news bulletin was always at 9pm, until it got nudged back an hour in October 2000. Competing entertainment offerings therefore came via the two commercial channels, with ITV showing crime drama Hard Cases at 9, while Channel 4 launched a new series entitled A Prospect of Rivers, celebrating the role of rivers in British life and landscapes. It was a very different channel back then.

Elsewhere that day, comedy fans didn’t have a great deal to choose from, the highlight undoubtedly being Eric Sykes leading a star-studded cast in Mr H Is Late at 8pm on ITV. Beyond that, there’s only a showing of US sitcom Who’s The Boss? in ITV’s late night schedules, plus short-lived Noel Edmonds game show Whatever Next at 8:30pm on BBC1. Rose-tinted myths about olden days telly being packed with hit comedy after hit comedy be damned.

Look ahead…

For the first half of Dwarf‘s first series, Monday nights on BBC Two were virtually identical, the only variation being different one-offs airing between the Olympics coverage and Horizon. After the Games finished, the gaps in the schedules were filled with the return of Tomorrow’s World, public access strand Open Space, and airings of vintage (even for 1988) films Those Endearing Young Charms, The Spanish Main and The Big Steal. At the same time, Split Screen was replaced by Indelible Evidence, a series of murder-based documentaries.

After the end of their rivers documentary series, Dwarf‘s competition on Channel 4 for the last two episodes of Series 1 was Into Nicaragua, following two Brits working in the Nicaraguan health service. And following the conclusion of Hard Cases, ITV put another hard-hitting drama against Balance of Power, Waiting For God and Confidence & Paranoia, namely Bookie, the gritty tale of Glaswegian gambling addicts, before a new series of Boon launched opposite Me². Also, their early evening comedy spot was taken up by Andy Capp, an adaptation of the Daily Mirror comic strip, with former Likely Lad James Bolam as the eponymous misogynist, while BBC1 significantly upgraded Edmonds with Tim Brooke-Taylor in sit-com You Must Be The Husband.

Tuesday 6th September 1988


5:30 Screen Sleuths: Calling Bulldog Drummond
6:50 DEF II Animation Week
8:00 Floyd on Britain and Ireland
8:30 Brass Tacks
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 Frederick Ashton: A Master Class
10:20 ScreenPlay Firsts: The Riveter
10:55 Newsnight
11:40 Weatherview
11:45 Championship Darts
12:10 Open University
12:40 Close

So considering the competition, it’s perhaps not a huge surprise that the first few episodes of Series 1 achieved ratings good enough for an immediate recommission. It was remarkable even then for a second series to follow on so quickly from the first, and unsurprisingly BBC Two isn’t a massively different place in September 1988, even though Dwarf did shift from Mondays to Tuesdays. With no Olympics to deal with, this is perhaps a more typical schedule of the time than we had back in February, with several umbrella titles for certain strands in evidence in the listings.

For example, it was common for a long time for BBC Two to begin their peak-time offerings with a film; in this case, Calling Bulldog Drummond was being shown as part of a Screen Sleuths season. This was followed by a double-whammy of umbrella titles; DEF II was the dedicated yoof section of the evening (presided over by future Gunmen of the Apocalypse denier Janet Street-Porter), and it was at this time having an animation season, featuring clips, documentaries and a serialised version of Yellow Submarine, shown over three nights.

Following this, it’s a somewhat scattergun approach to tone and genre for the rest of the night. The legendary Keith Floyd’s latest piss-up is followed by an uncompromising examination of the Police Complaints Authority, and then the debut of everyone’s favourite mechanoid. Afterwards, a bit of ballet in tribute to recently deceased choreographer Frederick Ashton, and then another strand within a strand – ScreenPlay was the channel’s umbrella title for one-off dramas at the time, and ScreenPlay Firsts was a subset of that, showcasing new writers and film-makers. The block of programming from Newsnight onwards is pretty much set in stone at this point (albeit with a flexible start time, depending on the duration of the previous programme), with the British Darts Championship providing the sporting highlights quota.

Other programmes are available

As an alternative to a deranged mechanoid preserving the corpses of three women for centuries, ITV offered up The Black Museum, a look inside Scotland Yard’s collection of Jack The Ripper artefacts, such as “post-mortem photographs of three disfigured victims”. Lovely stuff. Meanwhile, Channel 4 showed Hud, the 1963 Paul Newman western.

Over on BBC1 immediately before Dwarf, a new sitcom called Double First launched with an hour-long episode at 8pm. Telling the tale of a former Oxford graduate reduced to grilling burgers for a living, the series was produced by our old friend Gareth Gwenlan. The only other comedy options throughout the day were repeats, with ITV showing Auf Wiedersehen Pet (which is more drama than comedy) and Channel 4 airing The Cosby Show (which is more true crime than comedy, in hindsight). Edmonds was back on BBC One with Telly Addicts if that counts (it doesn’t), while C4 did have a couple of interesting looking space documentaries that may have been relevant to Dwarf fans, particularly The Stars at 8pm, which dealt with white dwarfs, red giants and black holes.

Look ahead…

Once again, BBC Two stayed pretty similar for the majority of the run, with series and strands such as Floyd on Britain and Ireland, Brass Tacks and Screenplay Firsts all continuing throughout, with the exception of Parallel Universe day, which saw the former two replaced with live coverage of the Wildscreen Awards for wildlife film-making. In the 9:30 slot however, a new documentary series on the human brain, The Mind Machine, started straight after Better Than Life, and ran for the following six weeks.

On the other hand, ITV put out a different show opposite Dwarf every single week, namely a showing of The Outlaw Josey WalesIn From The Cold (a profile of Richard Burton), Fields of Fire (a drama set in post-war Australia), Airplane! (which started before the watershed at 8:30pm, so presumably cut to buggery) and an entire evening dedicated to the hundredth anniversary of Jack The Ripper, in a strangely macabre parallel to the first week. Over on Channel 4, documentary Face Value – The Hollywood Portrait and one-off comedy The Giftie could be seen opposite Better Than Life and Thanks For The Memory respectively, before they settled in to a new documentary series entitled What Is Truth? for the remainder of the run.

On the comedy front, Double First continued its run on BBC1, while repeats on various channels included Fawlty TowersThe Good Life, Rising Damp and The New Statesman. The latter is an interesting one, as the first series originally aired on ITV in 1987, and yet this repeat run a year later was on Channel 4, despite Yorkshire TV being in the midst of producing the second series for ITV to air in the new year. Unthinkable today, but more common back when ITV was operated as a series of local franchises, which each retained certain rights over the programmes they produced for the network. There were much closer links between ITV and Channel 4 prior to the Broadcasting Act of 1990, which saw C4 gain more independence and responsibility for its own programming and advertising from 1993 onwards.

Tuesday 14th November 1989


6:00 Film: How To Commit Marriage
7:30 South Africa Under the Skin
8:00 The Last Launch
8:30 Floyd’s American Pie
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 Made In Latin America
10:30 Newsnight
11:15 The Late Show
11:55 Weatherview
12:00 Talk of the 80s
12:35 Close

Skipping ahead a year or so, this is probably the best example of the wildly lurching tone and subject matter of your average BBC Two schedule of old. We kick off the evening with a classic Bob Hope and Jackie Gleason romp, before the latest in a series of personal reports from South Africans living under Apartheid. There’s an indication of Red Dwarf‘s historical context for you – it’s so old that Apartheid was actually a current thing when the first four series aired. After that is The Last Launch, an observational documentary series covering the collapse of Britain’s shipbuilding industry and the consequent mass redundancy in the North East. But hey, here comes Keith Floyd again, cooking clam chowder and getting pissed on Californian wine.

Then after a comedy about a backwards bar fight and a poo going back up someone’s arse, Made in Latin America – a programme that sounds like it’s going to be fun – covers brutal dictatorships. Newsnight is followed by The Late Show, which is nothing to do with David Letterman or Stephen Colbert, but was a recently-launched arts programme hosted by a pool of up-and-coming young presenters such as Paul Morley, Kirsty Wark and Mark Lawson. Yes, Red Dwarf is that old. Before BBC Two goes to bed for the evening, there’s just time for a look back at the decade that’s about to end, as Barry Norman interviews Sebastian Coe. I hate Sebastian Coe.

Other programmes are available

In the 9pm slot over on ITV was the latest episode of Capital City, a drama following the personal and professional lives of a group of investment bankers. Yep, this is the 1980s alright. Meanwhile, Channel 4 had Bandung File, a long-running documentary strand focused on Black and Asian journalism. This particular edition covered the current tensions in Afghanistan. What a different place the world was.

Comedy wise, as well as repeats of Dad’s Army and I Love Lucy on BBC One and Channel 4 respectively, it was a good day for new episodes of sit-coms. ITV had Shelley, starring Hywel Bennett as “the thinking man’s layabout”, which had returned the previous year after a five year hiatus. Whereas Channel 4 had the intriguing-sounding Snakes and Ladders, starring John Gordon Sinclair (best known as Clare Grogan’s boy in Gregory’s Girl) and Adrian Edmondson, set in a dystopian Britain where a literal north-south divide has been established, which was followed by Julian Clary’s ground-breakingly rude comedy game show Sticky Moments.

Look ahead…

Remarkably, almost all of the above mentioned programmes remained in place throughout Series III’s run. This is one of those peculiarities of scheduling known as the Christmas Pull-Up, in which series are more likely to be synced up in the later months of the year so that they all end at the same time – ie. just before Christmas, when the regular schedules need to be cleared for special festive programming. Floyd’s American Pie (in which the TV chef puts his penis in an apple pie, presumably) is an exception, which had its last episode on the same day as Backwards aired. The lead in to Marooned a week later was another historical landmark – a one-off called Commons on Camera, marking the first time television cameras were allowed to record parliamentary sessions. The following week saw a new series of Food and Drink in that slot, while over on Channel 4, Snakes and Ladders came to an end on the night Polymorph aired, with its place being taken by One Night Stand – showcasing American stand-up comedy – for the remainder of the run.

Thursday 14th February 1991


6:00 Film: Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure
7:25 Animation News
7:35 First Sight
8:05 Bleak House
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 40 Minutes
10:10 Small Objects of Desire
10:30 Newsnight
11:15 The Late Show
11:55 Weatherview
12:00 Weekend Outlook
12:05 Open University
12:35 Close

Into the 90s now, and another new day of the week for Red Dwarf to slot into, its third in just four series. Thursday clearly suited the show, as it only shifted for one of the remaining BBC series, before being established as the Dave era’s default broadcast day for Series X onwards. It’s not a particularly Valentines-themed evening on BBC2, unless a young and stubbly Sean Connery does it for you, in which case you’d enjoy Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure. A brief look at some animation is then followed by magazine programme First Sight, tonight exploring how technology may allow office workers to work from home. It’ll never catch on. This however was only shown in London, the East and South-East, as different regions of the UK had their own local programming in this slot. The various areas had similar strands such as The Midlands Report, Close-Up North, Southern Eye and Western Approach. In modern times, there can still be variations in the schedules between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but it’s only really local news bulletins that are narrowcast this granularly.

The nations are reunited for the BBC’s latest, but by no means the last, adaptation of Bleak House, this one starring Diana Rigg and Denholm Elliott. Then after the main event, 40 Minutes, a documentary strand that ran from 1981 to 1994, themed around the running time rather than the subject matter. This week, novelist Wendy Perriam reveals the sexy side of Surbiton, before Small Objects of Desire presents a history of the cigarette. Then it’s a familiar end to the evening; the only programme we’ve not seen before being Weekend Outlook, further weather news looking ahead at the next few days.

Other programmes are available

Any viewers put off by the sight of a huge ugly blob could turn over from ITV’s TV Times Top 10 Awards with Des O’Connor to watch Camille instead. Channel 4 meanwhile did whatever the 1991 equivalent of ctrl+F was to their catalogue, and screened the 1979 rom-com TV movie Valentine, starring Jack “Grandpa Joe” Albertson and Danny DeVito. Other than repeats of Kate & Allie and Desmond’s on Channel 4, comedy is thin on the ground on the day’s schedules, with one notable exception. Fans of Chris Barrie enjoyed the perfect cross-channel double bill, with the final episode of the first series of The Brittas Empire airing at 8:30pm on BBC One.

Look ahead…

Remarkably, BBC Two managed to show a different Tarzan-related movie in the 6pm slot for the entire six-week run of Series IV. The only change to the schedules for the second week was a new series called Bicycle starting after 40 Minutes, charting the history of the, erm, bicycle. The following week saw Bleak House replaced in the schedules by Scottish sitcom City Lights and the new series of Top Gear, at this point a half-hour magazine about cars, rather than a mouthpiece for right-wing manbabies. Over on BBC One, Brittas‘s slot was taken by Doctor at the Top, the last and least well-received TV iteration of Richard Gordon’s Doctor series, while a repeat run of Open All Hours after the news gave us a solid 90 minutes of comedy across the BBC channels.

Dwarf‘s direct competition from DNA onwards came from The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes on ITV, with Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke as Benedict Cumberbatch and Tim From The Office respectively. Channel 4 meanwhile had The Orchid House, a four-part adaptation of Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s pioneering novel, starring a young Liz Hurley and Polymorph‘s Frances Barber among others. The schedule remained pretty set in stone across the board for the remainder of the run, until the last week when the second series of The Crystal Maze began on Channel 4 at 8:30pm. The fact it started half an hour before Dwarf but continued throughout will have caused many a conflict of which to watch and which to tape for early 90s teenagers.

Thursday 20th February 1992


6:00 Olympics Today
8:30 Redundant
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 Fire in the Blood
10:20 Talking to Myself
10:30 Newsnight
11:15 What The Papers Say Awards
12:00 Weekend Outlook
12:05 Open University
12:35 Close

For the second time, Red Dwarf finds itself sharing the airwaves with the Winter Olympics, this time hosted in Albertville, France. All time sportscasting greats David Coleman and Des Lynam are both on duty for live coverage of the men’s 1,000m short-track speed-skating final. This was previewed in the listings as Britain’s best chance of a gold. We did not medal, in this or any other event. Still, never mind, BBC2’s following this up with the last in a series looking at the effects of mass redundancy in former mining and manufacturing communities. The perfect lead in for the start of Red Dwarf‘s best ever series.

The serious subject matter continues for the rest of the evening; Fire in the Blood examines the threat of Basque terrorism to Spain’s unity, while the short Talking to Myself features investigative journalist Duncan Campbell demonstrating “how he manipulates the press, controls interviews and protects the weak against the strong”, it says here. Standard BBC2 late night fare for the rest of the evening, but What The Papers Say is a programme with a fascinating history. The newspaper review programme started off as a Granada production for ITV way back in 1956, before moving to Channel 4 when it launched in 1982. It briefly returned to ITV in 1988, before being poached by BBC Two in 1990, where it ran until 2008, clocking up a seriously impressive 52 years on air. Just when it seemed dead and buried, it then turned into a Radio 4 show from 2010 until 2016. The awards ceremony was an annual event celebrating the best print journalism from the last year, with this edition hosted by Russell Davies, best known today as the reason the Doctor Who showrunner has his middle initial in his pen name.

Other programmes are available

Star-studded American drama LA Law was the 9pm competition on ITV, while Channel 4 presented a series simply titled The Germans, which this week examined contemporary attitudes to immigration in the country that had only been reunified in the last couple of years. Comedy was dotted about the schedules, with BBC One having a solid hour from 8pm consisting of a Last of the Summer Wine repeat and – for the second and final time – the last episode of The Brittas Empire coming on the same night as the first episode of Red Dwarf. This itself faced competition from a repeat of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out on Channel 4, who also had Just For Laughs later in the evening, presenting highlights from the Montreal Comedy Festival.

Look ahead…

The Olympics were over by the time The Inquisitor aired, and so BBC2 was able to revert back to the familiar early evening films, regional magazine strands and Top Gear, plus a new series Abroad in Britain immediately before Dwarf, investigating outlandish or unusual examples of British architecture. Another change occurred from Quarantine onwards, when Fire in the Blood was replaced by War Stories, a series on the Falklands conflict, thankfully followed by comedy from Nigel Planer in The Nicholas Craig Masterclass.

Elsewhere, while LA Law remained wedged in ITV’s 9pm slot, Channel 4 offered a different programme against Red Dwarf almost every week, starting with The Barlow Clowes Affair (documentary on a recent financial scandal), The Camomile Lawn (period drama adaptation), The Trainer Wars (documentary about shoes and that), and finally Israel: A Nation is Born (documentary series) for Dwarf‘s last two weeks. BBC One continued their commitment to comedy, with a new sitcom about three generations of West Indian women, Us Girls, taking Brittas‘s slot. They also had comedy repeats after the News most weeks, with a feature length Only Fools and Horses on February 27th rounding off a solid block of BBC comedy from 8pm to 10:50pm.

Thursday 7th October 1993


6:00 Film: 633 Squadron
7:30 World Chess Championships
8:00 Plain Tales from Northern Ireland
8:30 Top Gear
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 The Dog’s Tale
10:10 Small Objects of Desire
10:30 Newsnight
11:15 The Late Show
11:55 Weatherview
12:00 Instruments in Flight
12:30 Close

Back to the familiar pattern of BBC Two kicking off its evening schedules with a film, this one very much in line with the British obsession with the Second World War. The 1964 flick 633 Squadron, which is all about bombing the shit out of some Norwegians, has a main character called Roy Grant, which caused me to do a proper double take while looking it up. This is followed by some high-octane “sporting” “action” from the World Chess Championship, which is actually more interesting than it first appears; due to a dispute with the International Chess Federation, the two finalists (Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short) quit the governing body and staged the match themselves, creating a schism in the chess world which lasted until a reunification in 2006. This is followed by the heart-warming tale of the Northern Irish border village of Garrison, where the Catholics and Protestants are united by a shared passion for fox hunting.

It’s a lighter tone for the rest of the evening, with Psirens preceded by Top Gear and followed by a programme all about doggos from around the world. Then Small Objects of Desire, which also shared a schedule with Dwarf back in 1991, looks at bras, like your dad does when the Littlewoods catalogue arrives. Once again, it’s a familiar end to the evening; Instruments in Flight is an Open University programme, but was granted its own identity in the TV listings. This did happen now and again when the shows were considered entertaining enough to be of interest outside of those who were studying a specific course, such as (much later) the Robert Llewellyn hosted Hollywood Science.

Other programmes are available

Opposite Dwarf on ITV was the second instalment of a three-part Taggart, in which there had presumably been a muddurr, while Channel 4 were screening an edition of Critical Eye, another of their documentary strands that sought to provide oppositional viewpoints to the political mainstream. This edition covered female genital mutilation, a topic that wasn’t widely known about in the UK at the time. On a much lighter note, comedies dotted throughout the days schedules included a Laurel & Hardy short on C4, a new episode of Waiting For God (the nursing home sitcom, not the Series 1 episode) on BBC1, and The Upper Hand on ITV. For those who don’t know, this was a rare example of a trans-Atlantic sitcom remake being successful; it was an adaptation of Who’s The Boss?, with Tony Danza’s role of a male housekeeper played by the oldest of the McGanns, which ran for seven series. Less successful was Billy Connolly’s US vehicle Billy, broadcast in the small hours on ITV, which by now was running a 24 hour service. Dwarf fans may also have been interested in Channel 4’s The Music Game at 8pm, a pop-themed panel show hosted by the then-ubiquitous Tony Slattery.

Look ahead…

The regional magazine slot (First Sight et al) returned to BBC Two from Legion onwards, which otherwise remained pretty similar for the majority of the series, with the early evening films getting longer and/or starting later once the chess tournament finished. The first major change occurred during the fifth week, with A Cook’s Tour of France (the cook in question being Mireille Johnston) preceding Top Gear. It was all change immediately after Out of Time though, with The Dog’s Tale making way for Blood and Belonging, a look at the rise of nationalism in post-Soviet Europe. Hooray.

From Gunmen onwards, the competition on ITV was All In The Game, a semi-autobiographical drama about a young British footballer signing for Barcelona, co-created by Gary Lineker. No, really. Over on BBC One, the hour between the News and Question Time was taken by Crimewatch UK on the first Thursday of every month, but was dedicated to comedy the rest of the time. It was “don’t have nightmares” week for Psirens and Rimmerworld, but the three episodes in the middle had repeats of One Foot In The Grave and Absolutely Fabulous for comedy fans to enjoy straight afterwards. For Series VI’s final week on air, new sitcom If You See God, Tell Him took the slot, starring Richard Briers and written by David Renwick and future Rob Grant collaborator Andrew Marshall. Oh, and the October 21st edition of The Music Game had Tony Hawks as a guest, for a double whammy of Red Dwarf guest starts turned panel show royalty.

Friday 17th January 1997


6:00 UFO
6:45 Electric Circus
7:00 Timewatch
7:50 A Week To Remember
8:00 Wilderness Walks
8:30 Gardening From Scratch
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 Never Mind The Buzzcocks
10:00 Room 101
10:28 Video Nation Shorts
10:30 Newsnight
11:15 Space: Above and Beyond
12:00 Film: A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon
1:30 Weather
1:35 Close

Jump forward three and a bit years, and the channel looks a very different place all of a sudden. That’s partly because Red Dwarf moved to Fridays for Series VII, when the schedules start to morph into weekend mode, less reliant on the structure of Mondays-Thursdays, but mostly because the landscape of TV can change a lot in three and a bit years. Two rival satellite services – British Satellite Broadcasting and Sky – merged in 1992, and the effective monopoly this created, along with the exclusive rights to Premier League football, movies premiered years ahead of terrestrial, and all sorts of high-profile American imports, saw the number of multi-channel households vastly increase throughout the mid-to-late 90s. By 1997, Sky Digital was only a year away from launching, plus Channel 5 was mere months away from increasing the bare minimum number of channels received by 25%. In short, there was more choice than ever, and the old guard had to adapt.

Not that BBC Two was veering too far from its remit of providing alternatives to the mass-appeal offerings of BBC One and ITV, but you’ll notice the evening’s viewing seems more structured now. My abiding memory of the BBC Two of my secondary school days is they’d always show 45 minute programmes at 6pm – more often than not it would be an American network show sans adverts (or a double bill of half-hour network shows like The Simpsons or Fresh Prince), but in this case it’s a repeat run of UFO, the 1970 live action Gerry Anderson series, originally shown on ITV. We then have 15 minutes of entertainment news from Electric Circus, this week featuring Ian Broudie from The Lightning Seeds and future shooting victim Cliff Richard, before the first of several themed chunks of programming.

History hour starts with a fascinating-sounding edition of long-running documentary strand Timewatch, speaking to kamikaze pilots who survived the process, before archive newsreels from forty years hence in A Week To Remember. This would have been footage from the 1950s. If this programme was made today, it’d be footage from Breakfast Time in 1983. You are old. Then there’s nature-type programmes from 8pm, with Shadow Health Secretary Chris Smith exploring the island of Mull in Wilderness Walks, followed by Gardening from Scratch. There was always gardening programmes on at 8:30pm on Fridays on BBC Two, as anyone who watched the last ten minutes of Gardeners’ World every week for fear of missing any of Red Dwarf‘s 1994 repeat run will tell you.

And then of course it’s the Comedy Zone, a designated 90 minutes of funny stuff every single week. There were in fact two Comedy Zones for much of this period, every Monday and Friday, and they were a real appointment-to-view for young comedy fans at the time; there are so many shows that I watched simply because I always watched comedy on Mondays and Fridays. There were some repeats in the mix, but overall always more original first-run comedy in those two evenings than any single channel would air in a whole week these days. Joining Red Dwarf on this particular Friday was the sixth ever episode of Never Mind The Buzzcocks (current episode count: 297), and a repeat from the second series of Room 101, with Richard Wilson making his case to original host Nick Hancock.

Before the familiar sight of Newsnight, a brief interlude from Video Nation Shorts. This is when the BBC invented vlogging, with slots in the schedules dedicated to members of the public documenting their lives via their own camcorders. These video diaries ran from 1993 to 2011, only falling foul to budget cuts that saw the project deemed unnecessary in the internet age. And then after Newsnight, no boring weather programmes or Open University lectures here, instead the UK debut of short-lived American sci-fi show Space: Above and Beyond, followed by the 1988 coming-of-age movie A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon, starring River Phoenix as someone who really sounds like he should be a snooker player. It’s simple stuff, but most certainly not the kind of programming you’d see this late of an evening just a few years earlier. There’s then a brief look at the weather to calm everyone down before bedtime.

Other programmes are available

Tikka To Ride faced competition from The Ruth Rendell Mysteries on ITV, showing the first of a two part story, Bribery and Corruption, while Channel 4 scheduled comedy against Red Dwarf for the first time, in the form of Dressing For Breakfast, a sitcom starring Beatie Edney and Holly Aird. Nope, me neither. Friday was also the designated comedy night on Channel 4, a tradition that they occasionally continue to this day, but which was a staple of the schedules at the time when they were offering the first terrestrial showings of a lot of American sitcoms. Immediately after Red Dwarf/Dressing For Breakfast was Spin City starring Michael J. Fox, then Roseanne starring a horrible racist, followed by a homegrown gem – Captain Butler, starring one Craig Charles.

Friday nights in January 1997 were absolutely owned by Craig, with brand new sitcoms on BBC Two and Channel 4, along with his very late night chat show Funky Bunker airing on ITV at 12:30 in the morning. This temporary ubiquity resulted in Craig being dubbed “Wanker of the Week” by Channel 4’s The Girlie Show, which followed immediately after Captain Butler. This in itself was followed by a repeat of that day’s edition of TFI Friday and Dani Dares, in which glamourous TV presenter Dani Behr tries her hand at stand-up, under the tutelage of Jenny Eclair, providing a solid block of comedy (or close approximations) from 9pm all the way to 1:10am, while BBC One and ITV had no comedies at all.

Look ahead…

A week later, BBC Two switched to the original series of Star Trek to provide their 6pm ancient sci-fi quota, which remained there for the rest of the run. Save for the odd alteration due to tennis, ice skating, snooker or athletics action, the BBC Two schedule remained regimented throughout this period, although some of the shows themselves changed, with repeats of Michael Palin’s Pole To Pole replacing TimewatchBirding with Bill Oddie in the Wilderness Walks spot, and the OG Gardener’s World returning to the pre-Dwarf slot. Craig’s dominance of the listings was lessened after four weeks, which will have pleased The Girlie Show if nobody else – Captain Butler‘s replacement was Here’s Johnny, a chat show vehicle for Johnny Vaughan. Interestingly enough, BBC1 launched the new series of The Mrs Merton Show opposite it on the same night, and also added to their comedy output with repeats of Dad’s ArmyPorridge and Only Fools and Horses dotted around the weeks.

But it was all change for Epideme and Nanarchy, as Red Dwarf had exceeded the standard six episodes per British series for the first time. Buzzcocks and Room 101 made way for The Two Fat Ladies’ Comedy Cook-In, in which overweight female chef duo Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright present half an hour of cooking-related comedy clips, followed by a repeat of one of their favourite comedies, in this case Butterflies and Alas Smith and Jones respectively. Meanwhile, ITV replaced like-for-like with Catherine Cookson’s The Moth at 9pm, and Channel 4 had another US import, Caroline in the City, joining Spin City and Roseanne. Also, ITV launched Nick Hancock sitcom Holding The Baby to add to the comedy quotient, as well as continuing Funky Bunker for all but one week that Series VII aired.

Thursday 18th February 1999


6:00 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
6:45 Quantum Leap
7:30 First Sight
8:00 Fred Dibnah’s Industrial Age
8:30 Wheeler Dealers
9:00 Red Dwarf
9:30 Horizon
10:20 Tales Of Tools
10:30 Newsnight*
11:15 Late Review
12:00 The Phil Silvers Show**
12:30 – 6:10 Learning Zone

* Followed by Video Nation Shorts
** Followed by Skiing Forecast

Two years later, a switch back to the more familiar Thursday night slot sees Dwarf once more as the sole prime-time comedy offering on the channel. But while the programmes themselves are less thematically linked than last time, the regimented nature of TV scheduling of the time is evident elsewhere. Virtually everything listed here is the start of a new series, and given that this is the seventh week of the broadcasting year, you can probably figure out why. After Star Trek DS9 provides the first of not one but two American-sci-fi-shows-in-a-45-minute-slot, even the Quantum Leap episode is the pilot, kicking off a fresh repeat run. Then the regional slot is back, with London’s First Sight posing the question “is it racist or just thoughtless to offer bacon sandwiches to Muslim prisoners?” Why not both?

Next up, a brand new series, Fred Dibnah’s Industrial Age, tracing the history of the Bolton, Bury and Manchester canal and all the technological developments it enabled. This was actually the first presenting gig for popular steeplejack Fred, previously semi-famous just for climbing up massive chimneys for a living, kicking off a prolific but tragically short second career until his death in 2004. Then, brand new business-based challenge show Wheeler Dealers, in which two teams of aspiring entrepreneurs are challenged to make their fortune in a trade they know nothing about. Hosted by Adrian Chiles, early in his tragically long career.

After the main event, an edition of Horizon titled Electric Heart looks at early pioneering attempts at creating artificial heart pumps, before ten-minute schedule filler (and another new series) Tales of the Tools tackles the saw. Kirsty Wark, one of The Late Show‘s roster of hip up-and-coming young presenters in 1989, hosts Newsnight, which is followed by a Video Nation Short which is substantial enough to be part of the schedule, but not big enough to be given its own entry in the day’s listings. And speaking of The Late Show, its successor was Late Review (later rebadged as Newsnight Review), this week featuring Mark Lawson, Tom Paulin, Germaine Greer and Ekow Eshun. Brilliant.

Late night comedy is provided by a repeat of The Phil Silvers Show, specifically Bilko and the Flying Saucers, before another too-small-for-the-listings programme, which was essentially weather for posh people. One possible reason for these shorter programmes dropping off the telly pages of newspapers and magazines was a space issue, as BBC Two – and indeed all other terrestrial channels – was now running a 24 hour service. The commercial channels mostly filled the wee hours with repeats, movies and sport, BBC One joined the relatively new News 24 and BBC Two fulfilled its public service remit with the Learning Zone. This incorporated not only the previous Open University shows, but also programmes for schools and colleges, teacher training modules and language classes, and ran as a strand until 2015.

Other programmes are available

Not for the first time, Dwarf was up against some heavy subject matter, with ITV airing the two hour drama The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, telling the story of the racially-motivated killing of a Black teenager in 1993, which continues to have a huge impact on race relations in the UK, with the murderers not brought to justice until 2012. The programme won the BAFTA for Best Single Drama, and spawned a sequel in 2021, covering the family’s long fight for justice. It arguably had a greater impact than Back In The Red (Part One). Meanwhile, Channel 4 offered up The Real Albert Goering, a profile of Hermann’s younger brother, who was apparently not drug-crazed, a Nazi or a transvestite.

But there was also another terrestrial alternative for the first time, Channel 5 having launched just a couple of months after Series VII concluded. The nascent broadcaster was still under the auspices of its original director of programming Dawn Airey, whose philosophy was to offer “films, football and fucking”. It was the former of the three up against Red Dwarf, with the 1995 TV movie Sleep, Baby, Sleep. In stark contrast to Friday nights in 1997, comedy was extremely thin on the ground, with only a repeat of They Think It’s All Over (the panel show with the two most despicable resident comedians in history) on BBC1, and Bring Me The Head of Light Entertainment, C5’s take on the panel show format, hosted by a young Graham Norton. After which on Channel 5, you could see The Inquisitor turn his attention to Eastenders star Michelle Collins, in that evening’s edition of American-style nightly talk show The Jack Docherty Show.

Look ahead…

As you might expect, BBC2 remained pretty similar for the bulk of the run, the only variant for the first few weeks being different strands in the regional section, before docusoap Making It, following two young trainer designers, took over the slot nation-wide from the fifth week, when Krytie TV aired. On the same day, a new series of Top Gear started at 8:30; the proudly non-PC and offensively chauvinistic bloke-fest… was preceded by a programme about cars. Live figure skating action was the only other disruption to the pattern, but the other channels were a different story. ITV’s Dwarf opposition for parts two and three of Back In The Red was Infidelity, a documentary about shagging. They followed this with 1994 Sharon Stone movie The Specialist against Cassandra, before three-part drama Every Woman Knows A Secret with Siobhan Redmond.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 started a new series called Ramsay’s Boiling Point against BitR(P2), the very first series to star up-and-coming young chef Gordon Ramsay as he opens his first ever restaurant. Whatever happened to that guy? This ran for the majority of Series VIII’s time on air, until a repeat of Rising Damp aired opposite Pete (Part 2). This was one of several times the sitcom (originally aired on ITV, of course) was used as a schedule filler, as was Whose Line Is It Anyway?, providing the only extra doses of comedy, unless you count The 11 O’Clock Show, which started on the same night Cassandra aired, and launched the careers of Ricky Gervais, Sacha Baron Cohen and, to a much lesser extent, Iain Lee. Channel 5 continued to show old TV movies at 9pm, with the exception of weeks three and five, which instead saw both legs of the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup quarter final between Chelsea and Valerenga of Norway (agg. score 6-2).

As Red Dwarf once again exceeded the standard six episodes per series, it was all change on BBC 2 when Pete (Part 2) aired on April Fools Day, with new series of Electric Circus2 DIY 4 and Vintners’ Tales, plus an episode of The Simpsons for good measure. And then the following Thursday… well, BBC2 were showing The Masters golf tournament that evening, so Red Dwarf found itself unceremoniously dumped from its regular slot for the first and only time, for the very last episode to air on the BBC. Only The Good… was brought forward to Monday 5th April, returning to its original day of the week, and sharing a BBC2 schedule with the likes of Never Mind The BuzzcocksFood And Drink, an animated version of Moby Dick, and 1997 film Face starring Robert Carlyle. The competition came from the concluding part of Joanna Lumley drama Nancherrow on ITV and movies Roswell on C4 and The Tuskegee Airmen on C5.

But just to really mix things up… you remember several thousand words ago when I said that BBC1 showed the News against 51 of the 52 episodes of Red Dwarf? Well, this particular Monday happened to be Easter Monday, a bank holiday, where all the normal rules of television scheduling go out the window. This means BBC One remains in weekend mode for an extra day, with a much later and shorter news bulletin, away from prime time. Instead, one-off comedy drama The Man, starring Lenny Henry as a travel agent with ambitions of becoming an R&B singer.

Now, we would go on to do the Dave era, but a) it’s not yet old enough to be interesting and b) it represents an era of television that’s unrecognisable even from the latter part of the BBC era. At no point in the twentieth century would a multi-channel broadcaster be able to produce original scripted content that looked and felt on a par with the main terrestrial channels; remember that Sky’s first comedy commission was Rob Grant’s The Strangerers, which didn’t air until 2000, and Sky’s financial weight was, and remains, many times mightier than UKTV’s.

In many ways, Red Dwarf‘s original BBC run is part of a vastly different television era to today. Two key developments in the 2000s changed everything – the launch of Freeview gave everyone access to dozens of digital channels for free, ending the days when the default number of channels could be counted on one hand, and of course the rise of the internet gave us catch-up services, on demand streaming and countless alternative forms of entertainment. There will always be a place for linear television (as evidenced every time England play in a major football tournament, or a monarch dies), it’s just no longer the only option, and so it’s less relevant to chronicle what else is on when Red Dwarf airs. Especially considering that twelve episodes have debuted on demand, and thus outside of the regular schedules anyway.

But despite these huge leaps in the last twenty-odd years, the television industry was not entirely unprepared for the monumental changes that were about to occur, and you can see the old guard adapting and tweaking their approach throughout Red Dwarf‘s original run. In the course of eight series and eleven years, we’ve seen the launch of a new channel, a move to 24 hour broadcasting, more themed blocks of programming and varying levels of adherence to 30/60 minute time slots. Plus, as the pictures next to the listings above show, a much friendlier, more characterful brand identity for BBC Two.

Television in 1988 was not the same as television in 1999, and Red Dwarf rode the wave of those changes. The future was just around the corner; while the name “Dave” was still some years away, its predecessor UK Gold 2 launched in the short gap between the last two episodes of Series VIII. Nobody at the time could possibly have predicted the significance of this event, which just goes to show the importance of keeping television history alive.

16 comments on “Channel Hopping

Scroll to bottom

  • Whilst not on the same *night*, it seems worth noting that pretty much all of VIII overlapped with Craig Charles’ first series of Robot Wars airing on Friday nights, which wrapped up an 18-episode run (including specials) on the 19th March. (For the record, recording of that series of RW took place in August 1998, the month before VIII went before a studio audience.)

  • This edition was titled Struggling For Control, and concerned air traffic control in an increasingly cramped airspace.

    It concerned air traffic control, I thought, in an increasingly cramped airspace. You’re a mind reader.

  • I never watched it as a yoof, but having seen it as an adult, I can only imagine the bamboozling effect Yellow Submarine might have on young minds.

    On the other hand, it’s colourful, with some nice tunes and humour, maybe that would carry one through the weirder bits.

  • Interesting (and thorough!) stuff.

    For me the pre-Dwarf ritual I remember most strongly was the closing credits of Gardeners World, which can only stem from the ’94 repeat run.

  • This edition was titled Struggling For Control, and concerned air traffic control in an increasingly cramped airspace.

    Hosted, oddly enough, by a chap called Jake Bullit.

  • I never watched it as a yoof, but having seen it as an adult, I can only imagine the bamboozling effect Yellow Submarine might have on young minds.

    On the other hand, it’s colourful, with some nice tunes and humour, maybe that would carry one through the weirder bits.

    I was about 4 or 5 when I first saw it, and I loved it. I don’t even remember finding it particularly weird compared to any other cartoon. I think I already knew the title song (that was probably why my mum recorded the film for me), but beyond that it was my very first introduction to the Beatles, and for that I’ll always be grateful.

    The version I watched over and over as a kid was taped off a Channel 4 broadcast in approximately 1991 (I’ve never actually looked into finding out the exact date). I never knew that it had been broadcast by the BBC just a few years before that – let alone broken up into a serialised form!

    (I also watched Help! a lot as a kid. I think my copy of that was taped from a broadcast to coincide with McCartney’s 50th birthday in 1992. I think the Sgt Pepper 25th anniversary documentary from around the same time was also on the same tape.)

  • Abroad in Britain followed by Red Dwarf V, a good evening’s viewing, that. Jonathan Meades’s early series are utterly bonkers. 

    Lots of depressingly nostalgic content in that article, lovely stuff! The 6PM sci-fi slot is a beloved memory for me, introducing me to DS9, Voyager, Farscape, Quantum Leap, UFO, Space: 1999 and a couple of fantastic Doctor Who serials. 

    Minuscule factoid about the changing nature of telly: Birding With Bill Oddie, as mentioned in the 1997 listings, eventually evolved into Springwatch. Originally a half hour Friday evening series that eventually turned into a show with live cameras on the red button and website being one of the main attractions. 

  • Tangential, but I do have fond memories of BBC 2’s Friday Simpsons/Fresh Prince Power Hour. Truly ’twas a gilded age.

  • Fantastic, I’d been wondering about exactly this topic ever since I noticed that Lee and Herring’s TMWRNJ series 2 started halfway through series VIII, which went some way towards explaining my waning interest in that series as it went on, along with other factors, such as the actual content of the episodes.

  • I clearly remember watching some of those things at those times, like the pilots of Quantum Leap and Space: Above and Beyond, but they aren’t associated with the build-up or come-down of new Red Dwarf in my memory.

    The 1999 Deep Space Nine was a repeat of 1×03 A Man Alone, meaning they would have run out of “new” ones and gone back to the start, so I have no memory of watching that again, like I would a newer one. If it’s of any interest, The Next Generation started very late on the BBC, just a few months before series IV in 1991.

    For Doctor Dwarf crossover context, Queeg was broadcast the day before Remembrance of the Daleks part 1 (then Parallel Universe before part 2) and Red Dwarf III started the day before The Curse of Fenric part 4, with Bodyswap airing the day before Survival part 3.

  • Bravo!  A brilliant deep dive.

    This is all before my time, in some ways – we didn’t have a TV until c.2001 – but some things stayed the same for a long time.  We were late adopters of Freeview so TV in my formative years was all on linear broadcast with regular slots for specific types of programmes, or recorded on VHS if it was important enough and we absolutely couldn’t watch it at the time of broadcast.  My introduction to sci-fi was via regular Star Trek slots on Pick TV (Sky’s Freeview channel) so pretty late.  [Incidentally, this reminds me my Grandma taped all of Voyager from BBC2.]

    I didn’t realise OU programmes were actually for parts of courses, I just thought they were educational broadcasting for the sake of it.  That’s really cool.

  • I read this hearing the internal voice and cadence that Ian uses for the “contemporary events” segments of the Smegazine Rack. It was a lovely read.

  • Cracking article. Those Friday nights on Channel 4 are among my happiest early telly memories. Rising Damp would be on before the American shows like Cheers, Golden Girls, Roseanne, Nurses. And then Jo Brand Through the Cakehole but I wasn’t allowed to stay up that late, or maybe it was just too rude, or both. I do remember watching Captain Butler at the time though. Dunno why The Girlie Show had it in for the Red Dwarf cast but Jimmy Nail was a ‘Wanker of the Week’ too. 

Scroll to top  •  Scroll to 'Recent Comments'

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.