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Panorama: A History

Original Panorama opening titles
The programme's original opening titles showed the London skyline

It is 55 years since Panorama first appeared on black and white television screens across the country as the self-styled "window to the world".

The now familiar name was the brainchild of the programme's first editor, Dennis Bardens, who came up with it as he looked out at the panoramic view from his office, which in his own words was "very capacious".

But the very first programme at 8.15pm on Wednesday 11 November 1953 was almost Panorama's last.

Scheduled to be a fortnightly magazine show that reported on the arts, celebrity and news, the programme's debut was beset by problems with one recorded scoop being played out backwards.

Cecil McGivern, the BBC's then controller of television programmes, pulled it off air. A month later it was back on the box, revamped with a new presenter, Max Robertson and it has been a fixture on the BBC ever since.

Breaking the rules

Within the first six months Panorama had made an impact, positioning itself as the place for serious debate when it devoted a whole programme to the 1954 H-bomb tests.

A year later it was relaunched as a weekly programme, bringing in Richard Dimbleby as the main presenter. Arguably the BBC's first "personality", Dimbleby was a known figure to audiences who had watched him anchor the BBC's outside broadcast of the Coronation.

Richard Dimbleby pointing as Labour Party leader Harold Wilson and Robin Day sit around a table in the Panorama studio
Richard Dimbleby in the studio with Labour leader Harold Wilson, 1964

With Dimbleby at the helm, Panorama developed a more serious tone and focused on tackling topics of significance. To the title was added the famous phrase "television's window on the world" and the image of the globe still seen today.

Beating the competition, Panorama proved its worth when it defied orders and sent a camera team into Hungary during the 1956 uprising. Neither BBC News nor ITN had managed it.

This rebellious streak was seen again in the same year in Panorama's coverage of the Suez crisis. At the time, the BBC was working under a 14-day rule which meant that nothing due for debate in Parliament in the next fortnight could be discussed on television.

Dimbleby and the team got around this by broadcasting the reaction to the crisis from around the world, omitting Britain. The programme came under attack from politicians in favour of the invasion, but a BBC investigation found in favour of Panorama and the 14-day rule was suspended for a trial period by Parliament. It was never applied again.

Making history

Despite its serious tone, the programme still managed to pull off one of television's most memorable hoaxes.

On April Fool's Day, 1957, Panorama broadcast an apparently serious account of spaghetti harvesting from trees in Switzerland. The BBC switchboard lit up as hundreds of fooled viewers called in.

Woman harvesting spaghetti from trees
An April Fool's Day programme showed spaghetti growing on trees

Panorama has also been the scene of a number of television firsts.

It was the first programme, in 1957, to feature the birth of a baby on television. The use of the f-word live was another notable debut in 1956 - the culprit? Controversial Irish playwright Brendan Behan.

And an interview in 1961 with the Duke of Edinburgh was the first time a member of the Royal family took part in such an interview.

Alongside making TV history, reporting historic moments has been the mainstay of the programme. As the world was watching the Cuban missile crisis unfold, twelve million people tuned into a Panorama special. On the night of the programme the editor received a call from a viewer saying "there's only one thing I want Richard Dimbleby to do. I want him to tell me if it's safe for my daughter to go to school tomorrow".

By the time of his death in 1965 Richard Dimbleby was truly treasured by the audience, with over 11 million people tuning into the BBC to watch his funeral service.

After Dimbleby

Richard Dimbeley was succeeded by Robin Day who joined the programme as a reporter in 1959 helping to establish Panorama as the place for major political interviews.

In 1974 the Dimblebys' status as a broadcasting dynasty was confirmed when David Dimbleby followed in his father's footsteps and took the helm on the programme's 21st birthday.

Richard Dimbleby with the Duke of Edinburgh
The Duke of Edinburgh was the first royal to be interviewed on television

He soon made his mark as an ever unflappable anchor with a classic example in 1976 when a film failed to roll.

He moved onto the next film only to have that one fail on him too. "We sit in silence," he said. "Hmmm. Hope you stick with BBC1."

With an investigative programme like Panorama, controversy comes with the territory, but few were to land the programme in as much hot water as a 1984 film alleging far-right infiltration of the Conservative Party.

Controversy

Maggie's Militant Tendencies investigated connections between people on the candidates' list and far-right groups, ending with a demand from a local Conservative party official that MPs named in the film should be expelled from the Party.

The Conservative Parliamentary Party complained, but the BBC backed the programme.

However, some of those named in the broadcast issued writs.

The case came to trial and before Panorama's defence had been aired, the BBC summoned the production team and told them they had to settle.

Two-and-a-half years after broadcast, each MP was awarded £20,000, their expenses were paid in full amounting to £240,000 and the BBC agreed to apologise unreservedly.

Awards

An undoubted low yes, but there have been many highs, law changes and a clutch of awards in recognition of our journalism.

The Norway Channel was an international scoop and told the story of a Norwegian couple who had formed a secret channel between the Israelis and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation.

It picked up the Royal Television Society's top prize.

Perhaps the programme's biggest coup was securing a searingly honest interview with Diana, Princess of Wales.

Martin Bashir interviewing Princess Diana
Princess Diana's candid interview delivered Panorama's biggest audience

Martin Bashir's interview with the late Princess in 1995 was watched by a record 22.8m people, but right up until broadcast the programme was shrouded in secrecy.

The programme was recorded on 5 November, when under cover of darkness, the team drove to the Princess's home for the recording.

They then regrouped a week later at a secret location to view the tape.

Little editing was needed, but the cutting room was flanked by security guards so nothing would leak out.

On the day news broke of the interview, a note from Buckingham Palace arrived at the BBC. In it Queen Elizabeth II's private secretary expressed surprise that the interview had been conducted.

The secretary went on to say, "We have always valued our relationship with the BBC, though we have never been foolish enough to take it for granted. In order to ensure that this relationship remains in a healthy state in the future, might it not be worthwhile for you and I, and perhaps, one or two others from each side, to meet to discuss the question of whether or not fresh ground rules need to be agreed, to both of our benefits for the future?"

Setting the agenda

From a Princess' confessions of a troubled marriage, to bloodshed and war crimes in Srebrenica, Panorama has seen it all.

War Crime: Five Days in Hell investigated accusations of the systematic killing of Muslims in Bosnia at the hands of two men, General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

The victims' harrowing firsthand testimonies not only informed an audience about the unseen horrors being perpetrated, but the raw footage was requested to be used as evidence at the United Nations War Crimes tribunal in the Hague.

At the turn of the millennium it was an investigation into the Omagh bombing that proved Panorama could still set the agenda.

John Ware in Omagh
John Ware's Omagh film named those responsible for the bombing

Who Bombed Omagh? named the four perpetrators of the bomb attack which killed 29 people and unborn twins on 15 August 1998.

It won an award but was also to attract unwelcome attention. In 2001 a car bomb planted by the Real IRA exploded outside BBC Television Centre.

The security services suggested the attack was revenge for the Panorama programme.

In 2004, the multi-award winning The New Killing Fields saw reporter Hilary Andersson expose the Darfur crisis in Sudan which earlier that year the United States had branded a genocide.

That same year an investigation that raised suspicions about the evidence used to convict Barry George of BBC TV presenter Jill Dando's murder was first broadcast by Panorama.

A follow up programme in 2007 took the unusual step of speaking to two members of the trial jury who expressed their own concerns about the evidence that convicted George. In 2008 he was released on appeal.

Today Panorama sits in a prime-time slot and continues to bring current affairs journalism to an audience of millions.

Panorama - Mondays at 8.30pm on BBC One.



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