Laurence Alster on a BBC history that's being sent out free to schools
Traditionally the nation's Auntie, the BBC has been around so long that, as with any elderly, slightly dotty relative, you tend to think she'll always be there. But we all get on, and Auntie has looked a little poorly of late. So her 75th birthday seems a good time to remind us of what we owe the old girl.
The reminder comes in the form of Sound On Vision On, a CD-Rom that traces the history and development of the BBC from its birth in 1922. It is a model of its kind: entertaining, informative and beautifully produced. And it's being sent out free to all schools and colleges.
As well as surveying a selection of the major technical advances and important in-house issues of the past 75 years, Sound On Vision On profiles some of the BBC's outstanding radio and television programmes. By scrolling down a programme or subject list for one of eight decades, users access sound and video clips with printed commentary. Each decade has its own 10-point quiz and an overall view of the period delivered by such BBC stalwarts as Moira Stewart, Sue Lawley and Andy Kershaw. The result is a little like the BBC itself: a mixture of the sometimes weird and occasionally wonderful.
Wisely selected and stylishly presented, the slices of sound and vision mirror the BBC's slow and sometimes painful transformation from starchy Establishment advocate to unbuttoned free-market player. So, from the radio section, users can tune into dozens of extracts including Neville Chamberlain's declaration of war on Germany in 1939, Richard Dimbleby describing the horrors of the Belsen extermination camp in 1945, and Kenneth Williams camping it up in a 1950s extract from Beyond Our Ken. More recent samples include John Peel's Top Gear (1960s), The News Quiz (1970s) and the radio success of the Nineties, Spoonface Steinberg.
The television section offers fond memories such as the 1963 clip from Dr Who, a boyish Barry Norman introducing Film '72, and Manuel fleeing his deranged boss in a 1975 episode of Fawlty Towers. Meanwhile, extracts from Cathy Come Home (1966), Yesterday's Men (1971) and Real Lives: at the Edge of the Union (1984) are a reminder of programmes that brought hard questions from high places about the nature and purpose of public service broadcasting. These clips can be used by teachers to illustrate changes in style, attitude, genre and atmosphere not only at the BBC, but also in the society it served.
For sheer quality and range, Sound On Vision On is a fitting tribute to one of the great institutions of British life.