Eddie Mair: This article contains jokes – from the start

"I don't think I've ever seen a sadder-looking number 2... stop that right now."

You will find all sorts of ancient artefacts scattered throughout Broadcasting House. I’m going to resist the temptation to make a cheap joke at Corrie Corfield’s expense here. I am in fact referring to pieces of kit: unassuming in themselves but part of our broadcasting heritage. Again, please cast Corrie from your mind. I shouldn’t have mentioned her.


Near the back lifts behind the glorious original reception area in BH you’ll find the actual microphone used by the old King to do one of his Christmas radio broadcasts. There is a photo of the King sitting at the mike, looking nothing at all like Colin Firth. Probably because it was a different King. A piece of broadcasting history, just sitting quietly under a protective case, while we modern-day broadcasters rush past wolfing our frothy cappuccinos and moist pastries.

In the corner of the café on the ground floor of New Broadcasting House sits something I could stare at all day. It’s not a giant mirror, nor a large sign saying “Do Not Blink At This Notice”. It is in fact a tiny piece of kit, in a protective clear casing, that used to beam into your living room.

To the untrained eye (mine) it looks from the side to be an old-fashioned camera, the kind you see in silent movies, where a man in tweed with a tripod holds aloft a giant flash that is so bright the people in the photograph are blinded.

Look from the front, though, and it is unmistakably a number 2. Do not insert any cheap joke here either. This little box was one of those that used to appear in vision on BBC2 while the continuity announcers intoned their stuff. Just the number 2 made up of a series of lines that would – if you were lucky – separate to either side of the screen before joyously returning to re-create the number 2. Simpler times, the 1970s.

The uncomplicated animation was, to my memory, a colourful, rather wondrous moment. Nowadays the visual feasts that appear between TV programmes are worthy of Academy Awards. Digital masterpieces created by people with the word Creative in their job titles, and which have Core Branding at their heart. Meanwhile, the sturdy workhorse that did years demonstrating that we weren’t watching BBC1 sits motionless in the corner of a café, largely ignored. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sadder-looking number 2. And really you’ve got to stop that right now. 

Modern continuity announcers have so much more to do than boom “This is BBC1”. It may be my viewing habits, but every programme I watch now carries a lengthy warning beforehand. “The following programme contains strong violence, scenes of a sexual nature, strong language and flashing images FROM THE START.” I love that final bit. Do people lunge for the remote to try to turn off the set before the filth-fest begins? And what’s up with those programme-makers who filled their drama with sex, guns and potty-mouths – but not in the first minute? Not for them the coveted “FROM THE START” warning.

In fact, if the continuity warning doesn’t include a “from the start”, I DO lunge for the remote to turn the thing off. If the well-heeled producers with their frothy cappuccinos and moist pastries can’t organise something outrageous from the get-go, what are we paying the licence fee for? Come on BBC. Etc.