The BBC celebrates 100 years of shaping pop culture

This collection of more than 400 ‘Doctor Who’ trading cards brought $361 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022. Image courtesy of Chaucer Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

A collection of more than 400 ‘Doctor Who’ trading cards brought $361 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022. Image courtesy of Chaucer Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — In the century since its official founding on October 18, 1922, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has documented scores of historical moments, from the 1982 Falklands war to the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey. There have been royal weddings that riveted audiences locally and around the world as well as news stories on the changing face of Ireland and Scotland. Along the way, the BBC moved from exclusively broadcasting via radio to the world of television and, later, online entertainment. It has helped shape the culture with important early appearances by The Beatles and The Who to popular TV shows such as Fawlty Towers (which served as this writer’s introduction to BBC programming while growing up in New Jersey) and Doctor Who, which debuted more than 60 years ago and is going strong in its second incarnation.

The world’s oldest and largest broadcaster began daily radio broadcasts on November 14, 1922 and today has a rich legacy in helping cultivate and spread the British aesthetic and culture.

A signed promotional photograph of The Who, taken during a live 1966 taping for the BBC’s television show ‘Top of the Pops,’ achieved $17,779 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

A signed promotional photograph of The Who, taken during a live 1966 taping for the BBC’s television show ‘Top of the Pops,’ achieved $17,779 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

Music is but one area in which the BBC has been vital, both in bringing attention to rising music stars as well as capturing historic moments, most notably through its TV show Top of the Pops, which was broadcast weekly from 1964 to 2006. Dusty Springfield’s I Only Want to Be with You was the first song performed on the show and by 1966, The Who were climbing the charts. A promotional photograph of The Who, taken during a live taping for the show in September 1966 and signed by the entire band, made $17,779 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at RR Auction.

A prop sword with scabbard and shield from the 1976 BBC period drama ‘I, Claudius’ went for $450 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

A prop sword with scabbard and shield from the 1976 BBC period drama ‘I, Claudius’ went for $450 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Artemis Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

The BBC excels at period dramas, and its most famous production might be I, Claudius, a 12-episode series aired in 1976 and based on Robert Graves’s mid-1930s novels about the Roman Empire. Starring Derek Jacobi, Sian Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, Patricia Quinn and Patrick Stewart, it won three BAFTA awards as well as an Emmy for art direction after it ran on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. Its influence has hardly dimmed in the decades since. In 2007, it earned a place on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time and in 2016, the newspaper the Daily Telegraph ranked it eighth on a list of 11 groundbreaking moments on British television. In November 2017, a prop shield and sword used during the filming of I, Claudius went for $450 plus the buyer’s premium at Artemis Gallery.

A 1973 first edition, limited edition copy of Alistair Cooke’s ‘America,’ accompanied by his BBC 2 series, ‘America,’ realized $169 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

A 1973 first edition, limited edition copy of Alistair Cooke’s ‘America,’ accompanied by his BBC 2 series, ‘America,’ realized $169 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Courtesy Kinghams Auctioneers and LiveAuctioneers.

One of the preeminent faces and voices of the BBC has to be Alistair Cooke (1908-2004), whose journalism career included radio and television. He is best known for hosting Letter from America, a weekly radio show that ran on the BBC from 1946 to 2004. The show was originally contracted as a 13-week series, but it proved so popular and Cooke proved such an adroit storyteller that it holds a record for the longest-running spoken word radio program presented by a single host, ending when Cooke died. A 1973 first edition, limited edition set of Cooke’s America book, accompanied by his BBC 2 series, America, realized £150 (about $169) plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021 at Kinghams Auctioneers. His show was widely credited as further cementing a friendly bond between the United Kingdom and the United States.

Another of the most well-recognized BBC personalities is biologist, author and naturalist David Attenborough (b. 1926-), whose nature shows are watched by viewers across the world. He is featured as one of the BBC’s Top 100 Faces as part of its digital archive marking its 100 years of history. A set of signed first edition books of Attenborough’s Life on Earth series sold for £650 (about $733) plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018 at Forum Auctions. Early on, Attenborough focused on the natural world, but he has since expanded his scope to address environmental issues. Now 96 years old, he shows no signs of slowing down; his most recent shows include the Planet Earth franchise and the Blue Planet.

A set of first edition books from David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ series sold for $733 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Forum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.


A set of first edition books from David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ series sold for $733 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2018. Image courtesy of Forum Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Arguably the most iconic and longest-running show produced by the BBC is the sci-fi juggernaut Doctor Who. Its original run spanned 1963 to 1989, and it returned to the airwaves in 2005 as a modern reboot that still continues. To say that Doctor Who has a cult-like following almost understates the case. Literal generations of fans share a love for the show, and for its various lines of merchandise. A collection of 420 Doctor Who trading cards, 30 of which are signed by actors who appeared on the show, including two who played the title character, reflect the passion this show inspires. The set of trading cards brought £320 (about $361) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2022 at Chaucer Auctions.

In releasing many images and video clips from its archives for its centennial, the BBC is bringing renewed attention to iconic images, important moments and emotional and compelling stories, many unseen since their original airing.

“By breathing new life into stories which have laid dormant for years, audiences will be able to discover recordings which can help us all learn more about who we are and where we’re from,” said Executive Editor BBC 100 James Stirling in a press release posted online.