Margaret Thatcher, Broadcasting and the NHS:
Key Events and key programmes 1979-1990

This chronology of key events under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership is accompanied by a sample of radio and television programmes which went alongside and sometimes reflected those events. It does not aspire to be a comprehensive list, but to give a flavour of the broadcast output related to health, politics and the NHS across the decade.

Thatcher elected leader
of the Conservative Party

Annan Report on the Future of Broadcasting
recommends an Open Broadcasting Authority to run a fourth television channel which would complement ITV and BBC 1 and 2.

May Election. Conservative win. Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister. Ad agency Saatchi promotes the Conservative campaign with the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’

Question Time launches on BBC1 25 September 1979
Politicians are questioned weekly by an audience recruited from the public.

The government’s ‘Patients First’ document proposes streamlining the NHS administration. It establishes District Management Teams and reinforces the professional structure of hospitals.

Only when I laugh ITV/Yorkshire October 1979-1982
Comedy set in a hospital. Three long-term patients avoid leaving the security of their ward. Stroppy lorry driver, upper class snob and naïve bookworm annoy each other and the doctors.

Health: Who Cares? BBC Community Programme Unit for BBC2 17 November 1979
How ordinary people can influence decisions about the health service, including patients’ committees and hospital action campaigns.

File on Four BBC Radio 4 ‘Staff relations at Liverpool hospital’ presented by Peter Oppenheimer, noted for his ‘anti-trade union views’ 5 June 1979

ITV Franchise round
TV-AM wins the new breakfast time contract

Broadcasting Act widens IBA’s remit to include a fourth channel; set up a Broadcasting Complaints Commission.

Yes Minister begins on BBC TV 25 February 1980
Situation comedy in which the civil servant, Sir Humphrey, manipulates the Government Minister, Jim Hacker.

Black Report on health inequality, originally commissioned by the Labour Government is released on a Bank Holiday by Conservative Government

Medical Express: your weekly health report BBC1 1980
News programmes on the latest developments in medicine and health.

From 1980 private health care provision and private health insurance are encouraged

Health Services Act on family practitioners/ GPs

TV EYE ITV/Thames Going Private’, 5 February 1981
Note: TVEye/This Week programmes can be accessed at with academic authentication.

Free to Choose: A personal statement by Milton Friedman BBC2 1980. A series of six programmes in which the influential free-market economist expounds his views. ‘If everyone is left to work for their own self-interest it is inevitable that society as a whole will benefit’

Broadcasting Complaints Commission
(BCC) established
New ITV franchises begin. All contracts to run until 1989

Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) begins. Audience research for BBC and ITV replaces their separate systems

Inner city riots: the Scarman Report on the Brixton Riots, published in November, is critical of the police

Rupert Murdoch (News International) buys Times newspapers
Tiny Rowland (Lonrho) buys the Observer.

July Wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. The television audience reached 750 million.

Only Fools and Horses begins a 15 year run on BBC1 8 September 1981.
Comedy in which Del Boy and Rodney devise get-rich-quick schemes in a Peckham council block.

Brideshead Revisited ITV/Granada 12 October 1981
prestigious drama series from an Evelyn Waugh novel set in upper class Britain

In January unemployment in the UK tops three million for the first time since the 1930s.

Boys from the BlackstuffScript Alan Bleasdale BBC October-November 1982
Unemployed tarmac workers cope with life on the dole. Opening sequence of George’s Last Ride portrays a sympathetic doctor who is part of the dockside community and respects George’s Trade Union role.

Three ITV stations, Central, TVSouth, and TV South West go on air for the first time.

April Falklands War

Hunt Report
on cable television, argues it should be market driven.

Satellite Television (later Sky Channel) launched

Terence Higgins, one of the first British victims of Aids, dies in St Thomas’s Hospital, London. A group of his friends set up the Terence Higgins Trust to increase awareness and promote safe sex.

Cuts in local health services; doctors and nurses given independent pay review bodies.

Long running strike by NHS workers. (In Cardiff the strike was backed by Welsh miners)

TVEye ITV/Thames ‘Hospitals - an Unhealthy Dispute’ 16 September 1982
A report from Nottingham City Hospital on the TUC plans for strike to support low paid hospital workers

2 November Channel 4 launches in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Its remit is to be innovative and to appeal to diverse tastes and interests. Funded by subscription from ITV which sells advertisements on behalf of Channel 4. S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru) launches in Wales

Walter C4’s first night drama is about an institutionalised mental patient. Director Stephen Frears criticises ‘heritage dramas’ ‘about an England that no longer exists’

Broadcasting hours are extended with BBC Breakfast Time and TV-AM

Prescription charges are raised to £1.40. Charges are imposed for eye and dental checks.

Woman’s Hour BBC Radio 4 ‘Talking Point: Hospitals for women run by women: are they something to fight for or an anachronism?” 8 February 1983

June Election. Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister for a second term.

Unemployment is at its highest. Above 3 million between 1983-6. An estimated 1.6 million live in poverty; there is an increasingly uneven distribution of income.

Breadline Britain LWT/ITV series about poverty (published as Poor Britain 1985)

Auf Wiedersehen Pet Witzend for Central Television/ITV 11 November 1983. Series in which a group of unemployed builders travel to Germany to find work

The Conservative Party’s Carlton Club Conference on the NHS. They argue for social insurance instead of national insurance, and full economic costs.

Open Space Community Programme Unit for BBC2 makes ‘The Consultant’s tale’; ‘The Doctor’s tale’; and ‘The Nurse’s tale’.

From 8 September NHS hospitals are obliged to outsource cleaning, laundry and catering services by introducing competitive tendering by private companies. Ron Keating Assistant Gen Sec of NUPE calls it ‘a sword of Damocles hanging over 250,000 support jobs in the NHS’.

Six years later, in 1989, Woman’s Hour BBC Radio 4 discusses dirty hospitals. 11 October 1989

The Nation’s Health Channel 4 drama series October 1983. It gives rise to considerable controversy and each episode is followed by a discussion programme, Follow the Nation’s Health. The IBA commissions research to investigate whether the public’s trust in the health service was diminished after watching the drama.

Cable and Broadcasting Act
establishes a Cable Authority to grant franchises. Cable services could not be interactive and are compelled carry other satellite channels. Swindon Cable is the first to be licensed.

Spitting Image Central/ITV starts a 12 year run 26 February 1984. Satirical puppet show lampoons Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet.

March Miners’ Strike begins

Employment Act introduces limits on Trade Union powers, including compulsory secret ballots amongst Union members when calling a strike: and limiting the system whereby workers ‘contract out’ of automatic Union membership.

Robert Maxwell buys the Mirror group newspapers

Margaret Thatcher appears in a special edition of Yes Minister together with Mary Whitehouse, to mark 20th anniversary of Whitehouse’s National Viewers and Listeners Association, which campaigns against sexual and violent material on television.

12 October Brighton bomb Conservative Party conference is bombed by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). BBC News

Reports of 32 hospital closures in London planned or completed. Liverpool Health Authority launches a strategic plan for cuts .

TVEye ITV/Thames ‘No Room for Sentiment’ 11 October 1984. On the need to ration treatment, focusing on kidney failure.

Griffiths Report on NHS is implemented, creating powerful General Managers, a strategic policy-making leadership, tighter criteria of efficiency and stricter accounting. ‘The potential for inflicting damage to the basic structure of the NHS can be seen throughout’ wrote Steve Iliffe at the time.

DHSS announces Helping the Community to Care programme, making funds available for voluntary groups for ‘care in the community’

This Week ITV/Thames ‘’Who Cares?’ 25 October 1990

Heathrow Conference. The Association of Independent Radio Contractors lobbies for public service programming obligations and advertising restrictions to be relaxed. This was the pivotal moment in which Independent Radio became Commercial Radio, writes Tony Stoller.

The Network Chart Show, sponsored by Nescafe - is first aired Sunday 30 September 1984. This is the first sponsored, officially syndicated programme on Independent Local Radio (ILR). It means that ILR goes head-to-head with the BBC's Top Forty Show.

Green Paper on the future of Family Practitioner Services

Daily Mail ‘Doctors have had their way for far too long…now Mrs Thatcher prepares her own prescription’

In a 1985 article Steve Iliffe, a GP at the time, identifies 5 points of Conservative policy:

(Critical Social Policy Vol 5 1985)

The Practice ITV/Granada from 18 January 1985-1986. A drama series on life in a busy health centre.

TVEye ITV/Thames ‘Consultants on the Make’ 7 February 1985. Investigation into hospital doctors making money from private practice at the expense of the NHS and NHS patients.

Metropolitan County Councils abolished

EastEnders begins on BBC1 19 February 1985. In its long life the soap opera would deal with many issues concerned with sickness and health -including breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Inner city riots

Privatisation of publicly owned industries. Conservative elder statesman Harold Macmillan describes it as ‘selling off the family silver’

Who cares? Meditel for C4 June 1985 a series of four programmes comparing health care in the UK and the USA.

Finance Act changes the exchequer levy on ITV, reducing the levy on domestic profits.

January: Rupert Murdoch moves the production of his papers overnight to Wapping, partly to reduce the power of the print unions. Pickets and demonstrations continue to February 1987

TVEye ITV/Thames ‘The Closure of Ward 19’ 10 April 1986.A report from Ward 19, a general surgical ward in Newcastle's Royal Victoria infirmary, which is about to close, along with the adjoining women's ward and an operating theatre.

Yes Prime Minister BBC2 takes over from Yes Minister as Jim Hacker is promoted to PM and Sir Humphrey becomes Cabinet Secretary.

Building Societies Act allows building societies to behave like banks.

March: Health Secretary Norman Fowler and Deputy PM Willie Whitelaw initiate a public awareness campaign about AIDS.

A national advertising campaign includes the film Don’t Die of Ignorance

Diverse Reports Channel 4: AIDS 17 September 1986.

This Week ITV/Thames ‘Aids - The Last Chance’ - 23 & 30 October 1986. Reporter Margaret Jay -who went on to head a national Aids Charity- investigates the spread of Aids. Her findings are put to Government Minister Tony Newton.

3 July Peacock Report. Report of the Committee on the Financing of the BBC). (Cmnd 9824, HMSO, July 1986).
Recommends an eventual full market for broadcasting based on direct payment, with the establishment of a Public Service Council to ensure ‘quality’ programmes across the output. Suggests auctioning ITV franchises to highest bidder. The Report “redefined broadcasting as a private commodity rather than a public good”, wrote Tom O’Malley.

IBA awards the contract for Direct Broadcasting by Satellite (DBS) with three TV channels, to British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) (a consortium of Granada, Anglia, Virgin, Amstrad and Pearson)

Privatisation of British Gas and British Airports Authority

October Big Bang in the city: deregulation in the financial services market

This Week ITV/Thames Nurses - Condition Critical’ 9 October 1986. At the Tory Party Conference a key issue is the future of the National Health Service. Whatever the truth about levels of spending, the shortage of nurses on hospital wards is now reaching crisis proportions.

Casualty begins on BBC1 6 September 1986. It would become the longest running emergency medical drama series in the world.

7 October Independent newspaper launches

27 October BBC launches all day television

The Singing Detective 16 November 1986. Six part series by Dennis Potter on the hallucinatory consciousness of a hospitalised crime writer.

The Health Education Council commissions an update of the Black Report. Published as The Health Divide it demonstrates increasing class inequalities in standards of health.

This Week ITV/Thames Who Lives, Who Dies?” 11 Dec 1986 & 8 January 1987The National Health Service is now stretched to a breaking point”.

9 April First Aids-specific ward opens in Middlesex Hospital, London. A survey documents hostility to Aids sufferers.

AIDS - The Facts. Produced by LBC Radio; broadcast on 7 January 1987 and syndicated to all Independent Local Radio stations across the network.

Nightline - special AIDS edition. The frank phone-in show presented by Bob Harris, features Dr Philip Hodson (one of the first agony 'uncles') broadcast immediately after the documentary between 10pm-1am.

John Birt becomes Deputy Director General of BBC
Marmaduke Hussey becomes Chair of BBC’s Board of Governors

Broadcasting Act extends ITV contracts to 1992 and extends their broadcasting hours:

Daytime television
starts on ITV

Jimmy’s ITV/Yorkshire, a docusoap based in ‘Europe’s largest General Hospital’, St James’s University Hospital in Leeds is commissioned to fill a daytime slot. It soon moves to an evening slot and runs to begins 1994.

File on Four BBC Radio 4 ‘Nursing’ depicts chaos in the NHS ‘London’s struggling hospitals’ ‘getting desperate’ ‘qualified staff leaving the NHS in droves’ ‘the haemorrhage from the health service’ 7 April 1987.

25 February Green paper on Radio ‘Choices and opportunities’. Public service obligations are loosened for commercial radio, mergers are permitted

The IBA increase to 25% the number of programmes that ITV must commission from independent production companies. The BBC agree the same. Advertising minutage on ITV is extended from seven to seven and a half minutes per hour.

Proceedings of the House of Commons are televised. A survey shows that watching TV is the favourite leisure activity.

June Election. Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister for a third term.Broadcasting ‘reform’ is promised in the manifesto.

23 Sept Thatcher gives her ‘No such thing as society’ interview

The New Statesman Yorkshire/ITVcomedy drama series: starts 13 September 1986. Featuring Alan B’stard, a thoroughly amoral Conservative MP.

19 October Black Monday Stock market crash

Kilroy BBC morning discussion show with former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk. ‘Ordinary’ people and controversial topics.

Weekend World ‘Rethinking the NHS: the end of a free service?’ ITV/LWT 20 December 1987

Severe cuts in NHS funding.
Many health authorities took urgent action to keep spending within budget: non-urgent admissions were cancelled, wards were closed temporarily and staff vacancies were not filled.

This Week ITV/Thames ‘A National Disease’. 19 Feb & 5 March 1987
On the treatment of heart disease, compared with Finland.

Analysis BBC Radio 4 a series on ’The Thatcher effect’ covers: The managers: the workers: the rich: the public servants. March 1987.

Broadcasting Standards Council

Astra satellite launched based in Luxembourg

This Morning ITV Richard and Judy’s first chat show begins 15 January 1988, featuring celebrities, show biz and lifestyle items.

Kenneth Clarke becomes Health Secretary and pursues a policy of ‘money following the patient’ internal market. 500 National Health Service Trusts formed. Clarke initiates a review of the Health Service

This Week ITV/Thames Television‘Right Wing Medicine’ 28 January 1988. Can the free market philosophy can provide a fair and efficient health service? A report from America on the free market models that are finding favour with Mrs. Thatcher.

Panorama BBC1 ‘The NHS: a terminal case?’1 February 1988
“Is its disease so serious that the only remedy is dismemberment and a vastly boosted private sector?

This Week ITV/Thames TelevisionPenrhiwceiber, Wales 25 February 1988
An edition which is planned but not made. It intended to discuss the relationship between mining and nursing, the community in the valleys, and the woman’s viewpoint. This Week documents contain correspondence about the programme and distress that it was not made.

File on Four BBC Radio 4The National Health’ 1 & 8 March 1988
Ideas from Europe and a look at expenditure and efficiency

Kentucky Fried Medicine Vanson-Wardle for C4. A series of three hard-hitting programmes looking at health service changes through the eyes of patients, doctors and health workers, and comparing the US system. May 1988.

A Very British Coup C4 Political drama series on spin doctoring and campaigning in a projected Labour Government June 1988.

October: The total number of hospital beds has fallen by 21% since 1977

7 November White Paper on Broadcasting, ‘Broadcasting in the 1990s: Competition, Choice and Quality published
Recommends replacing the IBA with a ‘light touch’ Independent Television Commission (ITC) and a new regulatory authority for commercial radio.

Campaign for Quality Television set up

February Launch of Sky Television with four channels: Sky Channel; Eurosport; Sky movies; Sky News. The company looses £2 million per week in its first year.

IBA relaxes rules on sponsorship (of weather forecasts, arts and instructional programmes)

Water privatisation is advertised

Capital City ITV/Thames 1989-1990 drama series on money traders in a City merchant bank.

White Paper on Health ServiceWorking for Patients’. Proposal for a US-style two-tier system; creation of an ‘internal market’ for health services; hospitals should be self-governing.

Panorama BBC1 ‘NHS PLC? What’s in it for patients?’ 13 March 1989.

File on Four BBC Radio 4 ‘Opting Out’ NHS Chief Executive states ‘What we are trying to do is to introduce a competitive challenge into the NHS as a spur to efficiency, diversity and choice’ 13 June 1989.

After Dark Open Media for C4 1 July 1989. The series in which a small group of experts and others hold an open ended discussion into the night, broadcasts an edition on health issues.

Stitching Up the NHS Yanson-Wardle for Channel 4 August 1989

Surgical Spirit ITV/Granada 1989-1995
Comedy set in a busy hospital. A female surgeon deals with the old boy network.

A 6 month Ambulance workers’ strike

This Week ITV/Thames‘A Call for Help’ 5 October 1989
Ambulance services throughout the country are on a knife edge.

9 November Fall of the Berlin wall

Broadcasting Act 1990:
Sets up an Independent Television Commission (ITC) a Radio Authority and a Cable Authority in place of the Independent Broadcasting Authority; Establishes competitive tendering for ITV franchises -but campaigners had won a ‘quality’ threshold. BBC and ITV are required to take 25% of their programming from companies which are independent of the main broadcasters. Channel 5 to be set up, to be allocated by auction. Channel 4 to sell its own advertising, but with a ‘safety net’. The Channel becomes a Corporation. Independent Local Radio gives way to competing commerical stations. “Independent radio became commercial radio” writes Tony Stoller.

April: British Satellite Broadcasting (BSB) launches on the Marcopolo satellite.

November: BSB ‘merges’ with Sky to create BSkyB.

National Health Service and Community Care Act
initiates an ‘internal market’ with a purchaser, provider split. Self-managing trust hospitals are secondary care providers, with primary care by fund-holding General Practitioners.

The London Programme ‘The Battle for Guy’s’ITV/LWT Documentary investigation into plans for Guy’s hospital to ‘opt out’ and become a trust. 2 March 1990

Jimmy’s ITV/Yorkshire 6 September 1990 Hospital managers discuss the pros and cons of becoming a trust.

This Week ITV/Thames‘What's Up Doc?’ 29 March 1990
The NHS is in crisis. A major London teaching hospital is shutting down for six weeks in the summer to save money.

File on Four BBC Radio 4 ‘Waiting lists’ highlights ‘failures’ of the NHS and considers the introduction of a free-market solution.

22 November Margaret Thatcher resigns

This Week ITV/Thames‘Poor Kids’ 13 Dec 1990
On the link between illness and poverty.