Twentieth Century History

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started21st Sep 1977
ended3rd Feb 1986
last rpt10th Nov 2011(as part of History File)
35 school years
duration20 mins
subject 🏛️HistoryModern History
age rangeAge 14-17Age 13-16
languageenIn English

Twentieth Century History is a BBC schools TV series from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, covering modern history for secondary school pupils.

A long-lasting contemporary history documentary series, selecting a dozen or so key periods in the twentieth century (to date) that could be usefully illustrated by television, and covering them using archive film and animated graphics.

The topics were deliberately selected so they would last without needing to be re-made again and they certainly did last far longer than the 3-4 year lifespan of a typical schools programme. After 7 years of constant broadcasts a couple of episodes were updated, and the series then continued unabated for another 5 years of broadcasts, incorporated into the parents series History File.

Then at the very end of the twentieth century in 1999 when secondary schools programmes moved to overnight transmissions, an extra episode was needed to flesh out a unit on The First World War to a full two hours, and the Twentieth Century History episode Make Germany Pay was resurrected to fill the gap. This was then repeated for another 11 years.

So the series, and in particular the Make Germany Pay episode, was used by several generations of schoolchildren over a significant chunk of the twentieth century, as well as the twenty-first!

Episode List

# Title Broadcast
1. Make Germany Pay #1977-09-21-00-00-0021 Sep 1977
2. Boom and Bust #1977-10-05-00-00-005 Oct 1977
3. Hitler's Germany 1933-36 #1977-10-19-00-00-0019 Oct 1977
4. Roosevelt and the New Deal #1977-11-09-00-00-009 Nov 1977
5. Stalin and the Modernisation of Russia #1977-11-23-00-00-0023 Nov 1977*
6. Why Appeasement? #1978-01-11-00-00-0011 Jan 1978
7. Britain Alone #1978-01-25-00-00-0025 Jan 1978
8. Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima #1978-02-08-00-00-008 Feb 1978
9. The Road to Berlin #1978-02-22-00-00-0022 Feb 1978
10. India - The Brightest Jewel #1978-03-08-00-00-008 Mar 1978
11. Cold War Confrontation #1978-04-19-00-00-0019 Apr 1978
12. Mr Kennedy and Mr Khrushchev #1978-05-03-00-00-003 May 1978
13. One Man's Revolution #1978-05-17-00-00-0017 May 1978
14. Israel and the Arab States #1978-06-07-00-00-007 Jun 1978

* - Stalin and the Modernisation of Russia was first shown in a Preview programme at 2:30pm on Friday 27th May 1977.

History File episodes

# Title Broadcast
15. The Third World #1985-12-02-00-00-002 Dec 1985
16. China Since Mao #1986-01-27-00-00-0027 Jan 1986
17. The Arabs and Israel Since 1947 #1986-02-03-00-00-003 Feb 1986

In 1985 History File was launched as a parent series for BBC TV's secondary school history series, incorporating both Twentieth Century History and British Social History, alongside some new programmes.

At this point the original run of 14 Twentieth Century History programmes (enough to be broadcast fortnightly across the 28 weeks of the schools broadcasting year) was slightly revised into a new set of 15 episodes.

India - The Brightest Jewel, which covered that country in the 1930s and 40s leading up to independence and partition, was replaced by a new episode on The Third World as the 10th episode in the series, looking at the background to problems of third world countries generally.

Israel and the Arab States was replaced by a new programme on The Arabs and Israel Since 1947 as the final episode in the series.

And an additional episode on China Since Mao was added as the 14th episode in the series, to accompany the existing episode on One Man's Revolution, which continued to be repeated alongside it. However due to cultural developments the new episode used the pinyin spelling system and referred to Mao Zedong, whereas the preceding programme in the same series (still repeated unchanged) used the Wade-Giles form and gave a biography of Mao Tse-tung.

These additions and replacements made the series up to 15 episodes, enough to run weekly through one full schools broadcasting term and the first half of the next.

Timeline of programmes in the original 1977-78 series
Revised timeline of programmes in the series from 1985-86

Titles and Theme Music

Isolated symbols, images, flags and photographs of twentieth century politics and culture appear in brief flashes to a timpani beat, including a poppy, the dollar symbol and Mickey Mouse. The stylised number 20 and the programme title appear in front of archive film clips.

Watch Online Watch a clip on YouTube.

The music is the beginning of the first movement ('Moderato con moto') of the Violin Concerto, Op. 15 by Benjamin Britten

Watch Online Listen a clip on YouTube.


Commentary by John Tidmarsh
Script by Tony Howarth (episodes 1, 3 & 6)

John O'Keeffe (episodes 2 & 4)
David Killingray (episode 5)
Richard Tames (episode 8)
John Tusa (episodes 11 & 12)
Anthony Lawrence (episode 13)
Guy Arnold (episode 15)
Philip Short (episode 16)
David Sells (episode 17)

Script consultant Bob Gunn (episodes 9 & 14-17)
Historical Adviser Alistair Parker (episode 1)

Esmond Wright (episodes 2, 4, & 8)
Anthony Nicholls (episode 3)
Norman Stone (episode 5)
Agatha Ramm (episode 6)
Norman Longmate (episode 7)
Fred Northedge (episode 9)
John Harrison (episode 10)
Christopher Hill (episode 11)
Philip Windsor (episodes 12, 14 & 17)
Brian Hook (episodes 13 & 16)
Tony Killick (episode 15)

Research Anita Sterner
Film research Barbara Saxon

James Barker (episodes 15-17)

Film editor Robert Hargreaves (episodes 1-5 & 7),

Ken Bilton (episodes 6 & 8-10), Colin Rae (episode 10), Michael Mauger (episodes 11 & 13), Peter Evans (episode 12), Bill Harris (episodes 15-17)

Videotape editor Derek Orman
Graphic design Ray Ogden (episodes 1-9, 11-17)

Freddie Shakell (episode 10)

Graphics George Hayter (episodes 15-17)
Production team Jannie Purdom (episodes 15-17),

Pamela Wood (episodes 15 & 16), Rebecca Martin (episodes 15-17), Clare Jenkins (episodes 15 & 17)

Producer John Chapple (episodes 2, 3, 5, 6 & 11-13)

Paul Mitchell (episodes 3 & 5)
Alan Ereira (episode 7)

Series editor Paul Mitchell


Teacher's notes (1985)
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Teacher's notes (video pack)

Each year's broadcasts were accompanied by a substantial booklet of teachers' notes, containing lengthy summaries of each episode and some suggestions for preparation and follow-up questions to consider. There was also a section of pupils' worksheets.

The series was also issued on video - principally as a set of 2 video packs covering the entire post-1985 series and accompanied by a reprinted set of the schools' teachers' notes. The episodes of the series were also distributed in the United States as educational films.

A separate textbook was issued alongside the original broadcasts of the series, written by series writer Tony Howarth. The book was recommended in the teachers' notes for background reading and available n paperback and hardback, but was published by Longman rather than the BBC: Twentieth Century History: The World Since 1900. A second edition updated by Josh Brooman was published in 1987. Buy from Amazon


Schedule for the first year of broadcasts

Twentieth Century History follows shortly.jpg



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