Archive for the Television Category

A Sketch to Make the Blood Run Cold

Posted in Television with tags , on July 8, 2014 by telescoper

I’m assuming that the writers of Not The Nine O’Clock News didn’t know in 1980 what we now know about Rolf Harris. The joke was really just about the BBC trying desperately to get kinds to participate in a crappy programme. But still..

Yeh Yeh

Posted in Music, Television with tags , on April 22, 2014 by telescoper

By way of celebrating the end of my holiday I thought I’d post this bit of musical entertainment by the legendary Bob Downe singing a medley of the Georgie Fame hit, Yeh Yeh. If only all Australian men were as butch as Bob Downe…


Smiley talks to Toby

Posted in Television with tags , , , , on December 5, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a brief post as it has been a very long and stressful day (it’s probably best if I don’t try to explain why). I’m going to pour myself into a bottle of wine when I get home. For some reason I thought of this clip, from the TV series Smiley’s People, which I thought I’d share because I happened to watch the entire series on DVD at the weekend. I think it’s beautifully done.

Just to set the scene, the series (based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré) is set a few years after Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Intelligence officer George Smiley (Alec Guinnness) is in retirement, as is his former colleague Toby Esterhase (Bernard Hepton) who has adopted the identity of a dodgy art dealer. Smiley is called back into action when a former agent by the name of Vladimir is murdered on Hampstead Heath en route to an appointment with British Intelligence (aka “The Circus”). Smiley is told to find out what happened and hush it up, but a combination of detective work and intuition leads him to the realization that he may, at last, have stumbled upon a way of bringing down his opposite number in Soviet Intelligence, the enigmatic Karla. This scene, wherein Smiley and Esterhase meet up for the first time since they parted company with the Circus marks the point where Smiley decides to ignore his instructions to bury the case and embark on one last operation in the hope that he can at last locate Karla’s Achilles Heel. To find out more, you’ll have to watch the series, which unfolds slowly, but brilliantly…



Doctor Who at 50

Posted in Biographical, Music, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on November 23, 2013 by telescoper

Today is the official 50th birthday celebration of Doctor Who and, since The Doctor and myself are of the same vintage, I thought I’d repeat an old post about the show. I just listened to the original theme music again before posting this and I still think it sounds amazingly fresh.


As a Professor of Astrophysics I am often asked “Why on Earth did you decide to make a career out of such a crazy subject?”

I guess many astronomers, physicists and other scientists have to answer this sort of question. For many of them there is probably a romantic reason, such as seeing the rings of Saturn or the majesty of the Milky Way on a dark night. Others will probably have been inspired by TV documentary series such as The Sky at Night, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos or even Horizon which, believe it or not, actually used to be quite good but which is nowadays uniformly dire. Or it could have been something a bit more mundane but no less stimulating such as a very good science teacher at school.

When I’m asked this question I’d love to be able to put my hand on my heart and give an answer of that sort but the truth is really quite a long way from those possibilities. The thing that probably did more than anything else to get me interested in science was a Science Fiction TV series or rather not exactly the series but the opening titles.

The first episode of Doctor Who was broadcast in the year of my birth, so I don’t remember it at all, but I do remember the astonishing effect the credits had on my imagination when I saw later episodes as a small child. Here is the  opening title sequence as it appeared in the very first series featuring William Hartnell as the first Doctor.

To a younger audience it probably all seems quite tame, but I think there’s a haunting, unearthly beauty to the shapes conjured up by Bernard Lodge. Having virtually no budget for graphics, he experimented in a darkened studio with an old-fashioned TV camera and a piece of black card with Doctor Who written on it in white. He created the spooky kaleidoscopic patterns you see by simply pointing the camera so it could see into its own monitor, thus producing a sort of electronic hall of mirrors.

What is so fascinating to me is how a relatively simple underlying concept could produce a rich assortment of patterns, particularly how they seem to take on an almost organic aspect as they merge and transform. I’ve continued to be struck by the idea that complexity could be produced by relatively simple natural laws which is one of the essential features of astrophysics and cosmology. As a practical demonstration of the universality of physics this sequence takes some beating.

As well as these strange and wonderful images, the titles also featured a pioneering piece of electronic music. Officially the composer was Ron Grainer, but he wasn’t very interested in the commission and simply scribbled the theme down and left it to the BBC to turn it into something useable. In stepped the wonderful Delia Derbyshire, unsung heroine of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop who, with only the crudest electronic equipment available, turned it into a little masterpiece. Ethereal yet propulsive, the original theme from Doctor Who is definitely one of my absolute favourite pieces of music and I’m glad to see that Delia Derbyshire is now receiving the acclaim she deserves from serious music critics.

It’s ironic that until earlier this year I used to live  in Cardiff, where the newer episodes of Doctor Who and its spin-off, the anagrammatic Torchwood, are made. One of the great things about the early episodes of Doctor Who was that the technology simply didn’t exist to do very good special effects. The scripts were consequently very careful to let the viewers’ imagination do all the work. That’s what made it so good. I’m pleased that the more recent incarnations of this show also don’t go overboard on the visuals. Perhaps that’s a conscious attempt to appeal to people who saw the old ones as well as those too young to have done so. It’s just a pity the modern opening title music is so bad…

Anyway, I still love Doctor Who after all these years. It must sound daft to say that it inspired me to take up astrophysics, but it’s truer than any other explanation I can think of. Of course the career path is slightly different from a Timelord, but only slightly.

At any rate I think The Doctor is overdue for promotion. How about Professor Who?

Whither The Sky at Night?

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 24, 2013 by telescoper

According to rumours flying around on Twitter, the BBC has decided to axe the long-running astronomy programme The Sky at Night.  There’s been a predictable outcry from fans of the show and a petition has been organized.  What I’ve heard is that the series will end in December, but that a new astronomy programme will be launched in April next year.

I’ve long felt it was inevitable that The Sky at Night would cease to be when Patrick Moore died. The programme was so much Patrick’s programme that it would be very difficult to find another presenter to fill the role in the unique way that he did. Moreover, although there’s no doubt that it is an important vehicle for UK astronomy, many feel that the format has become very tired and uninspiring. As for myself, I can’t really comment. I don’t watch television very much at all and in any case, The Sky at Night is on way past my bedtime.

Way back in 1996 I was involved with a show at the NEC in Birmingham called Tomorrow’s World Live. This involved all the regular presenters of Tomorrow’s World, but wasn’t broadcast, but performed in a small theatre with a live audience. My contribution was to talk a little bit about the Hubble Space Telescope and then answer questions from the audience.  We did four such shows a day for three days. It was tiring and a bit nerve-wracking, but a lot of fun.

Typically for the BBC the contributors such as myself were paid a negligible fee, but we did get our meals paid for. At dinner one evening I chatted to a well-known TV Producer who was involved with the live event. After a while the conversation turned to The Sky at Night. The person concerned explained that he thought the show was well past its prime and was actually holding back astronomy programming on TV: it was too old-fashioned and had a tiny audience yet while it existed it was impossible to make the case to the Beeb to commission other astro-related shows. On the other hand, while Patrick was still around, and undoubtedly a National Institution, the outcry would be so intense if they cancelled The Sky at Night that nobody had the nerve to do it. Impasse.

Of course now, 17 years later, Patrick Moore has passed away and there’s now a chance to change things. It is promising that that the BBC seems to be going to launch a new programme next year. But any new show will have to tread very carefully. The Sky at Night was followed by thousands of dedicated amateur astronomers who know a great deal about their subject and would not be interested in the simple-minded gee-whizzery that plagues so many so-called Science Programme (e.g. Horizon). These people are very important for UK astronomy, because without them UK astronomy would not have the unique role that it has in our scientific and cultural landscape. We professional astronomers would be funded anything like as well as we are either.  On the other hand, there is at least the possibility of coming up with a format that reaches a new audience as well as retaining the interest of those already enthused about astronomy.

But how to ensure that this happens? Answers on a postcard, or through the comments box!

Meanwhile here’s a little poll to gauge the strength of opinion:

A Sussex Alumna

Posted in Biographical, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 9, 2013 by telescoper

I had a very nice meeting this morning with Sir Harry Kroto, who is back in the UK for the summer. We chatted about a number of exciting things going on at Sussex University and beyond, in the middle of which I remembered a film featuring my former  PhD Student from Nottingham days, Emma King. The film was part of a series about young scientists made by the Vega Science Trust (which Harry set up) and it was originally broadcast on BBC 2 as part of The Learning Zone.

Emma is a graduate of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at Sussex University. As an undergraduate at the University of Sussex she made history when she became the first woman to win the top prize at the Science, Engineering and Technology Student of the Year award despite tests at school which showed that Emma was not only slightly dyslexic, but that also had very poor arithmetic skills and she says “a nearly non-existent visual memory.” None of that stopped her completing her PhD thesis (on magnetic fields in cosmology) in 2006.

p.s. After completing her PhD, Emma changed career and now runs this outdoor event venue.

Hawking at BAFTA

Posted in Film, Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 13, 2013 by telescoper

Having survived the chairing of our lengthy Progression and Award Board this morning here in Sussex, I thought I’d just spend a few minutes on the blog before going up to London for an event at the Royal Society this evening.

In fact I was in London for much of yesterday too, partly for a meeting relating to SEPNET but then later to attend a special Event for Fellows of the Institute of Physics at the plush premises of British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) in Piccadilly:


The event was a special preview screening of the a feature length documentary called Hawking, about the life and career of celebrated British cosmologist and theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, followed by a question-and-answer session with the producer and director. There have been many films about Hawking already, but the distinctive thing about this one is that Hawking himself contributed to the script so, to some extent, it’s “in his own words”. It’s quite clear that it wasn’t meant so much as a science documentary as an unflinching look at Hawking’s struggle against Motor Neurone Disease, with his scientific work merely serving as background to the human interest story. It is, of course, a very moving narrative not only because of the hardship he has been forced to endure but also because of what he has achieved as a scientist in the face of difficulties that would have defeated persons of lesser determination.

I found the film interesting but a little frustrating because, while it raised many interesting issues (such as the conflict between celebrity and privacy), it moved on so quickly that none of them were really explored in any depth. I did strike me, however, as a very honest film – the discussion of the break-up of his first marriage was very candid, but it was nice to discover that in recent years Stephen and Jane have are at least on speaking terms again. Hawking’s sense of humour, which is often concealed by his disability, also came across very well. I could give an example of this from my own experience, but given the nature of the prank he played I think it’s better not to!

Anyway, I won’t say anything more because I don’t want to colour anyone’s judgement about the film, which doesn’t go on general release in the UK until later in the year. Go to see it yourself, and make your own mind up! In the meantime, here is the official trailer:

My Life as Bob Fleming

Posted in Biographical, Television with tags , on March 25, 2013 by telescoper

Listenind to Bob Fleming will give you a good idea of what I’ve been like for the last few days…

London to Brighton in 4 Minutes

Posted in Television with tags , , on March 7, 2013 by telescoper

Since I’m going to be away from base for a while I thought I’d post this classic film to cover the interruption to normal blogging service. Here’s a description from the Youtube entry.

London to Brighton in Four Minutes, made by the BBC Film Unit in 1952, was a favourite of many viewers during the 1950s. In those days one never knew when it would be screened, but it often popped up when there was an unscheduled gap between programmes. Apparently the journey on the Brighton Belle was filmed at 2 frames per second, thus at the normal projection speed of 24fps a speed of 60 mph becomes 720 mph. The cameraman was sitting in the cab with the train driver and hand cranking the film camera. Each reel of film was only 1000ft and so the camerman had to change the film during the journey. When editing the film these “gaps” were filled with a shot of the train driver.

This film footage is from the Archive Collection held by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.

Modern trains still follow the same route, but there are many new developments either side of the line, including Gatwick Airport…


Posted in Biographical, Music, Television with tags , , on January 30, 2013 by telescoper

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