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BBC Archive: Tomorrow's World

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Maggie Philbin | 11:02 UK time, Monday, 14 September 2009

Editor's note: As the BBC Archive website releases selections from the iconic BBC science show Tomorrow's World, former presenter Maggie Philbin shares her memories of the programme. (PM)

Raymond Baxter Tomorrow's World presenter during rehearsalI was ten when Tomorrow's World began in 1965. I remember watching Raymond Baxter (pictured) in flickering black and white, telling me everything the future would hold. He carried me through the first flight of Concorde, the first ATM, and the early years of space flight. And there's a rich choice of 'firsts' in BBC Archive's collection of Tomorrow's World released today - Europe's first home computer terminal, the first "mobile" phone, and the first computerised credit card machine are all there.

Tomorrow's World's first show, from 1965, opens with a story about a committee who had to choose which patients would get the gift of survival on "life-saving kidney machines". From the start, Tomorrow's World was a show determined to go beyond "what's happening" in technology and also ask ethical questions.

Of course, the early shows are also very much of their time. Throwaway references to, for example, secretaries who spend all day filing their nails, were common. But by the time I turned up in 1982, not only was Judith Hann firmly in place but so were some outstanding female producers and researchers. And the editors were scrupulous: references to surgeons, engineers or mechanics as "he" came to an end. If a film involved dropping from a helicopter, driving a juggernaut, or testing a one-person submarine, then that item would have Judith's or my name against it. It's very touching to meet women who insist that watching us handle technology with confidence was the reason they chose careers in that area themselves.

Tomorrow's World is the best programme I have ever worked on. But it was also the most frightening. I still can't hear the opening music without my stomach churning. I was lucky enough to demonstrate the first fax machine, digital camera, sat nav and the first supermarket barcode reader. Cutting edge technology, for sure, but it came at a price. Frequently, the inventions were fragile and temperamental prototypes. The show was live and they had one chance to prove themselves. Typically, they would work perfectly all morning, then begin to play up during the afternoon rehearsals, introducing an unwelcome element of tension. Just before transmission, the angst-ridden inventors were swept off the studio floor and herded to the other side of TV Centre, to eliminate the possibility of them running onto the studio floor during the live programme in an attempt to rescue years of research from catastrophic failure.

So watch and relish the clip with Kieran Prendiville and "Hissing Sid", the robot "guaranteed" to pot the black on a snooker table. But spare a thought for the poor inventor watching the item through his fingers from the hospitality area.

Tomorrow's World was a show that forged powerful professional and personal friendships. Not only with Judith, Kieran, Howard and Peter but with the people who insisted on that final shot in a dark, wet potato field, or that it was perfectly safe to fly in a metal cage suspended from a helicopter or who had the imagination to see an elegant visual analogy for a complicated story.

At the Friday meeting every item would be discussed in detail. Judith and I would sit at our desks, surreptitiously opening our mail. In the middle of one particularly tense discussion, I passed her a letter I'd received, which I now have framed in my downstairs loo:

Dear Maggie

I hope you are well and happy. I hope Keith is happy too. Peter and me like watching "Tomorrow's World". Peter is my cat. He is very interested in the future.

Love Simone

It's fabulous that these pieces from the BBC Archive are now available online. And I hope the future we predicted matched Peter's expectations.

A new BBC Four season, Electric Revolution, which charts the rise of consumer technology over the last fifty years, begins later this month.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Hi Maggie,

    This really takes me back. I used to adore Tomorrow's World. Today's kids and particularly girls are really missing out by not having great role models like you and Judith around playing with interesting technology. I'm not sure that I'd be doing the job that I am today (Head of a Computer Science dept) if it weren't for Tomorrow's World. It's crazy actually, with the rapid increase in speed of change in the world of technology, now more than ever we need something like TW helping us all to understand what's out there.

    What do we need to do to bring it back?

    Sue

    PS Perhaps I could get a job on the show ;)

  • Comment number 2.

    I particularly enjoyed the discussion about the heart transplant. There is something slightly surreal about it, in the way in which people speak, the general production values and the disjointed nature of the whole thing. The man in the wheelchair being wheeled on seemingly from nowhere was a particular highlight.

    The whole show seemed very alien to me, used to the slicker productions of the 90s and 2000s.

    Meanwhile the sequence in the debit card film with the man who can't buy wine because he was no cash is delightfully Look Around You :D

  • Comment number 3.

    On a general topic of Archive releases on bbc.co.uk is it at all possible to encode them at a better screen size on a par with the low bandwidth versions of the iPlayer, the early material is obviously of a lower quality than current material and to present this material at 384 * 288 doesn't help.

  • Comment number 4.

    Hi Maggie,

    I was rather excited to hear that Tomorrow's World was being made available on the archives. Having been born in the late 70's and having an interest in anything electrical I was an avid fan of Tomorrow's World. I remember watching with my dad, in fact I think it was the only programme we both enjoyed.

    I've just been watching some of the episodes in the archives, I did wonder though if any other episodes were going to be made available?

    I'd love it too if Tomorrow's World was brought back, I agree with what Sue says too, I'm sure my three daughters would be interested in the show. I'll certainly let them watch the Electric Revolution shows so they can see what things were like when I was growing up (although I do have a collection of old computers so they have a bit of an idea).

    Rob

  • Comment number 5.

    Just in reply to Rob, we don't have any immediate plans for a follow-up to this collection, though we'd very much like to at some point in the future. Along with 'Man Alive' and 'Nationwide', it's one of those programmes that's always worth taking a look at.

  • Comment number 6.

    #5. At 11:18am on 17 Sep 2009, Jim Sangster wrote:

    "Just in reply to Rob, we don't have any immediate plans for a follow-up to this collection, though we'd very much like to at some point in the future. Along with 'Man Alive' and 'Nationwide', it's one of those programmes that's always worth taking a look at."

    It would be rather nice to see some complete "Man Alive" episodes made available, and on a wider point, any possibility of (non DRM) downloads for some of the more historical/notable archives?

    In fact I'm sure that some would make suitable content for a BBC4 'themed' month (or more) of programming... ;-)

  • Comment number 7.

    Shame I can't see them (I'm in the States) but well done to the Archive for putting these up. I'll definitely be having a look when I either next visit my family back home or get a VPN set up.

  • Comment number 8.

    In reply to Boilerplated, we do already have some 'Man Alive' programmes available - there are two in our 'Working Class Life' collection: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/working/index.shtml - and one in our 'Coal Mining' collection: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/mining/index.shtml - though we hope to be able to include more in the future.

    On the downloads front, the answer is 'Not at the moment', sorry. Our current licenses to make this material available allow for streamed content only. Might change in the future though.

    We do also work closely with BBC Four - our 'Tomorrow's World' collection was created to support their new 'Electric Revolution' season, and they recently ran repeats of the 'Men, Women and Clothes' series that was at the heart of our 'What We Wore' collection (including some unexpected clips of Benny Hill as one of the models!): http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/whatwewore/index.shtml

    So glad that this collection seems to have been well received. Best thing we can ever hear is 'More of this kind of thing, please'.

  • Comment number 9.

    #8

    "On the downloads front, the answer is 'Not at the moment', sorry. Our current licenses to make this material available allow for streamed content only. Might change in the future though."

    Why was this 'rule' put in place, what was the rational behind it, I assume it was to do with rights issues rather than (the possibility of restricting) 3rd party commercial opportunities?

  • Comment number 10.

    Pretty much the rights issues, although I'd imagine there's also an element of the second factor. I'm not really in a position to discuss the whys and wherefores though, sorry, but that's the current state of affairs.

  • Comment number 11.

    I loved Tomorow's World. I remember when, Maggie (I think it was you?) demonstrated this new Japanese tech called 'High-Definition Television' in the studio to a small panel of guests. Of course we couldn't actually see it for ourselves but you seemed mighty enthusiastic all the same!

    To the powers that be; please bring back Tomorrow's world...

  • Comment number 12.

    Ah! my favourite presenter!

    Whatever happened to that internal combustion engine that was demonstrated that could do 150 MPG?

    It had a FIXED connecting rod attached to opposing in-line (flat) cylinders that moved from one cyclinder head to the opposing twin. In the middle where the connecting rod would have joined the crankshaft, was a single toothed inner race instead (Think of a polo with teeth on the inside). Cogs on the otherwise conventional crankshaft engaged round the gearing race teeth during the combustion cycle, so power was not confined to a small area of the connecting rod's action but through the whole stroke. Genius! but where is it?

    Wainright I think was mentioned as a name, but I'm not sure.

  • Comment number 13.

    #12. At 5:30pm on 26 Sep 2009, Squegg wrote:

    "Whatever happened to that internal combustion engine that was demonstrated that could do 150 MPG?"

    Might well have done 150 mpg, might have been a novel design, but the reciprocating mass was probably unacceptable - more hope for the IC engine that runs on water I suspect!

  • Comment number 14.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 15.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

 

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