Science & Environment

Patrick Moore to Brian Cox - A history of TV science

Poor old science. Despite being responsible for the greatest invention known to man, the television, selling science to a TV audience is not as easy as it should be.

The sad truth is that someone has to be able to stop channels being changed once the "s-word" is mentioned. Who better placed than the presenter?

Image caption The Open University enrolled its first students in 1971

It was so different in the 1950s, when the BBC had a captive audience. Perhaps this is one reason that the presenters were, for want of a better word, dull.

Television had not yet learned to trust scientists with presenting, and perhaps with good reason.

"A lot of scientists," says Blue Peter's science expert Steve Mould, "are not necessarily great on camera."

In those formative years, the BBC did not know what a television programme should look like. So for science we had balding middle-aged men in suits, looking like bank managers, interviewing guest scientists who looked much the same.

Looking back through the eyes of modernity, these programmes are wonderfully kitsch.

Right chemistry

The enduring star of this era is Sir Patrick Moore, an enthusiastic amateur astronomer capable of reflecting the excitement of the space race, while also being the authoritative voice of his science.

Image caption The Sky At Night reaches its 700th episode in March 2011

His big break came with the debut of The Sky at Night in 1957, a programme that he presents to this day.

David Attenborough is in no doubt as to the secret of the programme's longevity:

"Obviously Patrick Moore was the reason... he had this blazing enthusiasm which came right through the television set."

For all his eccentricity and despite his amateur background, Sir Patrick Moore proved that some scientists at least could communicate effectively with a general audience without the mediation of a presenter.

But not every school of science had its own Patrick Moore, so in most cases the non-scientist presenter-led format sustained.

Although a step back for the scientist equality movement, it was a coup for audiences, who were treated to the incomparable Raymond Baxter.

He emerged like the suave former Spitfire pilot that he actually was to make science palatable with his smooth delivery and dulcet tones. Scientists were to wait until the big budget series of the 1970s to revel in the spotlight.

Image caption The Ascent of Man ran for 13 episodes

Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man, a chronology of scientific achievement, remains for many a pinnacle of science programming.

A mathematician, biologist and historian of science, Bronowski's often unscripted monologues had the power to be educational yet moving in equal measure.

Robert Winston remembers the scene from Auschwitz in which Bronowski, "talked about the Holocaust, and how the implication was that technology had destroyed human life," as "one of the great moments of television".

From there we moved into an era where three distinct schools of science presentation emerged.

One continued with the science-presenter-as-normal-person/scientist, a lineage that thankfully flourishes today - Professor von Hagens from Channel 4's Autopsy notwithstanding.

We also had "the character" wherein eccentricity was paramount. For example, German scientist Heinz Wolff who made science fun with the slightly nutty The Great Egg Race, and Magnus Pyke, who spent much of the 1980s waving his arms and generally playing up to the mad scientist stereotype.

Geologist and TV presenter, Professor Iain Stewart still feels the effects, saying "the rest of us are always having to fight off the idea that we're these boffins".

Tweed and flares

Our third school of science presentation is our most distinct, our most ridiculed and perhaps our most sorely missed.

Like a rival species of early hominid squeezed out of existence by evolution, the Open University presenter is no longer with us.

The late night broadcasts were a low budget law unto themselves, with reluctant professors thrust uncomfortably in front of the camera.

Out went the fun and in came a return to the dry lecture-as-TV-show style of presentation - this time with added facial hair, comb-overs, tweed jackets, and flares.

Even if you did not understand a word - and, to be fair, it was aimed at real students of science - it was hard to dislike what Jim Al-Khalili, theoretical physicist and TV presenter describes as "the undiluted geekiness of it".

Things are so much better now.

For a start, women get to present real science on TV and not just do domestic features on Tomorrow's World.

Children's science TV's Johnny Ball is quite right when he says that, "very few scientists are good presenters, and very few presenters happen to be scientists", but we certainly have more of them this side of the millennium.

We might have had a small taste of this in the past, but Jacob Bronowski's calendar was never going to sell as well as that of today's science poster boy, Brian Cox.

But shallow though today's world is, it is not just about the looks, it is about showing that scientists are just normal people - really, really clever normal people.

Brian Cox, Iain Stewart, Alice Roberts, Liz Bonnin, to name but a few, all know their science, love their science, and love communicating it to us. And the more they do, the more we love watching it.

Mad and Bad: 60 Years of Science on TV is on Wednesday, 15 December, 2010 at 2100 GMT on BBC Four, or catch-up afterwards on BBC iPlayer

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