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Our World: Satellite of Love

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Colour covers for the Radio Times did not happen every week until the end of September 1967, so it was a sign of the importance attached to Our World that it was afforded one

“Our World is an audacious experiment in international communications. It is nothing less than an attempt to circumnavigate the globe by television. In spite of many satellite broadcasts in recent years Our World is unique and important because it is the first global collaboration in the making of a programme instead of in the relaying of an event.”

(Hugh Greene, BBC Director General in 1967, writing in Radio Times)

Transmitted live around the world on 25 June 1967, Our World was the first international television link-up on a grand scale, where broadcasters across the globe attempted to share the human experience and establish closer links. It was an immense technical achievement – but was it a success as a programme?

Our World was conceived in late 1965, with the working title Round the World in Eighty Minutes, by BBC Head of Features, Aubrey Singer. It was soon realised it needed the clout of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) to get international co-operation, and then more and more countries around the world were drawn in. Eddi Ploman from Swedish TV was appointed Project Manager, Britain’s Antony Jay (a veteran of Tonight and The Frost Report, and later to co-write Yes, Minister) prepared the script, and the French composer Georges Delerue wrote the music. Aubrey Singer remained attached as Project Editor for EBU.

Eventually a transmission date was decided on, though because of the different time zones, while it began at 8pm in the UK, the time it was seen elsewhere ranged from 11am on the US West coast, to early the following morning (26 June) in Australia and Japan. The programme had stretched from 80 minutes to two hours in the meantime.

A briefing meeting was held at the BBC on 4 June 1967 to co-ordinate the international co-operation necessary for the Our World broadcast

Of course, in an enterprise this complicated, things were almost bound to go wrong. However the main problem to fulfilling the original vision was not technical but political. At almost the last moment the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries pulled out of the venture in protest at the Six Day War in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, the broadcast went ahead with the remaining 14 countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, the UK, the US, and West Germany. It had been agreed not to transmit anything with a political slant, so the programme was made up of a number of themed sections examining other aspects of world affairs.

First, some new-born babies were shown, to represent the thousands who would be born during the time the programme was on air; This Moment’s World illustrated the instantaneous linking of different parts of the world by satellite; Teeming World commented on the population explosion; Physical Excellence showcased sport and other physical achievements; Artistic Excellence included film-making, opera, and folk, classical and pop music; and a final Technological sequence.

A further 10 countries took the transmission without adding content themselves. As colour television had not really got underway in the UK or Europe, and with no major United States network involved (the US partner was the National Educational Network), the programme was transmitted in black and white.

To put it mildly, Our World was technically complex, as this diagram of the links between television stations around the world via satellite and other links, shows

The programme was co-ordinated from the BBC Television Centre. The gallery of studio TC1 linked the various programme elements and hosted the UK presentation by Cliff Michelmore, while in the smaller TC2, guide commentaries in English, French and German allowed each nation carrying the programme to structure their own coverage.

However the programme is perhaps best remembered for one of the British contributions – not the report from the Scottish new town of Cumbernauld (sorry Cumbernauld), but a live peek at the Beatles at Abbey Road studios during the main recording session for a new song, All You Need is Love.

The Beatles had been contracted to appear in the programme on 18 May. The song to be featured needed to be simple to understand, and between this, artistic exhaustion after the recently released Sergeant Pepper album, and the incipient philosophy of Flower Power and the Summer of Love, the result was one of the more undemanding and childlike of the Beatles’ recordings. The song also needed to be straightforward enough that the recording shown in the programme could be used on the actual disc, which was released, after a few overdubs, on 7 July.

The recording session was treated as a party, with balloons, streamers, flowers, and placards declaring in favour of love and peace. Producer George Martin supervised as usual, and a bevy of Beatles friends helped with the choruses – including members of the Rolling Stones, Marianne Faithfull, Paul McCartney’s brother Mike and girlfriend Jane Asher, Graham Nash of the Hollies, and Keith Moon of the Who.

Three of the Fab Four get ready to record their new song All You Need is Love, going out live to the world on 25 June 1967, and in the shops 10 days later

Our World’s final sequences showed the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and finally the radio telescope station in Parkes, Australia, referring back to the fact that the programme was made possible by satellite technology.

Reception for the programme as a whole was mixed. Even BBC executives reviewing it afterwards were undecided about its success, the pithy head of drama Sydney Newman opined that it was no good communicating globally if there was nothing to communicate. However, the ratings were very healthy, and the programme attracted praise, not least for the technical achievement and the BBC's initiative and presentation.

It’s perhaps telling that, despite Hugh Greene’s prophesy that programmes like Our World would become commonplace by the year 2000, after its transmission a trend for personalised documentaries came to the fore, with themed series like Civilisation and The Ascent of Man, and the One Pair of Eyes strand. 

In the 21st Century, satellite links are commonplace, but the emphasis on communication has shifted towards the personal, and away from the communal or corporate. We are all global broadcasters now.

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