Patrick Moore Part 2: A National Institution 

11 October 2007

David Brockman continues his exclusive interview with Sir Patrick Moore. Part 2 of 3

In the 1950s BBC TV’s The Sky At Night variously came from Riverside studios and the Lime Grove complex, both early television studios that the BBC Television Service had acquired from the then shrinking cinema industry.

Production of The Sky At Night switched to the new BBC Television Centre which came on stream in 1960. It was not unusual for Sir Patrick and crew to broadcast live from the small Presentation Studio B on the 4th floor. Presentation Studio A was used by the BBC Television weather service and Presentation B was a small studio in which it was possible to make a range of simple programmes for BBC2, which had launched in 1964.

50 Years

Many of the producer and directors who worked The Sky At Night over its first half-century attended the fiftieth anniversary party at Sir Patrick’s Home.

Sadly some are no longer with us, but they have included Patricia Outram, Pieter Morpurgo, Ian Russell, Patricia Woods and the current series producer Jane Fletcher.

Sir Patrick remembers: “We had the marvellous, now sadly departed, Eric Ilett doing mechanised illustrations to show planetary orbits and elliptical progression, while studio designer Alfred Wormser created the models. Paul Doherty and David Hardy were later additions to the back room team, as is our researcher Phil Rosenberg. Sadly my dear friend the legendary Joan Marsland, senior floor manager at BBC television, is no longer with us and so was unable to share the celebrations.

“The television industry has changed enormously over the years, and in 1967 we started our first colour programme trials, as the programme had newly gained a repeat on BBC2 which went ‘part colour’ that year. Nowadays I record an extra segment for an extended full half hour version of the programme on the digital BBC4 channel.

“I presented every programme bar one when I had a bout of food poisoning. It proved almost fatal for me after eating contaminated goose egg”.

Since 2004 Sir Patrick has filmed each programme in his Selsey home as he is unable to travel far due to arthritis.

“We chose as our programme theme ‘At the Castle Gate’ from the Pelléas et Mélisande Suite by Sibelius. The BBC recorded a performance by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham in 1955 and we have used it on every programme since. I am delighted that is has proved to be such a popular choice as viewers of all ages love it. I am also pleased to say that, along with many interesting video clips, including some that have survived from the black and white era when video tapes were not always kept, it can downloaded from the BBC website”.

For almost the entire 50 years The Sky At Night has been UK television’s only permanent astronomy and space exploration programme.

One serious contender to Sir Patrick’s television dominance in stargazing was Peter Fairley, Science Editor at Independent Television News. Apart from presenting reports within news bulletins, Fairley was a key member of the team on Independent Television’s space race specials from 1967 onwards, and the moon landing itself in 1969, which he co-presented with Alastair Burnett. He was a regular contributor to Thames Television’s networked Magpie series for young people, took part in the ATV children’s drama Timeslip and was a regular contributor to TV Times. He also wrote for Look-In ,which was in effect a ‘junior TV Times‘. Both publications carried science material related to television events and were produced by Independent Television Publications.

During the three-channel era, when ITV was perhaps at the peak of it’ public service years, a number of space-related factual series reached some ITV screens. One of the best known was Look Up with Terrence Murtagh. It was made by Ulster Television in 1973 at their Ormeau Road studios in Belfast and was produced by Andrew Crockheart. So good was the series that it gained notability as one of the rare Ulster TV programmes to be seen outside Northern Ireland, when several ITV companies opted to show it. The most important exposure was on London Weekend Television who screened the programme on Sunday afternoons. The series was later shown on HTV in Wales and the West.

ATV Midlands made a seven part series called Beyond the Moon, which was screened nationally in 1979. These programmes were creditable but are sadly long forgotten. Sir Patrick remains the undisputed king of everything associated with the night sky; on television in the UK and very possibly the world over.

To be concluded…

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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