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BBC Archive: Tomorrow’s World

Posted in Uncategorized by eyebee on September 19, 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.

I really enjoyed this show.

Posted via web from Eyebeemania


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