Science TV strikes back

After a decade of decline, the semi-silly science programme is making a comeback – will it inspire kids to become geniuses?

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

When I was growing up in the 1980s, there was a multitude of science programmes on the BBC that catered for all segments of the population and for all IQs.

There was Think of a Number, the children’s science show hosted by the ebullient and excitable Johnny Ball, who would entertain kidsby by clowning around, extolling the virtues of bursting balloons and making rockets out of empty bog rolls. Then there was the middle-ground Tomorrow’s World, a magazine-type show for adults which would prognosticate about how, ‘by the year 1998’, we would all be living solely on vitamin pills and have televisions on our watches. Tomorrow’s World is now, perhaps unfairly, chiefly remembered and pilloried for its soothsaying ineptitude, leading the comedian Ed Byrne recently to observe that instead of ‘Tomorrow’s World’ it should have been called ‘Tomorrow’s Shite’.

Slightly more-upmarket was the featured-based, primetime show QED. But it was only mildly more upmarket, for everyone of my generation will remember it chiefly for its 1989 episode ‘John’s Not Mad’, featuring a sweary Scottish boy with Tourette’s syndrome. Alas, most teenagers at the time failed spectacularly to appreciate the gravity of the subject matter. It was probably the only time in the 1980s when the talk of playgrounds nationwide the next day was not of last night’s Blackadder or New Statesman, but of an ostensibly serious science documentary.

Similar in style, but more earnest and solemn, was Horizon. And if you count the astronomy series The Sky At Night, that’s an awful lot of science on the box. So where did all the science programmes go? For all their attempts to gaze into the future, one thing many of these shows did not predict was their own extinction.

Think of a Number ended in 1984, though Johnny Ball did continue to appear on television in many other capacities. QED was dropped in 1999, allegedly for not having enough ‘human interest’ angles and, according to the then head of BBC Science, because of its supposedly confusing title. ‘The audience didn’t have the faintest idea what it meant – which is not surprising because it’s a Latin acronym’, he said (1).

Most controversially, Tomorrow’s World was given the chop in 2004, a decision interpreted by many as the BBC’s ultimate betrayal of its commitment to deliver educational science television. And though The Sky at Night remains as wonderfully baffling and mesmerising as ever, Horizon, which staggers on, has faced recent charges of adopting a more detective-style, narrative-orientated, ‘dumbed down’ structure, with one former editor of the programme announcing in 2004 that ‘Horizon has lost its way’ (2).

The past decade will not be remembered as a distinguished one for BBC Science. But it does appear that the Corporation is displaying a newfound appetite for the genre. The question is, will it face the dreaded and clichéd accusation of ‘dumbing down’?

‘Science is back on prime-time BBC One in the shape of Bang Goes The Theory – the explosive guide to everyday physics, biology and chemistry’ booms the introduction to a piece about the show in the August edition of BBC Focus magazine (3). The semantics here betray an open admission that science did indeed disappear from prime-time BBC1 in the Noughties. But should we welcome its return in the guise of Bang Goes The Theory?

Bang Goes The Theory is essentially Think of A Number for people with a marginally higher IQ. And instead of having one presenter carrying out pranks, exploding and setting fire to stuff, it has four (mostly) telegenic presenters based (mostly) in a studio doing what Johnny Ball did a quarter of a century ago: have cerebral larks.

It has to be said that it is good, light-hearted fun. The first episode last month explored how gait-recognition technology is being applied to CCTV, so that cameras will soon be able to identify us by the way we walk. There were also features on energy-saving solutions and the scientific advances and ethical ramifications of creating artificial intelligence. And then there was the obligatory ‘Boy’s Own’ bit, in which one of the presenters, Jem Stansfield, created a cannon big enough to produce a vortex powerful enough to blow down a house of straw, of sticks and of bricks (can you guess what this is all alluding to?).

This week’s episode continued in a similar vein, with the woman of the team, Liz Bonnin, doing the psychological stuff – about how cows are supposedly being affected by the Earth’s magnetic field – and the three blokes doing the Top Gear-esque fare, namely explaining why fireworks can work in water and how to send a dummy into space using only a balloon (4).

But there was this eeriness to the show. I felt like I was indeed watching Top Gear. The presenters might as well have being trying to cross the English channel in a car or unsuccessfully attempting to destroy a Toyota pick-up truck (5). And I couldn’t help sensing that Bang Goes The Theory also seeks to emulate Top Gear‘s conceit of giving its presenters ‘characters’ of their own.

So Liz Bonnin is clearly the Jeremy Clarkson of the show, the unspoken main presenter who puts her colleagues in their place when she feels they are being stupid or misbehaving. Jem Stansfield is Richard Hammond; he is over-excitable and gets to do all the risky challenges. Dallas Campbell is James May in that he is the boring, sensible one. Dr Yan Wong is The Stig, the enigmatic curio who isn’t part of the studio team.

Bang Goes The Theory has even more in common with Sky’s Brainiac: Science Abuse, first broadcast in November 2003, which blatantly and honestly employed physics, biology and chemistry as an excuse to blow things up.

The Cell, another new series currently showing on the BBC, aspires to be somewhat more scholarly, purporting to ‘discover the secrets of the cell and of life itself’. The show description explains: ‘Every living thing is made of cells, microscopic building blocks of almost unimaginable power and complexity.’

The first episode explored the degree to which the acceptance of the existence of cells challenged previously-held scientific and religious axioms (6), while this week’s programme delved into how cells can spark life. While undoubtedly more high brow, The Cell still had a ring of gimickry to it, in that presenter Dr Adam Rutherford burnt himself, examined the pus-filled bandages of nineteenth-century soldiers and toyed with a pig’s entrails to make his points.

Yet such gratuity was warranted because it was historically relevant. It was Friedrich Miescher’s collecting of bandages of wounded troops from the Franco-Prussian war and of pigs’ stomachs from a slaughterhouse that led to the understanding that when cells bifurcate they also replicate.

So science is ‘back’ on the BBC, and it should be commended for both The Cell and Bang Goes The Theory. The former may seem a little eccentric in its approach, but then who didn’t have an eccentric tutor at school or university who was simultaneously brilliant and inspirational? Robin Williams’ teacher character from the 1989 film Dead Poets Society may be a fictional representation of this stereotype, but I knew a real-life enigmatic English professor who would begin each lecture on Albert Camus’ L’Etranger by playing ‘Killing An Arab’ by The Cure.

Bang Goes The Theory may be – gasp – a bit ‘dumbed down’ and infantile, but the proper comparison for programmes like this is the Harry Potter series. JK Rowling’s books are not literary masterpieces, but at least they get children into reading. Likewise, Bang Goes The Theory is ‘gateway’ television. Just as John Craven’s Newsround, the BBC children’s news programme, aroused many of my contemporary journalists’ interest in current affairs, Bang Goes The Theory may stir the fertile young minds of tomorrow’s scientific geniuses.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV and radio columnist.

Read on: spiked-issue TV and radio.

(1) BBC ditches QED branding, Broadcast magazine, 24 September 1999

(2) Clouds on the Horizon, Guardian, 7 October 2004

(3) See the BBC Focus magazine website.

(4) Watch episode four of Bang Goes the Theory on BBC iPlayer here.

(5) Watch the Top Gear Challenge to cross The Channel in Car Boats on YouTube; The killing a Toyota challenge can be viewed here

(6) Watch episode one of The Cell on BBC iPlayer here.

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