The sky won’t be the same at night

RIP Patrick Moore, who took his audience seriously and believed his subject - astronomy - should be the star of the show.

Niall Crowley

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Until recently, the tradition of serious, in-depth science programmes that was so strong in the 1960s and 70s seemed to be over, never to return. By the 1980s, science was for nerds – those badly dressed people we used to see on late-night Open University programmes or answering unfathomable questions on University Challenge. And nobody wanted to be a nerd. They couldn’t dance, they had terrible hair, people laughed at them and women found them a turn-off.

Today, that perception has changed dramatically, and both science and the nerds have come in from the cold. Now, particle-physics professors are TV superstars, and you can’t move for talk of black holes, dark matter, Large Hadron Colliders, Mars Rovers and newly discovered planets in near and distant solar systems.

Throughout the changing fortunes of TV science, one little star has shone consistently for over 50 years – The Sky at Night, presented from the very beginning by Sir Patrick Moore, who died this week aged 89.

At times, it seemed as if the BBC was embarrassed by the show, pushing it into the wee hours of the night and swapping around broadcast dates so often that it was harder to spot in the schedules than a distant galaxy on a cloudy night. (Thank heavens for iPlayer.) But the late-night spot was a blessing for us not-so-outwardly-nerdy types. We secret Sky at Night watchers could wait till everyone else was safely tucked up in bed and then, if we could find it, switch on and marvel at the latest NASA mission to the moons of Jupiter or listen to an in-depth discussion about our rapidly expanding universe.

Maybe the BBC let The Sky at Night keep going because it was relatively cheap to make and the Beeb only had to worry about it once a month for 20 minutes. But hats off to them for allowing it to continue. What’s more, they didn’t push aside Moore when he became increasingly frail and infirm, but adapted the show around him, introducing Chris Lintott and other younger presenters to help carry the load. The show was broadcast from Moore’s home in Selsey, West Sussex and his garden and observatory were used regularly for features about amateur astronomy.

The show took on a younger feel – funky graphics, CGI and so on – but producers ensured it kept its serious, in-depth side, too. As Lintott says in his obituary to Moore: ‘The Sky at Night is treasured by scientists… because it allowed them to talk about what they’re most passionate about – their work.’

Each episode is dedicated to a particular theme – this month, the subject was ‘Mercury and the Moon’, and scientists Katie Joy and Dave Rothery joined Moore and Lintott to discuss the current NASA mission to Mercury. Another of the show’s young presenters, Chris North, paid a visit to a site in Stevenage, where part of the European Space Agency’s 2015 Mercury project, BepiColombo, is being developed. And The Sky at Night’s self-consciously nerdy astronomer duo, Pete and Paul, went into the garden to peer through their telescopes at what was going on in the night sky.

Despite all the positives, however, there has been a nagging problem with The Sky at Night. As the show revolved more and more around its ageing presenter, so it increasingly emphasised his uniqueness and his perceived eccentricities. In many ways, The Sky at Night became a shrine to Sir Patrick Moore. Making the show as much about Moore as about the science demeaned what he was all about and leaves a question mark as to where it can go next.

What was refreshing about Moore’s approach was that it was all about the subject – astronomy – and not about him. Moore appears unique and exotic today mainly because he was the last of a generation of television broadcasters who took their audiences seriously, believing them capable of grasping difficult concepts, ideas and theories. When the BBC was regularly making high-quality documentary series such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, and The Ascent of Man, presented by public intellectual Jacob Bronowski, Moore’s matter-of-fact style and unflinching dedication to astronomy didn’t seem out of place. But today, broadcasters and programme makers, on TV at least, find it difficult to present or explain their subject without a huge dose of either irony or emotion.

More importantly, today’s programme makers worry about the attention span of viewers. They believe their audience won’t grasp an idea without it having to be vastly oversimplified, repeated and repeated, with an array of visual props and/or presenters explaining said idea from exotic, far-flung locations. In effect, they treat us like children. That is not to say that TV production values haven’t improved enormously or that today’s presenters are not serious about their subject. It’s just that there has been a general loss of faith in the ability of audiences to comprehend difficult stuff.

Moore not only took his adult audience seriously, but his younger audience, too. Many of today’s eminent scientists cite a moment from their childhood – a meeting with or a personal reply to a letter from Moore – as the catalyst for them taking themselves seriously and pursuing a career in science. What a contrast to today’s programme makers and network controllers, who don’t have much faith in grown-ups, let alone children.

‘Next month, have you got a new telescope for Christmas? If so, I’ll be telling you how to use it’, announced Moore at the end of the last show. Sadly for us, he won’t be there to show us, but here’s hoping that one of the many thousands of people that he inspired will be there in January to fill his shoes and carry on his work.

Niall Crowley is a writer living in London.

David Bowden is away.

Postscript: Chris Lintott wrote to spiked to say: ‘Niall Crowley gets the challenge of The Sky at Night absolutely right: is there still a place for serious low-budget science on TV, and can such a programme still work? We shall see. But in the meantime we should say that the show referred to at the end of the article will be broadcast – it’s already in the can, complete with Patrick.’

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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