The Death of Tomorrow’s World

Daily Telegraph
15th January 2003

The perfect example of family viewing once used to be found on Thursday evenings – Tomorrow’s World followed by Top of the Pops. Then disaster struck. Tomorrow’s World was shifted to Wednesday evening, Johnny Dankworth’s classic theme tune was replaced, Judith Hann retired and now the whole series has been ditched.

As somebody who loves science, who adores television and who worked on Tomorrow’s World for five years, I want to point out the implications behind one of the most idiotic decisions ever made by a BBC1 controller. Tomorrow’s World offered the BBC a unique way to fulfil its public broadcast remit. It was a weekly prime-time show, so it a reached broader, more mainstream audience than any other science programme, and for many people it was their only regular dose of science. When the impact of science on society is greater than ever before, it seems bizarre to ditch the only genuinely popular programme that attempts to explain science.

Tomorrow’s World also created figureheads for science. I grew up in an era when boffins on TV were household names, and my heroes were James Burke, Magnus Pyke and Patrick Moore. In the last decade, the BBC has created just two specialist science presenters, the brilliant Kate Humble and the even more brilliant Adam Hart-Davis. But now their main vehicle has been killed off.

Instead, we have Best Inventions presented by an ex-Blue Peter presenter Katy Hill and ex-Raw Sex drummer Rowland Rivron, who are perfectly respectable presenters but whose passion for science seems to be on a par with the average hippy dippy crystal healer.

There are also some less obvious consequences of junking Tomorrow’s World. The programme was an ideas generator, pioneering concepts such as mass experiments (Megalab and Live Lab) and producing items that regularly developed into full length documentaries.

The programme was also a training ground. Making a short film is relatively easy, but making a good one was one of the toughest jobs in TV. Making a five minute film was also a stepping stone towards full length documentary film-making. I and dozens of other people learnt our trade this way.

I assume that the decision to kill Tomorrow’s World was down to the controller of BBC1, Lorraine Heggessey, although she seemed strangely silent over the matter. The main reason given by the BBC was the fall in viewing figures. But what else do you expect for a programme that was left languishing in the schedules? Until recently, the BBC was happy to champion Tomorrow’s World as the world’s favourite science programme. Suddenly, it has become a ratings flop. If this is the case, then invest money and talent to make the series more stimulating. Use the BBC publicity machine to generate interest and place it sensibly in the schedule rather than make it do battle with the ITV soaps.

But, claims the BBC, the Tomorrow’s World brand will live on in TV specials and science will still be prime time TV – only labelled differently. The science might remain, but it is obvious that the content will change to include mainly pop science and creature features, which means less physics and engineering. I worship Lord Winston and Rolf Harris, but medicine and sick pets are not where science begins and ends.

I love the BBC and everything that it is supposed to stand for. Horizon continues to make excellent documentaries and new programme like BBC2’s Rough Science are innovative. However, killing off Tomorrow’s World is cowardly and defeatist. It appears that the controller of BBC1 does not think that her factual department has the talent to make science sexy enough for mainstream viewing. The producers probably disagree.

Oh, and what ever happened to Top of the Pops? There was a time when it was on the verge of being axed. The ratings had slumped and some argued that music should not be on BBC1 primetime. But then somebody had the idea of investing in the programme. The team was revitalised, the scheduling was changed, the publicity push went into overdrive, and Top of the Pops became a ratings success in a Friday night slot that seems made for it and a Saturday morning spin-off.

The music is loud, the singers have long hair, the lyrics seem a bit rude and I do not recognise any of the tunes. That is irrelevant. The point is this – flagging programmes can be saved. But only if you care about them. The BBC clearly did not care about Tomorrow’s World.