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Patrick Moore and why knowledge trumps the vacuous appeal of celebrity
07:37 GMT, 11 December 2012
The passing of Patrick Moore, stargazer, great British eccentric and professional grump, leaves David Attenborough as the last survivor of the golden age of telly-teachers.
For half a century, the small screen, and especially the BBC portion of it, boasted a galaxy of presenters whose unembarrassed mission was to deliver sparkling lectures on things they knew a lot about: astronomy, wildlife, science, history, art, gardening.
Their programmes were unlike almost anything nowadays, on two counts. First, the BBC lavished on them immense budgets, cash on a scale no modern programme-maker could offer — save for a comedian or rock star.
Knowledgable: The generation of presenters, exemplified by Patrick Moore, all had a quality that before first getting in front of a camera, they had acquired a store of experience and knowledge of their subject
The epic Great War series back in 1963 had a staff of more than 50 (including myself as a researcher) labouring for three years to produce 26 episodes of 40 minutes’ length, written by the half-dozen finest historians of the period in Britain.
Today, it is unusual for any TV company to fund more than six parts of anything save comedy or soaps. As a result, hapless presenters parody themselves trying to gabble the story of say, Christianity or the Theory Of Relativity, inside 50 minutes.
On the other side of the screen, vast audiences watched enraptured. They marvelled as the pioneer telly-don A.J.P. Taylor gave history lessons without notes or D-Day veteran General Sir Brian Horrocks likewise described great generals and military battles.
Today, by contrast, television companies argue that the public lacks the attention span for anything that goes on a bit: audience figures fall off a cliff after four or five episodes, regardless of merit; people are no longer willing to be lectured at.
That is the TV bosses’ story, anyway. That is how they justify using actors and actresses to present many of today’s documentaries, heedless of whether these thespians know a Norse helmet from a chamber-pot.
Only if viewers get their dose from a celebrity they fancy — for example, Stephen Fry, Martin Clunes or Joanna Lumley — will they risk taking a swallow of cling-filmed knowledge.
Cherished: Sir David Attenborough is the last survivor of the golden age of telly-teachers
The contrast is extraordinary, with the generation of presenters exemplified by Patrick Moore.
Their most conspicuous quality was that before first getting in front of a camera, they had acquired a store of experience and knowledge of their subject.
Moore himself trained as a wartime RAF navigator and spent some years school-teaching before taking up writing and broadcasting.
He first presented BBC’s The Sky At Night at 10.30pm on April 26, 1957, and never looked back. His flamboyant delivery was supported by real scholarship: the authority with which he dismissed galaxial myth-makers and UFO-spotters delighted astronomers as well as viewers.
Moore had many peers in other fields.
Magnus Pyke, a populariser of science, was another on-screen arm-waver, a star of the Seventies programme Don’t Ask Me. Born in 1908, his reputation for authentic eccentricity was assured after a wartime spell advising the Ministry of Food.
Moore, pictured with his knighthood, trained as a wartime RAF navigator and spent time school-teaching before taking up writing and broadcasting
Percy Thrower, hailed as ‘Britain’s first celebrity gardener’ was born in 1913 and served a long apprenticeship at great houses, not least Windsor Castle — he married the royal head gardener’s daughter.
He made his TV debut on Gardening Club in 1956, then for years, starting in 1969, presented Gardener’s World.
Jacob Browonski was a Polish Jew who came to Britain as a small boy speaking just two words of English. A polymath, he mastered mathematics, biology, history, poetry, and first showed off his brilliance in the Fifties on The Brains Trust. In 1973, aged 65, he presented the 13-part BBC series The Ascent Of Man, showing how scientific endeavour had advanced humanity.
The there was Kenneth Clark, heir to a North Country textile fortune. He was another youthful prodigy, this time in the field of art.
He became director of the National Gallery at 30 in 1933, and simultaneously Surveyor of the King’s Pictures the next year. He climaxed his career as a cultural panjandrum by presenting the huge, dazzling BBC series Civilisation in 1969.
He said that he embarked on the programmes as a counterblast to iconoclasts who, in those days, denounced the Western world’s supposed decadence and decay.
What did all those men have in common Unquestioned credentials to pontificate about their subjects. Even if they were not old when first they took to the airwaves, they had gained learning and experience, qualities then much valued by the BBC, and even sometimes by ITV.
This was also true lower down the food chain.
When Donald Baverstock, producer of the week-night current affairs programme Tonight, first went recruiting for reporters in 1957, he chose several old hands from the great magazine Picture Post: Fyfe Robertson, Alan Whicker and my own father, Macdonald Hastings.
Baverstock said he wanted people who had been around, seen the world, knew what they were talking about.
Driven by passion: Phil Drabble, pictured receiving his OBE, was a countryman through and through
My father, who presented many first-generation TV programmes about the British countryside, was driven by a passion and knowledge which came across on screen as strongly as his batty streak.
The same qualities were apparent in Phil Drabble, who hosted the popular sheepdog trial programme One Man And His Dog for 17 years, starting in 1976.
Phil was a countryman through and through, who liked to boast that he had never lived more than 20 miles from his Staffordshire birthplace.
It would be wrong to claim that today the cult of the expert in broadcasting is extinct.
The superb Neil Macgregor, director of the British Museum, has fronted some marvellous radio and television series. David Starkey is great on the Tudors and Mary Beard does her bit for the classic era. David Attenborough still delights us at 86.
But the principal thrust of factual TV has shifted, in favour of celebrity and packaging at the expense of authority and substance.
There are too many silly and visibly bargain-basement dramatic reconstructions, for instance with 20 men attempting to represent a mediaeval army.
Astrophysicist Brian Cox is a terrific presenter: so why is it thought necessary to couple him on the programme Stargazing Live with a comic, Dara O’Briain
The answer, of course, is that nobody nowadays dares to make a TV series which allows even the brightest academic simply to talk about what he or she knows.
And the bleak matching reality is that if they did, not much of an audience would watch: viewers, influenced by our tragically inadequate education system, have dumbed themselves down even more than television companies.
Astrophysicist Brian Cox (left) has been coupled with Dara O'Briain on the programme Stargazing Live
Sadly, the overwhelming emphasis of factual TV is on visual effects, often absurdly trivial or irrelevant. As T.S. Eliot wrote: ‘Where is the wisdom we have lost for knowledge Where is the knowledge we have lost for information’
I can speak from experience about the fatuity of the youth cult among presenters, because aeons ago I was one myself.
As a reporter for the BBC current affairs programme 24 Hours in my mid-20s, back in the Seventies, I lacked the tiniest scintilla of wisdom to impart to viewers and blush to remember the nonsense I talked on air.
My father said with some complacency, as he himself got old: ‘The only virtue of youth is that what is young is good to eat.’
Here is a thought for the BBC’s new director-general, Tony Hall: bring on a new generation of old sages. They are repositories of wisdom, and there is precious little of it about.