Enough of the pictures, especially as I can’t always get them to resize. Tomorrow’s program is the end result of more than a year’s hard work by a cast of thousands (well, it’s felt like thousands by normal Sky at Night standards). We did an ‘archive’ programme for BBC4 (hopefully this will be reshown at some point) about a year ago, and wanted to do something different for the 50th anniversary.
Patrick wrote the first script, and for once we completely ignored him as it handed over to me and others about five minutes in. Typically generous, but just not on! Eventually, between us we came up with the idea of looking at astronomy 50 years ago compared to that 50 years in the future. At which point we got a little ambitious.
Those of you who are regular viewers will suspect that we’re rather proud of the low-budget Sky at Night effects. Our masterstroke, I think, was explaining the period of transits of Venus using a couple of hoops and a lemon (don’t mock, it got us our only newspaper review to date as the Independent said it made more sense than any amount of computer graphics). For this, though, we’ve been a little more ambitious and the second half of the program will be presented by a computerized Patrick. For anyone roughly the same age as me, the effect is rather similar to Gamesmaster. The script was worked out by talking to the interviewees – Brian May (on Mars), John Zarnecki (on the ISS) and Bob Nichol (on the Moon). The only constraint was that we’ve been deliberately optimistic – this side of a few pints I don’t really think we’ll be on Mars in 2057, but it is possible.
This left 1957 to deal with. My original idea was to use the (few) surviving archive clips and reconstruct an interview between 2007 Patrick and his older self. The only problem was that the clips are a fairly random selection and it was difficult to get anything coherent together. At which point, Jane Fletcher, our long-suffering producer, had an incredible, mind-blowing idea, and we recruited this man. Jon Culshaw, impressionist and amateur astronomer. Suddenly (budget out of the window) we were reconstructing the 1950s set in the studio, recruiting owners of vintage cameras and bringing the two Patricks face to face.
It sounds like a gimmick, but take my word for it (for the next 36 hours at least) it’s wonderful. It’s stunning to be reminded how little we knew a relatively short time ago, and hopefully that will come across along with the fun. It’s what the Sky at Night has always done – enjoyed ourselves while being deadly serious – and it’s a powerful combination. Here’s to the next 50, hope you enjoy the program. 11.30pm Sunday night, 8.30pm Monday night BBC4, Saturday 7th 12.45pm on BBC2.
P.S. I want to say thanks to everyone involved for an amazing ride, but particularly to Patrick and Jane (mentioned above), the indefatigable Dirk Maggs (the man who introduced Brian and Patrick) for his help with the script and our researcher Phil Rosenberg.