Goodbye to kipper ties and sideburns

December 15, 2006

Turn off the alarm clock, the OU is being taken off air - consigned to history by new technology. Huw Richards reflects on 35 years

The University of the Air is being taken off air, as new technology makes this kind of television programme obsolete.

The Open University's final course-related television programme goes out at the suitably antisocial hour of 5.30am tomorrow. Art: A Question of Style: Neo-classicism and Romanticism will end a broadcasting history stretching back nearly 36 years, to the first OU television programme on January 3, 1971.

It was as The University of the Air that the OU-to-be was conceptualised in early Cabinet discussions. That television might become obsolete as a means of transmission within half a lifetime would have seemed improbably visionary when there was earnest debate about whether Britain would eventually be served by nine or ten computers.

Audio and video cassettes were the first items of more targeted and personalised technology offered to OU students, who have grown from an initial enrolment of 24,000 in 1971 to more than 200,000 today. Computer access is now an entry requirement. Online content is supplemented by DVD-Rom and the OU offers access to dedicated virtual learning environments. Television seems so last century.

Whether the OU will so readily throw off television in terms of public perceptions is another matter. The association may be as resilient as the long-discarded mortar board has been in cartoon images of schoolmasters.

The OU press office picks up two or three references a week to "Open University lectures" as a pejorative levelled by television reviewers blissfully unaware of the passage of three and a half decades.

For OU pioneers, television was both a demanding novelty and a key element in establishing identity. Michael Drake, the OU's founding dean of social sciences, recalls: "The first year of programmes went out at prime time on BBC Two. By the end of the year we had staggering levels of public recognition."

David Elliott, professor of design and innovation, remembers: "My father had never really understood why I'd not gone out to work at 15 and could not see much point in university, but once he saw me on television he was prone to say, 'our lad has done OK for himself'."

The early television programmes were made in 1970, at the same time as staff were wrestling with course structures and other accompanying materials. Drake recalls: "It was a continuous worry because I had overall responsibility, and also because I had to go to Alexandra Palace every week for my part in the programmes."

For social science, Drake was the "block presenter", topping and tailing programmes with his own introduction and conclusion. Each 24-minute programme involved several hours of rehearsal before an as-live recording:

"There was no autocue, it was all done off scripts and it was pretty nerve-racking because there were no retakes and you had to get it right."

After a while, he became accustomed to the initially terrifying phenomenon of "a BBC employee working their way towards me, out of camera shot, to say that we were running behind time and my two-minute conclusion now had to be done in 60 or 90 seconds - the normal response was simply to speak faster".

There were inevitably tensions between academics and broadcasters. Electrical engineering professor John Sparkes recalled in his memoirs: "The disagreement could usually be boiled down to the desire of the producers to mix teaching with entertainment, while the academics were keen to explain difficult concepts in as illuminating a way as possible."

On one occasion, the producer's desire to have him walk from one demonstration of electromagnetism to another against an insufficiently tall background meant "I had to walk from one position to another with my knees bent, like Groucho Marx, so that I would not stand too tall. I suppose that's one way of making it entertaining!"

Drake remembers: "The BBC was the established organisation, while we were new. Our people also tended to feel that the BBC, which was much stronger on scheduling and deadlines and very conscious of the number of programmes to be made, was rushing them into making the programmes before they had made up their minds on the issues being discussed."

They would, though, accept academic suggestions. Drake, a demographic historian, recalls with some pride his suggestion of a trailer for a programme on the 1971 census that used the rapid cutting from image to image that has since become commonplace, but at the time was revolutionary.

At the same time, there were definite sticking points. Drake was once summoned from Milton Keynes to Alexandra Palace to adjudicate when a BBC producer objected to the colour of politics lecturer Mike Barber's shirt. "By the time I'd got there, Mike had agreed to change. The irony was that he was one of our best presenters."

Another imbroglio saw the BBC refuse to allow a psychology professor to film a programme in a nursery: "They refused because there was no script - as the BBC man pointed out: 'You can't script it, there's no way you know what children are going to say or do.'"

Elliott thrived on the creative tension: "You needed a strong producer who was certain what he wanted, and an academic with a clear view of what he was trying to say. If either was weak, it didn't work. You got the best programmes with the two of you arguing over every line - but with respect for what the other was trying to do." Did it all work? Sparkes is sceptical. "It was a mistake to try to teach conceptually difficult material by broadcast TV. It goes too fast and cannot be slowed down to allow for thinking time." Surveys regularly showed students rating TV less useful than other course materials.

Elliott points out that the technology department moved from filmed variations on the classic lecture to documentary-style programmes - inter alia escaping nightmares such as the continuous 18-minute shot to camera. "After about ten minutes reading an autocue you tended to glaze over."

There were collateral benefits, too, from the change in style. "Making programmes was a superb research tool. Nothing gets people to talk - heads of state, senior managers, anyone - like turning up somewhere with a BBC film crew."

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