You're smart, but are you 'box' clever?

May 4, 2001

From social history to quantum physics, television is hungry for experts, so if you want to give your academic career a kickstart, get some media exposure, advises Adrian Mourby.

Once upon a time, television programmes used full-time professional presenters to communicate information. Trustworthy, presentable people such as Cliff Michelmore, Judith Chalmers and Kenneth Kendall not only read us the news, they also explained double-helix theory, why Harold lost the Battle of Hastings and the reasons for tribal unrest in the Belgian Congo. But because Cliff, Kenny and Judith were not actually experts on these subjects, they invariably went into the field and pointed a microphone towards someone who was. This was the old style of BBC factual programming, typified by Franklin Engelman and the Down Your Way team.

Then came a revolution in broadcasting and, behold, experts were seen speaking direct unto the camera without any apparent need for Judith or Cliff. A. J. P. Taylor was one of the pioneers of this art form and he was followed by some of the media's new academic heavyweights: Sir Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski and - though he would always fight the label of heavyweight - Jonathan Miller.

Now, TV is beginning to feel the need for professional presenters again, although it tends to be stand-up comedians such as Caroline Aherne (as alter ego Mrs Merton) who get to investigate quarks or the influence of Goethe on 19th-century German Romanticism.

Fortunately, this does not mean the TV don is dead. Far from it. They are all around us, even if they sometimes overdo the popularist touch. From the eccentric antics of Magnus Pyke and the vocal excesses of David Bellamy to the more recent charms of Lord Winston and the rampant sex appeal of TV's history man, Simon Schama - back on the box next week - there are probably more academics on television these days than maverick cops.

It is one of those happy marriages between men (and the occasional woman) who love the sound of their own erudition and a broadcasting medium that has an insatiable appetite for new faces.

For the lucky academic who gets the summons to TV Centre, there is every incentive to leap at it. Bigger audiences, modest fees (from the BBC), increased royalties (from publishers) and a celebrity status within a university that is probably the best guarantor of tenure these days since higher education embraced the culture of hard sell and easy sackings. They might even get invited to Alan Yentob's Christmas party to mingle with starlets and share a canape with Lord Bragg.

Myra Wilson, from the department of computer sciences at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, found her way into broadcasting because the producers of Robot Wars and Techno Games were looking for a female judge. "They asked Noel Sharkey, whom I knew through academic research conferences, and he got in contact with me. I haven't discussed it with colleagues, although they like hearing about things that go on backstage and talk with me about the matches.

"I think mainly they see it as great publicity for the department. There have been several initiatives to try to encourage women into science, but these have not been too successful. So, that's part of the reason I was very happy to get involved in Robot Wars , to show that women can get involved in engineering disciplines, too."

On the downside, any academic who crops up more than once or twice on the box will be the subject of mutterings in the senior common room, where his willingness to interpose himself between a camera and the viewing public will be taken as evidence of "dumbing down" by those who are probably more than a little jealous.

Jean Golding of Bristol University is a regular broadcaster, but is far from starry-eyed. "The downsides to appearing on TV are that you get recognised in the street and that there is a danger that the publicity put out in advance of a programme can be totally misleading - or break an embargo. There are modest fees from the BBC, but they barely pay for the expense of time."

Time is a serious problem. The pursuit of stardom can swallow up days that might have been devoted to research - there is no doubting that the television process takes up a disproportionate amount of time, considering the end product usually lasts barely 30 minutes. When Malcolm Parry, head of the Welsh School of Architecture, made his first TV series he was staggered at how many hours it took to deliver a simple sentence to camera. "The PA's report on each take read something like, 'Malcolm fluffed, plane went overhead, Malcolm fluffed, Malcolm fell in hole.'" Nevertheless, one sentence successfully spoken on network TV does more for a department's profile than a lifetime of papers read at symposia.

At a time when the ivory tower is under enormous pressure to prove its worth in pounds and pence, no one ought to get sniffy about a promising media celebrity who attends more showbusiness lunches than seminars.

The standard route into TV begins by becoming Mr Reliable-Rent-A-Quote on Radio 4's Today programme. Academics are an attractive commodity to producers because they are fluent and usually know as much as the major players in any given field but do not have an axe to grind.

Media stardom is one of those wonderful things that is 100 per cent worthwhile. The only drawback is that everyone else is after it, too.

Adrian Mourby is author of The Four of Us , a novel featuring an academic's struggles to break into television, published by Hodder Headlines, £17.99.

Ten dos and don'ts for aspiring TV dons

1 General appearance
This is important. Too many academics look like Robot Wars contestants or overweight trainspotters. Television cameras are merciless with nerds - engineers and geographers beware. Be distinctive and keep in shape. Remember the camera adds 10lb. Do not do its job for it.

2 Hair
This also needs to be distinctive. The Robert Winston profusion is good. So is bald - since Norman Foster. Simon Schama has cut his right back, which suggests a no-nonsense approach. If you cannot be decisive about your hairstyle, how on earth is the viewing public expected to take your views on the Battle of Hastings seriously?

3 Clothes
A good producer might take you in hand and suggest subtle changes to your wardrobe, but there are few of those around these days so try to dress as if you appear on TV already. Remember, most producers have little imagination. You must dress as though the cameras are already on you. This does not mean wearing the same suit as the anchorman on Points South South West . Be snappy.

4 Choose your subject
Admittedly a bit late to mention this, but business studies is not a sexy subject, neither is endocrinology or any discipline that the public cannot easily pronounce. Moreover, with some subjects, the public would rather have the real thing. Why listen to some geezer who lectures in journalism when you can have a real journalist? A critic or poet is always preferable to someone who teaches English. Unless he is Tom Paulin, who manages to be all three.

5 Sound bites
Having spent years exploring the subtle complexities of your subject, now is the time to cram all human knowledge into a 30-second soundbite. Practise standing in front of a mirror and answering a complex question without the use of any of the following: "comparative", "relative", "conversely" or "it all depends what you mean byI"

6 To err is maddening
To err is maddening Retakes are expensive and editing takes time. Producers would rather employ a research student who is fluent than some brainbox who notches up 12 "ums" to the minute.

7 Gimmick
Something that makes you distinct from the other TV wannabes is important. Magnus Pyke waved his arms, David Bellamy wore shorts, Robert Winston leaked a rumour about Cherie Blair having a caesarean. The public remembers.

8 Cultivate the press officer
University press offices are always being asked by radio and TV programmes for people who can string a few words together. If you are coherent, presentable and willing to have an opinion on absolutely anything, you could make the press officer's job easy and find yourself snaffling all the best interviews.

9 Be prepared to be silly
Not every academic is willing to sit in a rubber dinghy pretending to be a foetus floating in amniotic fluid, but if that is what Robert Winston has to do to get on TV why shouldn't you be willing to bow to the producer's every whim?

10 Push yourself
Do you really think most of these people were sought out by diligent producers and coaxed reluctantly out of academe? No, they hammered on doors and did whatever it took to get in front of the cameras. And they came up with their own ideas for a six-part series. Best of all, encourage all your students to become television producers, then, when one of them makes it, exploit the connection ruthlessly.

Cerebral Celebs

Steve Jones
What is he famous for?
A geneticist and snail enthusiast who does a lot of radio punditry and is the only academic to have advertised a car on television - even Nobel prizewinners do not get to do that kind of thing.

How did he manage that?
Search me. He once said: "The motor car should never have been invented." But Jones exudes credibility whether he is working as a columnist for The Independent or The Daily Telegraph , or contributing to the BBC's Darwin Debate on the significance of evolution theory on human society. Did you catch him on Leviathan looking at the creation of the original hybrid crops? Jones could make Inland Revenue self-assessment forms seem interesting - and probably will.

How did he get started?
About 15 years ago he was invited to appear on Woman's Hour to talk about garden snails. He says that it was only while he was on air that he discovered they wanted to know how to get rid of them.

So he's big in molluscs?
He claims the high point of his professional life was researching snails in Bosnia when he realised that animals choose to live in accordance with their genetic coding - that is, snails with darker shells choose to live in cooler areas and will move to them even if reared in warmer conditions. Like the United Nations, he says his work in Bosnia is not yet done.

Simon Schama
What's he famous for?
A brilliant academic record:he is a fellow at both Oxford and Cambridge, has two chairs at Harvard, and he is professor of art history and history at Columbia University in New York. A top-notch populariser, he was art critic and cultural essayist for The New Yorker magazine (1995-98) and is sexy to boot.

What's he doing over here then?
He has ousted Michael Wood as the BBC's Mr History with series Landscape and Memory (1995) and A History of Britain - the first seven programmes were transmitted last year; the next four start this month.

Is there anything he can do?
He hasn't advertised a car yet, but he has taught social sciences at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes, Paris, and has had his bestselling, prizewinning books (including Citizens, Patriots and Liberators and Rembrandt's Eyes ) translated into ten languages.

Don't you just hate him?
Actually, he was quite a favourite with the porters at Oxford. Rumour has it that when no room was available for one of his lectures, he simply invited everyone round to his place.

Susan Greenfield
Why's she famous?
She is a member of the House of Lords and, according to The Guardian , she is one of the 50 most powerful women in Britain. Harpers & Queen ranked her number 14 in its list of the 50 most inspirational women in the world. She was awarded a CBE for her services to the public understanding of science. She is an Oxford professor, the first female director of the Royal Institution, and the first woman to deliver the RI's Christmas lectures.

Yes, but has she advertised a car?
Not yet, but she was on TV as presenter of Brain Story and has appeared on Tomorrow's World and breakfast TV. She's even done Desert Island Discs .

Not too scary then?
Well, she does try to be populist with books such as The Private Life of the Brain and Brain Power , but her other tomes - Journeys to the Centres of the Brain and Concepts in Cellular Neuroscience - confirm that she is an academic heavy-hitter.

Why don't we see more women academics on TV?
You have not been watching Robot Wars . Myra Wilson is one of the judges: girls can be techno-geeks, too.

Robert Winston
What's he famous for?
Not just a professor of fertility studies, but the peer who accidentally leaked news of Cherie Blair's supposed caesarean. Also hit the headlines last year when he launched a fierce attack on new Labour over the running of the health service. Recently popped up again, speaking against gynaecologists who offer parents the opportunity to choose the sex of their child.

So he likes being on TV?
You bet. In Debrett's he lists broadcasting as one of his hobbies. He's taken over from Jonathan Miller as the BBC's Mr Body. Series so far include: Your Life in Their Hands (1979-87), Making Babies (1996), Superhuman (2000) and A Child of Our Times (2001).

Why is he so popular?
Great voice, memorable hair, wonderful bedside manner and willingness to communicate directly with people. His books Getting Pregnant and Infertility - A Sympathetic Approach tell it how it is - or isn't, as the case might be.

Is it true he paddled around in a dinghy pretending to be a foetus?
You're just jealous.

Roger Scruton
What's he famous for?
Co-founder of the Conservative Action Group, which supported Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. His thinking about architecture was the basis of the Prince of Wales's book on the subject. Also known for being pro-death penalty, for humans and for foxes.

He's a media Tory?
He's a great interviewee who does not mind being unpopular. At one time he was in danger of becoming the BBC's Rent-A-Rightwinger. But he is sceptical about market forces and has said: "Thatcher revitalised things, but she was surrounded by pretty second-rate people."

Is he just a controversialist?
No. Has been compared to David Attenborough because of his ability to write books for the interested non-specialist. Recently published The Aesthetics of Music , which asks "when, how and why does sound become music?" and An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy , which includes a chapter on the philosophy of sex - for all those who've ever wondered why we like it.

Is is true he's hostile to radical thought?
Wrong again. What he actually said was: "Conservatism is suspicious of thinking, because thinking on the whole leads to wrong conclusions, unless you think very, very hard."

He considers political radicalism a matter of temperament. "It's for people who are arrested in a state of adolescent rebellion."

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (27 July 2017)

It is not Luddism to be cautious about destroying an academic publishing industry that has served us well, says Marilyn Deegan

Jeffrey Beall, associate professor and librarian at the University of Colorado Denver

Creator of controversial predatory journals blacklist says some peers are failing to warn of dangers of disreputable publishers

Kayaker and jet skiiers

Nazima Kadir’s social circle reveals a range of alternative careers for would-be scholars, and often with better rewards than academia

Hand squeezing stress ball
Working 55 hours per week, the loss of research periods, slashed pensions, increased bureaucracy, tiny budgets and declining standards have finally forced Michael Edwards out
hole in ground

‘Drastic action’ required to fix multibillion-pound shortfall in Universities Superannuation Scheme, expert warns