You know, sometimes I think I have psychic powers. Only last Thursday, I was thinking to myself “Ooh. I know what I should do for next week’s Lost Gems: The Great Egg Race. Everyone loved that.” What should happen within about two hours? The BBC only went and stuck vast chunks of it up on the BBC Archive, that’s what, which makes things a whole lot easier, if less impressive now.
The Great Egg Race, for those too young, too American or not nerdy enough to be watching BBC science programmes during the early to mid-1980s, was a fabulous homage to British boffins and inventors, a predecessor for things like Robot Wars and Scrapheap Challenge, and firmly in the tradition of the outwards bounds courses et al that led to Now Get Out of That at the same time. In it, teams of inventive and engineering-minded British people would be set seemingly simple challenges and armed only with their ingenuity, a small workshop and a whole array of kitchen-equipment and random objects, they would have to construct a mind-blowing gizmo or series of gizmos that would solve the challenge better than the other teams – preferably in as Heath-Robinson a way as possible.
Originally presented by Play School/Play Away host Brian Cant, the show got its name from the main challenge of the first series, in which teams from around the country tried to build machines that could propel an egg as far as possible, powered only by elastic bands. This episode includes the show’s famous theme tune, as well as its first weird old title sequence. More after the jump…
Although Cant presented the first series (and Blue Peter/Adventure Game regular Leslie Judd joined in during later series), the show’s most famous presenter was Professor Heinz Wolff, one of the judges of the first series. Wolff, almost a stereotypical scientist and inventor in appearance and demeanour, originally worked for the Radcliffe Infirmary, the Pneumoconiosis Research Unit and the Medical Research Council, and invented and designed medical machinery, including a dust sampling device that worked like an artificial lung. But here he was the wry and insightful professor who could tell the viewer what was going on, while simultaneously speaking the same language as the teams.
In later series, with Wolff as the new host, egg-racing was soon forgotten about in favour of anything ranging from building hovercrafts to creating sound effects for a play starring John Leeson (the voice of K9 on Doctor Who):
And there also came a weird new title sequence.
The show was incredibly popular with Wolff as host and lasted from 1979 to 1986, before concluding with this final episode, with its final weird old title sequence:
The show probably wouldn’t get made by the BBC now: not fast enough, too educational, and filled with plenty of unglamorous people (although one can argue that Bang Goes The Theory is quite close). But for everyone who watched it, it’s a treasured memory of when mainstream TV could be quirky and yet still appeal to the masses.