Classic TV

Lost Gems: Look Around You – Series One

Look Around You

If you grew up during the 80s (or even the 70s) in the UK, like me, you were probably subjected to some pretty rubbish teaching programmes during science classes – they were usually narrated by Chris Tarrant, if that helps jog your memory. Joe has just reminded me of the marvellous first series of Look Around You, in which Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz mercilessly and very surreally sent up “television for schools and colleges”.

I won’t say too much about it, since it really does speak for itself. Here’s a scary clip of the ‘Helvetica Scenario’ from the pilot episode, Calcium, for those that just want a sample.

For those with more time and who liked that taster, here’s the entire pilot episode. Be warned, you will feel a palpable sensation of nostalgia within about five seconds if you are over 30 and British.

And here’s the Sulphur episode, which is one of my favourites:

If you’re in the US, you can watch all the episodes (with a few adverts) on Adult Swim‘s web site,  since it’s currently airing on Sunday nights. If you’re in the UK, if you loved it, you can buy the whole series, including pilot episode, on DVD.

There was also a second series that sent up Tomorrow’s World and Micro Live, but it wasn’t as good IMHO – although it was still pretty hilarious at times. Here’s a sample – you can get it on DVD, too.

PS: At no point should you rely on Look Around You for accurate scientific information.

Lost Gems: Sky (1975)


The 70s was a great time for TV. Whether it was drama, comedy, documentary or stupid escapist tatt, the 70s turned up some of the best television ever made – although sometimes ambition exceeded either the budget or the technology.

Even kids TV was great, particularly if it was science-fiction or fantasy. Not only was it well made, it was intelligent. Whether you watched the Beeb and caught Doctor Who, The Changes or The Moon Stallion, for example, or watched ITV and tuned in for Timeslip, Ace of Wands or Children of the Stones*, you could pretty much be guaranteed something interesting that made you think.

The reasons for the high quality of kids’ sci-fi TV are clear. Not only were there people with an ethos of creating decent programming for kids at both networks, a competitive duopoly that encouraged innovation and a captive audience with little else to do but watch tele, thus avoiding lowest common denominator worries, there was access to really good, high grade hallucinogenic drugs.

Whether it was magic mushrooms, LSD or even peyote, TV writers were knocking back quite extravagant amounts of not quite illegal substances, giving them a new view on reality, writing and the creative process.

Sky is perhaps the most obvious example of a kids’ show written by people on drugs**. Created by Bob Baker and Dave Martin in 1975, it was a curious seven-part serial about an alien that comes to Earth.

So far, so simple, no?

What differentiates it from other similar fare is that it’s clearly off its face. Sky is a time traveller with incredible powers from another dimension. Or maybe another universe. Except he might be a god. Just like Jesus and any other religious figure in fact, since they were all time-travellers too.

He’s arrived here before the correct time – we’re still “before the chaos” – and needs to get to the future where he can show the surviving people of the Earth the right way to live in harmony with the Earth. Trouble is, the Earth of today senses that’s he’s alien and tries to repel him, just like an immune system repelling a bacterium. While he searches for ‘the Juganet’ – the way to the future – Sky is attacked by trees and plantlife, before eventually the Earth creates something in human form – ‘Ambrose Goodchild’ – to destroy Sky.

It’s never been repeated, it’s never been released on VHS or DVD, but you can watch it some of it on YouTube. It’s a Lost Gem. Here’s the title sequence followed by a clip to get you in the mood. You might need to be taking something though.

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Classic TV

Lost Gems: Life Story

Tim Piggott-Smith and Jeff Goldblum in Life Story

Earlier this year, I was bemoaning the fact that not only is there very little mainstream science programming, the stuff that is around is dumbed down almost to the extent that it’s completely worthless. Okay, so BBC4 is trying to fill in the gaps with things like The Story of Maths, but everywhere else, there’s nothing but rubbish.

Which is a shame, because the BBC used to produce some truly excellent science programmes, usually as part of its Horizon strand. Possibly the biggest jewel in its crown was Life Story, which was billed as a “Horizon special”. This was a feature-length dramatisation of the race by Francis Crick and James Watson against Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins in the 1950s to discover the secrets of the structure of DNA. It depicts how the quick-moving Crick and Watson were able to beat the more methodical Franklin and Wilkins to the discovery using Franklin and Wilkins’ own work – while still finding time to flesh out the characters of the scientists involved and give an unpleasantly accurate picture of the misogyny of 1950s Britain.

This was how to do science dramatisation. Step aside rubbish like Egypt, Life Story had Tim Pigott-Smith and Jeff Goldblum as Crick and Watson, and Juliet Stevenson and Alan Howard as Franklin and Wilkins. It had a script by William Nicholson (Shadowlands), based on Watson’s book The Double Helix, and direction by Mick Jackson (The Bodyguard). It ended up winning three awards, including a BAFTA for best single drama.

However, it was such a good dramatisation and the science was so accurate that it quickly became popular at universities and schools as a teaching aid. As a result, although it was made available as a VHS video, it was priced at the $160 institutional mark. It hasn’t been made available on DVD, it’s only been repeated a couple of times. It’s a Lost Gem.

Here’s the opening few minutes which sets the scene for the rest of the film.

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