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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Classic TV

Lost Gems: The Ice House

The Ice House

Christmas is a time traditionally associated with ghost stories. I don’t know why that is – maybe it’s a pagan hangover, since “let’s celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ by scaring each other silly” doesn’t strike me as a particularly coherent Christian concept.

Probably the most famous teller of Christmas ghost stories is MR James, the Cambridge don who used to gather friends and students round at Christmas and scare them silly with tales such as Whistle and I’ll Come To You, A Warning to the Curious, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and Lost Hearts. These were eventually collected into various omnibuses and back in the 60s and 70s, the BBC started adapting the stories, airing a new tale at Christmas.

Initially, just one-offs, the strand eventually was formalised as A Ghost Story for Christmas, with Rosemary Hill as producer and Lawrence Gordon Clark as director. Sticking with James for the first few years, Hill strayed in 1975, getting Andrew Davies to adapt Charles Dickens’ The Signalman for the strand. She then chose to forego literary sources altogether and began commissioning original stories instead.

The first of these was Clive Exton’s Stigma (which I might deal with at a later time, if you’re lucky), but for reasons known only to the Beeb, the strand concluded with John Bowen’s The Ice House in 1978. Although BBC2 and BBC4 have repeated many of the episodes and the BFI have released some on DVD, The Ice House has never been repeated. It’s a Lost Gem.

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Classic TV

Lost Gems: Now Get Out of That

Now Get Out Of That

Last time, we looked at classic kiddies game show The Adventure Game, in which various celebrities would try to solve computer adventure game/Dungeons and Dragons style puzzles so they could escape from the planet Arg.

But running almost simultaneously was a version for adults. Now Get Out Of That, narrated by sardonic journalist Bernard Falk, was part Adventure Game, part outwards bounds course, with two teams (usually involving at least one American) racing against the clock and each other across the Scottish or Welsh countryside, solving puzzles and problems along the way.

It’s only once been repeated – on UK Horizons – never released on DVD: it’s a Lost Gem.

Here’s the start of one of the fourth series’ episodes to help you recall it.

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For Marie: The Adventure Game Vortex

Any article on The Adventure Game would be incomplete without mentioning the Vortex. But video footage is rare – otherwise The Adventure Game wouldn’t be a ‘Lost Gem’ – so there wasn’t a clip available at the time I wrote the article. But I did promise Marie I’d try to find one for her.

Anyway, I managed it. Yey me.

Here’s David Yip and Madeleine Smith braving the Vortex, while the ‘mole’, Lesley Judd, shows her true colours and tries to evaporate them. It’s from the second series so there’s no green cheese roll to help them – and David Yip has unwisely given back the ham sandwich he was offered before entering the Vortex room…