Write That Down!

Ah, those halcyon days of school. Actually, I say “halcyon”, but I really mean “nightmare endurance times filled with boredom, smells, violent fifth-formers and an overwhelming desire to run, fast, away”. But there is one thing that all British kids of the 70’s and 80’s will remember: those lessons where teachers taught by proxy, turning their duties over to the TV.  And there’s a classic example of this that has always stuck in my mind: Experiment. More after the jump. Ensure that you have a pencil and copy-book ready to take down notes from the screen.

Experiment was a programme that taught science. That’s it. No frills, no glitz. Just basic, lab coat-sleeve, faceless and unfettered science. Who can forget the honey-laden throaty voice of Jack Smith? Or the trademark phrase “write that down!”? 

tvcream.org describes those special TV lessons, perfectly:

 One of the main reasons these programmes are so well remembered is that ritual that surrounded viewing them – either a huge Ferguson TX television, complete with sturdy metal stand, veneered protective swing doors and an odd sticker bearing the legend “Push from this end only”, was carefully wheeled into the classroom and chairs arranged around it, or the class was marched en masse down to the “television room”, which may have been a hall, the staff room, or the duplicating fluid-scented resources room, and sat cross-legged on the floor as the blue caption clocks counted down the final minute to transmission of Over To You, inevitably accompanied by the sounds of mock gunfire from trigger-happy pupils. Other programmes would be viewed in solitary confinement, tucked up in bed on a sick day off school with a stack of Monster Fun comics, a bottle of Lucozade and ‘something eggy on a tray’ , the combination of school-missing joy and butercup syrup making the likes of Maths Topics take on an otherworldly dimension. Here we’ve broken the programmes down into five rough formats, to help demonstrate how these most practical of programmes managed to evolve from the no-nonsense to the supremely bizarre.

And of Experiment, it says:

This ‘no-frills’ schools format was the model for all early educational programming, and lasted well into the ’80s. Essentially a simple, straight-ahead illustrated talk, presented much as a straight-ahead teacher might conduct a lesson. Science and maths were the main subjects to receive this treatment, where a basic, no-nonsense dissemination of facts was the order of the day.

ITV’s Experiment and the BBC’s Chemistry (and Biology and Physics) in Action are textbook examples of the genre, in all senses. Experiment was so down-to-Earth it didn’t even bother with such frivolities as a theme tune or in-vision presenter. Instead, for the most part, educational film producer Jack Smith’s disembodied voice guided the class through some on-screen chemistry experiments, conducted in a plain studio by a faceless white-coated experimenter, the equipment forever shot in impersonal close-up, with periodic silent pauses as Smith instructed the class to “write that down!” when a result or measurement was shown. Smith took his 16mm cine camera and array of close-up lenses outdoors, too, for programmes like A Place To Live, which explored the fauna subsisting in hostile environments like industrial estates, and the self-explanatory Pond Life, still keeping that economical line regarding presentation.

So why am I writing this? Because I found the opening titles on the intarwebs just now, and I was transported back:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

And then I found this little gem from 2000: an unaired pilot episode of Look Around You which follows more closely (and is a complete spoof of) the Experiment style (the aired episodes were more like Tomorrow’s World). Although it could be mistaken for a typical serious episode of Experiment at the start, watch closely as it progresses, it gets hilarious.  The use of the fake timer clock is genius, as are the over-exposed fonts throughout.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to nip to the tuck shop to get some United bisuits, and then get a steak sandwich from the pink-painted canteen.

(readers on Facebook will need to click here to see the embedded videos)



  1. Martin born 1980
    Posted September 12, 2008 at 9:14 am | Permalink | Reply

    That pilot episode of Look around you was pure gold! I laughed my little nerdy ass off. Especially loud laughter was produced from the talk of the Helvetica scenario. Yes, I’m a typography geek 😛

  2. Posted September 12, 2008 at 6:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    lol, I know, “Warning! Danger of Helvetica!” he he

Post a Comment

Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: