Time Shift: Sun and Moon

Monday, March 6, 2006 by

One of the great joys of BBC4 is that its schedulers and programme makers are never afraid to rummage around the dustier corners of the archives. While the terrestrial channels keep on recycling the same old clips and repeats again and again, chances are that the average BBC4 documentary or theme night will come bolstered by such unlikely long-forgotten gems as Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance performing on The Basil Brush Show, or a frankly quite deranged animated blur of colour and percussion sounds aimed at increasing use of your local Post Office.

The recent BBC4 theme nights devoted to the sun and the moon had already been bolstered by a number of superb archive choices based on their respective themes, but the absolute high point was something that might on first glance have been considered throwaway filler. Time Shift: “Sun and Moon” was effectively 30 minutes worth of old sun-and-moon-related clips, but in selecting these took full advantage of the availability of countless thousands of hours worth of fascinating and little-seen footage.

During the course of this mesmerising programme, actual space missions and serious scientific analysis rubbed shoulders with a typically off-beam Tomorrow’s World explanation of how the sun “works”, using a hefty prop set of scales. The Doctor and Rose observing “The End of the World” was counterbalanced by clips from Moonbase 3, the serious-minded sci-fi drama made by the early 1970s Doctor Who production team, which revealed its dramatic Radiophonic Workshop-themed opening titles held a far greater promise of excitement than the programme itself could deliver. The Goodies poked fun at lunar modules, mission control and moonwalks, while the Blue Peter team somehow managed to make a bizarre yet purportedly scientifically realistic “moon creature” sound about as exciting as the usual historical subjects of their documentary features. Patrick Moore chatted to a vicar who refused to believe the sun is hot, Alan Whicker encountered some Europeans standing stock still in the midday sun, and Dougal arrived on the moon to find the other inhabitants of the Magic Garden had casually beaten him to it.

Punctuating all of this were almost subliminal clips from The Clangers, Tellytubbies, The Late Show‘s eight million decibel howling wolf, a young Ronnie Corbett in an ancient – and very funny – black and white sketch, and Dana (whose increasingly absurd appearances in such clip-driven programmes are coming to suggest her old TV shows are in fact some sort of lost surrealist weird-out) performing a rather forceful version of Dancing in the Moonlight.

The real find, however, was an animated version of the story of Daedalus and Icarus, made for the long-running BBC schools’ programme Watch in 1979. No doubt a great many viewers found their subconscious was jerked into recognition on seeing this once frequently-repeated sequence, but presented here in isolation it took on a very different sheen, coming across as somehow spartan and desolate. In fact, the whole programme was characterised by a unique and distinctive feel. The same thematic approach has been adopted by many past efforts, notably BBC2′s seminal Windmill, but Time Shift: “Sun and Moon” featured no presenters or linking material and simply flowed from extract to extract depending on mood – an approach which proved incredibly effective.

With only 30 minutes to fill, it was perhaps inevitable not everything viewers may have half-expected to see would appear. There was no sign, for example, of the Cybermen stomping across the lunar surface, Monty Python’s Flying Circus suddenly transforming into The Buzz Aldrin Show, or The Black and White Minstrel Show commemorating the achievements of the Apollo 11 crew with Dai Francis crooning a plaintive ballad at the controls of a spaceship. Similarly, from a slightly warmer perspective, there was no room for Peter Egan as a shape-shifting solar-powered centuries-old supervillain or, perhaps most surprisingly, the end of Disaster Area’s live set from The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Meanwhile, the most glaring omissions were not through choice; the BBC for reasons best known to itself failed to preserve any of the special programming detailing their coverage of the Moon landings, so nothing could be shown of Patrick Moore and James Burke’s studio presentation, or the Omnibus special “What if it’s Just Green Cheese?”, featuring contributions from artists as diverse as Judi Dench, Pink Floyd, Michael Hordern and The Dudley Moore Trio.

Thankfully, there was more than enough rare and unusual footage to compensate for any omissions, glaring or otherwise. This was a fantastic and hugely entertaining idea for a programme, and as convenient schedule-fillers go it’s certainly worth sticking around for after the “main feature”. Let’s hope the experiment is repeated for the next theme night.


Comments are closed.