The Sky at Night

Sunday, April 1, 2007 by

Remember comedy as the new rock’n'roll? Well, maybe it’s now the new new rock’n'roll. Ricky Gervais is selling out the Albert Hall and Hammersmith Odeon (not the Hammersmith Apollo, please). Catherine Tate appears on Comic Relief with the PM. And for the 50th anniversary of one of the BBC’s most enduring (and enduringly endearing) programmes, Jon Culshaw from Dead Ringers plays a starring role.

Sir Patrick Moore is now 84, and if this is anything to go by, age is withering his critical faculties. This is the man who, in the course of the show, we saw played as younger self on 1957′s premier broadcast (the tape has been wiped, another BBC oversight which Moore seemed to approach with remarkable sanguinity). Back then he had the good taste to decree that You Are My Lucky Star, the rinky-dinky light music theme tune to the new show (originally to be called Star Map) was replaced by the grave tones of At the Castle Gate from Sibelius’s incidental music to Pelléas and Mélisande. What the young Moore would certainly not have said, although Culshaw did was, “What we need is a piece of stark Scandinavian introspection”. As well as the phrase’s meaninglessness, its usage was anachronistically flippant and in any case Sibelius’s homeland of Finland is not in Scandinavia and the music was written for a play by a Belgian author. Stupid. Just stupid.

Nit-picking? Maybe. But The Sky at Night has always been a show that prided itself on an avoidance of the overtly frivolous and above all the lazy. Some of this was less lazy than narcoleptic. If Moore had lived off a diet of fare as insipid and thin as this, he would probably be several stones lighter.

In fact, his bulk now resembles one of those overblown stately homes of England that has fallen into frayed disrepair, a behemoth of memories, spilled port, mountainous breakfasts and schoolmasterly vowels. One may decry his reactionary politics, but the man is no fool, and always seems to have insisted on a degree of intellectual rigour singularly lacking here. Against that, the very simplicity of The Sky at Night – often bordering on the cheapskate – made it progressively more unusual on British TV as the years passed. It was never really a great programme – as Moore was never really a great broadcaster – but life, and the TV would be infinitely emptier without it, or him.

The very premise of the 50th birthday show – that a “time machine” would allow us to see back to that 1957 BBC studio with its button-down staffers, and into the future of 2057 – was dodgy, suggesting how uneasily science and trivia sit together.But why bother in the first place? Moore’s own irascible eccentricity has always provided the show with enough of an offbeat accent to render panto treatments superfluous. Culshaw was efficient as ever, and also had as few funny lines as ever. What was presumably meant to be the show-stealer – an interview with Dr Brian May (yes, that one) on a Mars base 50 years hence was similarly incoherent. By my reckoning, by 2057 May would be celebrating his 105th birthday, but looked remarkably like his present-day self after a quick snowjob of his famous frightwig. There were lame gags about anachronisms – “President Bruce Willis” had proposed “nuking” a rogue meteorite in 2041 (when Willis would probably be far into his 80s).

May was actually quite good but his only serviceable line was an in-joke for Queen fans or rock saddos (yeah, that’s me) – a holographic Moore (done with chromakey that looked more 1977 than 2057) presented him with a “one million pound coin” (don’t ask) which May promised to use as a plectrum, referring to the guitarist’s habit of relying on obsolete coinage to rip out his solos. But there was the inevitable reference to May’s infamous Buckingham Palace performance in 2002 which now seems to be a contractual stipulation for all of his publlic broadcast appearances (I have always found this perverse, like David Bowie enshrining his legacy as The Laughing Gnome).

The Sky at Night was of course born at a time of boundless optimism about space, of wonderment at its possibilities, when it was envisaged through the Dan Dare comic strips of Frank Hampson. One of the more engaging episodes of this anniversary edition had predictions from Culshaw/Young Moore robustly rebuffed by his contemporary alter ego. But there has always been the susurrus of to-infinity-and-beyond about Moore, evidenced by the thematic centrality of time travel (it was a minor miracle that there wasn’t a plug for Doctor Who, which must make it unique among BBC broadcasts of the last fortnight); “intelligent life forms” of a lower order, it is promised, will turn up on the Jupiter moon Europa a half-century from now. Quite what the notoriously Europhobic Moore made of that we never discovered.

Whether the future for space exploration is a rosy one remains moot, a topic which a better edition of this venerable show might have treated well. But if Moore’s beloved Sky at Night continues in this orbit, he might want to temper his optimism about more earthly matters.


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