“Tomorrow’s Technology Today”

Steve Williams on BBC FutureWorld

First published May 2000

In Simon Garfield’s excellent book on Radio 1 (The Nation’s Favourite), Johnny Beerling describes some of the station’s publicity endeavours, and recalls the sheer hell that was the Radio 1 Funweek, where every so often the station would decamp en masse to an unsuspecting city “by some coincidence where a new commercial radio station was about to open”. And seemingly every time the BBC have had public relations problems in the past, it’s launched some new “meet the people” initiative – charter up for renewal? BBC Radio Goes To Town. ITV starting up? The Radio Show.

So, given the recent poor publicity over the health, or otherwise, of a few of the BBC networks, the FutureWorld exhibition starts touring the country. Trundling around Britain for the next six months “in association with BT”, the aim is to examine the future of communications, while of course plastering BBC productions all over the place so we remember. It recently landed in Birmingham City Centre, although maybe the need for the PR was less important in this area – given Carlton and Capital seem to be withdrawing from the city altogether, BBC buildings, resources and publicity are the most noticeable.

As a free exhibition (well, we’ve already paid for our licenses), it’s horizons will be somewhat limited, and thus the whole exhibition fitted very nicely into a medium sized hall. Upon entry, the first exhibit was a small theatre where the BBC’s Stephen Fry provided us with a commentary on the technology used in the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs and the BBC’s Gormenghast. Many people seemed truly fascinated by this section, and it informed as well providing a nice plug for two series now available on video.

The main hall was given over to about two dozen PCs, all with internet access, as if to point out that the communications revolution was happening, like, now. A quick glance revealed that nobody in the room was looking at a BBC site. The “children’s area” featured an inordinate amount of Tweenies, and a “virtual Peter Snow” used BT technology (of course) to preside over an interactive quiz, which nobody really understood the rules of.

The main event was a 30 minute presentation, where we were herded into a darkened room with a plasma screen, and a woman who introduced herself as “currently with BBC Radio WM, previously with BBC Radio Stoke, and I did a brief stint on Midlands Today” launched into an alarmingly hackneyed script, full of “I don’t know about you, but …” and “I wonder if …”. The presentation aimed to show us how developing technology would change the way we use home entertainment. So, “drama” was selected from the on screen menu, and we were shown how it would be possible to watch any episode of Ballykissangel we so desired, and find out background information about those involved. The basic concept of the presentation was the exploitation of various BBC franchises, and so factual programming was illustrated with an extended extract from Animal Hospital, and we were treated to a series of clips from Fawlty Towers, at which point the audience noticeably perked up. We were told that in the future we could select moments from the series by picking a character and an emotion, and that’s what we did, although it was never explained to us in exactly what situation we may possibly do that.

The presentation was enlivened by the usual “Tomorrow’s Technology Today” glitches – when asked to select a football team we’d like to see, someone asked for Birmingham City, but of course the script had only allowed for Aston Villa to be selected – because everybody in Birmingham supports them, don’t they? Of course, no presentation would be complete without a total technical collapse, and we got one, leading to an embarrassed silence while it was rebooted. One member of the audience asked at that point if this new technology was going to render thousands of television set makers unemployed.

After 45 minutes, the exhibition was exhausted and it was back onto the streets. And you can guarantee that the most memorable moment was the clip from Fawlty Towers. The exhibition was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but one felt that it could easily have been billed as BT FutureWorld in association with the BBC. In any case, the BBC got a nice bit of PR out of the event, and it proved once again what a fantastic archive of programmes the Corporation has. Carlton couldn’t have done it.