Patrick Moore Part 1: Astronomy on-screen 

2 September 2007 tbs.pm/2313

David Brockman looks at another long lived British broadcasting institution: Sir Patrick Moore.

On 24th April 2007 a cluster of 300 astronomers, personal friends, producers and technical people were assembled under the approaching night sky in a beautiful corner of West Sussex, in celebration of one man and his legendary television series. Sir Patrick Moore and his guests toasted fifty years service producing and presenting British television’s longest running astronomy and space exploration programme, ‘The Sky At Night’.

Back in the winter of 1957, when senior producer Paul Johnstone head-hunted Sir Patrick to present a monthly BBC Television Service programme about astronomy with a working title of ‘Star Map’, nobody could ever have predicted that the programme they created would be still running fifty years later, after more than 650 editions, all presented by a rather eccentric fast-talking scientist with his trademark monocle.

‘The Sky At Night’ has come of age and Sir Patrick and the production team have happily been able to share the memories of fifty years production with the viewing public in a number of special programmes.

Sir Patrick and ‘The Sky At Night’ are now a national institution. The series is still screened monthly on Sundays around 11:30pm on BBC1, repeated the following Saturday in the afternoon on BBC2 and with a specially extended programme on the comparatively recent BBC4, now has an extraordinary loyal following which transcends all age groups.

I felt privileged when Transdiffusion was invited to spend a day with Sir Patrick at his Sussex home and we spent several hours wallowing in memories and nostalgia. I had always admired his passionate enthusiasm for enjoying and explaining Space Exploration and Astronomy in such an appealing way. This may have been the umpteenth time during 2007 that Sir Patrick had taken questions about ‘The Sky At Night’ but not once did he tire nor did his interest wane. He was friendly, down to earth and had no illusions of grandeur.

He is an amazing man – though he would never admit it – and we enjoyed coffee on yet another rainy May afternoon, surrounded by reminders of his varying interests. If proof were needed of his love of all in the night sky, it was his treasured piece of rock from the Moon, neatly protected in a glass case on a shelf.

The other special loves of Patrick’s life are of the feline variety and he was in the company of two cats he has rescued in recent years. They purred away disinterested in all going on around them, while we enthused about the creation and success of his long running programme.

Though busy writing and presenting ‘The Sky At Night’ each month, filmed on location at his home since 2004 when arthritis took hold, Sir Patrick answers the telephone himself and types his own letters on a traditional ink ribbon typewriter – a Woodstock from 1908 – that would not have looked out of place on the set of period drama ‘Upstairs Downstairs’.

There is a computer in a corner of the room used mainly for research on the Internet but he declines to embrace email, preferring more traditional methods for letter writing. Sir Patrick values the importance of the Internet, however, and not only has his own web site at www.sirpatrickmoore.com. He also contributes to the BBC’s “Sky At Night” presence. On July 7th he joined the social networking site Facebook, telling BBC News, “I was told about Facebook by some young camera crew I was working with, you see, and I was intrigued how people are able to communicate these days.” and added “It is definitely me, extraordinary as it may seem!”

In the more traditional publishing field, there is the famous ‘Sky At Night’ quarterly newsletter, sent regularly to more than 1000 viewers who have requested it. So far he has written 108 editions. There are plans to produce an electronic version at some point but for now visitors to www.bbc.co.uk can download video clips from various ‘Sky At Night’ programmes and there is a multimedia tribute feature with vast amounts of interesting information from the programme, covering astronomy and space exploration themes from A-Z.

Sir Patrick was born on 4th March 1923. His father was Captain Charles Caldwell Moore, a professional soldier. He died in 1947 and it is thought that lung damage from gas he breathed in the First World War finally took its toll.

His mother Gertrude was a trained singer. Patrick was very close to her and she lived with him until her death aged 94 in 1981. Many fond memories of her can be seen in the house and several of her paintings of ‘bogeys’ – little friendly aliens – which she created and were later sent out as Patrick’s Christmas cards, adorn the walls.

Patrick would have schooled at Eton had it not been for a heart complaint from about age 6, so he was tutored at home and passed entrance exams for Cambridge. As for so many intending students, the outbreak of the second world war scuppered university plans, and after telling a few ‘pork-pies’ about his age, he joined the RAF. Flight Lt Moore trained as a pilot navigator in Wellington bombers. Tragedy, as befalls many active in war, did not overlook him. His one and only true love, Lorna, a nurse, was killed when a bomb struck her ambulance. Sir Patrick never found anyone to replace her. “I would have liked a wife and family, but it was not to be”, he reflects.

After the war, at only 21, Patrick was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He built his own telescope in the back garden and started observing the Moon. He went on to become an acknowledged expert, especially on its far side, very occasionally part visible due to its libration. Sir Patrick was a pioneering observer of the short-lived glowing areas on the lunar surface known as Transient Lunar Phenomena.

For a period he was a schoolmaster at a prep school in Tunbridge Wells in Kent and is still in touch with some of the boys he taught, who encouraged him to publish one very serious poem, ‘Futility’ (to which we will return).

Patrick became a recognised expert in the mapping of the Eastern Sea on the Moon, using his 12.5 inch reflector. He provided essential information which the Russians later used in their early moonshots. A decade later the National and Aeronautical Space Agency (NASA) in the USA called upon Sir Patrick’s lunar mapping skills during the Apollo space flights. These missions resulted in humanity achieving what was once thought impossible – an actual landing on the moon.

His close association with the lunar mapping aspects of American space missions on the Moon enabled Patrick to provide numerous live reports for ‘Sky at Night’ on BBC television and so at the time of the moon landings this massively boosted popular interest as he effectively melded astronomy and manned space exploration for the television viewing experience.

To be continued…

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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