Patrick Moore Part 3: National Treasure 

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Sir Patrick looked back fondly to the Sky at Night 50th anniversary celebrations which culminated with the huge party in his Sussex garden on 24th April. “It was absolutely marvellous! Jane Fletcher, our producer got everything right and it was wonderful to see such a great crowd of astronomers, numerous friends and acquaintances here – about 300 in all” he beamed.

The programme is now produced for the network by BBC Birmingham and is a lean operation technically. “Usually Jane directs the one single camera and with one further person to do the sound that’s it. We start recording the programme at 9am and it’s usually, to coin an old phrase, ‘in the can’ by 3pm that afternoon”.

Sir Patrick finds the Internet a great resource for research. “Especially information and data from the National Aeronautical Space Administration (NASA) in the US. I have my own web site http://www.sirpatrickmoore.com, which has enjoyed an extraordinary amount of interest this anniversary year”.

The BBC also have a Sky At Night website at http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/space/spaceguide/skyatnight/

with a terrific selection of information, photos and clips. “Whole episodes of some Sky At Night programmes are now available for download” he adds. “Plans are in hand for the paper version of our newsletter, that has over 100 editions, to be available electronically as an email in the near future”.

Sir Patrick is a former president of the British Astronomical Association, co-founder and former president of the Society for Popular Astronomy and author of over 70 books on the subject. The latest work is a collaboration with his great friend, Queen guitarist and amateur astronomer Dr. Brian May (himself a sometime guest on The Sky At Night) and with Chris Lintott: Bang! The Complete History of the Universe has already sold more than 50,000 copies. (And, talking of bangs, in January 1998 part of Moore’s observatory at his home in Selsey was destroyed by a tornado which passed through the area. The observatory was subsequently rebuilt.)

His books are mostly non-fiction dealing with astronomy, but he has also penned several successful science fiction novels. His initial foray into fiction was a series about the first arrivals on Mars, followed in 1977 by the start of the Scott Saunders Space Adventure series, aimed primarily at a younger audience, which eventually ran to six novels. He has appeared on television at least once in a film prop spacesuit.

Despite believing that there may well be life in other parts of the universe he has stated that he believes that there has not been any real contact with aliens, and he dismisses theories of the extra-terrestrial origin of UFOs supposedly sighted on earth. The likely distances are too great to travel in a probable lifetime and would take too long, even moving close to light speed.

In 1945 Moore was elected a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Then in 1968 he was appointed OBE, promoted to CBE in 1988. In 2001 he was knighted “for services to the popularisation of science and to broadcasting” and in the same year was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2002 he was appointed as Hon. Vice President of the Society for the History of Astronomy. He has won the periodic British Academy of Film and Television Arts award for services to television. A keen amateur chess player, Moore often carries a pocket set around with him and has been honoured with the title of Vice President of Sussex Junior Chess Association. In 2003 he presented Sussex Junior David Howell with the best young chess player award on Carlton TV’s Britain’s Brilliant Prodigies show.

In 2006, he was hospitalised and fitted with a pacemaker in order to rectify a long-standing heart condition. During a podcast of the Ricky Gervais show the same year, he was chosen by Karl Pilkington as one of 6 people who ought to re-start and educate human life on an imaginary uninhabited planet.

Aside from presenting The Sky at Night, he has appeared in a number of other television and radio shows, including, from 1992 until 1998, playing the role of Gamesmaster in the television show of the same name. He also appeared in self-parodying roles in several episodes of The Goodies. He had a minor role in the fourth radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and featured in the Radio 1 sci-fi parody, Independence Day UK. He also appeared in It’s a Celebrity Knockout, Blankety Blank and Face the Music.

Indeed, Sir Patrick is also an accomplished composer, entirely self-taught. His favourite styles include 19th century Viennese waltzes and marches but he has also turned to ragtime, polkas and a nocturne.

Sir Patrick is listed by the Internet Movie Database as the uncredited musical consultant on the breathtaking 1968 Stanley Kubrick/Arthur C Clarke film 2001: A Space Odyssey. In 1983 he published Bureaucrats: How to Annoy Them under the pseudonym R. T. Fishall.

Until being forced to give up, owing to arthritis, he was a keen musician and accomplished xylophone player and has composed a substantial body of work, including two operettas. He occasionally performed novelty turns at the Royal Variety Performance and very famously appeared in a song-and-dance turn in the 1971 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, widely remembered as one of the great moments of British television history.

As a later guest on Have I Got News For You, he accompanied the show’s closing theme tune on the xylophone and as a young pianist he once accompanied Albert Einstein playing The Swan by Camille Saint-Saëns on the violin (of which no recording was made). Patrick was also the subject of a popular Internet cartoon entitled Patrick Moore Plays the Xylophone which appears on Weebl’s Stuff.

Along with many other celebrities, Patrick has been the subject of crank-calls by comedian Jon Culshaw, as part of the BBC Radio 4 show Dead Ringers. On this occasion, Jon Culshaw impersonated Tom Baker in his role as the Fourth Doctor Who, supposedly consulting Moore on various astronomy-related matters. Moore, being aware of what was going on, confused Culshaw by out-playing him in his use of technobabble, resulting in a rare pause from the comedian as he tried to think of a response!

The piece of moon rock adorning one of Sir Patrick’s shelves led me back to space exploration and I asked for his thoughts about resuming manned space flights. “Oh, we will eventually go back to the Moon, and 20 years or so from now it will be colonised, with every possibility of space travel being more widely available by the end of the 21st century,” he fairly confidently predicts.

Would, given the chance, Sir Patrick like to have gone to the Moon? “Well yes, I would have liked to have gone, but space flight has its dangers, and one needs to be very fit,” he replied, but Mars was a definite no-no. “The radiation on Mars is very severe, and in order to get there one would need to be in space for months, unprotected. The Moon being so relatively close to the Earth, it is very possible to get there and back within days and this has been proven so.”

Like many of us, Sir Patrick has had his fair share of enjoyment from science fiction in films and on television. He fondly recalled the the iconic 60’s series Thunderbirds , for example. “It was all great stuff, but pure fiction of course,” he recalls. It is his memories of meeting people who did the real thing and actually flew to the Moon and back, however, that bring the biggest beams and pleasured glints to his eyes. “Meeting Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was nothing short of an amazing experience for me, and I was delighted when Buzz came over and filmed an edition of The Sky At Night“.

Sir Patrick remains a huge celebrity, but adamantly will have nothing to do with the newer style of celebrity television. “I am not a great television watcher these days, and there is no way I am going to be seen popping up in some desert location on shows like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here or its’ Big Brother and Castaway stablemates. His favourite television programmes, by contrast, are Wimbledon Tennis and Test Match Cricket.

As the interview drew to a close there was one last question I wanted Sir Patrick to ponder. In the age of ever increasing television channels and a movement towards television on demand, did The Sky At Night have a future, and would he carry on presenting it? “The programme is already available to download, so in that sense we are at the forefront of the technology available,” he replied. What of Sir Patrick staying on as host? “As long as people wish me to continue at the helm I will, but the very first bad programme I do will be my last!”, he stated quite resolutely.

Agreeing that nothing, even he, lasts forever, I wondered did he have any thoughts about a replacement if and when he does retire? “Dr Brian May, perhaps!” he interjects. “My sincere hope is that the programme will continue long into the future. The Sky At Night draws in lots of people, not only professional astronomers and academics, but also a terrific number of keen amateurs, people of all ages and from so many walks of life”.

So, happily, Sir Patrick will carry on presenting The Sky At Night for the foreseeable future. Three cheers for that! I say, no doubt to many a chorus of “and so say all of us”!

In commissioning this Transdiffusion interview series my editor said that after fifty continuous years on air The Sky at Night was now a British television institution. I pointed out, simply, that the real icon was the man himself, Sir Patrick Moore – a national institution.

Futility

A Poem

by Sir Patrick Moore

The deep futility of all ephemeral things

Which stir the soul to unimagined dreams

Of Brussels sprouts, and spinach in the snow.

The birds’ shrill call in the translucent dawn

To embryonic beetles, and pale moths

Which hide their heads in the shallow troughs of earth,

Naked and fearful, as the world awakes

To thought transcendent life, and cosmic death.

The earthworm, crawling to his nameless tomb

All energy dispersed, to form new creeds

New auras of the spirits of the wild,

In the deep pool of life, which ceaseless flows

Through endless time and space, in rhythmic praise

Of all creative impulses, which dwarf

The puny concepts of the human mind.

All, all, shall pass into oblivion.

David Brockman

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