Tomorrow's World

Tomorrow's World was a long-running BBC television series, showcasing new (and often wacky) developments in the world of science and technology. First aired in 1965, it ran for 38 years until it was cancelled at the beginning of 2003, ostensibly because of falling ratings. However the series was given a brief revival on BBC1 in the 2004 special The Tomorrow's World Roadshow and there are continuing efforts to bring about a full return.


Tomorrow's World was created by Glyn Jones, who conceived the show's name when the Radio Times rang him up wanting to know how to bill the programme in their next edition. In its early days the show was edited by Max Morgan-Witts and hosted by veteran broadcaster and one-time Spitfire pilot Raymond Baxter. It also featured an instrumental theme tune composed by John Dankworth, which went on to become a classic of the genre. By its heyday in the 1970s, the programme was attracting 10 million viewers per week.

Raymond Baxter was famous for pointing out features of the inventions with military precision using his faithful Parker pen ("as you will see: here, here and here"). He departed the show after a difference of opinion with new young editor Michael Blakstad, who referred to him in a press interview as "a dinosaur". Later, and younger, presenters associated with the show included James Burke, Michael Rodd, Anthony Smith, Anna Ford, William Woollard, Judith Hann (the longest-serving presenter, with 20 years on the show), Maggie Philbin, Howard Stableford, Kate Bellingham, Anna Walker, Jez Nelson and Peter Macann.

The idiosyncratic and ever-cheerful Bob Symes showcased smaller inventions in dramatised vignettes with themes such as Bob Goes Golfing. These often presented challenges for film directors with which he worked when a close-up was required as Bob's own invention-related exploits in the workshop had resulted in him losing parts of several fingers: it was hard to find a finger that didn't look too gruesome to show on screen. Other regular features included Whatever Happened To ..., picking up on the oft-levelled criticism of the show that a significant number of inventions seemingly were never heard of again.

The show was usually broadcast live, and as a result became famous not only for its technology demonstrations but also for the occasional failure of the technology to work as expected. For example, during a demonstration of a new kind of car jack that required much less effort to operate, the jack disintegrated when actually trying to lift a car. Pressing on in the face of such adversity became a rite of passage, both for new presenters on the show and for the young assistant producers whose job it was to find the stories and make sure this kind of setback didn't happen.

Sometimes, however, the "liveness" gave an added dimension of immediacy to the technology, such as inventors personally demonstrating flame-proof clothing and bullet-proof vests while the presenters looked on. Occasionally it was the presenter who acted as test dummy (usually in the safer experiments).

Tomorrow's World also frequently ran exhibitions, called "Tomorrow's World Live", often based in Earls Court, London. These offered the general public the chance to see first hand a variety of brand new, pioneering inventions, as well as a selection from that year's show. The presenters, by this time Peter Snow and Philippa Forrester, also ran an hour-long interactive presentation within.

The show was also occasionally parodied, for example by Not The Nine O'Clock News, which featured TW-style demonstrations of such inventions as a telephone ring notification device for the deaf - powered by a "micro-processor" looking suspiciously like a "Shreddie", and later by the second series of Look Around You.

Technologies introduced on programme

In many cases the show offered the British public its first chance to see key technologies that are now commonplace, notably:

Perhaps the best-remembered item in the programme's history was the introduction of the compact disc, when presenter Kieran Prendiville demonstrated the disc's supposed indestructibility by spreading strawberry jam on it. That demonstration took place in year 1979. The cd was a Bee Gees album. The show also gave the first British TV exposure to the group Kraftwerk, who performed their then-forthcoming single "Autobahn" as part of an item about the use of technology in musicmaking. Another programme concerning new technology for television and stage lighting featured The Tremeloes and the Syd Barrett-led Pink Floyd.

Offbeat aspects of show

Featured inventions that didn't change our lives included a fold-up car that fitted into a suitcase and numerous gadgets such as miracle chopping boards for the kitchen. Members of the public frequently sent in their ideas and the production team sometimes found it difficult writing replies, dealing with the problem of how to balance being encouraging and, at the same time, to tactfully find a new way to say that yet another dog-nappy gadget probably wasn't right for prime-time TV.

Final years of programme

During the 1990s, the series attempted to modernise its format and approach, with mixed success. More "populist" presenters such as Carol Vorderman (introduced with much publicity, only to be dropped a few months later due to a contractual dispute), Philippa Forrester, Craig Doyle and Peter Snow came in, and the live studio demonstrations were dropped in favour of purely pre-recorded items. The final series, presented by Adam Hart-Davis, Kate Humble and Roger Black, attempted to revert back to the original live format of the show, even using a remix of one of the theme tunes used during its more successful years, but ratings continued to fall, and with only three million viewers in the last series the BBC decided to axe the show. At the time they said that they would produce a number of science special editions under the Tomorrow's World "brand" from time to time. Only the "Tomorrow's World Roadshow" has so far appeared in 2004 with Gareth Jones (co-host of CITV's How 2, in many ways a junior Tomorrow's World) and Katie Knapman taking the helm as the last presenters of a show bearing the Tomorrow's World name.

Many see the show's decline as a classic example of the "dumbing down" of which the BBC has been accused; others suggest that the decline is inevitable given the increasing complexity of modern technology, making it harder to put across to a lay audience in a couple of minutes. 250 words is not much to say what an invention is, how it works, what it means for our lives and to provide some entertainment along the way. Yet another interpretation is that the ending of the show marked a change in the public's expectations of science and technology. The show was launched along with a rash of other TV series such as Horizon that explicitly linked science and technology to the future in a technocratic, optimistic and arguably naive way. Knowledge is no longer regarded as morally neutral and perhaps a more in-depth approach to presentation is required, though very hard to reconcile with the demands of mass-audience early evening television.

Virtually all the master video tapes of 1970s and early 1980s episodes containing the first showing in public of numerous new technologies were erased as part of a general BBC cost-cutting exercise, recycling video tape at a time when a half-hour spool cost hundreds of pounds. Fortunately, an enthusiastic viewer recorded many of the deleted episodes on an early and now long obsolete home video recorder (a Philips N1500) and kindly made his tapes available for copying during the early 1990s. As a result, the BBC archives do retain a record of the first time the British public encountered many new technologies and clips from the show occasionally appear in documentaries around the world.

In the United States, episodes of the series aired on the cable channel TechTV between 2001-2003.

Return to television

At the start of 2007 the BBC announced the return of Tomorrow's World albeit in a new form. The Tomorrow's World brand will be used on science and technology news reports across the BBC's TV, radio and internet services, including a blog. The programme itself returned on 8 January 2007 as part of the BBC's news coverage, initially on BBC Breakfast, hosted by Maggie Philbin. In August 2007, it was reported that Michael Mosley, director of development at the BBC's science wing, had pitched the concept of resurrecting the format to BBC commissioners.

Tomorrow's World is also in the Guinness Book of Records for being the first programme to be presented by a computer generated character.

Currently the BBC are in the final stages of preparing to bring back the programme to a prime time slot on BBC1.

See also


External links

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