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Open University

HAROLD WILSON’S “University Of The Air” put down roots in the overspill tundra of Milton Keynes and quickly spread across Sunday mornings in a riot of impenetrable symbols, magnetic boards with graphs on them, beards, lapels and that avant garde trumpetty theme. Professors of the less than telegenic likes of ALAN SOLOMON, MIKE PENTZ, JOY MANNERS and the legendary STUART FREAKE became household faces, and two decades of easy cultural laughs began. Still, a Sunday morning in with the OU, though often well nigh impenetrable, compared favourably with the offerings on the other two channels (MORNING WORSHIP, GETTING ON, LE JOURNAL FRANCAIS).

Your TVC OU course handbook:

The Arts and Humanities – Most often someone stood in front of a modernist painting, talking about it. Quite often the same painting for the entire half-hour (though the Old Masters and Florentine architecture were often served up, too, their antiquity signified by a blast of crumhorn-led Early Music). Sometimes Clement Greenberg, the Lester Bangs of the art-crit set, was interviewed about Pollock while smoking like it was going out of fashion. Speaking of which, 70s fashions were kept in the background in these shows, which means the OU felt they can still get away with screening them as late as 1998 without too many twentysomethings pissing themselves.

Sociology – In terms of unfair “that’s not a proper subject” cheap gags, sociology was to the 70s what media studies is these days. The OU, needless to say, got some in. One course in particular made no attempt to hide its political agenda. Over an animated proto-HIGNFY title sequence, a Tom Robinson type plaintively warbled, “We socialise and we vandalise/We lock the sane away/Politicians’ policies/Keep changing every day…” It’s stuff like this that led Margaret Thatcher to rage: “The OU? They’re all a bunch of Marxists, and anyone with an O-level in Divinity can get a degree.”

Mathematics – Now we’re talking. The backbone of the OU weekend schedules, these programmes provided the definitive beard-in-front-of-equations cliche that kept Jasper Carrott in back-up routines for decades. And, truth be told, the no-nonsense presentation did, for the most part, look like that. A bit of Radiophonic musique concrete heralded Block IV, Module 2 of Graphs, Networks and Design, and you were straight into the animated diagrams, old BBC weather forecast-style stick-on magnetic sums, and quiet, unmodulated vocal delivery. Sometimes they jazzed it up with a location shoot, a bit of chumminess (cue the OU’s very own Ian McCaskill, Alan Solomon – “well, I don’t know about you, but working that lot out seems rather daunting!”) or some weird chromakey-related concept (eg. presenters shrunk to BACKYARD SAFARI size to play about with enormous models of conic sections). Solomon and US chum Mike Pentz spent many a happy Saturday mid-morning together using trigonometry to work out where a chopped down fir tree would fall (well, there were very few public amenities in MK at the time). Sunday lunchtime saga Mathematical Models and Methods even cribbed the GREAT EGG RACE format, though two teams using calculus to work out where best to fit a lamp on a bicycle was pure bewilderment for audiences switching over from BLIZZARD’S WONDERFUL WOODEN TOYS.

Science – As with maths, really, but with added gravity (in the literal sense, at least). The optics course was one programme that stood out, as it came with a ‘home experiment kit’, delivered to the student’s door in a huge crate, and full of hi-tech goodies (“I bet the first thing you unpacked was the laser!” drooled the lecturer). At the other end of the scale, dated forays into the world of IT (“the House of Fraser’s computer covers 500 square feet, and can store up to one ‘mega-byte’ of pricing information”) and examinations of the bizarre, boxy solar-heated houses and wind turbines that were MK’s initial stock-in-trade, provided a bit of anachronistic amusement before they were noticed and replaced. Stuart ‘Super’ Freake was the presenter to watch out for.

Odds and sods – Open Advice was a rather dull general queries programme, often presented by Howard ‘Teacher’ Stableford, detailing the drab-looking “summer schools” during which students would actually all meet up in MK, drink cheap red wine and attend seminars, just like a real college. An odd programme that seemed to be on all the time involved a bloke dressed up as a fairground owner explaining the perils of running a small business while riding a rollercoaster. What course was that, exactly? In the 90s, as The Learning Zone heralded a makeover and the ’78-vintage shows were mostly replaced with newer, fresher programmes, a few oddities still managed to get through – the famous Hotel Hilbert : a comic, dramatised exploration of infinity with Susannah ‘Dead Donkey’ Doyle checks in at Patrick ‘Brent’ Barlow’s infinite hotel; Traps, and How to Get Out of Them: a truly odd programme consisting of Carol ‘Playschool’ Leader and some bloke acting out circular discussions about how to get out of a room, whether she fancies him and, finally, whether the programme itself has been any good or not, all to what educational purpose we can but guess; and of course those perennial midnight schedule fillers, What Have the ’60s/’70s/’80s Ever Done For Us? and Bach: 48 Preludes and Fugues, both of which occasionally rear up if there’s nothing from BBC4 to show instead.

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. Martina

    March 15, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    I don’t mind admitting that this ident terrified me as a child, and this is probably the reason why I’ve yet to pursue any OU courses!

  2. Danforth

    March 17, 2010 at 10:03 am

    As a small child I used to watch OU stuff at every opportunity. I actually find the ident curiously reassuring 🙂

    I once caught a biology or possibly ecology unit featuring animated micro-gribblies from Procidis (Once Upon A Time Life, et al) which just about caused my nine-year-old brain to explode with crossover delight.

    Didn’t know about the Optics packs. The Chemistry courses also came with a massive mail-out of glassware and reagents that made Salter’s mightiest seem like like pissing about with litmus paper.

    OU video seems to be a bit thin on the ground, compared to other Cream-era programmes. If anyone finds a good source, how about appending it to this comment thread? 🙂

  3. Mags

    March 22, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    The real reason for the removal of the course from the telly was the widespread adoption of the DVD. Once it became apparent that nearly everyone had one, then any program for the course was mailed out on a nice flat disc, meaning no more late nights for those who wanted to do Conversational French. Though personally I would love to see the programmes again on the box far better than just repeating the schedule from the early evening again.

    If I’m right in thinking the reason for the “hilarious” out of date clothes they wore was because they thought that they would remake the programs over the years but ran out of money.

    Still the Open University goes on today on the television. Think of any BBC documentary that was good. The Open University probably produced it.

  4. Adrian

    March 23, 2010 at 9:04 am

    The OU should release a DVD box set of all the old late night programmes – one could then watch it at the crack of dawn before going to to work in the middle of winter for that authentic OU experience..

  5. Danforth

    March 23, 2010 at 9:45 am

    A boxed set would be epic, but I’d settle for a Best Of, or possibly Most Typical Of, lasting a few hours and including the junctions/bumpers/whatever they’re called between the programmes. The relentless seekers of esoterica at Network DVD would be up for that, I’m sure (in fact I’ll email them now and suggest it!)

  6. Pingback: Submarine | FILMdetail

  7. Ian

    November 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Has anyone found out why these programmes cannot be put on youtube?
    Surely the OU cannot make anymore money from them even though personally I rate
    them better than the new material.

    I am sure I would still have a few on video that I taped from the 90’s but no
    viseo player now.

  8. Richard16378

    July 16, 2016 at 12:01 am

    With an interesting combination of “Very British” things the OU jingle can be heard in the Wallace & Grommet film The Wrong Trousers.

    There have been a few other OU cameos in other programmes, such as Grandad in Only Fools & Horses watching it when there was nothing else on TV, & it turning up on Birds of a Feather when they were supposed to be looking out for something on Breakfast TV.

    The latter had the usual Beardy & blackboard that most people associate with the OU.

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