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.