BBC tv Apollo Coverage — A Personal Memoir: 1

WARNING: This document contains extreme examples of name-dropping.
Read with caution. Void where prohibited. Consult your physician if you
experience side-effects such as nausea or disbelief.

At the time of Apollo 11 — the first moon landing, July 1969 — I was a junior producer in BBC tv's Science & Features Department (henceforth S&F). The bread and butter output of the department were our two weekly shows — Tomorrow's World on BBC1 and Horizon on 2. I slaved away on both of them for many years, eventually producing 12 documentaries in the Horizon format in the course of my career. Later, the department and some of its crack production staff would become renowned for major 13-part series such as The Ascent of Man (1973) and Connections (1978). Later still, some of us would emigrate to California and produce interesting television including Carl Sagan's epic Cosmos (1980) for KCET Los Angeles, and two of us would become feature film directors[1], the full Hollywood 'Monty'.

As somebody said at the time, management of BBC tv seemed to be modelled on medieval England, with the two channel controllers as joint kings and the department heads as barons fighting for turf. It was certainly true that department heads were sometimes in extremely competitive skirmishes over resources, money, and air time. Up to that first moon landing, we in S&F considered spaceflight as our turf. The Tomorrow's World team, including myself, had put on early-morning live coverage of the landing of the unmanned Surveyor 1 in June 1966 (when I was very junior indeed) and had produced numerous short filmed stories on the US and Soviet space programmes, first fronted by Raymond Baxter and later by James Burke. Patrick Moore got involved on many occasions, too, as did Sir Bernard Lovell. The topic was absolutely considered to fall within Science's ambit. The first event of the Apollo programme itself that justified blanket live coverage was Apollo 8's Christmas trip around the moon, in 1968. Part of the coverage has been preserved by youtube, and you can still see the A-team of Burke/Moore/Lovell in action. An all-S&F production, and it set the pattern — or so we thought.

Around about April of 1969 I ran into James in the corridor of Kensington House, where we had our offices. James and I had done a few shows together and we and our wives were pretty good pals outside the work environment. James said "Guess what — I've been seconded to Current Affairs. For Apollo 11 coverage. They're going all out on it". I don't recall exactly what I said but it must have been along the lines of "WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU MEAN, CURRENT AFFAIRS? SPACEFLIGHT BELONGS TO US GODAMMIT!!!" The turf wars between the robber barons had apparently happened without our knowledge, and what's more, we had lost badly.

So the Apollo 11 tv coverage went on its merry way without me or any of the other science producers. As it so happened my second daughter was born that same week, so I wasn't all that interested anyway. But James really made a name for himself over those eight days. At the time, we resented the fact that science had been shut out — and, oddly enough, an exact reflection of the same resentment was occurring in Houston. When, later, I came to hobnob with senior lunar scientists such as Gene Shoemaker, Gerry Wasserburg and Jim Arnold, they related their extreme frustration as all effort at meaningful lunar geology during Apollo 11 came to a grinding halt for President Nixon's surprise phone call to Armstrong and Aldrin. Rock collection and scientific observation became a chaotic afterthought. With the perspective of history, however, I think we were all somewhat mistaken. Apollo 11 wasn't about science at all. It was about superpower politics and about an astounding engineering achievement that has not yet been surpassed. The science came later. Also, I have to doubt whether we Tomorrow's World types, experienced as we were at live TV, had the talent and power to put on a show quite that excellent.

The staffing pattern was repeated for Apollo 12 in November the same year. But something highly embarrassing and entirely unpredictable happened. Almost immediately after setting foot on the moon's surface, Al Bean inadvertently pointed the sensitive Westinghouse colour TV camera directly into the sun, frying the vidicon and putting it permanently out of action. The producers and presenters in TC Studio 4 (and equally in TV studios all across the globe) were faced with filling six hours of billed TV air time without any pictures from the moon. Oops!!

For Apollo 13, therefore, a major re-think occurred. Science was brought back into the picture, in the form of Michael Latham, a former editor of Tomorrow's World, plus me and one other S&F producer. Latham was given Exec. Producer[2] status, on an equal footing with the Current Affairs exec, Dick Francis. I was assigned a P.A. from Current Affairs. Dick Francis and his team had been so traumatised by the Apollo 12 débacle that we were instructed to plan a running order in advance, in five-minute chunks, and assemble sufficient material to fill all the hours we were supposed to be on air if necessary.

Well, many people recall what happened to Apollo 13. The spacecraft blew up on the way to the moon, the landing was cancelled, and the crew saved only by superhuman effort. All our careful plans went out of the window and we all had no sleep for three straight days as we struggled to tell the nation what was possibly the most dramatic true-life story of the century. Fortunately for we science types, it was understood immediately that there was an important science & technology component to the story, so production contributions from us were welcomed. We ended that incredible ordeal in an atmosphere of brotherly love and an "all is forgiven, you guys are OK after all" attitude. From then until the end of Apollo, we were A TEAM.

By the way, again courtesy of youtube, here's James in action as Apollo 13 re-entry was just minutes away. Bravo James. Bravo NASA, too.


[1] Mick Jackson, director of L.A. Story, The Bodyguard, Live from Baghdad etc., and the late Brian Gibson, director of The Josephine Baker Story, The Juror, et al.

[2] In a scripted TV show, even if it's live, execs actually have not much of a role during the actual transmission or taping. Their job is done once they've set everything up. When a live show has to wrap around ongoing events over which the production team has no control, however, it's imperative for the exec to have instant access to the producer, director, and presenter to guide the overall course of the show. The producers remain in charge of creating individual segments, and the director is still the only person with control over cameras and vision mixing. In the Apollo studio the exec and senior producer were in a sound-proof booth with talkback to director and presenter. The movie Broadcast News had it dead right.

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