Change your life on Saturday

18th April 1997 at 01:00
The Open University has dumped the kipper ties and dated jackets of its presenters - and its programmes have also had a makeover, says Gerald Haigh

Anyone can see my wedding photographs. Taken in 1961, they are entirely unexceptionable. I am in a sober suit; my wife is in a conventional white dress with a modest beehive hairstyle. We have about 15 black and white prints and not a laugh among them. But for those unfortunates who married between, say 1969 and 1982, the story is different. Safely hidden away ("Oh, we must have lost them when we moved") are the buttock-clenching embarrassments of flared trousers, pastel suits, Zapata moustaches, kipper ties and sideburns. We now have a whole generation of people who have never seen photographs of their parents as youths.

The same problem long bedevilled Open University television programmes, many of which were made in the Seventies and continued to be used to the point where the excellent content was overshadowed by the crazed dress sense of the academics who presented them.

The OU was conceived in the Scilly Isles home of Harold Wilson, on Easter Sunday 1963, and awarded its first degrees 10 years later. Its roots, though, lie in the vision of a "University of the Air", which was being mooted in the BBC during the Twenties. In the Labour manifesto of 1964, the same title - "University of the Air" - was used. The idea was that radio and television would bring great minds and thoughts into the homes of people who had missed more conventional opportunities.

In practice, of course, the OU never could be like that. There was simply not enough air time, nor even total coverage of the country. So what the OU became was a giant publishing organisation, producing printed course materials that had to speak directly to a mixed-ability adult audience.

The quality of what emerged was superlative, and its effect on the educational world was much more important than anything that happened in the OU television studios. In fact, as I proved myself, you could get a good OU degree without watching or hearing a single minute of radio or television.

Not everyone worked like that, however. Television was important to people who felt isolated, or who wanted exposition of some of the points in the materials. The straight lecture to camera, with rudimentary visual aids, was a mainstay of courses in areas like mathematics and physics.

The trouble was that OU eavesdroppers, looking in out of curiosity, saw these utilitarian programmes presented by academics who, frankly, were not very good at communicating. So if the OU was to continue to recruit, then it had to take care not to deter casual viewers who might one day be students. Pick up the printed course material and browse and you will invariably be engaged by it. Could the same happen to the television strand? Now we can see the chosen way forward in Open Saturday - both a showcase for the OU and an intellectually stimulating magazine programme in its own right.

The formula sounds simple - the OU has a huge archive of film and video material produced for its courses, in every conceivable discipline over nearly 30 years. By drawing on the best of it (including some which has not yet been shown in the context of the courses) and adding some new interviews, then fronting it all up with a good presenter, you make OU television worthy of a place in the mainstream.

Frankly, I think it works brilliantly. Saturday morning, for adults - and for bright kids - is a television graveyard. Open Saturday now offers nearly three hours of real fodder for the mind.

On one recent Saturday, for example, Howard Stableford (of Tomorrow's World) presented a morning on the theme of invention. He was based in the Inventions and Innovations Fair at the Barbican, and throughout the morning there were brief interludes with the inventors.

In the main, though, we were shown OU material on innovation - a programme on Edison; another about Dyson, the inventor of the best-selling bagless vacuum cleaner which explored at length the principles involved in designing and marketing new products.

On another Saturday we had a similarly engaging time with the concept of learning which included archive footage of B F Skinner, and Dr Charles Crook of Durham talking about Piaget.

On April 5 we had Managing To Survive - absorbing stuff about the future of business management, with footage from the OU's Business School programmes, and new commentary by best-selling management guru Charles Handy.

As an OU graduate, I welcome anything that enhances the university's image without compromising its stature - and Open Saturday certainly pulls this trick off very well. I hope, too, that it will encourage lots of viewers to find out about the courses, because the OU has the power to change lives.

Open Saturday is broadcast on BBC2, every Saturday from 8.00-10.00am

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