Adam Hart-Davis may appear to be a real-life Professor Brainstorm, but as Janette Wolf discovered he was born to share his knowledge
AS GIMMICKS go, a pair of lurid pink cycling shorts and a day-glo T-shirt would certainly get you noticed; add to that a tube of Pringles and a portmanteau the size of Hampshire and you have some measure of the singularly arresting spectacle that is Adam Hart-Davis. And that's before he's said a word. Eccentricity does not even begin to cover it.
Dr Hart-Davis is in the vanguard of television presenters who are servicing our seemingly insatiable fascination with the past. Whether it's Tony Robinson scrabbling over the remains of a Viking burial plot, or the family who have been relocated 100 years back in time, millions of viewers tune in to a popular history programme each week.
In his BBC2 series, Local Heroes, Hart-Davis has made his name by dashing around the countryside on his mountain bike, winkling out preposterous tales of the unsung champions of yesteryear. He is a compulsive
story-teller and there is no invention too absurd, or pun too dreadful, for him to milk for all it's worth.
Today, he is on his way to deliver the annual family lecture to the BT Institute of Engineers, when both will be in
evidence. This engagement requires an eccentric and extensive array of props (hence the Pringles and the portmanteau), so he has foregone his usual mode of transport for a taxi. This is something of a liability as every landmark threatens to hijack his train of thought.
"Oh, look at that!" His
academic CV (Pangbourne, Eton, Oxford) is stopped dead in its tracks. The Banqueting House has caught his attention. This leads to the first of many similar
interjections, exclamations and tortuous diversions. It begins with the Archbiship of Canterbury, then tracks off to the gents ("It's the most fabulous room"), and ends up with Charles I on the gallows. It's all "jolly good fun", he declares happily. Though whether he is referring to history or life in general is not made clear.
Ironically, history was the one O-level, among the many that he actually sat, that he failed. As a student his first passion was science and he read chemistry at Oxford, where he took a first. "I've always been very good at exams," he admits candidly. "I've just got the right sort of memory." This left him conveniently with plenty of time to indulge in more diverting pastimes such as "playing games and chasing women". He was rather more successful at the former, he remembers, and represented his college at nine of them.
There followed a doctorate, then a spell teaching English on a VSO posting to India - "Where my life began." Here he learned "quite a lot of Hindi and obviously, quite a lot about
Maybe it was this grounding that fostered an abiding interest in matters scatological. Among his several books (the latest called Eurekaaargh! is one
entitled Thunder Flush and Thomas Crapper: an encycloopedia (sic), which will tell you more than a lifetime of polite
conversation could ever sustain about lavatories.
Although Hart-Davis seems to relish anecdotes which are likely to make you feel slightly queasy - particularly the account of the unfortunate Mr Pudlicroft, whose flayed remains are still clinging to the back of a door in Westminster Abbey - many of them are rather poignant. Like Henry Winstanley, who defied incredible odds to construct the first Eddystone Lighthouse only to die in it when it was swept away in a storm.
Hart-Davis finds such examples of life's iniquities profoundly moving. "I often get quite choked," he says. "But I think it's a great mistake to separate
science from life, to treat it as though it is something that happens in textbooks or 'out there'. Science is a thing that happens to us, it's a very human thing."
For this reason his team of researchers constantly scour the country, in local libraries or museums for instance, hoping to unearth more unlikely heroes to worship. The only preconditions are that they must be dead and that they must have left their mark, however peculiar.
"I remember ringing up a guy in Perth and asking if he had any local heroes. He said 'I don't suppose you'd be interested in Mr Gilbert Malloch... In 1932 he invented the combined walking stick, salmon gaffe, landing net and camera tripod.' Some people are absolutely brilliant. They just know these things. They have them tucked away and they're longing for people to ask them questions and when you do, whoof, out it comes."
He is a born teacher and has in fact been a teacher of some description all his life, from small children to university students. ("The lower down the less I like it because you spend all your time keeping order and taking them to the lavatory.") Before becoming a freelance writer and presenter, he worked for Yorkshire Television as a researcher and producer, devising the two
successful series Scientific Eye and Mathematical Eye.
Now 56, with two grown- up children (he can't quite work out their ages - 27 and 31 he thinks), he is becoming a little fatigued after eight years presenting Local Heroes, the sixth series of which is due to be aired in May. He has also fronted a more recent series celebrating London's millennial String of Pearls festival.
"I've hardly been in the same bed twice for the last two weeks," he says. And it is evidently not for the same reasons as it might have been in his days at Oxford. Instead he is is looking
forward to spending more time at home to indulge his passion for photography. But before you are tempted to think, how nice, he actually makes a fortune at it. In fact, you could go into any Body Shop in the country and see his most successful picture plastered all over the wall. Which one is it? Ah, that's another story...