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OU 40th anniversary: Broadcasting history

Updated Tuesday, 9th January 2018

The first 40 years of The Open University has been filled with a myriad of broadcasting moments. To celebrate the 40th anniversary, here's a 2-minute race through the OU's broadcasting history — see if you can spot the famous faces along the way!



1963 – At the Labour Conference Harold Wilson commits his (then) opposition party to creating a ‘University of the Air’.

1967 – With Labour now in power Jennie Lee is tasked with making the OU a reality.

1969 – In the new town of Milton Keynes, Walton Hall is redeveloped as the home of the OU.

1971 – The OU kicks off broadcasting to its students via the BBC, including this clip from a Maths course.

1971 – The OU enables students to study Chemistry in their kitchen.

1971 – Professor Mike Pentz meets a cat breeder and her cats to bring genetics to life.

1973 – This clip exploring “Flows” from a Maths course features some fairly flowing facial hair from the times!

1975 – OU Arts students are taken on a journey into the “Promenade Architecturale” at Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye.

1970s – The distinctive sound and vision OU “ident” from the university’s first year of broadcasting to students.

1974 – An early outing for Open University Associate Lecturer and Presenter Anna Ford to visit the work to build a Channel Tunnel.

1975 – Sir John Gielgud is “The Grand Inquisitor” in a dramatised excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov.

1976 – The earth spins at Brighton as the town plays host to the OU’s Art and Environment Summer School.

1977 – Complicated maths (higher number Taylor polynomials – obviously!) get the OU treatment.

1977 – Leo “Rumpole” McKern and Max Wall bring Waiting for Godot to life for OU Arts students.

1977 – Roger Moore is James Bond in The Spy Who Loved Me as OU students follow the film's making for a Social Science course exploring Culture and Mass Communications.

1977 – The famous faces keep coming as Patrick Stewart (later to shoot to fame in Star Trek: The Next Generation) is the blinded king in this OU production of Oedipus Rex.

1978 – Cartoons set to “Gee Officer Krupke” from West Side Story kick off a surprising introduction to philosophy.

1978 – Maths is brought to life as an OU mathematician bets his life by using angles to calculate exactly where a tree will fall, and sits just inches from the spot.

1978 – The Basildon Drum Majorettes become Living Statistics.

1979 – The cameras go behind the scenes at the OU as it reaches its 10th birthday.

1980 – A giant tumbling die underlines the central theme in this opening from a course on Risk.

1982 – Office politics and personalities are put under the microscope in this clips from Rules Rule OK.

1983 – The use of cutting edge lightweight video cameras allows a whole new perspective onto the geology of the Alps.

1984 – Innovative filming techniques enable close up footage of a goose in flight for the award winning Flying in Birds.

1985 – Carbonyl Chemistry becomes the OU’s most watched programme – fascinating in its own right (no doubt) but perhaps boosted a little by being the last programme broadcast on BBC2 before the marathon Live Aid concert started.

1988 – Morris dancers bring science to life as the portray the chemical dance that fuels The Fires of Life.

1994 – OU Literature students see Aphra Behn’s 17th century play The Rover brought to life with a cast which includes a young Daniel Craig (another James Bond!)

1994 – Technology course Opening Up Technology illustrates John Naughton’s thoughts on the implications video, satellites and 24 hour news have all had on the reporting of war.

1994 - The same Opening Up Technology series another luminary, Alvin “Futureshock” Toffler, offers his perspectives on the future.

1995 – The award winning More Than Meets The Eye made use of masks to illustrate reactions to facial disfigurement as part of the OU Health & Disease course.

1995 – The mighty morphing products of creation are illustrated by OU scientist Mike Bullivant in The Chemistry of almost Everything.

1996 - On the beach at Hotel Hilbert Zeno’s Paradox is recreated.

1997 – David “Dr Who” Tennant is the bad apple in this Shakespeare adaptation.

1997 – Sir John Gielgud and Lord Richard Attenborough share a joke in one of Gielgud’s last interviews – recorded for the OU’s Shakespeare course.

1997 – Open Saturday hits the airs on Saturday mornings, with a mix of live studio discussion and excepts from the archives.

2000 – Rough Science pitches a group of scientists onto a island with Kate Humble putting them through their paces.

2001 – The iconic movie jump from Die Hard is tested for scientific credibility by presenter Robert Llewellyn and scientist Jonathan Hare in Hollywood Science.

2002 – Consuming Passions tells the stories of everyday people with extraordinary passions for learning – including this welsh teacher who loves the world of fossils.

2003 – Mark Steel offers his thoughts on The Flood during The Mark Steel Lectures: Darwin.

2006 – The last course based OU programme is broadcast overnight on BBC2 (programmes are now to be sent direct to students), and BBC News mark the occasion with a feature marking the 25 years of the BBC broadcasting OU courses to students.

2004 – A fireball opens Professor Robert Winston’s primetime exploration of The Human Mind.

2004 – Adam Hart-Davis leads live coverage throughout the day of one of the passage of Venus between the Earth and the Sun, in the award winning Stardate: Transit of Venus.

2004 – The OU joins forces with the BBC’s Child of Our Time, helping Robert Winston play some fun, and insightful, experiments on their cohort of millennium babies.

2004 – Coast kicks off for a short walk around the British Isles – little knowing it would prove to be a phenomenally popular series to return again and again!

2004 – Alan Titchmarsh has a close encounter with dinosaurs in Oxford, in British Isles: A Natural History.

2004 – The OU’s works with the production team to enable British Isles: A Natural History to have a local 10 minute feature in each programme in each of the UK’s regions slots to be made – including this clip of the White Horse in Oxfordshire.

2005 – The OU begins a long term partnership with the BBC’s flagship business affairs programme The Money Programme.

2005 – Adam Hart-Davies and Marty Jopson test whether Archimedes’ really could have used the power of the sun to burn enemy ships in What The Ancients Did For Us.

2005 – The OU has always waved a flag about the value and power of education, but the sight of Ugandan children so keen to learn that they attempt to break into school was an amazing moment from the observation documentary African School.

2006 – Cutting edge slow motion photography unpacks the secrets of insect flight in Life In The Undergrowth.

2007 – The DogHead people are just a part of Professor Robert Bartlett’s journey Inside The Medieval Mind.

2007 – Can Gerry Robinson Fix The NHS? sees the business troubleshooter investigate Europe’s largest employer, reveal the difficulties faced by those working in it, and demonstrate the power of first class management.

2007 – Art historian Sandrine Voillet reveals the tempestuous history, immortal beauty (such as Rodin’s “Thinker” which we see in this clip) and bohemian soul of the City of Lights, along with the wonders of the French language, in Paris.

2007 – A Madagascar chameleon keeps an eye on us in another of the BBC’s Natural History Unit’s Landmark David Attenborough series – partnered with The Open University, Life In Cold Blood.

2008 – James May wonders where all the gadgets and gizmos of the future he imagined as a child have got to – and promptly goes out to find them, in James May’s Big Ideas.

2009 – The OU’s ongoing relationship with the BBC continues with a season celebrating Charles Darwin’s bicentenary year, including this David Attenborough programme exploring The Tree of Life.


Harold Wilson: And another thing we need to do in the field of higher education…

Jennie Lee: He said, “For God’s sake, will you take on this University project?”

Harold Wilson: Designed to provide an opportunity for those who for one reason or another have not been able to take advantages of higher education – a University of the Air.

Anna Ford: For over 100 years on the Channel Tunnel project.

Sir John Gielgud: I don’t know who you are.

Louis Leithfold: What about the higher degree Taylor polynomials?

Leo McKern: What’s wrong with you?

Roger Moore: The plan is to kill me!

Patrick Stuart: Where in this world am I bound?

The risk averse man: You just seem to live for the kicks!

Daniel Craig: My lips!

Kate Humble: A little bit of tangled string…

Robert Llewellyn: Oh no!

Lynfa Lewis: I feel like I’ve only just started learning.

Mark Steel: According to Chapter 6 of Genesis…

Bill Turnbull: Programmes achieved something of a cult status…

Robert Winston: You can’t give your mummy that, it’s really horrible.

Alan Titchmarsh: It was a dinosaur.

Adam Hart-Davis and Marty Jopson (in unison): Ah, Flames, Flames!

Mr Magisa: No, no, no!






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