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Coast: The Roundtable

Updated Wednesday, 21st July 2010

The fifth series of Coast marks the end of a relationship between the Coast production team and Open University experts that has lasted the best part of a decade. We brought some of the campus voices together to recall their time working on a landmark TV series.

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THE ROUNDTABLE

Patricia Ash

Hello everyone.  My name is Dr Patricia Ash.  My specialism is biology and human evolution and I’ve been with the Coast series ever since it began.

Wendy Maples

Hi, I’m Dr Wendy Maples and I’m based in the Geography Department and Social Sciences and I joined Coast in the last two years, so I’ve not been on it for nearly as long as many of the people here, but for the last two years I’ve had the pleasure of being the lead academic on Coast.

David Sharpe

Hi everyone, my name is Dr David Sharp.  I’m a senior lecturer in acoustics based here at Walton Hall.  I offer expert advice on science and technology issues for Coast and have been involved with the series right from the beginning.

Glynda Easterbrook

Hello everyone.  I’m Glynda Easterbrook.  I’m a geologist and I’m based in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences here at the Open University and I have been involved with Coast since the beginning but just recently I’ve been more heavily involved in helping to write a new course in geology for the Open University.

Mark Brandon

Good afternoon.  My name is Mark Brandon.  I’m an oceanographer in the Earth Sciences Department of the OU.  I’m actually a polar oceanographer but I’ve got a longstanding interest in the sea and things marine, so like David and Glynda I’ve been involved in the project since series one, so a very long time ago!

Susie West

Hi everyone.  I’m Dr Susie West and I joined Coast for series four and five which was the time when the OU moved into heritage studies as a new subject area, and my specialist area is heritage and that seemed to be a very nice fit with what you’ve already put together on Coast up to that point.

Wendy Maples

Well, hello everybody, it’s really nice to see you all again to have the chance to talk about Coast.  We’ve all been working on Coast, for me for the last couple of years as the lead academic on the series and some of you for much longer than that, and in fact David since its inception.  I feel a bit like I’m talking on Big Brother but what were your favourite bits, what were your best bits being on Coast?

Susie West

Well, if I could say what went on behind the scenes for me was fascinating because this is my first involvement in making any sort of television programme, and so it’s been a great introduction to do that in partnership with the OU and the BBC, and actually just being in a room of really enthusiastic and knowledgeable people just sparking off different ideas, I’ve certainly got to learn a lot, all the science on the beach things.

Mark Brandon

I’d have to agree with that.  Some of the misconceptions, as a scientist some of the misconceptions I had about heritage and about the way societies were based around the coast have been completely blown away by working on this series with you colleagues.  It’s been amazing and quite exciting as well.

Patricia Ash

I think for me I’ve been a dyed-in-the-wool biologist ever since I was about two years old and this series has given me an idea of the added importance of considering the social sciences as well.  So, you can’t just consider the animals and the seaweeds on a beach, you also have to consider the human impact and also consider the need for people to have access to the coast and to be able to enjoy it.  So, the two are interconnected, you can’t just look at one aspect at a time and want to, well, I suppose, protect absolutely everything.

Wendy Maples

In the Open University we do tend to work in an interdisciplinary basis but not this interdisciplinary.

Susie West

That’s right, yes, absolutely.

Wendy Maples

It’s just marvellous being able to exchange ideas and I think one of the things that’s been really nice for Coast as a series and for the BBC is to have a series that draws together so many different strands and has so many different thoughts and ideas, and it’s been great being able to draw on the expertise of biologists and geologists and people from heritage and bring all of those together.

Glynda Easterbrook

Many people don’t know much about geology because it’s not a subject that’s taught in many schools, and just to be able to put things into a language that people can understand and explain landscape and coastal scenery, to me has been really exciting.

Susie West

It’s really brought together the number of things you can do around a single topic, the number of directions you can come at something and the links that you can make just by standing in one spot and looking around the backdrop of the cliffs and what’s under your feet, and Coast does that very well and it does it very quickly.  That’s the other thing that strikes me about programme making, and with Coast you’ve got to get something across haven’t you, in less than two minutes!

Patricia Ash

Yes!

Mark Brandon

Absolutely.

Susie West

It’s a real discipline and a challenge but it’s nice to have that change of pace as well to have to see how that can best be done.

David Sharpe

The other nice thing with Coast is that you’ve got this opportunity, particularly as you said with the geology features, where you can get these nice close up shots of a cliff face looking at the fine detail but also you get these wonderful aerial views looking at the whole structure of the rocks from a distance and it just looks so beautiful.

Wendy Maples

We were just looking at the original notes for the proposal for the programme years and years back and it felt quite different on paper to what we have seen become apparent on the screen, and I just wondered if those of you who were there from the start, were you sceptical about that; was that something that you thought was going to work?

David Sharpe

The very first bit of filming that was done was on sound mirrors and I was on there actually as a contributor.  It wasn’t at all clear that the format was going to be as it turned out to be.  I think almost by luck they hit on that and it’s been a real, one of the assets I think for the series, I think one of the big selling points is having this team of presenters and I think it’s worked extraordinarily well.

Mark Brandon

And that piece that you did on the aerial, the sound, with the microphones, I remember that and Nick Crane was standing there and you could actually, like a precursor to radar, it was amazing wasn’t it?

David Sharpe

Yeah, it was.

Mark Brandon

A really nice bit of -

David Sharpe

I learnt a lot from doing that, in the same way as Susie was talking about the whole process of filming, but just the need to get across ideas in a very small space of time. 

Mark Brandon

If you see how the programme progressed over time and the sorts of things that you did on series one, by the time you got to series five you’ve got the Irish government allowing them to blow up part of the beach in recreating an experiment from the 19th century!  A fantastic thing, an acoustic experiment to measure the speed of sound, a beautiful thing, wasn’t it?

Susie West

Yeah.

Patricia Ash

I think the crucial point that relates both to the sound mirrors and to the simulated earthquake on the beach is that the sound mirrors actually demonstrated how you could carry out an experiment.

Mark Brandon

Yeah, absolutely.

Patricia Ash

And I think that’s been one of the strongest features of the Coast series.  And the experiment for the sound mirrors was huge, on a huge scale, with an aircraft flying across the Channel and then people standing there waiting, so you could feel the suspense.  But the great thing about it was that it really set the tone for the future stories in that there was scope there to do some real experiments.

David Sharpe

I think that’s been another one of the really strong fortes of the programme is the stories about people.  We’ve seen some really powerful and emotional scenes when we’ve had war veterans going back to places where, in the occupied areas of the Channel Islands and so on, and some of the stories that have been told have just been so powerful, and then you have this, as you say, you have that aspect of Coast and then you’re into the science side and then you’re into maybe some more ancient historical monuments and so on, so you just get this wonderful mix.

Mark Brandon

Yeah, for example why are all those castles along the coastline in that orientation and stuff like that.

David Sharpe

Yes.

Susie West

But talking about castles makes me think about something I think Coast is very good at demonstrating and that is a slight tension between seeing the coast as something very robust and resilient and gritty cliffs and pounding waves and that sense that it’s unchanging and it talks about deep time, but also Coast, and I think weaving in a lot of the more human-oriented stories it shows us the fragility of what goes on, on the margins between the land and the sea and how ephemeral some things are, that we might think have been there for ever and will just carry on.  I think Coast is very good at pointing up something you might go and visit, if you’re inspired you might go and visit tomorrow but there’ll be questions over whether the next generation will be able to see the coast in quite the same light.  So although it’s a celebration and I think we’ve all been emphasising that, I think it does have slightly darker undercurrents about what we now do about what we can hand on to the future.

David Sharpe

I think the castles you look at, I think it was in Guernsey where you have the Martello towers and then you have the German bunkers -

Mark Brandon

Fortifications.

David Sharpe

- and the fortifications there, the concrete ones, and you can see that things do change and what we now see with the German fortifications, we look at those and almost are still filled with horror by them, and yet the Martello towers, because it’s that bit further back in time and not within living memory, they look almost beautiful.  But I bet you at the time the occupants of the island probably were just as much in fear of those fortifications.

Mark Brandon

Are you suggesting that in a hundred years people will be converting the German fortifications into big panoramic windows or something.

Patricia Ash

Well, they are in Dover.  There is an old Martello tower being converted into a luxury home with a sea view and that just is part of the way the coast is changing.

Mark Brandon

And you can imagine in a hundred years’ time the same thing will happen with the German ones.

Glynda Easterbrook

But I’m thinking about the effects of coastal erosion on something like that.  If you think about the pillboxes in Norfolk, some of those that were on the top of the cliff only during the Second World War, they’re now down on the beach because the rate of erosion of those cliffs is so enormous.  So, your Martello tower may not be there for very long!

Patricia Ash

It’s true because it is on quite an unstable cliff, yes!

Glynda Easterbrook

Don’t tell the people that live there!

Patricia Ash

I think they know.

Glynda Easterbrook

Oh!

Wendy Maples

I like also that whole feeling that you get about how we make sense of the spaces and places that we live in and as a geographer and that those sorts of themes are things that really excite me.  I like that idea, the way individuals and groups negotiate those relationships with their spaces and as those spaces change we necessarily renegotiate that relationship.  So, we’ve looked quite a lot at fishermen on Coast -

Susie West

Oh yes.

Wendy Maples

- and looking at the changing economic and political circumstances that have changed the very lifestyles that used to be the lifeblood of many coastal communities and looking at how things like tourism have started taking over from fishing industries as a way that people survive on the coasts.

Glynda Easterbrook

I was involved in a piece about Carlyon Bay in St Austell and it’s there, the beach is there because of the human activity of the china clay industry in Cornwall and when I was doing my research and looking for images on the internet of what Carlyon Bay was like 100, 150 years ago, it was just a rocky cove and now it’s this glorious beach.  So, the influence of, that’s like a good influence of humans on the coast; it’s created this lovely beach.  But of course now the china clay industry is winding up, what’s going to happen to the beach?

Wendy Maples

One of the things that I think has also been really nice about Coast is the number of academics who’ve been able to talk about their specialist subject and their interest and trying I think in some ways to generate a bit of enthusiasm for the kind of work that happens in higher education institutions, but there’s a lot of stuff that we’ve done behind the camera and I have to confess that I have discovered that I quite like fact checking.  Susie, you’ve been particularly great at picking up some of the potential faux pas!

Susie West

Well yes, that’s where my background as an archaeologist and an architectural historian has come in, so I do occasionally feel as though I parachute in and just clarify, are we talking about Britain or do you really mean England?  And as an academic those are very familiar teaching points that you would try and make with students and then you realise you’re trying to clarify that with a BBC programme team, and there’s a niggle and I just need to, you have a sense -

Wendy Maples

It’s very satisfying.

Susie West

- oh, that’s not quite right, hmm, how am I going to find that out in the next ten minutes because that’s all the time that I’ve got!  But there’s equally the sense that Coast is going to be delivering something that we feel secure about in terms of its content and we know we’ve smuggled little teaching points in.

Mark Brandon

Absolutely again.  I think one of the things I like about it is, as academics for years we’ve all been filing these what seem random bits of information, and often with my partner she’s sort of, that’s a really pointless thing to remember or to think about, but with Coast you find yourself on the phone to people at the BBC saying, well, did you know that so and so that you’re talking about was also involved in this project, and it links together really well and it’s a good thread through the series and stuff like that.  A really nice example of that, and coming up in the current series, is the bit where they blew up the explosives in Heligoland.

Wendy Maples

You’re quite keen on the explosive bits, aren’t you?

Mark Brandon

Well, actually it’s sounding that way but of course I’m not a seismic, I’m an oceanographer but in Heligoland, they took the explosives from the Second World War to Heligoland and blew it up as a way of getting rid of it and the Coast team tell that as a story that was a bad thing to do because it altered the coast quite dramatically; it was a very big non-nuclear explosion.  But a huge team of seismologists basically used the acoustic waves from the explosion to work out what the seismic structure was beneath Europe at the end of the Second World War which had never been done before, which was led by a guy called Bullard, who the Bullard Lab at Cambridge University is now named after and you suddenly start putting together these stories and things. 

So, that’s a constant two-way thing with the team at the BBC, it’s constantly going on.  I kind of like as well the way they’ve managed to use digital stuff.  For example when they’re talking about the railway in the coming series, there’s a story about a railway which goes along the coast so the railway was actually on stilts and they recreate it digitally and it doesn’t look, you get a sense of exactly what it was like.  The same as what they did with the stories about the Great Eastern and the Great Western and the ships, really nice things to do.

David Sharpe

The castles on the WelshCoast I think they also used the CGI -

Susie West

Oh yeah, that was good, painted white, yes.

David Sharpe

- the graphics to actually show what it was like when it was painted and it’s the sort of thing which you can only do with a television programme and only a big television programme like Coast where you’ve got the budget.

Mark Brandon

That’s a classic example.  I never imagined that castles would be painted.  Why would I?

Susie West

No, I didn’t either.

Mark Brandon

I grew up on the doorstep of the Tower of London.  When I was a kid it was covered by soot!  That’s the sort of thing.

Susie West

We might talk about going beyond the UK coast?  We haven’t -

Patricia Ash

Yes.

David Sharpe

Which has happened really just in the last two series hasn’t it and I think to some extent the programme needed that extension and it’s opened up whole new possibilities, but I like the fact that it still retained the flavour of the relationship with the UK.  It was always about; let’s look at these other coastlines, but always in the context of how it affected the UK and the relationship.

Mark Brandon

And how they link to us so well.

David Sharpe

Yeah.

Wendy Maples

Well, one of the things that’s been great about Coast in the last two series is this expansion and again as a geographer I’m really interested in the relationships that we have with other cultures and other countries, and migration and borders of course is a really interesting theme if you live on an island, and it’s been really nice to be able to see the way that the ideas behind Coast can be applied not just in Britain but also to other parts of the world.  And I gave the analogy, when I was talking with Mark about this earlier, that if you were the captain of the little ship Coast, where would you take your boat?

Mark Brandon

Well, I’ll give you a really good example of which one I would go to and the why is linked into Coast.  A few years ago I was working in the Antarctic on a tour ship guiding and I was standing on a beach surrounded by glaciers, just a rocky beach, pebbly, and the tourists were wandering around saying, this is fantastic, no-one’s ever been to this beach before, this is beautiful.  And I looked down and I could see crabeater seal teeth, quite a lot of crabeater seal teeth so I thought, that’s not very usual to see a lot of crabeater seal teeth, and I had a look around a bit more and then I saw these rust coloured streaks in amongst the pebbles.  So I walked over, pushed some of the pebbles aside and what they actually were, were iron stakes that had, they kind of like stake into the ground and coiled, and it turned out that a dog team had been out there when it was all frozen in winter surveying.  So, you have these coils and you’ve got your huskies with the leather traces and you just wind them in a coil and you can peg out the dogs.  So, the seal teeth were actually where the scientists had gone out and they’d killed the seals to feed the dogs! 

Susie West

Wow!

Mark Brandon

And the reason I think that’s a great thing to go is it’s exactly like our coast.  People go there and think, this is magnificent, fantastic, no-one has ever been there but actually it’s a well-trodden route but it just doesn’t look that way to you, which is one of the things I like.

Patricia Ash

I suppose the approach I’m thinking of is perhaps the Americas because years and years ago, up to about 15,000, 14,000 years ago we did have a land bridge connecting the Americas with Asia and it was the means by which the ancient humans crossed over and colonised the Americas, so yeah, I think I would take my little cruise boat and I would go to the coastline of America.

Mark Brandon

With that sort of coastline as well I think there would be a lot of pretty good interesting story about recent history because it was the frontline of the Cold War of course.

Patricia Ash

Well, you’ve got Siberia and Russia and then there was the ancient land bridge crossing over to the Western Americas, and even now you can see with the First Nations people who live on the coast, I’ve just come from the BC coast and met plenty of First Nations people, and they did look very much like the peoples of Siberia, and I immediately started thinking about how they got to America and they were using the resources of the coast even now.

Glynda Easterbrook

I would go to China and I would take my little boat to Guilin which is a fantastic landscape; it’s fantastic limestone scenery and it’s just amazing.

David Sharpe

I think I would probably go to Australia and I think from the Coast perspective I think there’s a huge possibility there to look at the human migration story; that would be fantastic.

Susie West

I have been thinking about the East Mediterranean, not just because it would be guaranteed sunshine, but I’ve got more interested with my colleagues in the Art History Department in thinking about this idea of what we call hybridity, which is to say how cultures meet each other and interact and borrow bits from each other and how they take on board change as a result as well as giving out new influences.

Wendy Maples

I think I’d just like to get on a boat and travel around forever and drop into different ports, different places and see.  One of the things that’s been nice about Coast, I know I keep saying that, is the surprises that come along and how eclectic it is.

Patricia Ash

Oh yes.

Wendy Maples

And I think to be able to float into somewhere and find out something new I think would be just terrific.

Patricia Ash

And that’s the feeling that viewers get from watching Coast in fact.

Wendy Maples

Hmm.

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