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Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Stargazing: LIVE, BBC2

Wonders of the Solar System was the best programme in the history of television. We know this because Chris Evans said so. 

Whether it still is the best show ever will depend on if Evans’ worthless, capricious endorsement has alighted elsewhere like a vulture picking at a new favourite juicy carcass rotting on a bucolic battleground. 

That said, Wonders… was excellent, and it made a star of Professor Brian Cox, who managed to convey the complexities of cosmology to a mass audience. The inevitable step was to employ his talents on a more inclusive, newsy show. And so we have Stargazing: LIVE. 

In many ways, Stargazing: LIVE is encased in the same familiar formula that works so well on other shows such as Springwatch and Lambing Live, mixing stuff that any half-cocked GCSE student knows with truly fascinating facts plucked from the depths of space via the creaking Apple Mac of a university Phd researcher.

The focus of the first episode, broadcast from Jodrell Bank, was Jupiter. Look up into the night sky now and the biggest blob of light is Jupiter. Professor Cox enlightened the ever wonderful Dara O’Briain about the simple facts of the planet – about its size (you could fit Earth into it about a thousand times), the Great Red Spot (a storm that’s raged ceaselessly for a longer period than everything in the solar system except Lord Sugar) and its main moons – stuff that you probably already knew with even a passing interest in astronomy.

But the purpose of Stargazing: LIVE is to entice astronomical novices into the fold, and this was a simple way to achieve this. We could, however, have done without Dara’s astonishment at what Professor Cox told him. “Amazing!” he said, in the fashion of a presenter who wants to blindly praise something in order to induce an identical dumb response from the viewer.

We don’t blame him. It’s one of the inherent flaws of this type of show – it mars Springwatch, too – that the presenter is obliged to imprint their opinion on such events rather than letting them absorb and interpret it for themselves.

We also visited Jonathan Ross, an archetypal novice astronomer who was given instructions on how to set up his telescope in his back garden – itself a space so large you could fit Jupiter into it three hundred times over – and Liz Bonin reported from Hawaii, which had the dual attraction of powerful telescopes and an active volcano to help explain solar geology.

After settling us in, things began – thankfully – to become a little bit more enlightening.

And central to this was the enthusiasm of Professor Cox. Sometimes he showed his inexperience of LIVE broadcasting as Dara had to cut across him if he rambled off cue, but this spontaneity subtracted from the staged sterility common to lesser LIVE magazine programmes.

It was Professor Cox’s desire to extol knowledge that caused this endearing blips rather than shoddy amateurism. He explained that the sky is predominantly black because the light from some stars simply hasn’t reached us yet, and why most celestial bodies are spheres.

While he was also eager to argue, off script, against some points raised in other features, such as disputing the impossibility of stellar travel posited in an entertaining if frothy piece devoted to debunking the science of sci-fi films. And his genial mask almost slipped as he dismissed the ‘predictions’ of the Mayans – “they were useless” – and teamed up with Dara to lay into astrology.

It was this blend of the populist and profound that makes Stargazing: LIVE such an appealing show. If you’re finding an explanation of how to transfer photos of the night sky to your PC a little dull, you know that in a few minutes Professor Cox would elucidate on how the gravitational pull of Jupiter creates volcanoes on its moon, Io.

Not quite the greatest programme ever made in the history of television. But it does what every great programme in the history of television has done before – it tells you something interesting you didn’t know before you tuned it. And for that we are eternally grateful.

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