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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Projekte | Science Communication in 20th Century Europe | Horizon and the Origins of British Science Television

Horizon and the Origins of British Science Television

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Timothy Boon (The Science Museum London, United Kingdom)

In Britain, no television science programme has been more influential over the last fifty years than Horizon, with more than 1100 editions since 1964. Clearly, if we are to understand the place of science in culture, we need to pay attention to such a substantial body of work, and to understand its content and form. At present the three and a half chapters in my Films of Fact give the longest narrative account of science on British television, and that only covers the period up to 1965 in any depth at all, and the account of Horizon there is slight. My new work seeks to understand Horizon in the context of TV science history.

Origins of Horizon

The programme arose in the context of a review of scientific programming; in April 1962 a decision had been made to drop the projected seventh series of six Eye on Research programmes. This, which was broadcast between 1957 and 1961, had been one of the best regarded series in the years before Horizon, a real breakthrough for regular science programming. With the main series off air, the BBC’s scientific output was dominated by fewer and longer programmes, such as The Prizewinners (1962), which featured interviews with four Nobel winners. Very soon, the Corporation’s response to the government’s Pilkington Report on the Future of Broadcasting, published in 1962, became the major context. This granted the BBC a second channel with a brief to complement the existing BBC and ITV television channels, using the better picture quality promised by 625-line UHF transmission.

The Model: Monitor

For Horizon, Aubrey Singer and his team worked to develop a new kind of science programme. From the very first discussions, they were not thinking of existing science formats, but were intent on reproducing some of the approach and success of the arts magazine Monitor (1958-65). The rubric of Monitor was a programme with an engaging anchorman in the studio presenting and linking three diverse items, some of which – including interviews – might be live in the studio; others which combined studio with film inserts; and the remainder, which were short films complete and telecined during the broadcast.

The Approach: Science as Culture

The first step in defining the programme’s approach was a letter in late November 1962 – 17 months before the eventual broadcast – from Aubrey Singer, commissioning the science writer Gerald Leach to outline the programme:

It seems that the time has come for us to widen our scientific output. I think that one of the things that we ought to investigate is the possibility of a sort of scientific “Monitor”. [This would be a programme] dealing with scientific topics which have philosophical impact on other fields of the arts and humanities. … It would be a programme which would try to reveal the mind of the scientist in action in regard to the rest of society, and the social sciences would come into this very heavily.

Leach’s resulting feasibility study is a thoughtful summary of the issues and potential, and it was in many ways the wellspring of the programme as it developed. Leach translated Singer’s terminology of the ‘philosophical impact on other fields of the arts and humanities’ into the language of a ‘“cultural” science programme’, and the words ‘culture’ and ‘cultural’ stuck, reappearing frequently in ensuing discussions.

Philip Daly, who had previously edited Eye on Research, became Horizon’s first editor; he explained in a key policy document in March 1963 the intended level to be:

at or a little above the Scientific American level. It would not be tied to topicality, but it would reflect the current trends in scientific thinking. It would above all be an ideas programme in which scientists would communicate, not with others in their own discipline, but with people in other fields. This would ensure a high intellectual level in content but an absence of jargon in exposition.

The Three Factors 1: Presenters vs Commentary

As the producers developed the programme over its first three years, they worked with three interrelated televisual factors:

  • presenter versus narrator;
  • magazine programme versus single subject; and
  • live versus film.

Magazine programmes like Monitor required presenters, ‘anchormen’, as they were then called, to introduce and link disparate items. The Horizon team made extended attempts throughout 1963 to find suitable anchor men, culminating in screen tests for two candidates, Alan Isaacs and the theoretical physicist Roger Blin-Stoyle, with the latter chosen to present a pilot programme in November 1963. This pilot expressed the science as culture rubric in three magazine items, like Monitor, including film of Los Alamos scientist Professor Phillip Morrison interviewed at Cornell by Stephen Black on the subject of the moral responsibility of scientists; a film profile of the UCL biologist John Maynard Smith; and a studio item with insert films on the subject of aggression with the psychiatrist Anthony Storr.

Singer, as he was bound to, showed the pilot to Michael Peacock, Controller of BBC2. Peacock ‘felt that the programme idea was too derivative, and that [they] were obsessed with the Monitor concept’; he suggested the programme should have only two items, could be shorter than 45 minutes and that they did not necessarily need an anchorman. The meeting had evidently been a complete disaster; Singer confessed that Peacock ‘was indeed as depressed about the programme as I was elated’. A few days later, Ramsay Short, the programme’s filmmaker, was reflecting on ‘the anchorman problem’; he considered Blin-Stoyle to be a ‘cold fish’ as a presenter, and he proposed they do the first six issues without one. It was decided that the programme should establish its identity not by having an anchor man, but by commissioning distinctive opening titles and music. Accordingly, anchormen were rare in the monthly 1964 programmes, only being used in two out of the nine broadcasts. But the ambition to emulate Monitor in this way persisted: in December, Singer was pressing Gordon Rattray Taylor, by then editor, to consider further anchormen and reporters. The project succeeded and, consistently from March to December 1965, the programme was introduced by the BBC News Department’s science reporter, Colin Riach.

But, the shift from a diverse magazine to single subject programmes in 1967 entailed a move away from the use of ‘anchormen’ because it was no longer necessary to link disparate items. The guiding voice in Horizons increasingly became that of commentator rather than presenter.

The Three Factors 2: Magazine Versus Single Subject

Leach’s feasibility study had concluded by building into his proposal both Singer’s assumption that the programme would necessarily, like Monitor, be a diverse magazine, and a stress on the televisual means to deliver the cultural account of science:

The obvious lesson is that the items must be really varied – not only between subjects (eg different sciences, history, philosophy, politics, science and art, etc) but between approaches to subjects (eg personality as against facts) and in technique (film as against studio, wild track/synch sound/silence on film, etc).

The rejection of the pilot led to an intensive period of redefinition four months before the first broadcast. Ramsay Short, in conversation with Leach, was coming to the conclusion that ‘the single theme idea [was] the best’. , This ‘single theme idea’ may be seen as a halfway house between the diverse magazine and the true single subject programme. The 1964, monthly, programmes were, like The World of Buckminster Fuller, mainly on single themes, or linked in thematically as was the case with Tots and Quots and Woodgerie, (16 Nov 1964) which looked at two prewar groups of scientists. But, for most of 1965, Horizon moved on to achieve the originally intended magazine format, carrying two or three items linked by a presenter, very much in the Monitor style. The issue on 23rd June 1965, for example, featured an interview with Bronowski, then at the Salk Institute, an item on a solar eclipse, and the demonstration of a machine designed to help speech to deaf children. From May 1965, this magazine format was emphasised in the Radio Times billings by adding the strapline ‘a review of the sciences’.

The Three Factors 3: Live versus film

Availability of a film crew and editors was a key concern of the Horizon team in the run up to the first programmes, and across the first few years. There was a great deal of competition between programme makers for this resource, and for the very limited number of Ampex video recorders. At the start it was clear that there was not the film resource for “single theme” programmes regularly to be entirely on film, with the resulting question of the proportion that would be acceptable. But, as the programme moved more towards single-subject programmes from 1966, the demands of production were often intrinsically more complex, requiring more film sequences to be telecined-in, and encouraging a tendency to favour making entire programmes on film or, as videotape machines became more common, to record programmes ‘as live’ onto tape, which allowed some limited editing in advance of broadcast.

To summarise, the first three years of Horizon demonstrate first their struggles to get the programme on the air, then to get to the Monitor form; a year in, they established the Monitor model, before – about 18 months later – reverting to programmes on a single, more heavyweight, subject, generally made on film. These later programmes established the model that dominated for at least two decades, and whose characteristics are still visible in today’s programme.


This particular paper cannot give a contextualised overview, but is close to the archive, very much an exercise in microhistory. The intention is to show how very significant the decision to emulate Monitor was. This initial decision led not only to the emphasis on the culture of science but also to the series of representational conventions that were sought and followed in Horizon’s first few years; a presenter-led magazine programme live from the studio, rather than the narration-guided film carefully edited before broadcast, which is where they started, and also where they ended up from about 1967.

I have told a story of programme makers, with little reference to the views of scientists. This is because this is what the paper archives reveal; in the words of Aubrey Singer just a couple of years later, ‘the televising of science is a process of television, subject to the principles of programme structure, and the demands of dra­matic form. Therefore, in taking programme decisions, priority must be given to the medium rather than scientific pedantry’ (Singer 1966: 13).


Note on sources

Both the account here, and the quotations derive from papers held at the BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham. I am preparing a full referenced account of the genesis and early years of Horizon, and this will be submitted for journal publication later this year. More on Ramsay Short’s role can be found in my ‘British Science Documentaries: Transitions from Film to Television?’, in press with the Journal of British Cinema and Television.
I may be contacted at

Work for this project was partially supported by AHRC Science in Culture grant, AH/J01141X/1.

Further reading

  • Timothy Boon (2008) Films of Fact: A History of Science in Documentary Films and Television. London, Wallflower Press.
  • Timothy Boon (2012) British Science Documentaries: Transitions from Film to Television?, Journal of British Cinema and Television, in press.
  • John Corner (1996) The Art of Record: A Critical Introduction to Documentary. Manchester, MUP.
  • Roger Silverstone (1985) Framing Science: The Making of a BBC Documentary. London: British Film Institute.
  • Aubrey Singer, A. (1966) ‘Science Broadcasting’, BBC Lunch-Time Lectures. Series 4; no. 1–6. London: British Broadcasting Corporation.