On being Patrick's last producer

The Sky at Night producer remembers what it was like to work with Patrick Moore on making the monthly astronomy programme

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Jane Fletcher (below) has been producing The Sky at Night since 2002.


Patrick and I worked together for over 10 years and they were the 10 most interesting and fulfilling years of my career. Patrick was not only an amazing broadcaster and writer, but he also became a great friend. He was kind, generous and forgiving. When I first got the job as producer for The Sky at Night, the then executive producer told me that it was “a quiet little programme”. How wrong she was.

Patrick was never, ever quiet. We covered eclipses both lunar and solar; two transits of Venus, one of which we filmed in his garden; as well as the astounding space missions such as Cassini and Messenger plus numerous missions to Mars and much more. Of course Patrick always kept an eye on what was in the night sky telling us what to look for, when and where. He had an instinctive grasp for what viewers wanted to know and would find interesting.

Patrick loved surprises and would happily throw the running order out of the window to include exciting news. Patrick was inspired by cosmic events: supernovae, bright comets or asteroids crashing into planets. He saw it as his job to interpret these events for the viewer in his irrepressible and enthusiastic manner. I remember my first meteor watch from his garden. We had the deck chairs out and set up the then new 'infrared' camera to film Patrick and Sky at Night regular John Mason. Their shouts and exclamations filled the dark garden as Perseids shot across the Selsey sky.

Our monthly routine never varied for 10 years. Twice a month I would arrive at Patrick's home, Farthings. in Selsey, once for a planning meeting and another to film the programme. Our planning meetings were very informal and I always included some unexpected guests in my catering arrangements. You were guaranteed to find some interesting people around. One young astronomer who was stayed at Patrick's during his University holidays soon became a regular – Chris Lintott. Another houseguest Patrick suggested we talk to about the Moon was Paul Abel.

Working with Patrick was more than just business. Once he decided he liked you and were worth keeping around, you became part of his family. Sharing dinner with him round his large mahogany table was always going to be interesting. Patrick would talk about his experiences during the war, as well as the many, many interesting people he had met such Einstein, Orville Wright, as well as some very eccentric cosmologists.

His home was a thatched cottage dating back many hundreds of years. Very occasionally 'unexplained' things happened. Over dinner we were once graced with the presence of 'Claude', Patrick's ghost. Someone was telling a rather rude story, of which Claude clearly disapproved. From on top of the old drinks cabinet, a shot glass flew across the room, with some force! At the same time the air temperature rapidly dropped. We all stopped talking in a stunned silence. Patrick suggested we change the subject to something Claude might find more acceptable and our dinner continued.

Our film days were more formal and decidedly more stressful. For a start I was responsible for making sure that neither of Patrick's precious house cats escaped the cat 'airlock', which he had devised to stop them getting outside. My first task on arriving on a film day, was to go on a Jeannie and Ptolemy hunt. They both had ingenious places to hide, such as under the stairs or, one time, in a camera bag. That day I lost one of my 'producers' lives; we finally found him happily asleep, oblivious to our calls. Once the cats were safely away, we could begin the process of turning Patrick's rather chaotic study into a neat television studio fit for broadcast. The various globes were put in place to 'dress the set' and lighting made ready for Patrick and his guests.

Patrick started broadcasting in the heady days of live television and had been trained to deliver his scripts first time. When he was on air he would put on his distinctive broadcasting voice. He frequently reminded me of those days with phrases like, "The first take is the best one" or if he was particularly fed up with how long the proceedings were taking, he would roll his eyes to the heavens and exclaim: "Oh, for live television!"

Once the programme was in the can, Patrick would order a gin and tonic and the camera team and I would begin the task of reassembling his room. We tried our best to put piles of paper back in their right place, spectacles on the table and work in progress back where it should be. We didn't always get it right, and I had Patrick on the phone asking what I had done with his TV controller, more than once.

Star parties in the garden were great fun. For the 50th Sky at Night programme, back in 1961, Patrick attempted to make a live observing programme using George Hole's telescope. Patrick said it was a complete disaster, with cloud completely blocking the view. The verdict of time has been kinder and it has become one of TVs great classics. It’s a tribute to Patrick's ability to fill air time with his informative ad-libbing that it was entertaining from beginning to end. However it did put Patrick off from attempting such a thing again.

I persuaded Patrick that we could host a star party in his garden, inviting astronomers from all over. I said it could be fun even if it was cloudy. Secretly I was rather worried how it would turn out, as nothing like this had been attempted before. Patrick agreed to give it a try and as often happened in Selsey, the skies were crystal clear all night. Patrick loved every minute and the star parties became a regular feature.

Patrick's last programme features a mini starparty for new comers to astronomy. Unfortunately, he was too ill to come outside, but as he always did before our outdoors filming, he said he would "cast a particularly potent spell and brew an even smellier potion" to ensure the sky was clear. It worked and the stars in the Selsey sky twinkled brightly for us that night.

Patrick leaves an enormous void, one which we cannot fill, nor would want to. Latterly, I did ask him what he would like to happen to the programme when he could no longer make it. The Sky at Night was his child, his love and 'his' for most of his life. In my opinion, Patrick had every right to expect it not to carry on without him. I asked if that was what he wanted, for it to end with him and his response was definite and firm: "Not a bit Jane, the programme must carry on."

Patrick was entertaining, a professional to the core and never, ever boring. His surviving Sky at Night family draw strength from his example, remember his advice and do what he would have done – plan the next Sky at Night.

by Jane Fletcher


 

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