In the week running up to the 700th episode of The Sky at Night airing on 6 March 2011, we’re releasing some of our interviews with the show’s producers and co-presenters, which reveal fascinating behind-the-scenes insights into what it’s like to work on one of the longest-running shows in TV history. Here’s our recent interview with Patricia Wood, who produced the show from 1974 to 1981.
What was it like working with Patrick?
He’s just amazing; he’s got such enthusiasm. We once did a day’s filming at the prep school where he used to teach, which was down near Tonbridge Wells.
We filmed him practising his bowling, because he loves cricket, and it was interesting to see the boys hang on his every word. He seems to have an ability to communicate and make astronomy interesting and amusing.
Did you cover the Voyager missions with Patrick?
Yes I did, I was out at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for Voyager 2’s pass of Saturn, producing the show.
People tend to think that with Voyager you can snap a picture as it goes past a planet and send it straight back, but of course it’s not like that.
It’s all done with computers, so we had to wait some time before we actually got the pictures. We interviewed some of the scientists who were working on it and that was exiting. In the end we did the episode as a sort of timeline.
Do you have a favourite use of props from your time on the show?
We had a marvellous model-maker, who seemed to be able to solve any problem. His name was Eric Ilett. He did some marvelous things for us.
Quite early on we wanted to show the distances of the stars in the constellations, to demonstrate that some stars are much further away than others in the same constellation.
Eric rigged up a beautiful set of models and we took the camera around this setup and it showed you how the patterns changed.
Do you have a favourite guest?
I’d have to go for Michael Bentine. He wasn’t strictly an astronomer of course, he was a comedian who was in the Goons, but he was very interested in astronomy.
We drove over to have lunch with Michael, and had a very interesting and funny afternoon.
At one point Patrick and Michael were in the garden trying to demonstrate something to do with the planets, using his wife’s baking trays as Frisbees!
Michael and Patrick got on very well – they were good friends. I remember one studio programme that he was in also featured a Dalek. Patrick and Michael (pictured right, on a space ‘voyage’) were sitting in the studio and this Dalek came along and they both said, “Good afternoon,” to it.
What was the favourite episode that you produced?
One of the most interesting episodes I did was The Man Who Discovered A Planet in 1980.
There was a 50th anniversary dinner in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto.
We filmed at the dinner and we took Clyde Tombaugh up to the Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff, which was where he discovered Pluto. Patrick and Clyde got on very well.
Do you think The Sky at Night will celebrate another 700 episodes?
The funny thing is that people think of The Sky at Night as a ‘little’ show, going out late at night, but it spans the globe.
In the days before video recorders, we used to be told that a lot of children got their parents to wake them up to see the programme. It was popular then and it’s popularity endures to today.