BBC Archive Releases Tomorrow's World collection

The BBC Archive is today releasing a new collection which looks back at pioneering technology programme Tomorrow’s World, ahead of BBC Four’s new technology season, Electric Revolution.

Part of the BBC’s plans to open up its extensive archives, this collection gives people a chance to see how audiences of the past were told the future may look, and lets them rediscover programmes, many of which haven’t been seen for years.

First broadcast in 1965, just two years after Harold Wilson’s famous “white heat” of technological change speech, Tomorrow’s World’s mix of quirky film reports and live demonstrations examined new inventions over nearly four decades of unprecedented scientific and technological progress.

In its earlier years, Tomorrow’s World was more likely to report on advances in industry or farming. By the Eighties, computing was a major interest for audiences, and the programme examined many new consumer technologies.

The Archive collection comes ahead of the start of BBC Four’s Electric Revolution, a season of programmes giving viewers a unique insight into how developments in technology have shaped our lives over the past 50 years and charting the rise of today’s globally-linked, instantly-gratified digital culture.

Highlights from the collection include a 1979 report on one of the first mobile phones, a 1969 demonstration of the Moog synthesiser, and another 1969 report about schoolboys who are lucky to have an early computer, but have to check its oil levels and thermostat whenever it breaks down.

With a selection of items and full programmes from the archives, the Tomorrow’s World collection also remembers some of those presenters who became household names, including Raymond Baxter, James Burke, Judith Hann and Maggie Philbin.

Richard Klein, Controller of BBC Four, said: “I have fond memories of watching Tomorrow’s World as a boy and wondering how technology would develop in my lifetime. Looking back at the new archive collection, I am astounded – and amused – by how much we have outstripped some of the predictions.

“BBC Four’s Electric Revolution season celebrates our burgeoning relationship with technology over the last 50 years and looks ahead to an exciting future of innovation and development.”

Maggie Philbin, a presenter on Tomorrow’s World from 1985 to 1994, said: “Tomorrow’s World was, without doubt, the best programme I have ever worked on. It’s a real delight to see some of these shows again.”

But Maggie also confesses: “I still can’t hear the opening title music without my stomach turning over. Cutting-edge technology came with a price: the inventions were often fragile and temperamental. They would work perfectly all morning, but they’d begin to play up during the rehearsals. It could be nerve-wracking for us presenters, we didn’t know whether these machines would actually work when the cameras went live.”

The perils of live broadcasting are demonstrated in a 1981 edition which starts with a live report about a new prototype machine – “Hissing Sid”, a robot that can play snooker. But the robot’s stage fright leaves it unable to handle its cue.

This Archive collection also provides a fascinating insight into our fear of how technology might change our lives for the worse with reports on the “office of the future” suggesting that smiling secretaries would be replaced by soulless robots.

Innovations that never made it big showcased in Tomorrow’s World reports in this Archive collection include the plastic garden – no more pruning, just dust your plants and vacuum clean your lawn – and a computer which took instructions from people speaking to it in Morse code.

Also available to view again is the 1994 edition of Tomorrow’s World which featured Trevor Baylis and his now-famous wind-up radio. Trevor shows presenter Carmen Pryce the pile of letters of rejection he had received from industry bodies and manufacturers. It was only after he appeared on Tomorrow’s World that he secured funding and the radios were produced.

About the author

  • BBC One
  • BBC Two
  • BBC Three
  • ITV1
  • ITV2
  • 4
  • E4
  • Film4
  • More4
  • Five
  • Fiver
  • Sky1