Not everything in the 32-year history of Tomorrow's World has gone smoothly: there have been Apollo 13s as well as Apollo 11s. Once, a pneumatic robot called "Hissing Sid" performed perfectly in rehearsal before coming over all prima donna-ish during the live show. Sid petulantly refused to have a game of snooker with Kieran Prendeville and ended up going haywire, festooning the studio with salad dressing.

On another occasion, Raymond Baxter and James Burke were displaying a whizzo new furniture innovation. Baxter takes up the story. "A chap had invented a method for packing plastic furniture by flattening it and putting it in a vacuum. The theory was that when you broke the seal and subjected it to normal atmospheric pressure, it would expand and assume its intended form. Unfortunately, it had been in the heat and become sticky, so the programme ended with the sight of Jimmy and me trying to punch and kick this bloody thing into shape."

Failures such as these will be featured on "The Curse of Tomorrow's World", just of one of the items making up TW Time Machine, a four-part trawl through the time-space continuum of the programme's archive.

When Tomorrow's World started in July 1965, it was meant to be a six- part series. Subsequently, it has grown into the status of a national institution, turning countless children on to a life of science. Over the years, it has had an enviable number of scoops. "Firsts" it has highlighted include: the electron microscope (1965); the passenger hovercraft (1966); the fibre-optic cable (1966); the breathalyser test (1967); computer banking (1969); the pocket-sized electronic calculator (1971); the digital watch (1972); the video-game (1973); the personal home computer (1977); the mobile radio telephone (1979); the personal stereo (1980); the camcorder (1981); the phone card (1981); the compact disc (1981); DNA fingerprinting (1985); and virtual reality (1990).

Baxter, a gravel-voiced, one-time RAF fighter pilot who was twice mentioned in dispatches during the Second World War, is something of a national institution himself. A still-sprightly 75-year-old, he is fronting TW Time Machine with former presenters Maggie Philbin and Howard Stableford. He reckons Tomorrow's World has lasted such a long time because "It hasn't become moulded into a stereotype. It's always been prepared to try new approaches - like this TW Time Machine. Also, when we started, we set out to appeal to all ages and intellects. We never talk down - that's holy writ."

Philip Dolling, the executive producer of TW Time Machine, chimes in that "Most people get their science from Tomorrow's World. For some it might be their only relationship to science - apart from a trip to Dixon's. It's hard to find people who don't know what it is. It's achieved the level of an institution through being the only major science programme that's gone the distance. If there was talk of taking it away, there'd be a huge public outcry - like there was about Dr Who."

Dolling ascribes the programme's continuing popularity to the sudden and unexpected trendiness of science. "For some reason, science is going through a period of fashionability," Dolling says, with no little amazement. "The subject-matter has got really interesting. Whereas you wouldn't have had people on Start the Week to talk about computer software or developments in sound recording, now scientists like Steve Jones or Susan Greenfield are guests on what used to be arts programming. Subjects like cloning, artificial intelligence and the Internet feed back into philosophical issues and become more of a conversation-piece."

It was not ever thus. "For many years, there was an infuriating snob culture among the arts fraternity," recalls Baxter. "It made me very angry. People would say, `You can't expect me to know about that, it's technical.' That was thought to be a smart cocktail-party remark. You find that much less nowadays."

Though he has been drawing his pension for 10 years now, Baxter retains a boyish enthusiasm for science. "It's the pure excitement of ongoing discovery," he beams. "The microchip now has an impact on every aspect of human society."

As most scientists share his ardour, Baxter believes that Tomorrow's World will never run out of new ideas to showcase. "We have a constant and unquenchable flood of inventive genius," he concludes, with satisfaction.

`TW Time Machine' starts on Wednesday at 7.30pm on BBC1




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